Wednesday, May 02, 2012

American Indians in Common Core, Appendix B, K-1 Text Exemplars

Dear K-1 Teachers,

I am writing to let you know about the ways that American Indians are presented in Appendix B of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.

There are 54 items listed on Appendix B. Some of them are terrific. I vividly remember, for example, my daughter giggling when we read "Strange Bumps" in Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home.

Though the Common Core booklets say that the items on the list are only meant to serve as "useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range" for your own classroom, I know many of you will use the items on the lists. With the Common Core bearing down on you like a freight train, some of you will find it easier to teach the items on the list. Some of you are very busy, working far harder than most Americans realize. As a former elementary school teacher, I know how hard teaching can be. 

I'm writing to ask that---if you choose to teach the items on the list---that you not read Little House in the Big Woods. It is listed on the "Read-Aloud Stories" section of Appendix B. Here's an excerpt that I find troubling. It is on page 53 of Little House in the Big Woods. The first two paragraphs are context. It is the third paragraph that I want you to pay attention to:

When I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.    

One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together  in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.    

I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until all woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering 'good night.'

Now, I want you to imagine reading that passage aloud (remember---this is a book the Common Core folks want you to read aloud) to children in your K-1 classroom, and, imagine that one or more of those children are Native children for whom their identity as Native is a day-to-day lived experience (as opposed to a family story of an ancestor, or, someone who is enrolled at their nation but not growing up in a way with that nation's ways of being Native).

Seems a bit cruel, doesn't it? To imagine what that Native child might feel like hearing that dear old Pa was stalking Indians or, as he says "wild men"? How can we possibly describe Little House in the Big Woods  as an exemplary text?!

As far as I can tell, other than the Indians/wild men that Pa stalks/fights, there aren't any other Native people in the other 52 books on the Common Core lists for K-1. So, if you were only going to use that set of items, Native children in your classroom would not see themselves reflected in the materials you're using.

I'm pretty sure, though, that most of you will use other items. I hope that some of them are children's books that portray American Indians in tribally specific ways (naming a specific tribal nation, and, providing accurate information about that tribe). I can recommend some wonderful books. They may be in your school library, or the local public library.

The ones that I want you to use are books written by Native authors. Each of them feature Native girls. I'm sharing those three today for a specific reason. Most people, when they think of American Indians, think of "chiefs" or "braves" or "warriors" --- males, in other words. This is, I think, in large part due to history books and historical fiction that focuses on wars, and "hostile Indians" who attack those poor innocent settlers. What gets lost in that narrow depiction is that those men (not "chiefs" or "braves" etc.) have mothers and sisters. They may have daughters, too! And as for "hostile" ---- they were fighting, not because they were "bloodthirsty savages" but because they were protecting their homelands! And, they were protecting their grandparents, mothers, wives, children...

Here's the three books I recommend you read aloud.

If you want to show children that Native children are part of today's society, and that our lives reflect modern American society and our Native societies, you could read them Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith. In it, Jenna is getting ready to dance at a pow wow for the first time. She lives in a pretty typical American house in a neighborhood with tree-lined streets and sidewalks. Her family helps her get ready. Using Jingle Dancer you can say "this book is by Cynthia Leitich Smith, a writer who is Muscogee Creek." Introducing Jenna and her identity, and Cynthia and her identity, can go a long way towards situating Native people in the present, not that long-ago past where you usually find us.

From there, you could read Joy Harjo's The Good Luck Cat to your students. In it, Harjo works with the idea that cats have nine lives. In The Good Luck Cat, a Native girl's cat--named Woogie--goes missing. As you turn the pages of the book, you'll learn about other times when Woogie's life was in danger. And, as you turn those pages, you see the girl's Native identity in visual markers throughout the book. Harjo is also Muscogee Creek.  You could pull out a map and show your students where the Muscogee Creek Nation is located. Head over to their website and learn all you can about them, and share it with your students. In my visit to their site today, I learned that as of May 2012, they have 72,740 enrolled citizens. What a cool bit of info to share! Smith and Harjo are two of 72,740 citizens. That could even be a math problem. (Subtract two from 72,740, and what do you get?)

