Beyond Thanksgiving: Indigenous Books Anytime

A minute ago, it was summer. Now, the leaves have all blown away, the garden has been put to bed, the sun only works part-time, and the snow dared to arrive in my part of the world. We are eyeball deep in the season of assessments, report cards, and parent-teacher conferences. We are all exhausted. But we have a break in sight. Despite Christmas commercials insisting we should have been shopping since the beginning of October, it’s Thanksgiving’s turn next.

 

The Thanksgivings of my youth were spent at Nana’s and Papa’s house in Indiana, family and friends crowded around folding tables, eating the turkey Dad carved with Papa and the noodle kugel Nana made for every gathering. Before the long road trip there, we celebrated and did activities at school: paper hand turkeys, coloring pages of cornucopias and Pilgrims and “Indians”, writing about what we were thankful for, and once, a feast that included venison stew made from the meat of a deer my teacher had hunted.

 

As I have grown more aware of how simplified, inaccurate, and white-washed my school experience was of Thanksgiving, I will work to do better as I teach this generation of children. We will not color stereotypical portraits of Native people. We will not teach that the Pilgrims and Native people lived in harmony or in an equitable symbiotic relationship. We will not talk and read about the Wampanoag or any Native peoples ONLY for a day or two…on the contrary, we will continue to talk and read about indigenous people in ways that challenge biased perspectives of history, invites critical conversations of Native peoples’ experiences, and centers them accurately in their own stories. We will be inclusive of Native voices in our read alouds, our classroom libraries, and our shared reading.

 

November is officially Native American Heritage Month. Much like Black History Month, and other recognized cultural spotlights, they were created to draw awareness and attention, as well as, to make space for celebration and recognition. These designated months are a tremendous opportunity to educate ourselves and others about cultures, ethnicities, and identities that deserve our time and undivided attention, and intended to encourage awareness and education all year long. But they can be a double-edged sword.

 

A highlighted month does not permit us to relegate diversity to a determined frame of time, a curricular unit, or as a means of comforting the majority. If as educators, we save stories by and about Native people only for November, if we don’t include representation outside of the month, then we guarantee that they will always be “othered”. What happens when Native children see books by and about indigenous people disappear from their educational experience after Thanksgiving? They disappear, too. However, if those same children hear books read aloud and find books in their classroom and school libraries by Joseph Bruchac, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Tim Tingle, Monique Gray Smith, Julie Flett, and more, they find their stories and people. They find their mirrors, their representation. Representational literature effectively communicates to its readers that they are worthy, their stories are real, and who they are is valuable and whole. For the many children in our classes who are non-native, these books serve as windows, glimpses into another’s experience, a way to grow education and empathy towards those different from ourselves.

 

This November, if you are making a point to read books about America’s first people, ensure you are sharing culturally accurate, truly representational texts, and elevating #OwnVoices texts created by Native authors and illustrators. Then, be sure to read, share, and shelve them throughout the year. Make that promise to yourself and your students that the stories and experiences of indigenous people are valid and normal any time of the year. Buy some for your classroom or get them from the library. Your library doesn’t stock it? Ask them to purchase it for circulation. Research, reach out, and read. Here’s a picture book resource list from Cynthia Leitich Smith and few of my recent favorites to get you started. Images and descriptions courtesy of Goodreads.com.

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Picture Book: “A look at modern Native American life as told by a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.”

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Picture Book: “…encourages children to show love and support for each other and to consider each other’s well-being in their everyday actions.”

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Picture Book: “Go on a Mission to Space with Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, as he shares his flight on the space shuttle Endeavor and his thirteen-day mission to the International Space Station.”

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Picture Book: “Nimoshom loved to drive the school bus. Every day, on the way to and from school, he had something to say. Sometimes, he told the kids silly stories. Sometimes, he taught the kids a new word in Cree.”

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Picture Book: “Set in the Okanagon, BC, a First Nations family goes on an outing to forage for herbs and mushrooms. Grandmother passes down her knowledge of plant life to her young grandchildren.”

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Picture Book: “Circles are all around us. We just have to look for them. Sometimes they exist in the most unusual places.”

