Friday, November 02, 2007

CD: Native Writers Read Their Work

Available from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) at the Smithsonian Institution is a wonderful CD called Pulling Down the Clouds: Contemporary Native Writers Read Their Work.

All year long, visitors to the museum can view the exhibits, but there are also opportunities to listen to Native writers, scholars, and musicians.

Pulling Down the Clouds includes the following writers, reading their work:

N. Scott Momaday
Louise Erdrich
Sherwin Bitsui
Ofelia Zepeda
Karenne Wood
Simon Ortiz
Jim Northrup
Joy Harjo
M. L. Smoker
Duncan Primeaux
Debra Magpie Earling
Tomson Highway
LeAnne Howe
Nora Marks Dauenhauer
Susan Power

Quite a list, eh?!

Debra Magpie Earling.... She's got a terrific YA novel that I've not yet blogged. Her novel is called Perma Red. You recognize Joy Harjo's name? She wrote the picture book, The Good Luck Cat. Simon Ortiz? The People Shall Continue. LeAnne Howe---I've written recently about her new book, Miko Kings. And Louise Erdrich, author of Birchbark House and The Game of Silence.

None of them read from their work for children, but they are gifted writers, and if you do author studies with your students, you may find the CD useful. It is available from the NMAI's on line store. Click here to get there.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thanksgiving Picture Books: THANKSGIVING MICE

Earlier this week I visited a local public library to take a look at their picture books with the word "Thanksgiving" in the title. I did not look at non-fiction or poetry, and I looked only at books published from 1999 to 2007 that were on the "easy" shelf. I also excluded books on the easy-to-read shelf and obviously could not read those that were checked out at the time.

I read 18 books. Eleven of them had no references in text or illustration to American Indians. They were stories primarily about families getting together for Thanksgiving (example: Franklin's Thanksgiving by Paulette Bourgeosis); many were about what the family members are thankful for.

Seven of the 18 books included content (text or illustrations) about American Indians. They include:
  • Thanksgiving Mice, by Bethany Roberts
  • Thanksgiving Day, by Anne Rockwell (there were six copies of this one on the shelf)
  • Look Who's in the Thanksgiving Play!: A Lift-the-Flap Story, by Andrew Clements
  • The Memory Cupboard, by Charlotte Herman
  • The Thanksgiving Door, by Debby Atwell
  • Fat Chance Thanksgiving, by Stacey Schuett
  • This First Thanksgiving Day: A Counting Story, by Laura Krauss Melmed

Perhaps the most striking observation is that 3 of the 7 books were about doing a Thanksgiving play. It points to, I think, the degree to which that practice is central to the Thanksgiving lesson plans that teachers do in early childhood and elementary school classrooms. In a series of posts this month, I'll discuss the books I read. I begin with...

Thanksgiving Mice, by Bethany Roberts

As the title suggests, the characters are mice. In the first four pages, they prepare the props for their play. Next, other critters are shown coming in to see the play. The stage has an easel announcing the play: "The Story of Thanksgiving."

The play begins, and we see "Act 1" which is an English street scene. A male and female mouse head for the dock to board their ship. They male is shown in a black hat with a buckle, signifying Pilgrim. The next few pages show the mice being seasick, hungry, thirsty. They arrive at Plymouth Rock, build new homes, but are still hungry and weak.

Spring comes, and Act 2 begins. Here's the illustration:

The text reads:
One day they met some friendly folks, who gave them corn to sow.
The "friendly folks" are represented on that page as a mouse wearing a fringed shirt, trousers, blue beads, and a feather hanging down from beneath his ear (no headband). He has a bowl of corn kernels and offers one to the female Pilgrim mouse.

On the next double-page spread is a four-panel illustration, done that way to show the progression of time. In the first panel the Indian watches/directs the Pilgrim man as he plans the kernel of corn. The Indian is not in the next three panels, or on the next two pages, where the mice are shown in the midst of their abundant harvest of corn, squash, and pumpkins. On the next page the text reads:
And so they said to their new friends, "Let's feast! Let's dance! "Let's play!"
The Pilgrim female and the Indian male dance together. The next page shows the mice actors bowing before their cheering audience. The closing page shows the mice, a squirrel, a bird, and two worms, and the text reads:
Come one, come all, come feast with us---on this Thanksgiving Day!"
Thanksgiving Mice was published in 2001 by Clarion. It's illustrations are by Doug Cushman. The reviewer in The Horn Book Guide gave it a '5' which means "Marginal, seriously flawed, but with some redeeming quality." Booklist's reviewer suggests it can be used as a "light introduction to the holiday."

I'm not sure what the "redeeming quality" is, and I don't think it should be used as a light introduce children to this holiday. What purpose does it serve to teach young children this romantic story that is little more than myth? All this feel-good stuff is junk that only has to be unlearned later on. And, as I've said before on this blog, the college students I teach feel betrayed by these feel-good lessons. Perhaps James Loewen's book title captures it best. This simplified story about Thanksgiving is among the "Lies My Teacher Told Me."

Some people ask me if I'd prefer to have nothing at all said about Native peoples. My reply? I'd prefer nothing if the 'something' is error, bias, etc. To me, this is akin to "first do no harm." I much prefer books that leave out Native imagery completely, as is the case with Franklin's Thanksgiving.

