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Expanding the Circle:
Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future

The Expanding the Circle Curriculum, 2nd Edition


The second edition of the Expanding the Circle: Respecting the Past, Preparing for the Future is now available. The curriculum is designed for grades 9-12 and includes the culturally-relevant transition skills and project-based learning presented in the first edition, which has been in use across the U.S. since 2002, and adds to them. Its content is based on work with thousands of American Indian high school and tribal college students, paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators. Curriculum activities, which were created with students' varying strengths and interests in mind, include family and community members in the transition process. The curriculum package includes the instructional manual for use by educators and others who work with this age group, as well as one Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System (NOS), which is a personal portfolio filing system designed to help students plan their future after high school in an organized and structured way. The NOS, whose name is derived from Ojibwe words that mean "prepare for the future," features artwork by American Indian artists on each of the 12 file dividers, and sets can be purchased for multiple students.


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Planning for the Future

American Indian students who prepare for the transition from high school to postsecondary experiences based on a clear understanding of themselves and their mental, physical, spiritual, emotional selves are more likely to weather this transition smoothly. Add to this awarenes and development the ability to set goals, organize, communicate, self-advocate, problem solve, and work in teams, and young adults are able to face the challenges of the future.

The Expanding the Circle curriculum offers culturally relevant activities that facilitate the successful transition from high school to postsecondary experiences for American Indian students. The curriculum is designed to help youth explore who they are, what skills they need, and what their options are for life after high school. Lessons are designed for use by teachers as well as elders, community members, or other professionals who may work with American Indian youth. Although the materials are designed for high school students, particularly those ages 14 and older, the activities are also beneficial for middle school students or those in their first year of college.

Curriculum Activities

  • Are based on work with hundreds of American Indian high school youth, paraprofessionals, teachers, and administrators.
  • Are developed to include family and community members in the transition process.
  • Were created with students’ varying and unique strengths and abilities in mind.

Importance of the Curriculum

Focusing on the transition years is critical in preventing students who are at risk of dropping out of school from actually leaving school. The review of the literature on transition programs finds that students are less likely to drop out of high school and college if they participate in programs that promote transition (Mizelle, 1999).

The period of transition from high school to postsecondary education and the early months in postsecondary education requires particular attention because, unless prepared for, it can be an uncharted course full of challenges and changes. Postsecondary exploration must be an intentional act that includes the American Indian student, family, role models, community, and school all working together toward the same goal.

Transition curricula are not new to the educational field. A wide variety of transition materials were originally developed in the disability community and there is an impressive array of curricula to address the freshman year experience in college for those students who come to college under-prepared for the academic rigors. A variety of materials also exist about the educational and cultural needs of American Indian students in the school setting. However, little has been developed to combine these components to address the specific and particular needs of American Indian youth in their transition to the post-high school experience.

Development of the Curriculum

Since 1996, with the assistance of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education, work has been done with community members, teachers, administrators, tribal governments, students, and American Indian education staff to develop programs and activities specifically designed for American Indian youth to support them in their transition to postsecondary life. Programs were implemented dirung the summer and school year throughout Ojibwe and Dakota reservations and communities in Minnesota.
The Expanding the Circle curriculum was created as a result of these programs.

Principles of the Curriculum

  • The belief in the resilience in American Indian youth and their communities.
  • The value of humor in American Indian culture.
  • The importance of the product and the process. Some activities have products while others are more reflective in nature. The authors of the curriculum believe that the process and reflection are just as important as the products that are created.
  • The awareness of sensitive topic areas. There are some areas in the curriculum that some individuals may feel are too sensitive or controversial, yet it is the belief that without addressing these issues, the transition process would not be complete.
  • The conviction that although not all of the postsecondary options may be appropriate for all students, the purpose of exploration is to develop educated consumers who can make informed choices.

Organization of the Curriculum

The curriculum is organized into four themes. Within each theme are topical units, and each unit has multiple lessons. The themes and units are as follows —

Theme I: The Discovery

Theme One: The Discovery provides activities that engage students in exploring and learning about who they are, what kind of personal expectations they have for themselves, who the key members of their family/community are that act as a support system for them, and how they learn. Using the information they acquire, they examine how the information is related to their world, how they respond to change, and how to identify and handle risk factors.

