Tag Archives: tommy orange

Representation

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

The Haudenosaunee Influence on the U. S. Constitution

Something I never really learned in school whenever I studied the United States government was the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) influence on the U. S. Constitution. In fact, I don’t think I learned about this until I was a high school English teacher, teaching American literature. I am fairly certain the Prentice-Hall textbook I was using had excerpts from the Iroquois Constitution in it. And that was my first exposure to the notion that the U. S. Constitution wasn’t born fully formed from the heads of our Founding Fathers, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

The [Haudenosaunee] constitution, also commemorated on Wampum (beads fashioned from the shells of whelks and quahog clams), included more than a few familiar concepts: a restriction on holding dual offices, processes to remove leaders within the confederacy, a bicameral legislature with procedures in place for passing laws, a delineation of power to declare war, and a creation of a balance of power between the Iroquois Confederacy and individual tribes, according to later transcriptions. Founding Fathers such as Benjamin Franklin were in regular contact with the Iroquois Confederacy, and Great Council leaders were invited to address the Continental Congress in 1776. (Wali)

You can read the Constitution here, along with commentary by Gerald Murphy, who remarks, “You will find it very difficult to keep in mind that it survives after some 500 or 600 years, and was originated by people that our ancestors mistakenly considered as ‘savages.'” PBS also has an article about how the Haudenosaunee Constitution influenced the U. S. Constitution.

We have even used the ideas of Native people against them. We really don’t learn enough about what our country’s founders thought about Native people or what their dealings with Native people were like.  Take, for example, the myth of the first Thanksgiving, which has become enshrined in our curricula for elementary school. I asked my students this year how many of them played the parts of Pilgrims and Indians in a school play. Most of them did. Most of them had learned the story that Native people helped the Pilgrims, and everyone was so friendly that they sat down for a meal together in commemoration of their gratitude.

I dressed up like an Indian for a play in fourth grade called How the West was Really Won. My grandmother made my costume, and I remember going barefoot because of my lack of education about Native people. The costume was made out some kind of felt, but it was meant to look like animal hide and had fringe meant to mimic Native dress (read: a White person’s notion of Native dress). In fact, it didn’t look too different from this outfit, which you can purchase for $19.99 from Party City.

Can someone please explain to me why it’s okay to dress up like this in 2020? This is so racist.

In the play, I had a solo in a song called “The Iron Horse,” and the lyrics were essentially about how the White man was coming to destroy the Native way of life. None of this was seen as problematic.

The United States has perpetrated a genocide against Native people. The erasure is compounded by the fact that we do not bother to teach the truth about Native people and Native history in our schools. I highly recommend Rebecca Nagle’s podcast This Land, which is available in a variety of formats linked on their website. Also, David Treuer’s book The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present (reviewed on my other blog) and Tommy Orange’s There ThereThere are so many amazing passages, but this metaphor for systemic racism stands out in light of the subject of this post.

This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff. Then someone from up on the yacht says, “It’s too bad those people down there are lazy, and not as smart and able as we are up here, we who have built these strong, large, stylish boats ourselves, we who float the seven seas like kings.” And then someone else on board says something like, “But your father gave you this yacht, and these are his servants who brought the hors d’oeuvres.” At which point that person gets tossed overboard by a group of hired thugs who’d been hired by the father who owned the yacht, hired for the express purpose of removing any and all agitators on the yacht to keep them from making unnecessary waves, or even referencing the father or the yacht itself. Meanwhile, the man thrown overboard begs for his life, and the people on the small inflatable rafts can’t get to him soon enough, or they don’t even try, and the yacht’s speed and weight cause an undertow. Then in whispers, while the agitator gets sucked under the yacht, private agreements are made, precautions are measured out, and everyone quietly agrees to keep on quietly agreeing to the implied rule of law and to not think about what just happened. Soon, the father, who put these things in place, is only spoken of in the form of lore, stories told to children at night, under the stars, at which point there are suddenly several fathers, noble, wise forefathers. And the boat sails on unfettered.

I do not think the fact that people are toppling statues of Columbus at the same time as Confederate Monuments are coming down is happenstance or coincidence. Both are symbols of White supremacy and the erasure of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). It is our responsibility to uncover whose voices we are missing in our education and listen to those voices.

