Monday, April 26, 2010

Why This Blog Matters, and, My Visit to Penn State...

I left State College on Saturday afternoon with a warm glow. Sounds cheesy, I know, but that's the right way to characterize it...

I was there to give a talk in a lecture series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the American Indian Leadership Program in Penn State's College of Education. I spent most of my time with students and faculty in the program, and thank them here (publicly) for that warm glow: Heather, Peter, Connie, Arlene, Rose Mary, Kari, and Jane; and, professors John Tippeconnic and Susan Faircloth.

I also spent some time with a handful of professors in the College of Education: Gail Boldt, Dan Hade, Lisa Hopkins and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh. Dan's work on the commodification of children's literature is excellent, and I encourage people to look for it. You can listen to him via a podcast here. The podcast link is on the left side of the page under MULTIMEDIA.

Tippeconnic and Faircloth recently released findings from their study of graduation rates of American Indians. Titled The Dropout/Graduation Rate Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students: Failure to Respond Places the Future of Native Peoples at Risk, their findings are grim. Quite often, statistics about American Indians are not part of large studies of drop out rates. The reason for that is, we are deemed "statistically insignificant" and therefore, ignored. 

That "statistically insignificant" attribute is ironic, given that images of American Indians are everywhere. Because they are, we don't actually see them until someone points them out. They may be innocuous, or, they may be highly derogatory. The findings of my content analysis of SLJ's Top 100 Novels is a good example of how unexpectedly pervasive this imagery is. Another example is the reviews of Peter Pan in Scarlet (the sequel to Peter Pan), only one of which noted the negative stereotyping I found in it.

On page 7 of the report, Tippeconnic and Faircloth note that being left out because we're statistically insignificant is an example of:
"...structural and institutional racism, placing [Native] students... at a further disadvantage in opportunities and outcomes" (Toney, 2007, p.8).
And, they point to studies (see p. 27) that dropping out is the result of a cumulative process of academic and personal difficulties by which students detach from school. They go on to note that "school-level factors associated with dropping out include "a perceived lack of empathy among teachers" and "irrelevant curriculum." 

"A perceived lack of empathy among teachers" reminds me of the hundreds of times someone has written to me, dismissing my critiques because the book I'm critiquing is "FICTION" (they often use caps or boldface to emphasize the word 'fiction') and therefore, everyone should know that the author is making things up (and as such we shouldn't believe what we read as truth, and, I am stupid for asking fiction to accurately depict American Indians). It also reminds me of the time that my daughter tried to tell a teacher that Brother Eagle Sister Sky is stereotypical, and the teacher told her "but its not about your [Pueblo] people." Lack of empathy. Definitely a problem. 

That teacher was right about only one thing. Brother Eagle Sister Sky is not about Pueblo Indians. In fact, it isn't about any Indian people at all! There was good intent on the part of Susan Jeffers, but she only created a mass of stereotyped and extinct Indians. As such, it doesn't do anyone any good. As a book used in the curriculum of many schools, it is irrelevant to everyone! But, its defenders say, its got a good message about taking care of the earth, and that message outweighs the problems with its depiction of American Indians. With that rationale, aren't we telling Native kids that they're just not that important? If so, then, it is no wonder they detach from school.

Drawing from other research studies, Tippeconnic and Faircloth include twelve strategies to decrease dropout rates. Among them are:
  • Review and revise school policies and avoid implementation of policies that exclude, repress, demean, embarrass, harass or alienate Native students.
  • Make schools physically, mentally and emotionally safe by working to end racism, sexual harassment and other forms of physical and emotional assault.
  • Avoid use of negative stereotypes.
Reading Tippeconnic and Faircloth's report reminds me of the findings from Stephanie Fryberg's research on the effects of stereotypical images on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native youth. As was the case when I first read and wrote about her study, I'm glad to send it to you. Just send me an email to debreese at illinois dot edu.

I want you to read Fryberg's article, and, Tippeconnic and Faircloth's report. And then I want you to consider what you have in your library or on your classroom shelves. I know you can't take things off the shelves lest you be labeled a censor, but, you can definitely ADD things to your shelves that are, in fact, relevant. Add, for example, fiction that is relevant! Fiction that accurately reflects the lives of Native people in the present and past. 

Imagine what effect that would have on Native students in your schools. Might they become more engaged?


Matthew said...

hi. send me an e-version of Fryberg's article. much thanks!

Debbie Reese said...


Send me an email address. Mine is debreese at illinois dot edu.

Jolly J P said...

My response to statistical insignifcance has always been to ask, "How many people like me do there need to be before people like me count?" Stops 'em in their tracks.

Gary said...

Hmmm, where to begin. Hopefully not all who capitalize the word FICTION are protesting that the work has no influence on thought. Many librarians (myself, for one) will be in the habit of capitalizing the word because it specifies a collection within our library. At least I would think that the librarians are not trying to comment that the work is not influential.

I do agree, however, that a lack of empathy is problematic. But then that is problematic no matter what heritage, ancestry, or background there may be. I've seen a lack of empathy from white teachers with white children who weren't from the same neighborhood - it doesn't matter what the background is.

The statistical 'insignificance' is a serious problem mainly because its source is in the government itself. Anyone who is not of the elite or the approved groups is insignificant. Women, blacks/African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, all 'enjoy' such status in selected settings. That is not to say that this acceptable for anyone. It is not, but changing such attitudes is difficult and fraught with consequences along the way.

A major concern I have with all of this is the one pointed out by Tippeconnic and Faircloth - that of Indians dropping out, but really of any group dropping out. As an educator I want all people to have the benefit of an education and the opportunity to realize their potential for a decent life that comes from being educated. Does that make me someone who believes in 'pie in the sky' or does that make me someone who thinks that all things are possible?

Claudia said...

I will reiterate some of what I said in my We the People post again. Literature read in schools needs to positively reflect the student body. It is one thing to read about the historical perspective of racism and stereotypes in non-fiction but quite another if that is the only perspective offered especially in fiction. Urban schools still struggle to find literature that appeals to African American students. Students want to read about characters who are like they are.

I personally have had the experience somewhat recently of being insignificant to others. It is very demeaning and I thought that perhaps I had become invisible. I sat right next to someone and participated in a discussion and was never acknowledged-in fact, I felt positively ignored and therefore unimportant and insignificant.

Heather said...

I love your blog, and this last post was a wonderful example of why I do. Thank you so much for this resource. I am an academic tutor for kids in 6th-12th grade, and I draw from your work all the time when discussing literature with them. Thank you thank you again.