This past week, I sent my students outside to listen. With a pandemic shaping the ways teachers work with students this year, I’ve redrawn the curriculum to include an opening unit on nature writing in order to maximize our outdoor time this fall. The act of being outside and engaging with the world using all of one’s sense does not always come naturally to this generation of students, and so requiring twenty minutes of sitting and observing felt rather unnatural to many of them. The first instruction of the lesson: take up your composition book and leave your house. Of course, the assignment popped up for my at-home student on the morning of a downpour, so there were many observational comments about damp posteriors and a certain reluctance to complete the work in a timely manner.
Listening figures prominently in their observations. In many of my students’ backyards, the wind whistles and leaves rustle, birds tweet and rain patters. They are learning to be quiet and still, learning what it means to just notice without framing the experience in any particular way. We will draw a distinction between this journaling time and the later act of writing about nature, where the writer seeks to craft a message connecting these observations to the experience of living in nature as a human being. They are much more comfortable with the second half of this process. Several students, when asked to just record and share their observations, turned in multiple stanzas of rhyming poetry. Instead of a few penciled notes on acorn caps and clouds that race across the sun, I got “squirrel in a tree looking at me.” We have some unlearning to do, apparently.
In the middle of this assignment, as the poetry flowed in, I started to wonder why it was so challenging for some of my students to honor the process of observation. Why were some more comfortable producing what they thought to be a school-appropriate response to my prompt, shaping their observations into a format that might be academically impressive? This took me back to the ways in which we teach, including why teaching during a pandemic has become incredibly difficult for some teachers to wrap their heads and lessons around. Like the student searching for a poetic form that is comfortable for expressing what doesn’t yet feel “academic,” I have seen teachers seeking to recreate classroom routines that feel secure and familiar, attempting to virtualize a process that will maintain their status as the keeper of the knowledge and the creator of experiences that allow children to learn. However, just like the student focusing on a word rhyming with oak tree, teachers focusing on the form are missing an opportunity to start listening again.
Without providing yet another critique of the history of the educational system in our country, I will say that we are still holding on to the idea that teacher knows best. Doing work on decolonizing schools, in part, means challenging this assumption. The model of the teacher as the sole source of knowledge relies on the schooling of that teacher, both in terms of content and the process through which it was delivered. It’s not surprising that we teachers often return to the familiarity and comfort of the system that educated us to begin with, oftentimes without even knowing it. There are few places that nudge us to question how we ourselves were taught in schools, and fewer still are the rewards of bucking against a system that honors standardization and routinized paths to knowledge. Woven throughout our institutions of learning are stark reminders of colonized thinking, with a touch of industrial revolution thrown in for the masses. In systems like this, where do we find room for alternate voices? Standardization says we don’t really need to look. But if we want to change the way we educate in our society, we need more opportunities to sit outside the system and just observe, with direct instruction to try to leave our value sets behind in order to see them more clearly. Only after this type of intentional observation can we decide if these systems and ways of teaching are healthy for all of our youth, especially those who long to see their ways of thinking and being reflected in the classroom experience. I would argue that currently most alternate ways of thinking are not upheld inside the walls of our schools.
Part of my process in decolonizing my classroom is to take myself off the stage and rely heavily on the voices of others. I have long since given up any notion that I am an expert on anything more than how many sprays it takes to sanitize a student desk before the next pod arrives (it’s eight, by the way). What I do know is that there is an increasingly diverse collection of excellent resources out there to begin the process of decolonizing our teaching of the history of this country. When I began my journey into understanding the history of Native Americans of the Northeast in 2013, these resources were difficult for me to find. I struggled to create lessons that balanced the narrative between colonized and colonizer so that my middle school students could decipher this history. In the resources I could find, the Wampanoag voice was mostly missing. I relied on Plimoth/Patuxet, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Museum of the American Indian to provide content for lessons that would help other teachers with the foundational story of Thanksgiving. I worked away it, questioned and continue to question myself constantly, and often made mistakes.
Today, I call on the growing library of stories from around our county offered by Native American peoples who are sharing their experiences and knowledge in their own voices. The ongoing conference at Bridgewater State on Indigenous History is an excellent example of bold and straightforward conversations and knowledge sharing from which teachers can draw, not only for the content of their teaching, but for the ways in which lessons might be delivered. I plan to use the recently disseminated “Listening to Wampanoag Voices” from the Peabody Museum. I want my students to see not only that the past has meaning, but that Wampanoag people still live here, carrying on the over 12,000 year history of their people on this land. We have access to these dialogues in the beautiful and accessible places they are now offered. I often come back to the words of Thomas King: “But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now” (Thomas King. The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.) These stories are here. Shame on us if we do not teach with them.
The process of unlearning can be terrifying, to say the least. We are drawn to the familiar and infrequently asked to examine its import. But we are in a disruptive moment and the voices are swelling into chorus, ready to be heard. In this moment, the need to examine how we teach and what we teach presses in. Who is ready to listen?