In one of the most stunning passages of Yaa Gyasi’s phenomenal novel Homegoing, her character Yaw, a teacher, says the following to his class:

So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©

NCTE 2019 Reflection

One of the best things that my undergraduate professors did for me was to emphasize the importance of joining professional organizations and going to professional conferences. I haven’t always been supported in going to the annual NCTE Convention—my previous school often gave me little to no money and required that I use personal days. My present school supports my professional growth through fully funding my attendance at this conference. As a result, I have been able to go every year since 2014. Prior to that time, I think I went maybe three times.

This year, I made a concerted effort to build in time to reflect. I usually push myself too hard to do too many things at this conference because I want to pack in as much learning as I can. This year, I prioritized sessions and essentialized time in the Exhibit Hall to one author signing (I tried for two, but I didn’t make the line cutoff). It’s a place I generally try to avoid.

I was going to try to wait for George Takei to sign my copy of They Called Us Enemy after his keynote, but in order to make that happen, I had to purchase a wristband. I already had a copy of the book. I understand some kind of gatekeeping needed to be done when a celebrity of George Takei’s caliber attends this conference, but that was frustrating nonetheless. Still, he signed it the next day in the Exhibit Hall, and I was fortunate to get in line before they cut it off at, I think, 100 people. I finished his graphic memoir on the plane and was determined to put it in my Social Justice course curriculum, which I shared with him. He said to me, “We’re partners, you and I.”

Dana and George Takei

As a Star Trek fan since I was a teenager, meeting Mr. Takei was a real highlight for me. He was very gracious. If you haven’t read his graphic memoir, check it out. It’s a wonderful book. He has a beautiful autograph, too.

George Takei Signature

Another real highlight for me was hearing Tommy Orange’s keynote and having an opportunity to meet him. I am teaching his phenomenal novel There There in my Social Justice course. I told him I would be teaching it, and Mr. Orange said, “Thank you for teaching it.”

Tommy Orange

His keynote was critical listening for all English teachers. One statement that resonated with me was “I don’t think I was ever handed a book because a teacher thought I would connect to it.” That is a stunning rebuke, and something all literacy educators should address. How many students like Tommy Orange are sitting in our classrooms, never seeing themselves in books?

The wonderful #DisruptTexts folks Julia Torres, Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, and Lorena Germán shared this graphic in their session. (Click to see a larger version.)

Diversity in Children's Books

It would be more remarkable, given the statistics shared here, if Tommy Orange had been given a book that his teachers thought he would connect to, and that is injustice. Tommy Orange also shared that “We’re so steeped in white male authors, it’s a really exciting time to be thinking about other books to teach in English classes.” It is, indeed, and English teachers should be thinking about it. If you are not sure how, I recommend checking out the resources on Twitter shared at #DisruptTexts, #THEBOOKCHAT, and #TeachLivingPoets. We need to be the generation of teachers that changes this outcome for students. We are fighting issues in the publishing industry, for sure, but students need to feel they can connect to the texts we use in our classrooms.

Tommy Orange Book Inscription

I presented with Sarah Westbrook from the Right Question Institute and Lauren Carlton from Foxborough, MA on the Question Formulation Technique (QFT).  Our presentation was a workshop session, and in order to attend, participants needed to purchase an additional ticket. I believe that participants walked away with some great techniques they could bring directly into their classrooms. I was excited to see we had a cross-section of teachers at all levels because the QFT works for all grade levels, and sometimes I feel that NCTE can be fairly focused on secondary education. This suits me fine as I am in that target range, but elementary teachers might find it more difficult to find sessions that are pitched at the elementary level, and while no conference can be all things to all people, we should work to be more inclusive of ELA teachers at all levels. Resources from our session are available here. I believe that participants walked away with ideas they could implement in their classrooms as soon as they returned. QFT is a great technique, and the Right Question folks are happy to share their resources for free on their website.

