Sovereignty is a word that a lot of adults would struggle to define, and to make it relevant and accessible to a kindergartener or a first grader is important. It’s really just about power and control, so you can make it relevant by talking about body sovereignty—control over one’s own body. The concept of federalism, as another example, is really just about sharing. It's about sharing, and it's about power.
I'm a secondary educator, so I can't claim to be that kind of masterful teacher who can take these concepts and make them relevant to young learners. But I've seen it happen time and again. I'll be in a professional development session, like David, talking to teachers. For example, I'll be talking about the ratification debate and explaining how I might teach it to my middle or high school students. Then the elementary-level teachers break into small groups, and five minutes later, they have these brilliant ideas for making these complex, dry, abstract concepts truly relevant and accessible to young learners.
GS: Do you feel that a topic as important as this, Indigenous Peoples' Day, may not get the exposure that it needs to get in light of what's going on in our country?
EH: I guarantee you that it won't. It's a shame, and this is true for so many social studies topics. As a parent of an elementary school student, I'm just assuming that I'm her social studies teacher this year. She has a magnificent teacher who is masterfully conducting 100% virtual learning with her class. But it’s all literacy and math. I can’t begrudge them—they're doing everything they can to make up for lost instructional time. So, I tell my friends, I tell anyone I encounter, "If you have elementary school children, assume you are their social studies teacher." And whether it's teaching about Indigenous Peoples' Day, whether it's teaching about the Centennial of the 19th Amendment, or the census, or the presidential election, it's going to have to be taught in the home. There's going to be so much less instructional time for social studies, particularly for those younger grades.
DO: What I always tell educators is that this content shouldn't just be included in one day of the year, or in a one-to-two-week unit. I would encourage them to integrate it or infuse it throughout their curriculum at different parts of the year. So, using National Native American Heritage Month as an example, or Indigenous Peoples' Day—it should be extended beyond those days or the month. This content should be part of your curriculum, where you're having these conversations about how Native people impacted this state. For example, it’s just as important to have these conversations in March or May, just as it is on Indigenous Peoples' Day, or November with Native American Heritage Month.
MMB: As a museum educator and particularly at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the Native American story is told every day and in a variety of formats that inform a broad range of our audiences. For example, this school year we introduced a new virtual program for students, Youth in Action: Conversations About Our Future. Offered monthly, this program engages young Native activists and changemakers from across the Western Hemisphere working toward equity and social justice for Indigenous peoples. This Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the topic of discussion is “Mascots, Monuments, and Memorialization.” Students who participate in this webinar will hear from young Native activists who are propelling this conversation forward and addressing the tension between history, memory, and the current movements happening across America. These discussions encourage students and educators to explore these issues across subject areas and throughout the year.
GS: Do you have any other recommendations for ways to bring relevance to your classroom?
EH: I would say that teaching any sort of current controversial topic is a best practice. Bring those topics in! That said, I would hesitate to encourage anyone to frame the topics as debates. Debate assumes two opposing sides where the goal is not to come to a shared understanding but to win. Then if you have students in the classroom who are Indigenous Americans, it could easily become offensive and feel like an attack on their identity and on their personhood, especially if someone's arguing the side of honoring Columbus Day. Be careful there. But look at the reasons why it was federally enacted. If nothing else, this is such a brilliant lesson in federalism. Now I hope that teachers will try to learn more about America's history and present day.
I should say personally, I would rather honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but if you read about why they wanted to celebrate Columbus Day, there's actually some really beautiful reasons in there about celebrating our country's diversity and immigrant culture. It really wasn't about honoring Columbus. But they named it Columbus Day, and so it sure does sound like that. And here we are today going, why are we celebrating this person? If you know the true history, this is problematic. I'm always going to go back to authentic inquiry. I'm always going to go back to classroom discussion, probably not debate on this one.
DO: Very well said, Emma. But just to add to what you said, one of the things that I always talk about with our colleagues in the state is what you just said right there, is both those perspectives. And how to have an honest dialogue with each other about what those perspectives mean, or where they come from. Like I said, the debate piece—some folks go for that route. That's not my style either. Mine is to lay out different perspectives for folks to make that choice of what they firmly believe in or will be exploring.
A lot of times in schools, what I always see—or try to have our teachers shy away from—is that a lot of times they have a firm belief that maybe teaching about foods, festivities, heroes, and holidays is the way to go. My response is, “Okay, we'll start there then” but expand to include teaching culturally. And when I say teaching culturally, they become a guide with their students, meaning that they are learning along the way with them.
Having a clear understanding about teaching about cultures versus teaching culturally is critical, especially in this day and age. That goes hand-in-hand with our equity work that we should be doing with our students every single day, which is very important work.
MMB: The goal that I wish to see happen in the classroom is that educators are provided with the tools and skills to tell the “whole American story” through multiple perspectives that are inclusive and respectful of other cultures. That allows students to know who they are, how they are connected to others, and how the world is shaped by this.
GS: I just can't thank you both enough. I feel like what I tend to see, or hear, or worry about is teachers’ level of uncomfortableness with teaching controversies, or areas in which they don't personally feel a sense of expertise. And I think conversations such as this, remind us to say, “It's not about the teachers’ comfort level, but it's about the student comfort level.” Thank you so much, David. And thank you, Emma and Maria.
DO: In Ojibwe, we don’t have a word or a way to say “goodbye.” As we say, “giga-waabamin minawaa,” which means, “I’ll see you again” or “I’ll see you soon.” It has been shared with me. We don't have a word for goodbye because goodbye is forever.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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