Reflections on Multicultural Education

1. How does understanding culture and power impact your teaching?

I think one of my main concerns as a teacher will be to make sure that my students are conscious of some of the dynamics of culture and power that we’ve been talking about over the past three weeks, and that they feel safe discussing them in class. I think one of the greatest opportunities of discussion-based classes is the ability to encourage students to ask critical questions about the messages they are receiving from the world around them. As a language arts teacher, I hope that my students will be able to make their own judgments about the dynamics of culture and power in the works we read for my class.

2. I chose three words from the word wall that I’m still working on or trying to figure out.

Place-Based Education: This is something that I believe very strongly in, and I’ve tried to give my students place-based projects in the past, but I’ve always found it a little bit difficult because I move around a lot and I’m rarely in a place that I know a lot about. My cousin Sally, who also teaches in Fairbanks, and who grew up there, is brilliant at coming up with place-based projects. In her first week as a TA, she took her class on a field trip to the reuse section of the dump, and that’s now a standard field trip for composition classes, because it turns out you can learn a lot about Fairbanks by careful observation of the dump’s reuse pavilion. My favorite lesson of Sally’s is on citations – students can plan a trip anywhere in Alaska, using an unlimited imaginary budget, but they need to research it thoroughly, write it up, and cite everything. I’ve stolen many of Sally’s assignments, but I’ve never quite been able to imitate her creative flair for place-based education. This class has given me a good sense of the variety of place-based projects that are possible, though, and I hope I’ll eventually be able to stop stealing assignments from Sally.

Safe Space: This is a tricky one for me, and the reason why it’s tricky came up during our class discussion about David Katzeek and trans issues. That discussion highlighted a complicated question: how do you balance different kinds of safety? How do you make sure a space is safe for every marginalized group, for instance trans students, while also making sure it is safe for open and thoughtful discussion? If an authority figure makes a remark, as David Katzeek did, that comes across as transphobic, how does the teacher deal with that so as to keep the space of the classroom as safe as possible for as many people as possible? This is something I’m still trying to figure out.

Eurocentrism: I chose this word because the reality is that my own tastes in literature are pretty Eurocentric. I was raised in a family that reads a lot of Victorian novels and turn-of-the-century children’s literature, and that’s still a big part of what I read for fun. Since I started teaching, I’ve made an effort to make my reading more multicultural, but I know I still have a long way to go.

3. My plan for the year – well, it’s hard to say, because my conversations with my host teacher have been quite brief so far, so I don’t know how thoroughly she has the year planned out. In the future, I will certainly aim for a lot of diversity in the authors and the readings I assign my students. I think it’s important to represent writers of many different cultures, and to make it clear that they are on the reading list because they are good writers that the students can learn from. I also hope to assign my students a lot of writing by Alaskan writers – Alaska Native writers, whenever possible. I’ll be at Mt. Edgecumbe, working with students from all over Alaska, so one challenge – assuming I get any say in the reading material – will be finding enough material from different parts of Alaska that all of my students feel represented. I will also, hopefully, be able to use oral histories from all over Alaska, which will allow my students to do some place-based investigation of an area they are from or have a connection to.

Project-Based Learning

What did the teacher in me learn?

Last semester, I had to teach a class on a subject I didn’t know much about. My class got switched at the last minute, and I ended up taking on a business writing class that I didn’t feel at all prepared to teach. As I always do when I get thrown a class at the last minute, I asked everyone I could think of for ideas, and my coworkers ended up steering me toward a mostly project-based approach as the best way to handle the situation. My students started by doing individual presentations and then put together two group presentations, with the last one functioning as the final. As far as I could tell, the class went well; we had a fun class dynamic, and the groups all seemed to get along and share work reasonably equally.

This class was an interesting chance to see project-based learning from the other side – to be a member of one of the groups. Having done the project, I have more mixed feelings about project-based learning than I had before. I think it’s a great way to motivate students – I know I went into high gear as soon as I heard the word “publish,” and I think my group as a whole produced a much higher level and volume of work than we would have without that word. What I realized, though, is that an entirely project-based approach makes it difficult for the teacher to control the overall vibe of the class. I was very lucky, last semester, to have a class where we all got along well and there were no complicated group dynamics (that I knew of, at least). Here, I think we all had the best intentions, but there were still clashes, and that makes me wary of making a single group project the central focus of a class.