Children must be provided with honest instruction about the history of this country. Books like this can be used to teach children about bias and perspective.

Update: July 17, 2014

In comments, Allie Jane Bruce notes that Thanksgiving Mice is available now as a "Green Light Reader." To the right is the new cover, showing it as a "Level 1" reader.  Published by Harcourt, the "Green Light" series is:

  • "Created exclusively for beginning readers..." 
  • "Reinforces reading skills..."
  • "Encourages children to read..."
  • "Offers extra enrichment through fun, age-appropriate activities unique to each story."
  • "Developed with Harcourt School Publishers and credentialed educational consultants."

I'd re-write those bullet points! This particular book, we might say, was

"created exclusively to mislead beginning readers"
"reinforces ignorance"
"encourages ignorance"
"offers kids the opportunity to learn how to play Indian in offensive ways"

AND---I wonder about the credentials of those educational consultants!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween, 2007

I was asked, recently, if it would be ok if a person wanted to dress like Pocahontas for Halloween, but that they'd make sure every detail of their costume was accurate.

My response? Accuracy in costume for educational purposes is a must. In my mind, that includes theater productions.

But is Halloween an educational moment? Can it be? Does it provide a "teachable moment?"

Just imagine how that 'teaching' might take place...

Can one really expect to teach others while out gathering candy, or in the case of college campuses, getting "treats" (alcoholic drinks)?

I think a college student would be ridiculed for trying to 'educate' others while dressed up like Pocahontas?

So, would it work? I don't think so.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

NEA's "Native American Booklist"

A friend wrote to ask me about NEA's "Native American Booklist." (Update: Wed, Oct 31, 2007... Here's the link to the booklist: Native American Booklist.)

I visited the site. There are 61 books listed, in three categories: Grades K-4, 5-8, and 9 and up. I recognize and would agree with many--but not all--of their recommendations.

Some of the books they recommend are ones I have recommended on this blog. Some examples are the books by Richard Van Camp, George Littlechild, and Joy Harjo.

Some books on NEA's list are problematic. The books by Tony Hillerman, for example, ought NOT be on such a list. They're entertaining, best selling books, but his use (misuse) of Native ways is pretty awful.

Rather than say more about the books on the list, I think it important that I recommend a reference book that provides Native perspectives.... Half of the books on the NEA list are reviewed in A Broken Flute: The Native Experience in Books for Children. Published in 2005, A Broken Flute includes reviews written by Native scholars, writers, teachers, and parents. It has---literally---hundreds of reviews.

I am a former schoolteacher. I know how little time teachers have to seek out, for example, a Native perspective on books they want to use in their classrooms. I also know that, due to the dismal support for education in this country, teachers use their own money to purchase the things they use to teach America's children. Knowing these things, I highly recommend that you spend $35 on A Broken Flute. It is available in paperback from Oyate.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

A Teacher's Thoughts on "squaw" in 4th Grade Classroom

My post about "squaw" and "the only good Indian is a dead Indian" in historical fiction was much-discussed on YALSA (YALSA is an American Library Association listserv for young adult librarians). Most of the objections to my post were along these lines:

  • It is wrong to censor books.
  • That is what people said/thought at that time.
  • Books with this language provide 'teachable moments' that are invaluable.

I wondered why the word 'censor' entered the discussion. I didn't ask that it be taken off the shelf. I posed the ramifications of using books with such language in an elementary school classroom and NOT engaging students in critical discussion of such words and phrases. What I'm advocating is the selective use of books like Sign of the Beaver and Little House on the Prairie and Matchlock Gun. What grade level should they be used? I think they ought to be used in high school classes that teach history, or social justice, or in college classes for teachers and librarians.

Below are the words of a classroom teacher. They were submitted as a comment to my post about "squaw" and "the only good Indian..." The teacher was responding to a previous commenter (her initials are DS) who suggested teachers at every grade level have dialog's with their students, in which they discuss these kinds of words, across race, gender, sexuality, etc.


DS, I see what you are saying, however, I think there is a point where you don't continue to use the word, even in teaching about (improper) use of the word. By analogy, would you choose and then discuss books that called people "Kike", "Yid", "Spic", "Chink", at the 4th grade level (which is more or less the age and grade that Sign of the Beaver is for)? I can see having a discussion and comparison of that as a lesson for older kids, but I think at this level, their thinking is still too concrete for a full discussion and it is best to use other books for literature instruction. I've taught grades 3, 4 & 5 for over 10 years, so I think I have a handle on kids' thought processes. Middle or high school as a comparative study for combined literature and social studies or social psychology possibly. But not as reading instruction for elementary school. I'm not saying to avoid discussion of that sort by any means at the elementary level - saying that in my opinion reading of this book for reading instruction at the elementary level would not be the way to go.


If you're teaching in a 3rd/4th/5th grade classroom, and have used books like these, and have done significant---not cursory---work on these words and phrases and way of thinking, I'd love to hear from you!

Or, if you're in a middle, high school, or college classroom, and have used these books, I'd love to hear from you, too.

Or, if you're a teacher and want to reread Little House and write a response to it in light of my perspectives on it, I'd love to hear from you.