Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Eighth Graders Analyze SIGN OF THE BEAVER

[Note: This essay submitted by Karen, a classroom teacher, in response to my post (on March 17th) about using Caddie Woodlawn to teach about stereotypes.]

My students and I have done critical analysis much like this, years ago with Sign of the Beaver, and more recently with a history textbook's chapter on the Civil War. I was working with 8th graders in a Title I pull-out language arts and social studies class when we analyzed Sign of the Beaver. The history text analysis was done with my fifth/sixth grade class last year. We also think critically about historical events, looking at them from the perspectives of ordinary people affected by the decisions of those in power.

The one piece that I found essential to have in place before analysis of Sign of the Beaver was a thorough grounding in culturally authentic literature. Living and teaching in southern Vermont, most of my students are white. Before my students can think critically about stereotypes in literature, they need to see literature that's positive and authentic. That's equally true for the very few students who have strong Native ties or are black or Asian as for the white students.

Having said that, I think the analysis of specific chapters and passages in Sign of the Beaver was also successful because, as you suggest, we didn't read it as a novel or as literature, we just read those passages, largely comparing the ways in which Attean's speech, his grandfather's speech and that of Matt are described. The students, given to me to teach because they'd been unengaged in the "regular ed" classrooms, were vocal and articulate in their responses to Speare's depiction of Attean's speech as grunts. I can still hear their voices, 18 years later, as they "talked back" to Speare.

I don't do this more often for a couple of reasons: -first, with only so much time, I do want to make sure my students get that authentic literature. I'm reading Hidden Roots right now to my class. -second, even in snippets, literature is so powerful and can be so powerfully painful. When most of the kids are white, the possibilities of pain for others are so much greater, as my own sons (we're a multiwhateverish background family, black, white, Mi'kmaq, and mystery genes) have let me know. Thinking critically about historical events and about texts somehow doesn't hurt as much as the literature can.

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