Standard A

My group focused on Standard A, and I focused particularly on the third aspect of this standard: incorporates contemporary adaptations along with the historical and traditional aspects of the local culture.

I want to get students thinking creatively about contemporary ways to tell stories, but I also want them to be able to draw on the lessons of traditional stories and legends. I think I would start by discussing the differences between written and oral versions of the same story. I would try to find a storyteller who could come in and tell a traditional story to the class. Then I would assign students a written version of the same story to read, and we would discuss the overall lessons of the story and any differences between the two versions.

From here, the assignment can branch in two directions. Students could collect a book of stories – get permission from Elders to record them telling stories and make transcripts. Or, for a smaller assignment, students could discuss traditional stories, identify central themes or lessons in those stories, and then write contemporary stories of their own that have the same themes and lessons. The stories would not be adaptations of the traditional stories – they would be original creative works, but they would draw for inspiration on the purpose and meaning of the traditional stories.

Writing Activism: Project Chariot and the People of Point Hope

My lesson, “Writing Activism: Project Chariot and the People of Point Hope,” draws on Culturally Responsive Curriculum Standard E: situating local knowledge and actions in a global context.

Standard E encourages students to “think globally, act locally.” My students will learn about Project Chariot and the successful opposition mounted by the Inupiat of Point Hope. They will take on the role of Inupiat activists, and will write letters of protest directed at a specific audience. My hope is that students will come to understand that acting on a local level, even in the most remote areas of Alaska, can have global results.

Project Chariot, the 1958 AEC proposal to blast a harbor in the coast of Alaska using buried nuclear bombs, would have sent unprecedented levels of fallout drifting over North America and the Arctic. To put the plan in context, here is Dan O’Neill comparing the plan to Sedan, a nuclear test in Nevada:

A shot the size of Sedan, fired at Ogotoruk Creek, could have dropped radioactive fallout over the entire length of the North Slope of Alaska, or penetrated 1,000 miles into Siberia…The Chariot shot, at its smallest configuration (280 kilotons), would have been nearly three times as powerful as Sedan. At its largest configuration, Chariot would have been twenty-four times larger (O’Neill, 1994, p. 275).

At the time when it was first proposed, Chariot seemed very likely to go through. Without the Inupiat and their determination to defend their land rights and protect their environment, it most likely would have gone through. The consequences would have been devastating, not only for the Inupiat, but for the rest of the world as well.

The Inupiat succeeded for two reasons. First, they were willing to oppose Chariot with everything they had, even when they seemed to be the only opponents. And second, they made an effort to raise awareness and gather allies from all over the country. By the time Chariot was abandoned in 1962, it had many vocal opponents – but the organized resistance to the plan started with the people of Point Hope and their refusal to be manipulated by the AEC. I hope that the example of the Inupiat will inspire my students to see themselves as members of a global community of activists.

I’m attaching three slideshows that go with this lesson, so that the teacher can give a series of brief presentations on the history behind Chariot. The first one introduces the idea of Project Chariot, without giving any details beyond the project itself. The second one gives the history and rationale behind the project. The third – to be used at the end of the lesson, after the students have written their letters – explains how the Inupiat were eventually able to defeat Chariot.

Slideshow A

Slideshow B

Slideshow C

Edited to add: I forgot to credit Mischa Jackson for the idea behind this lesson. When I brought up the idea of doing a lesson on Project Chariot, Mischa immediately suggested centering the lesson on activism and having the students write letters. I thought it was a great idea, so I used it.

Go Home, River

I chose the picture book Go Home, River, by James Magdanz and Dianne Widom. This book is set in the late 1800s, and follows an Inupiaq father and son on a journey along the Kobuk river to a trade fair on the coast. Along the way, the young boy learns about the cycle of the river: flowing from the mountains to the sea, then returning as fog and rain to the mountains to begin the cycle again. The narrative of the book follows the flow of the river, and when it is time for the father and son to go home to the mountains, the father explains that the river is going home as well.

