This post is the fourth in a series about including diverse voices in English curriculum while exploring issues and needs related to gifted students. This series offers teaching strategies for various essays found in the YA nonfiction anthology, Our Stories, Our Voices: 21 YA Authors Get Real About Injustice, Empowerment, and Growing Up Female in America.
View the first post and more about this anthology here. Guidelines for integrating this text or individual essays in your curriculum and how to set up things appropriately with your students are also included at this first post.
How do you teach the history and culture of indigenous people in your classroom? How do you celebrate history and culture?
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Noticing What’s Right In Front Of Us
Our family has been preparing to move from Durham, North Carolina to Colorado. For two years we’ve taken the same route to drop the kids off at school. On the last day of taking this route before our big move, at the intersection of 751 and Highway 70 in Durham, I noticed for the first time a street sign that reads “Greensboro,” with one arrow pointing ahead, and “Duke University,” with another arrow pointing left. In the two-plus years of going through this intersection nearly every single weekday morning, I’d never, ever noticed this simple, clear sign.
While we’re excited about our adventure out west, my Carolina roots run deep. I’m going to deeply miss all the people who make up whom I call family here, and I plan to come back to visit regularly. Although I already know the way to get to Greensboro–it’s my hometown, and I really don’t need a sign to remind me–it struck me how “home” had literally been right in front of me the whole time. It was unnoticed and unappreciated in a sense, and yet deeply felt.
In Christine Day’s essay, “Unexpected Pursuits: Embracing My Indigeneity and Creativity,” the author (author of I Can Make This Promise, releasing October 2019) discovers that finding her way home means honoring her roots and seeking appreciation while embarking on an endlessly fascinating adventure. The essay allows us to recognize that the voices of our gifted, indigenous youth can be amplified only when we pause to confront our own inherited narratives about history, reality, and all the unexpected avenues giftedness can take. Day’s exploration makes it clear it is up to us as educators to allow ourselves and our students to sometimes veer off course, to dare to depart from mandated versions of history and culture, and to create time and space to listen to the truth of the silenced voices of history and within our own classrooms.
Reconsider and Reflect
Day’s essay will challenge you to reconsider how the “typical” gifted student thinks and behaves. Day had a vault of creative treasures within her spirit, but because she was quiet, well-mannered, and didn’t turn her homework in on time, teachers sighed with–if we’re being honest–an all-too-familiar frustration of being unable to make our students fit the neat mold of what “gifted” should look like. Although it takes more time and energy on the part of the teacher, Day proves that it’s worth it for teachers to question what might appear to be a “well-mannered and cooperative student but needing consistent motivation,” as Day was described by her own teachers. The student might actually be harboring a silenced passion not easily seen at first. Day shares how such latent passions are either silenced or amplified by the power within our hands as teachers.
Day also sketches snapshots of her high school life with teachers who were ineffective or constructive, which seemed to depend on their level of willingness to risk challenging accepted historical and cultural narratives around indigeneity. Day says she doesn’t remember much from courses where teachers gave the message that indigenous cultures were just a place to someday travel, or a nebulous, foreign realm from which to distance oneself. But because of one US Government and History teacher who noticed and nurtured Day’s passion for creative writing and documentaries, a spark ignited. She listened to her own internal nudge to pursue her true dream to become a writer.
Make no mistake, the hero of Day’s essay is not any one teacher, but herself. Day never directly depicts her teachers as “good” or “bad,” but as agents for the transformation she courageously decides to undertake on her own. We of course don’t want to get wrapped into the trap of teacher glorification or the “savior syndrome,” but we can consider the question: what kinds of agents for transformation do we want to be each day in our classrooms?
Day chose to be an agent of change. Day, an ordinarily reserved freshman, found herself in a verbal confrontation one day with her World History & Geography teacher. The teacher insists upon what might be called an “alternative fact” of cultural appropriation, insisting upon a mistaken pronunciation of Nez Perce, claiming that the tribal name Nez Perce was a name “given” to the tribe by the French. This injustice enraged Day on a visceral level, and her details and imagery make her anger palpable to the reader. She stated the fact of her direct descendancy from the Nez Perce tribe, and calmly proved her teacher wrong. As she found herself challenging authority and confronting an unexpected source of ignorance for the first time, she realized that truth, coupled with steadfast pride in her identity, can mean power. How are we helping our unseen gifted students discover this power? How can we illuminate opportunities for students to exercise their power outside of the classroom?
Later as a senior, Day stayed faithful to the courage she found and departs from the safe career path of nursing to instead pursue her passion for writing, however messy and imperfect the process may be. She learns that taking a risk can actually make one feel more comfortable and capable, instead of the other way around. How can we make safe spaces in our classrooms for students to express opinions that counter accepted narratives?
The US Government and History teacher who helped Day most was the teacher who was unafraid to delve into the topics other teachers avoided. This was a teacher who taught students to look for biases and wasn’t afraid to show truthful historical images, however graphic and uncomfortable.
The turning point for Day and her education was when she saw her indigenous culture reflected back to her. That was when the confidence to pursue her learning ignited. How might we as educators help ignite this passion? How can we reflect back to our students their indigenous culture, not as an object behind a glass case in a museum, or as a static picture from a textbook, but as a living, breathing wonder right in front of us?
To do so takes courage, to venture into, as Day puts it, the “grittier, darker, more volatile” realities instead of the “sterile linear version of events.”
Among the many gems in Day’s essay, one of the most valuable is the theme of embracing unanswered questions, of regarding cultural revitalization as a promise to keep an “oath that she has “forged into her skin” through her tattoos that reflect not just her pride, but her insatiable curiosity about her culture and her certainty that her indigenous identity is “a living, changing practice.”
