Monday, July 27, 2020


In some circles I’m remembered as a “good teacher.”  This comes from how I started out in 1961.  There was a dissenter in 1989 because to her a good English teacher was someone who corrected everyone all the time.  They knew the right way and were mission-like in their zeal to teach everyone.  That echoed more recently off-rez in a white town where an English teacher was supposed to supply endless worksheets about usage.  I was so despised and lost there that I only lasted a few months.

The truth is that where I was “good” as a teacher was at listening.  I permitted anything, even “bad” language, and listened carefully.  If a question was honest, I answered it.  “What is Massengill powder?”  (Stuff to use for a female vaginal douche.  Not recommended by doctors.)  “What is an orgasm like?”  I told her it was like a sneeze.  Now a grandmother, she tells me it was years before she figured out what I meant, that it was an involuntary release and relief.  “Why do white people wear black at funerals?  If they really believe the person is going to heaven, they ought to be celebrating.”  Lots of “why do white people . . .” questions.

My method came from theatre.  I tried to “be” these kids though white teachers were blocked from their homes and the parts of their kid-lives they kept secret.  This is quite different from having a pattern in mind that one is trying to impose, call out, evoke, by whatever means necessary.  Teacher life is on paper and blackboards.  Student life is whispered words.  No relationship.

At Heart Butte I was required tp wrote a curriculum plan.  I’ve always been opposed to lockstep “grades” with prescribed levels and content.  In this case it was impossible because kids had failed grade 9, but then was enrolled in grade 10 until some were taking three levels of “English” without mastery of any because the earliest were presumed to be precursor access to the next one in line.

I fought this by assigning themes to each year: grizzlies, lovers, etc. and accenting the literature aspect instead of the constant hammering of conventional usage.  Not grammar, which is a way of achieving clarity, but the proper use of words that demonstrate conformity.  

In class I tried to enliven question and answer by using a thrown ball instead of a “talking stick” as in some circles: the person holding the ball/stick can talk.  Handing off or throwing gives the floor to the next person.  This stopped working because much of classroom action was “gamed,” that is, the interactions had only one purpose which was a kind of war between teacher and pupils, a competition to baffle and stymie.  Even good-natured versions not interrupted by excesses that meant punishment, were not helpful.

My other innovation was to write the curriculum in terms of four strands:  reading and writing plus listening and speaking.  The principal could not understand this.  In the first place he thought oral interaction was not worthy of teaching, had no content.  In the second place, he was trying to impose order by asking for what we had written as grade steps.  He could not understand individual levels of sequenced learning with everyone at their own level.

The bottom line was that textbooks and workbooks controlled everything because there was no way to do preparations that were unique, either teacher-generated or taught in an original way.  There was no time and it was before the Internet.  The name of education is CONFORMITY.  Truthfully, most people didn’t think there was any other way to do it.  I hardly knew myself and I hadn’t been back to teaching long enough to have an archive of my own.

Now that I do, I discover that no one wants it.  I’ll be interested to see whether the pandemic can jar people loose.  But I’m only distantly curious about what happens.  It’s their business, not mine.

When people create an identity, the beginning is the charmed circle in the infant is based on care — feeding, caressing, cleaning.  Then the boundary of that circle is expanded to the family and the immediate community.  In an ideal world, the circle would include education — even a school.   But on the reservation there is so much difference and there has been so much damage that the natural boundary has become a wall with an abyss on the outside, so there can be white crocodiles in it.  The kids won’t attack their teachers, but they will evade them, stonewall them, punk them.

But there must be ways in.  Forming student coalitions among kids who want to learn is one.  Persuading parents to understand might be helpful.  Cooperations of understanding among teachers, who by now include many who are tribal but not too assimilated to be an interpreter.  Administrators, also now often tribal, can make spaces.

An industry has grown up that markets teaching materials and discipline gimmicks to teachers and administrators.  Often they are ambitious tribal people but more likely they are white people who represent themselves as sort of a cross between anthropologists and missionaries.  They take several days to present lectures and experiences that are meant to be nearly magical in finding the key to happy schools on reservations.

One was about controlling classes by delaying their dismissal, counting seconds according to the seriousness of failure to obey.  The theory was that for the kids the most precious time was “passing” when they could talk, visit their lockers, and get to the rest room.  Therefore, denying them those seconds would pinch them.

Another was an anti-drug workshop to teach awareness, solidarity, and willingness to change.  It promoted itself as tribal in origin and the leaders were indeed Apache.  Tribal rivalry, disgust with the illustrations on the materials showing kids dizzy or goofy, and unfamiliar New Age gimmicks (everyone stands in a circle back-to-front and sits at the same time so everyone is sitting on everyone) were scary.

These marketers of fancy ideas were expensive, left after a couple of days, and then broke contact.  Their programs didn’t work.  But they look good to school boards.

I became a former teacher.

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