One recommendation I have for folks attending for the first time is to think strategically about which sessions to attend. I tried to focus on sessions that would help me address gaps in my curriculum or that would help me develop my Social Justice course. The sessions I attended that I found most helpful:

  • Becoming Readers: Reading to Renew, Repurpose, and Resist. Carol Jago, Robin Bates, Glenda Funk, Carl Rosin, and Jennifer Fletcher presented. Carol Jago said, “We’ve lost sense of what we want students to be… readers.” The presenters graciously shared their slide deck. I wish this practice were more common. I understand people’s fears that their work will be co-opted, and yes, presenters are taking a risk when they share their work at conferences that people will simply steal their ideas. I understand but at the same time, it is much easier to focus and take away the learning if I know I do not need to scramble to take photos of slides at the same time as I am taking notes.
  • High School Matters: #DisruptTexts. The presenters were Tricia Ebarvia, Kim Parker, Julia Torres, and Lorena Germán. This was a high-energy session that included a mix of #DisruptTexts’ philosophy and author discussion. I don’t know why, but I didn’t take down the names of all the authors. I usually take much better notes than that. However, I did jot down some book recommendations. I’m definitely picking up This Book is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was already on my radar; I have started reading Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and plan to pick up How to Be an Antiracist. I am really grateful to the #DisruptTexts crew. I know I am teaching better because of what I have learned from them.
  • Words from a Bear: The Importance of Native American Literature and Documentary Filmmaking as Inquiry-Based Storytelling. I don’t think a lot of folks realized Tommy Orange was presenting with Kristina Kirtley and Jerry Palmer in a session after his keynote. His name was not in the print program, but it was in the online version. I was interested in this session as part of a unit in my Social Justice course, and I was not disappointed. Jerry Palmer created a film about N. Scott Momaday. One topic that came up when Tommy Orange spoke was the blood quantum. I had heard him mention in interviews before that his son cannot enroll in as a member of the Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribes because of the blood quantum requirement. Orange explained that he avoided mentioning the blood quantum in There There, but said “it’s so the government can track when we run out” because “it’s tied to funding.” I don’t have any words. Jerry Palmer added that “it’s an assimilation policy.” Palmer’s film could make a great addition to my curriculum. I am hoping to figure out a way to view it over the break. By the way, Dr. Debbie Reese is a great resource for those who are looking for indigenous literature at all levels from picture books on up.
  • Creating Queer-Affirming Literacy Classrooms with Teaching Tolerance. Cody Miller and Christina Noyes presented this session. Teaching Tolerance has such great resources, and this presentation was engaging and helpful. I honestly wonder sometimes how many teachers who identify as allies attend these sessions. It has been my experience over the years that allies really need to step it up in terms of affirming LGBTQIA+ youth in our schools and making sure they have “mirrors” in the curriculum (see the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).
  • A Sense of Belonging: What Ethnography Offers about Ourselves and Others. Josh Thompson and Katherine Lynde presented on a classroom project involving ethnography. As an action researcher, I have done some ethnography myself, and it is a natural for my Social Justice class. I really liked the interactive nature of this session. I felt like Thompson and Lynde did a great job walking us through how to do this work (and demonstrated how they did it). Resources like Humans of New York were an inspiration for their project, but if you are interested in this kind of work, be sure to check out Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi.
  • Reading as an Act of Resistance. Sonja Cherry-Paul, Julia Torres, Samira Ahmed, Zetta Elliott, and Ibi Zoboi presented in this session, and it was incredible. Truly. There was a wonderful mix of music, poetry, activism. I took so many notes in this session. It was a can’t-miss session for sure. Empowering students as readers is critically important. This was quite a thought-provoking session with which to end the conference.

I was finishing up a lot of graduate school writing after the conference, hence the weeks between the conference and this reflection. Honestly, this conference has become so important for me not just because of the intense learning, but also because I have an opportunity to see friends I interact with regularly on Twitter but only see once a year. I also had another chance to hear Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo read their poetry. I had on my Counting Descent shirt, which made Elizabeth Acevedo laugh.

Clint Smith and Elizabeth Acevedo

They are both excellent poets, and they belong in your classroom if they aren’t already. Smith read some of his new poetry about being a father. I’m not sure if Acevedo remembered me from the NEATE conference, but she was really kind when I mentioned it.

The first thing I did when I got to my hotel was walk over to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and who did I run into there but Susan Barber, who exclaimed something to the effect of “We’re such nerds!” I hope Susan doesn’t mind if I share the selfie she took documenting our geekiness. She has already shared it on Twitter. By the way, it was really windy. This hair has nothing to do with being in the presence of Poe.

Susan and Dana

Next year, the conference is in my home town—or close. Aurora, where I grew up (and was born) is a suburb of Denver. I hope to see you all there. I’m thinking about proposal ideas.