As I’m teaching English, I don’t have to do much stretching to use children’s literature in a lesson. There’s a lot of simple but effective description in this book, so I think I could use it as part of a lesson on visual imagery – students can identify specific language that conjures up an image, and then write their own visual imagery. Since the book’s narrative ends by returning the characters to their starting point, I could also use it as part of a lesson on structure, particularly in a creative writing assignment. I could have the students write a poem or prose poem about some aspect of the natural world, using a symmetrical or cyclical structure. (Obviously I’d have to give them more guidance than that, but that’s the general idea.)

White Privilege

My group discussed “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. We were all white, as it happened, and I found it interesting that within our group there were different levels of familiarity with the concept of white privilege. In Peggy McIntosh’s article, she talks about how difficult white privilege is to see and engage with, if you happen to be white. Unless you pin it down, as she does by listing every aspect of her privilege, you’re apt to forget all about it. And you want to forget it, she argues, because it’s not a comfortable thing to think about; it throws everything about your own identity and accomplishments into question. Now, decades later, white privilege has become such a buzzword in academic and political circles that it’s easy to assume that we know what it means. I wonder, though, if we really do, or if we fool ourselves into thinking we’re fully aware of our privilege when all we’ve learned is how to use the word. What our group discussion taught me was that it’s still an uncomfortable, awkward thing to read McIntosh’s list and confront those privileges directly. Our group spent a lot of time on the question of dominance and guilt; if privilege was just a system for pushing one group up and another down, then what were we expected to do – what could we do – to even the balance?

I think the most important thing we can do is foster discussions between our students about white privilege. It’s common for people to push back at being told that they have white privilege. They often see the concept of white privilege as a way to place blame on them for something they have no control over. And sometimes it is even presented in that way, as an accusation leveled at an individual. I think it’s important to teach students that while white privilege does exist, it’s not a matter for individual blame or individual guilt. I think it’s important to give students plenty of chances to discuss the issue of white privilege in a diverse environment, so that they learn how to address it with nuance and understanding.

There was one more thing that I thought about, which is how rare it is for white people to find themselves in a situation in which their white privilege doesn’t work. It happened to me once, when I lived in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and was bullied for being the only white kid in my second-grade class. Although in theory I still had white privilege – I was rich by Marshallese standards, I would be going back to America eventually – I had no way to access that privilege. It was a currency that didn’t work in the country I was in. It was a tremendously disorienting experience, and I’ve never felt so powerless. And it made me realize how right McIntosh is about the invisibility of white privilege – for I never realized I had been living life with a safety net until that safety net suddenly wasn’t there.

SLAM – Children’s toys from the far north

I chose the Arctic for the place-based assignment, mainly because I know very little about it. So on our class trip to SLAM, I gravitated at once toward the exhibits on Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik culture. What set those exhibits apart from the rest of the museum, I realized, was the display focused on children: children’s toys, children’s clothing. A plaque next to the display explained, “Young people are treated with affection and respect for their independence. They are encouraged to learn by watching adults, experimenting with those activities, and learning from their mistakes.”

Most of the children’s toys had some kind of practical connection to adult life. There was a tiny, sled, an equally tiny canoe, a toy bowl and spoon, a miniature harpoon and a miniature ulu. But there was also a row of carved ivory birds that the display described as game pieces, and carved ivory story knife with tiny ivory figures balanced on its edge. I was struck by the smallness of all the toys. The miniature tools weren’t fitted to a child’s hand; they were smaller than that. They looked like practical things, and yet they were clearly designed to be toys and nothing else. I was impressed that in a civilization where resources are scarce, where no one can afford waste, people were willing to spend time and care and materials making tiny works of art for their children to play with.

I took photos of all the toys in the exhibit, but I chose the ulu for my featured image because something about its simplicity appealed to me right away. The blade is slate, and the handle is bone.

Ulu courtesy of Alaska State Museum, Juneau