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Picture Book: “When Uncle and Windy Girl and Itchy Boy attend a powwow, Windy watches the dancers and listens to the singers. She eats tasty food and joins family and friends around the campfire. Later, Windy falls asleep under the stars. Now Uncle’s stories inspire other visions in her head: a bowwow powwow, where all the dancers are dogs.”

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Picture Book: “As a young Navajo boy, Chester Nez had to leave the reservation and attend boarding school, where he was taught that his native language and culture were useless. But Chester refused to give up his heritage. Years later, during World War II, Chester—and other Navajo men like him—was recruited by the US Marines to use the Navajo language to create an unbreakable military code. Suddenly the language he had been told to forget was needed to fight a war.”

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Middle Grade Picture Book: “When eight-year-old Irene is removed from her First Nations family to live in a residential school she is confused, frightened, and terribly homesick. She tries to remember who she is and where she came from, despite the efforts of the nuns who are in charge at the school and who tell her that she is not to use her own name but instead use the number they have assigned to her.”

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Young Adult: “#NotYourPrincess presents an eclectic collection of poems, essays, interviews, and art that combine to express the experience of being a Native woman.”

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Young Adult: “thoughtful story of a Native teen navigating the complicated, confusing waters of high school – and first love.”

 

We Teach The Girls

We teach the girls.

We teach the girls
with braids in their hair
curls down their backs
and perfect pigtails

Purple hair
shaved skulls
and frizzy ponytails.

We teach the girls who wear
flouncy skirts
glittery tees
and fuzzy big boots

Basketball jerseys
hand-me-down shirts
and baggy blue jeans

We teach the girls who love
double-dutch
dancing
ponies
and princesses

Football
skateboarding
dinosaurs
and superheroes

We teach the girls who color with
pink
purple
and sky blue

Black
orange
and royal blue

We teach the girls who dream to be
ballerinas
actresses
and fashion designers

Firefighters
engineers
and monster truck drivers

We teach the girls who feel
shy
introverted
and unseen

Confident
bold
and strong

We teach the girls with
scrapes on their knees
paper cuts on their fingers
and sore texting thumbs

Wounds on their wrists
bruises on their back
and pain in their bellies

We teach the girls who have been told
what it means to be a girl
as if sugar and spice
and everything nice
could define it

We teach the girls who have been told
they need pink Legos to build castles
they throw like a girl
they must greet relatives with a kiss
that dressed up means wearing a dress
that cute is more important than curious
that sentences should always be qualified with “I’m sorry…”
be nice
be polite
wait your turn
stop being bossy
you’re emotional
you’re sensitive
you’re inferior
you’re less than
you’re not worthy

That people exist only in binary systems
female, male
rich, poor
straight, gay
black, white
missing the millions of shades of gray, and brown, in between

To wear shirts that read
“Allergic to Algebra”
“Future Trophy Wife”
“I’m Too Pretty To Do Homework”
(Can a girl get an empowering message or stegosaurus shirt, please?!)

We teach the girls who have been told
love is conditional
affection is earned
it’s probably their fault
“No” is a fluid term
their body is not their own
not to tell…

We teach the girls. All of the girls.
We have the opportunity to teach the girls to
demand apologies like Serena
reclaim their time like Maxine
speak out like Malala
sit down like Rosa
stand up like Gloria
play like Billie Jean
organize like Fannie Lou
face challenges like Helen
influence like Oprah
write like Maya
speak like Emma
create like Coco
express like Beyonce
lead like Indira
tell their truth like Christine

We teach the girls
and we teach the boys, too

They all need to know that girls are
complex
capable
powerful
and more than worthy

Because someday
soon,
even now,
the girls will teach us.