This theme is entitled The Discovery because the activities students participate in allow them to discover more clearly who they are as an American Indian, as part of a family, a community, and as an individual. This is a crucial discovery (or enhancement) that must take place before students can move on to make appropriate and workable decisions about their future. View a sample lesson from Theme I: The Discovery

Theme II: The Framework

In Theme Two: The Framework, we focus on the foundational skills and information students need when making their own plan for the future. This theme includes activities that allow students to explore specific skills in the areas of problem-solving, self-advocacy, communication, diversity awareness, goal-setting, and organization. These are crucial skill areas students must develop before they can make the life decisions that face them after high school. View a sample lesson from Theme II: The Framework

Theme III: The Choice
Theme Three: The Choice builds upon the previous two themes. In The Choice, students explore various post-high school options. These options are explored based on what students have learned about themselves in The Discovery theme and The Framework theme. It is essential that students have developed a deeper understanding about who they are and how they fit into their community and family when they explore their options for life after high school. Based on this information and the skill development from The Framework theme, students are now ready to explore the many options available to them.

In The Choice, students first learn about the concept of life planning, specifically the life planning involved in the transition process from high school to post-high school life. Students then explore postsecondary educational, career, and military options based on their understanding of themselves and what they value. By the time students complete The Choice, they will have had exposure to the many options available after high school and will have made a plan for the choice/s that best suit them. View a sample lesson from Theme III: The Choice

Theme IV: The Reflection

Theme IV: Reflection includes culminating activities to be used as reflection on the skills learned and concepts explored during The Discovery, The Framework, and The Choice. Over time and in an extended program such as a year-long program, the reflection could naturally develop into opportunities that are part of the experience of giving back to others. This might be developed through a service learning project, a mentoring opportunity, or another form of giving back in the community.

As a part of the reflection, it is appropriate for students to share with their peers and those who are important to them in their lives what they have learned about themselves. Through their experiences in this curriculum — be it a summer or a year-long program — the students have come to know more about themselves than they knew before they started. These final exercises in the curriculum give students the opportunity to expand their circle of knowledge by verbalizing what they have learned about respecting the past by putting their discovery, their framework, and their choices together as they prepare for the future. View a sample lesson from Theme IV: The Reflection


Each unit of the curriculum includes lessons approximately 30–60 minutes to complete. Some activities can be ongoing and are noted as such. The lesson plans in the curriculum are organized in the following manner and contain the following information —

  • Activity Name
    • States the name of the activity
  • Student Outcome
    • States the intended learner objective
    • Written in language of what student will do/be able to do
  • Portfolio Placement (Onaakonan System)
    • Indicates where, if appropriate, the student could/should place product from activity in their portfolio (Onaakonan System).
  • Time Frame
    • States estimated time needed to complete activity
  • Size of Group
    • Indicates the size of the group of students that is appropriate to complete the activity as intended
  • Before You Begin
    • Provides information that is important to the facilitator prior to beginning the activity
    • May include background information, purpose of the activity, awareness of sensitivity of activity/topic area, and activity modifications
  • Directions
    • Lists step-by-step directions for the facilitator to follow for completion of activity with students
  • Discussion
    • Provides list of discussion questions/topics for during and after completion of activity with students
  • Closure
    • Provides suggestions for journal and/or community circle topics to be used at the end of the activity
  • Additional Suggestions/Resources
    • Provides additional relevant information or resources that may be helpful to the facilitator in expanding a topic or activity.

Onaakonan System

Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System

During the transition process, it is essential for students to organize the important information and documents that they will reference throughout their lives. Portfolios provide a way for students to collect and organize samples of their work to show prospective employers or college admissions counselors what they have done and what they can do. The Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System (derived from Ojibwe word meaning “to organize/plan”) is a personal portfolio system designed to help transition-age American Indian students plan for their future after high school in an organized and structured way. The Expanding the Circle curriculum includes activites that lend themselves to the use of the Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System. One Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System is included with each curriculum book; additional Nigaan-Ozhiitaa Systems may be purchased as needed.

The Nigaan-Ozhiitaa System has the following categories —

  • Accomplishments
  • Vocational/Work
  • Education
  • Medical
  • Support Circle
  • References
  • Recreation & Leisure
  • Residence
  • Transportation
  • Legal
  • Monthly Expenses
  • Financial Records

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