Sunday, November 05, 2006

Teaching about American Indians: "You don't want us to do anything!"

I'm getting a few private replies to my post asking teachers to think critically about using traditional American Indian stories as a model for a writing activity. One person said that while she has learned a lot from what I've been sharing on the blog, she is getting a little tired of my critiques. It seems that I can find something wrong with every lesson or activity on American Indians teachers do, or every children's book they use. One person, in a comment, said I am losing credibility with readers of the blog.

I can see why someone would feel that way. October and November are months when Native American content is very visible in schools across America. I've discussed problems in dressing up as an Indian at Halloween and problems in depictions of characters dressing up as Indians in favorite children's books. And, I've been critical about the ways that Native peoples are, and are not, presented in lessons about Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving.

So, it seems like a bit much right now.

But maybe it is because there IS so much wrong with the way we are teaching children about American Indians.

I don't think any given teacher is a bad (or racist) person because their lessons provide a heroic or romantic picture of America's history. Most likely, that teacher didn't get much in the way of critical thinking about teaching this topic in his/her teacher education program. Maybe there haven't been opportunities to think about this, either, once the teacher entered the classroom.

Teachers are overworked and underpaid. They and the profession often get little respect. Most are doing the best they can.

I'm not asking teachers to immediately drop all the lessons you've been doing for years. Meaningful change takes time. If a teacher elects to modify a lesson, it takes time to figure out what to do instead. That means a lot of time for research, thinking, writing, locating and developing new materials for their students.... Time most don't have, because they're struggling to do a good job as it is, given things like No Child Left Behind.

What I'm doing with this blog is offering some ideas for teachers to think about. My hope is that this will lead to change. I know some teachers can make changes right away, and others will modify something more slowly, and still others will think over my input and then reject what I offer because it is counter to the way they view things.

I have confidence in education and in educators. Teachers are caring people. They care about the children they teach. They want to do a good job, and if they're reading this blog, they are interested in thinking about the ways they teach about American Indians. I offer this blog to help them.


jcrit said...

Hold the line. Your words touch one's conscience in ways that many people sorely need, but poorly acknowledge. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I agree: although I sympathize, too, with how challenging a teacher's work can be these days. It's not easy when you're given badly written curriculum or materials that are insensitive or inaccurate and have to work around things like that. Or when you don't get support from others in the school community for wanting to do things better. I know lots of teachers have to spend their own money or work on their own time to get good resources in for their classes. I did.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad that you are doing this blog. As a teacher educator it is such a valued resource to me as I work with both pre and inservicer teachers. It helps to raise their awareness, but also to give them support when they are speaking with colleagues and administrators. I'm currently teaching a graduate multicultiral literature class and your blog is an integral part of it. Please keep it going.

k8 said...

I appreciate this blog. As someone who studies writing and rhetoric, as well as children's/ya literature, I always try to place texts within their respective rhetorical context(s). And it is always good to remember that what some might consider as 'benign' practices really are not. Someone once told me that rather than living by 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you,' that it is better to 'Do unto others as as they would have done unto themselves.' I don't know if that is very grammatical, but it seems like a good practice.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Hi Debbie,
Thanks for all of your efforts.
I have a question. I'm being asked by teachers here in Texas for recommendations of quality contemporary Native children's literature that is available in Spanish language.
By any chance, do you have any suggestions I can pass on?
Warmest Wishes,