 

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A Teacher’s Promise

          “Ms. Laverne said every day we should ask ourselves, ‘If the worst thing in the world happened, would I help protect someone else? Would I let myself be a harbor for someone who needs it?’ Then she said, ‘I want each of you to say to the other: I will harbor you.’
          I will harbor you.”
Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson (p. 34)

My students, this is my promise to you…

I will harbor you

I will welcome you to
our school
our classroom
our space

I will teach you
to multiply
          your kindnesses
to write
          your story
to read
          your world

I will show you
how to crawl inside the pages of a book
          so you can stand outside of yourself
how to raise your voice
          by lowering one sharp pencil to paper
how to be brave
          without a cape or armor

I will ask you to
think deeply
reflect thoughtfully
question boldly

I will listen to you
when you speak confidently
when you whisper timidly
when you say nothing at all

I will see you
in beaming rays of sunshine
under heavy gray clouds
between the silent stars

I will be honest with you
that good people can do bad things
that life is full of unfairness
that grown-ups think making war will lead to peace

I will challenge you
to seek a million answers
          but ask a billion questions
to be intolerant of injustice
          relentless in reform
          persistent in peace
to understand that every day is an opportunity
          to be a friend
          to learn something new
          to be an agent of change

I will comfort you
when wicked words sting
when reliable routines change
when the world tumbles off its axis

I will help you
ride out the storm
stand your ground
find your balance
find your calm
find your home

I will guide you as you
navigate the waves
hoist the sails
dock your ship

I will harbor you.

I will harbor
you.

This poem, this promise, was inspired by award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel, Harbor Me, published August 2018.

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Some Summers

The summers of my childhood were filled with
Hawaiian Punch popsicles and
Lemonade stands
Polka-dot ruffle-butt swimsuits
Leaping through sprinklers
Inflatable kiddie pools filled with icy water from the green garden hose
Sundresses and pigtails
Scraped knees and
Care Bear bandages
Watching Mom’s soap opera
Digging in the garden with Dad
Petting worms
Itchy grass
Potato bugs
Tree climbing
Hill rolling
Bike riding
Roller skates and jump ropes
Singing on the back stoop
Sidewalk chalk dust up to my elbows
YMCA Day camp
Girl Scout equestrian camp
JCC Jewish camp
Neighborhood block parties
Burgers on the grill
The ice cream man. THE ICE CREAM MAN!
Wiffle ball with the big red Mickey Mouse bat
Sweltering Brewers baseball games
Frigid put-your-sweatshirt-on-in-the-house air conditioning
Road trips to see
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans

My summers felt endless.
I felt carefree, creative, busy.
I couldn’t wait for summer to begin.

As teachers, we quickly learn that many of our students do not look forward to summer at all, the way some of us did as children. While some miss the companionship of their classmates, daily routines, and their teachers, others know that summer brings uncertainty, anxiety, disruption, and instability.

Their summers feel endless.
They feel anxious, bored, overloaded.
They can’t wait for summer to end.

Some children, anticipating change, need extra hugs, reassurances, and positive mindset coaching.

But for those who dread summer because they do not know where their daily meals will come from, cannot afford summer camp, return to respite care as foster children, worry for their safety, lack books in their home or a library within walking distance…these months away from the insulation of schools only raise anxiety instead of inducing relaxation.

These are the children who have started to cling. To worry. To whine. To act out. To cry. To argue. To resist. To build walls. To withdraw. They push away so the leaving doesn’t feel so hard. They fall apart because their million separate pieces feel safer at school than their whole, anywhere else.

Notice them now. Acknowledge them now. Help them with how to move on. Tell them that it may not feel like it, but summer will eventually come to an end. Show them that they will always be in your thoughts.

Send them into their summers with hope.
Love them now.

Spend your time now until the last day of school to
Read more aloud in class
Build summer TBR (to be read) lists
Check out classroom library books for students to take home and return next year
Teach families how to keep summer reading love burning
Talk about the value of a library card
Connect with your kids on Goodreads
Embark on literacy passion projects and studio time to pursue writing ideas
Give students the gift of their very own book (Scholastic Reading Club $1 books!)
Share your school or personal email so your kids can reach out over the summer
Decorate new Writer’s Notebooks: blank, fresh, and full of possibility
Build idea jars with writing prompts, thoughts, and inspirations to take home
Remind students that a good book can take them to
Mountains
Deserts
Canyons
Parks
Prairies
Oceans
And beyond, in their minds, in case they want to go somewhere, but need to stay here at home for the summer.

On the last day of school, they will leave your care, and know that they were, and are, loved.

