Growing up Native

As a Tlingit kid from Ketchikan, I never felt the kind of racism directed against me, personally, that I saw in the movies or on television, or perhaps read about in history books. I simply accepted that I was who I was and the family to which I belonged. No one else seemed to mind. I understood that Alaska Native people of a previous generation had fought for and won equality as citizens, long before the civil rights tensions of the 1960s came to a head elsewhere in the nation. I can’t speak to the experience of Alaska Natives as a whole, only my own experience.

In our group discussion of BH&H I was drawn to the “six identity statuses which characterize a White individual’s patter of responding to racial situations in his or her environment.” The first being Contact. Being White is viewed as a “normal” state, rarely reflected upon. That is, the privileges of being white are simply taken for granted. Maybe I did grow up privileged, because I never identified purely as a Native kid. While I certainly saw a racial divide growing up, particularly from members of my own family, I never took part in any  sort of active racial identity reflection. People were simply curious to me, and I was content to remain an observer and not get involved. That remained true, at least, until I became a teenager.

In Ketchikan High School of the 1980s there was a clear racial divide between the “normal” kids and the Native kids. While I don’t recall any hostile words being spoken from either group towards the other, there certainly was little social mixing. White kids were friends among themselves and Native kids were friends among themselves. I increasingly felt isolated from both groups. What I observed of the Native kids, though, didn’t appeal to me. How they dressed and interacted with each other, their language, wasn’t something I could partake in. Also, observing their behavior in school contrasted with how I saw them at potlatch gatherings, for instance. The same Native kids I saw from school were the ones wearing the regalia and dancing.

One of my strongest interests in high school was politics. It’s been a few years, but I was likely most comfortable speaking up in history or U.S. government classes. It was the 80s and I, like many kids of my generation, was drawn to Ronald Reagan. Maybe it was how I confidently spoke about current events that drew certain kids to me. White kids. I came to accept my new friends and rejected being Native. I felt a new empowerment as I had at last been socially accepted in the cool crowd. I had not so subtly shifted my identity from Native to white.

I’ve reached point in my life that I want to reestablish the connections that I broke those many years ago. My political views have certainly evolved with time, and my attitudes towards being Native  have also evolved. I trust that, because of courses like this one, I am progressing toward a more purposeful and positive affirmation of my humanity.

In our group presentation I felt compelled to speak out against a current presidential candidate, who I feel will set the absolutely wrong tone for today’s youth. As a teenager I drawn to a political ideology for the wrong reasons, and presidential candidate in question, referring to a female U.S. Senator as “Pocahontas”, denigrating whole classes of people based on their ethnicity, gender or religious faith, is a danger for the country. Such sentiments expressed from from the White House will only make it more difficult for teachers who are attempting to guide our students to a more hopeful affirmation of themselves and the country we share.

Filling in the gaps

In class, and at home, I read about the three gaps in Enid Lee’s piece, “Anti-Racist, Pulling Together to Close the Gaps.” The gaps are academic, individual, and community. These gaps can expand throughout the course of a child’s education, but they can also be closed. I was struck by the individual gap: students from different cultural backgrounds come to school with different skills, but the teacher/ school  often only welcomes a predetermined set of skills that do not always reflect the talent and intelligence of the students. Teachers then lower their expectations for students of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds; this can be a reflection of stereotypes based on general academic gaps among different cultures. The result is not that students excel in slower classes with lower expectations. Instead, students leave school feeling less confident and motivated, because they have been treated as a lesser student.

This did strike me as interesting; I have heard of the academic gap, but I had never considered an individual gap caused by placing students in remedial, lower level classes.  This reminded me of other conversations about culturally relevant and inclusive classrooms that we have had: a school’s AP placement and the intentional, proactive work needed to let parents know their students were invited to be in AP.  a teacher intentionally praising students infant of guests to build confidence.

I can see through the BH&H readings how a very subtle system can repress students of certain cultural backgrounds.

BH&H (Language in the Classroom)

Language is important for communication, learning, and understanding. In BH&H there are a few sections that discuss which languages should be used inside of a classroom and what to do with those students that have a different primary language.

The language that should be established as primary use for a classroom should be which language is most important to the country. In the United States, schools should teach English. In Mexican schools they would teach spanish.