Despite our logistical limitations as educators, we do have the ability to bring about innovation and create the conditions for our students to effect change within themselves and the world around them. Just how do we do that? It starts with something as simple as selecting curriculum that brings light to the vast contributions of indigenous cultures to modern society, medicine, democracy, literature, and more.
At other times the signs may not be as clear, and it will sometimes be a long, winding, road, filled with wonder, as well as humility, much listening on the part of the teacher, and uncomfortable stops and starts. However, if we echo to our students Day’s advice to “never dismiss your own perspectives. Never question the validity of life in the margins,” we can trust the courage within our students and ourselves and embark on the journey.
Looking for more unanswered questions throughout history and literature to our students explore? One of my lessons that challenges students to do just that can be found here with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Before You Begin
Because each of these stories share voices that are often silenced, they must be given “big space” in the classroom. By that we mean stories must be read more than once, and annotated–listened to, carefully. These stories should be celebrated. They should invite a reader to go inward. They should invite a conversation between the reader and the writer.
These suggested writing and discussion prompts assume that you have done work to set up a safe space in your classroom, that you offer opportunities for students to journal privately as well as for you as the audience, and that you remind students of how to engage respectfully when sharing different opinions. Some questions below are best saved for independent writing, while some might work for small-group discussion, and others, for large-group discussion. Some may be good material for research and independent projects.
These questions assume that students will have a choice of a few questions and from more than one section, and that they can also propose their own prompts in response. Students should be encouraged to make a personal and emotional connection as well as an intellectual connection with Reed’s story.
These are not stories that should be used as a preface to engage in debates over issues or politics, nor should they be assigned as essays to pick apart for those political points. These are stories that should encourage thoughtful reflection rather than argument.
Work with your school counselors, department chairs, and administrators as necessary to ensure you can appropriately support students who may come forward with difficult circumstances or stories.
In some circles, English teachers wonder whether empathy can be taught. Can a student who’s never experienced Day’s particular circumstances possibly empathize with her? Not fully. But students who don’t know won’t know any more unless we ask them to connect. A student learning that such events happen to other people should be able to find points of connection and attempt to learn more.
A Note to English Teachers
Your gifted students will have a veritable candy store of literary techniques to analyze that help drive the meaning of the essay as a whole. Day’s masterful use of diction, details, juxtaposition, symbolism, imagery, and irony invite the reader to consider all the ways that indigenous students can be perceived as or made to feel invisible.
Another path to explore with your students could Day’s use of impactful symbolism and irony throughout the essay. For example, the school mascot is a Thunderbird, which she describes as “nondescript” and “motionless,” a “frozen caricature deprived of movement and color.” The mandated SAT vocabulary lists she has to temporarily memorize in high school contrast with her college experience at the University of Washington, where she learns and uses whole new vocabulary and different ways of reading and experiencing the world.
Discussion and Writing Prompt Guide
- What are indigenous cultures? What cultures are indigenous to your area?
- How are indigenous cultures misrepresented and/or underrepresented in the world around us?
- Contrast the mandated SAT vocabulary lists Day is given in high school with the vocabulary she learns at the University of Washington. How do they reflect Day’s different ways of reading and experiencing the world?
- Analyze the actions and attitudes of the various teachers Day describes throughout the essay. Which methods are effective? Which are ineffective? Why?
- What makes the moment that Day learned the meaning of the word “diaspora” such a significant part of her essay?
- Research the Baby Scoop Era. What was the mission of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978? Do you think its mission was accomplished? What are the impacts and consequences still experienced today?
- Day notes that the US government’s cultural genocide against Natives was a chapter of American history she “never learned about in school but lived with every day.” What does Day mean by this?
Making a personal connection
- How does Day use diction, details, juxtaposition, symbolism, imagery, and/or irony to show all the ways that indigenous students can be perceived as or made to feel invisible? Optional: use one of these literary techniques to express how you as an individual have felt invisible.
- What words does Day use to describe the school Thunderbird mascot? How does her word choice create a sense of irony? Is there a symbol for a school or group you’re a part of that that feels similar to how Day feels about the Thunderbird mascot?
- Day’s teachers described her in progress reports as a “well-mannered and cooperative student but needing consistent motivation.” Write a letter to her teachers in which you challenge their perception of her capabilities as a student. or write a letter to your teachers where you challenge their perception of you as a student.
- What made Day find the courage to pursue her passion for creative writing instead of nursing? What passions and interests do you struggle to express to others? What’s at risk if you do so?
- What does it mean to take a risk? What factors do you consider when determining whether risks are good or bad?
- Day’s US Government and History teacher encouraged students to look for biases and wasn’t afraid to show graphic images. Can you think of an example when you learned a historical truth or image that was “hard to take”?” How did you feel when digesting this truth?”
- Would you rather have a version of history and culture from a few people, or would you have versions from multiple people? Why?
- How do we discover the truth of history? Share some ideas of how you think the history texts should be written going forward.
- Day’s tattoo artist friend encouraged her to bypass the Native Voices documentary filmmaking program and “just buy some equipment, submit your work to film festivals, do it all on your own. It would probably save you a ton of money. Stuff like that is so accessible now.” Would you follow her friend’s advice? Why or why not?
- What do Day’s tattoos symbolize? If you were to get a tattoo (and keep in mind, we’re not encouraging students under 18 to get one!), what would it be?
- What do you think Day means by her last two sentences of the essay with her advice to “Never dismiss your own perspectives. Never question the validity of life in the margins”? How can you heed this call to action in your own life as a student, as a young person?