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A Fraction of You

Dear Students,

For the past few weeks, we have asked you to sit in silence, sometimes for hours at a time. Your little bodies wiggle and squirm as you are asked to read and comprehend text without an opportunity to activate your background knowledge. Your fingers stretch to type letters, words, sentences, paragraphs with eloquence and confidence, though you are still just learning how to type. Your curious minds have quieted. Because we need quiet. Voices off. No talking. Shhhhh. Quiet. Quiet. Quiet. Because we are taking

THE test.

We tell you, “It is very important!”
But what we mean to say is “It doesn’t mean everything.”
Because we really believe that “The important things happen when we’re learning.”

They will measure you on your measurement skills.
They will ask you about elapsed time as you peek at the clock wondering how much time until recess.
They will challenge you to explain a character’s emotions, even though I saw tears roll down your cheeks when you finished your book this morning.
They will evaluate whether or not you know what fraction of the candy bar Jennifer ate.

Fractions.

The test will only measure a fraction of who you are and what you know. The test reflects your thinking on one day, in one shot. The test doesn’t know, and will never know, you.

But I know you.

I know you are kind.
(You invite friends to play with you at recess.)

I know you are thoughtful.
(You hold the door open for each of your classmates.)

I know you are brave.
(You shared the rough draft of your writing for all to hear yesterday.)

I know you are patient.
(You wait your turn for my help with your questions.)

I know you are creative.
(You built a two-story castle out of cardboard and duct tape.)

I know you are empathetic.
(You hug your classmate and tell him you know how it feels when a pet dies.)

I know you are growing.
(You call yourself a reader…for the first time ever.)

I know you
write fan fiction
break boards in tae kwon do
speak three languages
play piano with your stepmom
compete as an Irish dancer
co-design your fresh cuts with your barber
collect supplies for animals at the Humane Society.

I also know that
you didn’t get breakfast this morning
mom worked the late shift again
your baby brother kept you up all night with his cries
anxiety makes your heart beat fast
you haven’t seen dad since he’s been incarcerated
anger often disrupts all of your calm
you worry about doing well on

THE test.

You, my friends, are complex and curious creatures. There are no rulers or scales or numbers or tests that exist that can calculate YOU. You are fierce and free-spirited. Inquisitive and introverted. Witty and wonderful.

How lucky I am that I know you, to know more parts of your whole than any multiple choice assessment ever will.

When we finish the test, and get back to the joy of learning, just remember, that this test is a fraction of your time to measure a fraction of you.

I cannot wait to get back to learning, exploring, and creating with you.
All ten-tenths of you.
Because these cardboard castles aren’t going to build themselves.

Love,
Mrs. Werner
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We Don’t Know…Yet

Adults:
Quiet down
And listen

The kids
Have something
To teach
Us
Today

A few years ago, I invited a friend of mine, who was working as a local television meteorologist, to do a weather presentation for our third graders. He talked about thunderstorms and rainbows, and even did that awesome tornado-in-a-bottle trick to teach them about a twister’s rotating winds. At the end of his presentation, he opened it up for a Q&A. Kids asked questions about his job, and more questions about tornadoes. Then he called on a student who happened to be one of the most brilliantly gifted children anyone on my team had ever taught. Using vocabulary I didn’t even know, she proceeded to ask a complex question about positively and negatively charged lightning.

Needless to say, our weatherman was stunned, the teachers shot the “this-kid-is-smarter-than-I’ll-ever-be” look at each other, and the students sat waiting to know if the expert knew the answer. After a moment of shocked silence, he was able to answer her question, but later shared with me that it made him sweat!

Now, he is an expert in this field. Adept in math, science, and technology, he was well-equipped to respond, even if he didn’t expect such a high level question from an 8 year old.

We, as educators, especially elementary educators who teach across curricular areas, are experts in our field, but I will be the first to admit that my students stump me regularly. And you don’t have to be a child genius to be able to do that to teachers. I don’t always have the answers.

Early in my teaching career, when I was asked a question, I remember scrambling to compose coherent responses, because I was the teacher. Wasn’t I supposed to know and have the answers? I have learned a lot in my journey as an educator, but one of the most valuable realizations was this:

My job as an educator is not to have all the answers. My job as an educator is not to demand that students have all the answers either. My job as an educator is to teach students that questions are worth asking, how to ask questions, and how to seek answers through critical thinking and problem solving.