My third recommendation is Jan Bourdeau Waboose's SkySisters. In it, two Ojibway sisters walk, in the night, to see the SkySpirits (Northern Lights).  As the girls are out, they view the things around them, not from a mainstream American perspective, but from their Ojibway perspective where a rabbit or deer or coyote is more than just an animal in the world. Waboose is Ojibway.

For the record, I think the Common Core is a bad idea. 


Anonymous said...

I appreciate your evaluation of that specific text and agree that many educators have or will take the exemplars as cannon versus guideposts to rigor and text complexity. I'd like to hear more about why you don't support the Common Core standards. Thank you!

jpm said...

Anonymous, you wanted to hear more about not supporting the Common Core. I've been a teacher of young children and a teacher educator for a long time, and I'm ambivalent about the CCSS.
I have had the experience of paying close attention to the CC kindergarten language arts standards. What those standards require is what used to be expected of first graders, at the end of first grade. The standards are part of a trend of pushing curriculum downward while ignoring the developmental needs and capacities of the youngest children. You can go to the CCSS Web site and find statements that show that the framers (more on that later) started at the high-school level and worked their way downward in age with the result that I just described. To me, it looks like, "Oops, we had first graders doing XYZ, so I guess they'll all have to learn to read in kindergarten." Anyone who has paid attention to research on children and literacy knows that that isn't "academic rigor," it's a recipe for failure for many, many young children whose brains need to be doing other things. The web site refers over and over to basing the standards on "research" but just try to find what that research is!

Note that what drives the CCSS is high school-level outcomes -- college and career skills AND scores on international tests (another problematic measure)-- rather than understanding of and research into human development and learning. Note that there has been little transparency regarding who actually wrote the standards; there is an implication that the CCSS were written by committees that included educators. This appears to be only sort of true. Google "Who wrote" + common core standards and you will begin to get a picture of the problem. Also, supposedly this standards movement was generated by the states, but really, business pushed it. That's not inherently all bad, but one has to admit that the business perspective is likely to be different from that of people who have used their education to learn about teaching and learning and who have actually done it. Quote from the Web site of Achieve, Inc, which has been intensely involved in the common core standards movement:
"To this day, Achieve remains the only education reform organization led by a Board of Directors of governors and business leaders."
The board consisted of high-power folks. People who actually work in classrooms, especially those who work on the early childhood end of things, do not seem to have had much of a voice in the processes.
The CCSS framers are pleased that they have come up with fewer standards then many states had developed on their own. How is this possible? Well, it appears to me that in many cases, instead of parsing out components of a skill or skill set, they just combined a couple of skills into a single standard inthe interest of saying they have a more compact document (implication "easier to use.). Instead of "collect data" and "analyze data" having separate standards (because they are separate activities), in the CCSS they would be combined "Collect and analyze data etc." For the teacher who needs to assess both, and who has students who might be good at one and not so good at the other, that's not a very helpful construction. I could go on. I don't dislike all of the CCSS but its problems are several.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate hearing what you have to say about perceptions of Native Americans in literature. When I was growing up in South Dakota in the 1950s and 1960s, I avidly read all the Little House books. Now, such passages in these and other works disturb me greatly.

On the subject of Common Core, I am skeptical of any system that does not take into account the differences in reading and cognitive abilities of individual children. As many of our students come from homes where English is a second language, we have had to adjust our school standards.

Thank you, Debbie, for the valuable service you provide all of us.

OldThyme said...

Many thanks for the posts related to the Common Core. Thay are greatly appreciated.

Len Adams said...

I just took a look at Appendix B and found one Native author in the K-1 section, Alonzo Lopez has a poem called "Celebration" included in the reading list. The poem can be read without any specific reference to Native people, and on the plus side doesn't talk about hunting Indians.