This semester I’m teaching Multiethnic American Literature and this last month or so we have been reading authors like Gloria Anzaldúa, who opens the first chapter of Borderlands/La frontera talking about the Aztecas del norte, who compose the largest single tribe or nation of Anishinabeg; Robin Wall Kimmerer, who braids together her Indigenous knowledge as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation together with her knowledge as a biologist and mother; Zitkála-Šá, who was a Yankton Dakota writer, violinist, and activist; Natalie Diaz, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Mojave American poet; and Layli Long Soldier, who is an Oglala Lakota poet and activist.
This has been such a wonderful, beautiful immersion into the most dazzling, loving, and moving literature from a collection of authors I deeply admire, and it has been gratifying to observe students as they light up with recognition, joy, and burning questions while talking about these authors and texts. There are a few activities I coordinated to structure our classroom discussions that I am aching to do again.
What About Your Schooling Has Made You Feel Like You Don’t Belong?
When we got to Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, I opened our conversation about “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” with a brief entry ticket: I handed out flashcards and asked students to put their names at the top, then write down a brief answer to a low-stakes question, “What makes you feel like you belong?” I had asked them this on the first day of class as a way to establish a learning community in which all of us feel like we belong, but now, in early November, it was worth revisiting this question as an entry point to talking about this chapter. We wove around the room as students read their responses to the question aloud for the class. It was a brief but important activity because it gave every student an opportunity to use their voice, to add something to the conversation, and to feel that their contributions and participation are valued. This is an inventory activity that solicits 100% or “total participation.” It immediately democratizes a discussion, which is why I use entry tickets so often.
We turned to the text and students commented on moments of belonging throughout the chapter, noting customs, unspoken laws of hospitality, the freedoms of a childhood spent in nature, and the deep bond between the young Zitkála-Šá and her mother.
Then, we turned to the next chapter, “The School Days of an Indian Girl,” which recounts the horrific, traumatic scenes from Zitkála-Šá’s schooling at Indiana Manual Labor Institute, a boarding school where she was strapped to a chair and sheared by a teacher hell bent on cutting her long hair, and other abusive violations of her personhood and identity. I told students that nothing we have been through can compare to the horrible treatment and abuse of American Indian children in these boarding schools (many of which had mass graves next to them). Yet we can look to and critically analyze our own educational narratives, as Matt Brim and Jessica Murray encourage us to do, to gain a better understanding of how the American education system–or, as I like to call it, “industrialized education”–strips us of our individualism and white-washes our multiethnic and intersectional identities.
So I asked students to return to their flashcards and write down a response to this question: “What about your schooling has made you feel like you don’t belong?” After pencils went down, the room erupted in conversation. Several students spoke about Catholic school, other private schools, charter schools, and a number of abuses, including forced declarations of allegiance to causes they rebelled against. This brought up elements of an earlier conversation we had had about Kimmerer’s “Allegiance to Gratitude,” a chapter in Braiding Sweetgrass that I highly recommend teaching as a prompt to interrogate the requirement that small public school children recite the pledge of allegiance before they even know to what or whom they are pledging. After many contributions (no small feat for an 8am class!), we decided together as a class to continue reading more Zitkála-Šá. Her American Indian Stories always resonate with students but this was the first time any of them had come up to me after class to thank me for the day’s discussion. Many of them work with small children, are studying to become teachers, or are parents of tiny humans with a vested interest in the U.S. public education system. It was an exciting class for me as well because it gave me an opportunity to talk a bit more about the research I had done for my book, The New College Classroom, coauthored with Cathy N. Davidson, a titan in progressive education and expert on its industrialized history. If you have the opportunity to teach Zitkála-Šá, I highly recommend using these two prompts (and our first chapter of The New College Classroom would give you some quick grounding in the disturbing, racist, sexist, classist history of higher education).
When we read Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, I asked students to pick 5 poems from the collection to read and annotate. In class, I gave each of them two popsicle sticks (representing two turns to speak). Starting with the first, titular poem, I asked, “Who chose this poem?” Each person who had chosen that poem handed up a popsicle stick as they relayed their questions, ideas, and reflections, lines or specific words that moved, delighted, and surprised them. The popsicle sticks help to democratize the conversation: each person gets two turns to speak, to share the lines or words they circled or underlined a why (sometimes the answer was simply, “because I like them” or “because it’s so beautiful” or “because she made me laugh”). They also helped me–they are easy to see on each student’s desk because they are so bright and colorful–to make sure our class discussed at least two of the poems that each student chose to read and annotate.
The popsicle stick method works in many other classroom scenarios to help make students aware of how much they are talking (for those who like to talk), and to help shy students remember that there is room for them to contribute, that others are holding space in the conversation just for them. We write about this method in The New College Classroom as a great tool for governing an antiracist and democratic classroom discussion. I originally got this idea from what I had learned in my graduate-level Women’s and Gender Studies seminars about early feminist movements: women used popsicle sticks (or something comparable) to lead more inclusive discussions. Knowing from every women’s leadership institute I’ve ever attended that women tend to talk less when cis men are present, and tend to turn their bodies to address cis men in conversation more often than they will turn their bodies toward other women, I could see the benefits to bringing this historical feminist discussion management tool into the college classroom. And it works! Students have told me that this method makes it easier for them to participate, and shy students have told me that because of the popsicle sticks, they have surprised themselves with how much they are participating verbally in class discussion.
A tip for teaching Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: before we read her poems, we read and talked about Audre Lorde’s essay, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” from Sister Outsider, mainly focusing on love (Eros) as a feeling of satisfaction that leads to demanding satisfaction in other areas of one’s life. This helped students to gain a deeper understanding of how love works in Diaz’s love poems as a political act of warfare–love, and claiming the thrill of it, the dripping pleasure of female sexuality and queer sex, as activism. Even her poems that are not about queer love in the collection, “Blood-Light” for example, could also be about this. This poem draws a lot of metaphors from scorpions, who glow in UV light. In the daylight, the eye doesn’t see that (sort of the way that sexuality isn’t really visible–at least that is how I often feel as a bisexual person, and bisexual erasure is a persistent theme in bisexual discourse). Most students also don’t know this factoid about scorpions (the way they “didn’t know” or “couldn’t have known” some things about someone’s identity that aren’t visible). So this poem is a really great entry point to larger discussions about race, sexuality, passing, and the like.
Oh, and of course we googled glowing scorpions for a chunk of class. I recommend that too!