In schools that have a high concentration of students that come from a different background and have a different first language, the students need an option to be able to speak their own language, but be able to learn the one they need to learn. BH&H made the point, when a student’s first language is not the same as the language that the school speaks, they take classes that submerge the students into the desired language. They are taught english and practice, but if they are stuck on diction they are allowed to ask for help in their main language. That is only in cases of emergency.

My thoughts are, if we are teaching students to speak english, shouldn’t we be encouraging them to teach us their language in return? I imagine a school where english is THE language and a new student only speaks spanish. He will be taught to speak english, but I feel that might be a little insensitive. In the act of asking them to speak a different language, there is hope of that becoming the primary language. It is difficult to lose a language that has been with a student since birth, but if they rarely speak in their primary language for the rest of their lives, that takes a piece of their culture away from them.

On a different section of the same chapter in BH&H, there is a discussion where children openly accept new students, but that only happens if the students believe that the new member can conform into the social norm. Children are unaware of this, but they will accept new people in hopes of fitting them into the norms. They will befriend the student and unknowingly use the power of social conformity to change the new students dress-code, eating habits, language, and eventually the culture.

I find that interesting because it is something that we, as humans, are do when we are unaware. However, when we are aware of our acceptingness, we need to help the newcomer uphold their heritage and culture.

Beyond Heroes and Holidays

I thought that the “Final Word” method of discussing Beyond Heroes and Holidays was a very effective way of facilitating respectful and sensitive discussion in each of our groups. It gave everyone a chance to speak freely and uninhibited, and provided a chance for everyone to respond in an open dialogue. This resulted in a space for meaningful conversation.

My group discussed the chapter of Beyond Heroes and Holidays called “Affirmation, Solidarity, and Critique: Moving Beyond Tolerance in Education”. This chapter discussed the process of transforming monocultural schools into multicultural schools and how we can achieve this goal. It defined four levels of progress toward the ideal: 1) tolerance, 2) acceptance, 3) respect, and 4) affirmation, solidarity, and critique. The fourth level is the desired goal, but we must remember as educators that this achievement is not an arrival or a static event. The progress and examination must be ongoing and perpetual. Just as the learning process is lifelong, the process of transformation is lifelong, too. Constant observation, assessment, and re-evaluation must occur and keep occurring.

One of the main topics of discussion in my group was the “how” of moving toward multiculturalism in education. We all became inspired by the idea of teaching critical thinking to our students to help combat the monocultural status quo in the classroom – and by remembering to think critically as teachers about the systems that are in place. Critical thinking is one of the greatest skills we can teach our students; with that knowledge of how to think for oneself comes the ability to question. Through questioning, we can move toward change, as students and teachers together. When students and teachers question the status quo and our social reality, they become informed and mobilized.

Through teaching our students to think critically and to question, we also open the door for a discussion about power dynamics. When students and teachers question the power dynamics in place, the conversation can move toward dismantling those oppressive power structures.

Through critical thinking, we allow ourselves to challenge our assumptions, an idea that is critical to the “affirmation, solidarity, and critique” level of multicultural education support.

When we look at the idea that culture is not static or fixed, we open ourselves up to the ability to critique those systems in place. By critiquing fixed ideas of culture and history, we can move away from the perpetuation of a static, monocultural history of the conqueror and move toward multiculturalism. Multicultural education IS achievable, especially if we think of progress in terms of a continuum in which we can move ever closer to the ideal. Critique and critical thinking are the keys.

A Teacher’s Work is Never Done

The horizon is just a little further; keep going.

One of the most striking passages that I read from the Beyond Hero’s and Holiday’s, was the one that says “we must help people recognize that so long as some groups are excluded and alienated from educational and occupational opportunities, our world is precarious.” From what I can tell and predict, there will ALWAYS be some group somewhere, somehow that is excluded or alienated. Thus, our world will always be precarious.

This is an ongoing battle that will never end. We can try and try as hard as we can, but we will never achieve a perfect world that all people are treated equally. Because of this, I predict that even though some teachers will put up a huge effort to having a diverse curriculum, there will always be something somewhere with someone, that will not be quite right.

In this way, it is like chasing down the horizon. The horizon will always be  there and seemingly the same distance away despite your valiant efforts to get closer to it. But, keep chasing that rainbow because there really can be a student that is stronger and more included than they were yesterday because of you. Tomorrow, there will be another student that is alienated and another that you may reach on your journey to the horizon.

