Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Okay, so you’re a Native American kid sitting in the gymnasium in Poplar, Montana, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation wondering who’s mad about what now, because there’s no assembly geek doing a set-up on the floor and that’s the only other explanation. You’re happy to be out of class where you never get what’s going on anyway. The new principal takes the mike and begins to read out names. When your name is called, you’re supposed to go out on the floor even though it will scuff up the basketball surface, a big no-no. She calls YOUR name! wtf. When you get out there, she begins to berate you all for flunking!

What do you do? Walk out? Lead the group on a march around and around the gym, chanting: “Don’t you dare! You don’t care! Watch us glare!” Or just freeze. You just freeze. Then you go home, depressed, eventually tell the tale, and the fun begins.

The old mission school mentality is not dead yet. Quite aside from the issue of whether the priests molested kids or the nuns beat the kids, some schools have never given up the idea of being a sort of reformatory intent on making conforming citizens out of rural kids who have lives of their own. Actually, it’s the basic assumption of a lot of publicly governed education these days: that the purpose of school is to meet government standards, a check list enforced by exams that are keyed to the money, honey. (Assembly lines mean profits.) Ironically, one way to escape is into charter schools, often religiously based, but the kind of religion that values enlightenment, individual dignity, and personal growth. Even more ironically, the children who go to the charter schools belong to the families with those values, which means they don’t NEED to be pushed, confined, graded by the government. If they can’t learn from school, they have other ways. They WANT to know things, do things, acquire real skill.

A “mission” sort of school at its best puts the point of focus up on a wall somewhere (a major fad a few years ago) and then aims for it. At its best this “mission statement” gets everyone on the same page and is an advantage. But it ought to be generated from within, not imposed from outside. Creating curriculum by state or federal legislation doesn’t work. Segregated schools, we are told, in spite of Supreme Court intervention are now back to being segregated again.

But if you take the kid as your point of focus, you come all UNfocused because there are as many goals as there are kids. Phil Ward, my first superintendent (1961-66) used to say that his father (also a rez teacher/superintendent) said a teacher needs as many methods of teaching as there are kids in the room, plus an extra spare just in case. I did my student teaching at Evanston Township High School in 1960-61, then considered one of the best schools in the nation. The idea was to provide space to learn. We thought the content was obvious.

I taught dramatics and my supervisor shared his heartbreak that the best actress we had was black and therefore would never find a place in the theatre. HA! I don’t know where that young woman went, but there are places for blacks everywhere now. Not enough, but there. That supervisor was gay and closeted. Today there would be less need to hide his relationships. The point is that times change. Times change. (More, more, more !!!) School has the least to do with it. Public schools are always conservative forces trying to preserve the past. Charter schools can either be throwbacks or the point of the arrow, piercing into the future. As though anyone really knows what the future will be. We can’t even agree about the past. So why isn’t multiplicity good?

I subscribe to a blog called “Moving at the Speed of Creativity,http://www.speedofcreativity.org/ which is about using computers in the classroom. It’s pretty lively, esp. when the eight-year-olds get hold of a videocam. Today’s post was a reaction to the new buzz movie “Waiting for Superman.” It won’t get to Valier until it’s on DVD because we don’t have a movie house, but I gather that it’s about charter schools. Wes Fryer’s review is lengthy and worthy. His bottom line is “This is a movie we need to watch as citizens, and discuss as taxpayers.” Which is just a polite way of saying “wtf are we doing with our money and our lives and our children anyway???”

He says, “One of the biggest FUNDAMENTAL [his emphasis] ideas the movie "gets wrong" is the idea that education is no more than filling a pail. Paulo Freire and John Dewey are likely rolling over in their graves in response to the animation included about halfway through the film, where the producers literally show a teacher "pouring" metaphorical knowledge into the heads of students.” I suspect this is indeed the FUNDAMENTAL [my emphasis] problem of both the Poplar school and the nation. If filling a head with facts is all that education is about, then we don’t need schools. Computers can do it better.

We’re missing several basic things. One is that a school is a community that includes even the people at home with no kids and an administrator or teacher who doesn’t know or participate in the community is crippled. A reservation is a community under constant pressure both from outside and from within. When the community is struggling with poverty and crime, the school will try to be an oasis, a way to tomorrow, but it can’t make much headway unless the community does the same. The kids, not knowing where punishment will come from next, simply freeze. The parents look around for someone least attached to the community and tie the tin can onto the tail of the dog that’s leaving town in a hail of stones.

The Browning Public Schools and Heart Butte Public Schools are more and more taught and supervised by members of their own home-grown community. But meanwhile some charter schools manage to quietly succeed. It’s a both/and deal. This is a place with room to do both.

Father Ed Kohler in Browning has just been given the Lumen Christi Award award of $25,000 for his work in founding and supporting the De La Salle School with the help of the Christian Brothers. Mary DesRosier, M.D. and enrolled Blackfeet, just won the George Saari Humanitarian Award for her work with WWAMI, a collaboration of Northwest states to prepare students for medical school. The newspaper reporter used the cliche of “first in her family to be a college graduate” which was soon refuted by a DesRosier who supplied a list of all the other college grads. One of them teaches at De La Salle. Others have been closely involved in the Piegan Institute’s “Cuts Wood” Blackfeet Immersion School, becoming new Blackfeet speakers. When I ask the successful kids I taught fifty years ago what their secret was, they always say: “There was someone who took time for me and believed in me.”

Kid suicide is a major problem on reservations. Gripped in the vice of high expectations and low support, they choose the ultimate “freeze” with an eternal wait. Father Ed once mourned that he came here to spark spiritual renewal but all he did was bury young people. But he’s wrong. He DID spark the renewal. Things change. Communities change and that means schools change. If they’re smart -- and why wouldn’t they be smart? After all, the Montana superintendent of schools is an enrolled Blackfeet.

1 comment:

Wesley Fryer said...


Thanks so much for letting me know about your post. I've subscribed to your blog in my Google Reader, it sounds like you have some interesting and important perspectives to share on education from a reservation school in Montana.

I've been involved in an oral history project the past 3 years in Oklahoma, and I'm thinking some of the stories our participants have documented would be of interest to you. Check out "Life in Oklahoma Indian Boarding Schools" which was created by Nancy Robbins this past June. I would love to empower more storytelling like this. These are experiences and issues which many people (not just kids) have not learned about in school or elsewhere. My work with Storychasers involves empowering others to record and share stories like these.

As a suggestion, when you are commenting on another person's blog and want them to visit yours, there are a couple ways to do this besides copying and pasting the entire text of your post as a comment. You can link to their original post, and that sends a "trackback" to that post which the original author as well as others can follow to your blog. You can also write a shorter comment, but then indicate you have more feedback on your post and provide the link.

Thanks again for reading and commenting. Your paraphrase of my language was quite accurate. :-)