A group of about 20 students in the Eagleridge Elementary School cafeteria were slowly repeating vowel sounds and letters of the alphabet on December 7. These weren’t kindergarteners learning English – they were fifth graders learning the Lummi language of Xwlemi’chosen.
Learning vowel sounds of Xwlemi’chosen is tougher than it may seem at first glance, said teacher Cynthia Wilson. Even though the letters look the same as they do in English, they’ll have different sounds. For example, an “e” sounds more like “uh,” she said.
“It is going to be a struggle for them, because they’re English speakers first,” Wilson said of her students. “They have a long ways to go.”
Still, Wilson is excited to teach younger students Xwlemi’chosen. In late November, Lummi language classes started for the first time in Ferndale for elementary-age students. About 60 fourth and fifth graders of Native American descent at Skyline and Eagleridge elementary schools now take classes with Wilson twice a week.
Wilson hopes the Xwlemi’chosen classes will help young Native American students connect more to their culture and learn to love their heritage.
“We just want them to be prideful, have confidence and build that strength inside them,” she said. “Their culture definitely sets them apart from everybody else, and hopefully they’ll feel that pride, and be able to share it with their families.”
Lummi language classes have been taught for many years at Ferndale High School and were later introduced to the two middle schools in Ferndale. As of the 2019-20 school year, 138 middle and high school students were enrolled in these classes.
After receiving additional funding, Ferndale School District decided to start Lummi language classes at the elementary level this year. Because grant dollars were limited, the elementary program for now is only at Skyline and Eagleridge, and only for Native American students, according to Executive Director of Teaching & Learning Faye Britt. Skyline and Eagleridge were chosen because their attendance areas include the Lummi reservation, and therefore have many more Native American students than other Ferndale elementary schools.
Wilson has plenty of experience in the subject, as she’s taught the Lummi language for the past 30 years. For decades, she was a teacher at the Lummi Nation School, where she currently serves as the language department’s curriculum specialist. She joked that some of her current students at Eagleridge and Skyline are the grandchildren of former students from the 1980s.
The language classes are not only a great educational opportunity, but they also give Lummi students a chance to bond with each other and talk about shared experiences, Wilson said.
“I see some of them on the reservation, and at different cultural gatherings, and I know they probably don’t get to talk about that much at school,” Wilson said. “But they can now, because they’ll have somebody to share it with.”
Eagleridge Principal Mischa Burnett said the new elementary-level language classes were a fantastic addition.
“For the kids to not only learn about their home language, and their culture, but to be able to do that from somebody they call a mentor and a neighbor, I think it’s really powerful,” he said. “Our students are genuinely excited to learn more about the Lummi language."