The most powerfully honest words you can speak to a child who has asked a question you don’t know the answer to are “I don’t know…yet.”

Modeling what it looks like to not know yet, and then sharing how to seek knowledge and understanding is what we are ultimately hoping to teach our children in their pursuit of lifelong learning.

And sometimes, our students come to us, with a bounty of expertise and background knowledge on subjects we have barely dabbled in. If we insist on being the “sage on the stage”, only our experiences and range of knowledge is shared and blessed. But if we create student-centered environments in which learners have opportunities to be teachers, and teachers become learners, we communicate to children that they are worthy and capable of being heard and acknowledged. They see that even teachers are always in the midst of a learning process.

No one has proved that more than the brave teenagers of Parkland, Florida who have demanded “never again”. They have taught their peers, and young ones looking up, but especially adults, that they will not be defined by others’ generational marks of criticism: they are addicted to their phones, lazy, and have no attention span. Instead, they started a movement. They leveraged their social media skills to garner international attention for gun reform, organizing a nationwide walkout just a week ago to honor the victims and to make visible their voices. They changed laws. They are unrelenting. Grassroots planning, conducting interviews, giving speeches, organizing a march in the nation’s capital. Every single day since that tragedy, they have been active and vocal. They wondered what could be done to ensure this never happens again, and they have been seeking the answers since then.

No adult told them to initiate this movement. It is of their own creation. Circumstances demanded that the kids become the teachers this time, and if we are wise, we will support and sustain them, because this time, this time, the adults need to listen.

Being the expert in the room doesn’t mean we have all the answers. It means we are experts in teaching children that learning is wondering, thinking, and following their inquiries. We should be expert enough to know that it also means descending from the stage and taking a seat to listen to our next generation of wonderers, thinkers, and doers. What will they learn, accomplish, invent, change, and solve?

We don’t know…yet.

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Not One More

I am your child’s teacher.

I do not need

your thoughts and prayers

speeches about school shootings that do not once mention guns

a government that makes it easier for mentally ill individuals to purchase guns

congresspeople who place lobbyists’ wishes above those of their constituents

gun laws that ban assault weapons lapsing


another day of setting curriculum aside to address my students’ fears and questions

hashtag activism

to see one more child posting or tweeting about their slain classmates and family

to be told that today is not the day to talk about this

to look around my classroom, deciding which pieces of furniture make the best barricades and self-defense weapons

to train children how not to die at school

the solution to be that American teachers should now be armed.

We never have enough money to stock school libraries, retain full-time guidance counselors, buy supplies for art teachers, and update technology, but somehow we’re flush with the finances to buy every teacher in America a gun? I teach math, and that doesn’t add up.

I am your child’s teacher.

You want to arm me?

Arm me with books.
Arm me with winter coats.
Arm me with healthy lunches.
Arm me with a social-emotional curriculum.
Arm me with full-time support staff.
Arm me with time.

Because my arms were meant to
Hug children
Carry books
Paint watercolors
Create writing
Turn pages
Capture thinking
Open doors

They were not meant to
pull children into hiding
make bookshelves into barricades
soundlessly signal for silence
shield students from bullets

But, because
I am your child’s teacher
I would.

I am your child’s teacher.

And I am now required to
think
about
that.
Life and death…because I want to teach kids.

I am your child’s teacher.

I need you.

I need you to care enough about children to hold accountable those who refuse to act and who ignore the fact that we are the only economically advanced country where this happens REGULARLY.

Because thoughts and prayers do not stop bullets.

Because I’m tired of going to work every day wondering if today will be the day I’ll need to shelter my children in silence to survive.

Because schools should be the safest places in our communities.

Because every time this happens, shoulders are shrugged, and complicit helplessness thrives and asks us to accept this as normal.

This is not normal.

Take your thoughts and prayers and turn them into votes and action.

Thoughts and prayers vocalize our pain.
Votes and action catalyze our change.

Not one more school.
Not one more child.
Not one more.

Enough.

This post adapts and expands upon an original post I shared on my personal social media accounts the day after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in which 17 people, most of them children, were killed.

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