I am on that journey to the horizon.

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”

The group exercise associated with Beyond Heroes and Holidays text was a very productive and safe way to have a conversation about race and privilege that may have been difficult to structure otherwise. I appreciated the opportunity to have conversations on the topics of how race, class, and culture relate in the classroom. As teachers that are coming into the field from multiple walks and experiences we have to be cognizant of our own presence in the classroom as facilitators of discussions and the sharing of thoughts and experiences. The space and time allotted for these conversations plays a vital role in our ability to keep the conversations civil and on track while keeping the students on task. When we focus on multicultural education, the input from scholars and our peers can allow us to move beyond our own understanding and foster collaborative approaches to social justice.

The portion of the reading assigned to my group was the introduction piece and I really appreciated how well the different aspects of the book were summarized. The section that stood out the most for me was Our Education Philosophy. I really appreciate that the authors stated that “There is no formula for multicultural education from a critical standpoint…” I think that this speaks to the idea that as educators we need to be flexible in how we approach the subject or how multicultural knowledge is implemented. I really appreciate that the authors instead chose to share guidelines to help educators create a framework to guide the creation of lessons. The guidelines ask a series of questions such as:
-Does the lesson draw on the knowledge and experience of the students?
-Does the lesson help reveal the diversity and complexity of the issues and fields it addresses?
-Does the lesson use a variety of instructional methods to stimulate students’ multiple ways of learning and understanding?
-Does the lesson reinforce the idea that students have individual and collective agency and help to develop that agency?
-Does the lesson convey a politics of possibility and hope?

In addition to these questions, the authors also ask two additional questions that allow the focus to further deconstruct race and racism:
-Does the lesson challenge stereotypes and correct misinformation about peoples of color?
-Does the lesson expose the deep historical and institutional roots of racism and its devastating effects on both peoples of color and White people?

If we are able to employ this understanding in the classroom across all subjects then we may have a better chance in seeing a more equitable and empowered society in the generations to come. I think that by this method being modeled and utilized in the classroom, students will learn to ask the right questions and have the language to discuss issues of inequity.

“Justice is what love looks like in public.”-Dr. Cornel West

(image courtesy of

“Critical Optimism”

“Critical Optimism”

My small group discussed the Beyond Holidays and Heroes article, Educating for Critical Practice, by Margo Okazaw-rey in which Okazaw-rey describes a mandatory two semester course for social workers on racism, oppression and social work practice with people of color. Issues that stood out to our group were those of:

Macro Perspective, seeing racism at the Macro perspective: institutional, political, sociological and “big picture”. This approach counters the dominate ideological perspectives that these issues are individual or psychological issues, thus dismissing or covering up racism and other forms of oppression as an individual problem.

“Contract with America” – as a part of the course students were asked to reimagine and “build a truly egalitarian, economically and socially just society”. This proved very difficult and demonstrated our tendency to be reactive to, or constantly trying to negotiate a “contract with America”, instead of being proactive and creating new systems outside of the individualistic/capitalistic framework. Some may feel this is “pie in the sky” thinking, but articulating and creating new framework for society can only be done with critical optimism.

“Acknowledgement and awareness of racism is the ideology of White supremacy embedded in every institution in this country…” Margo Okazawy-rey doesn’t hold back and encourages others to call things what they are and talk about them from the micro to macro level so that we see, acknowledge and address attitudes, beliefs and actions which lead to policies of oppression. We talked in our group about not backing away or buttering over uncomfortable topics and having courageous conversations.

Opening and having honest dialogue leads to another topic our group discussed from the reading on building alliances. Bridging the gap between students and the classroom, or the classroom and the community.

Over all I really enjoyed the structure of our classroom review of the Beyond Holidays and Heroes and other texts. It helped us review a ton of reading in a one class period and gave us the opportunity to hear and learn from one another. I really appreciate that these classroom strategies are share with intention, building our tools of the trade. As a quiet person I both enjoyed and was stretched by “The Final Word” strategy. I appreciated the built in scaffolding, and safety, of being able to review the text on my own and then share with a small group with defined amounts of time (3:1) to both share and hear others responses before sharing with the whole group. The balance and built in ability to first listen then respond in “the last word” echoed the format of the Elders panel allowing all voices to be heard and acknowledged.