Teaching Tommy Orange’s There There: Part One

Tommy Orange discusses Native writers, his process, and his book There There

Is it just me, or is February the busiest time of the year? I’ve been meaning to start this blog series on teaching Tommy Orange’s phenomenal novel There There for a long while, but trying to carve out the time to write the blog posts has been challenging.

I teach this novel as part of a unit on Native Voices—Native literature and history—in a cross-curricular elective for seniors at my school. This elective is technically titled What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History. I team-teach the class with my wonderful colleague James, who is a history teacher.  It’s a year-long course, and students decide whether to take the class for an English credit or a history credit. Over the last three years that we’ve offered the course, the numbers of students earning English credits as compared to history credits have been roughly even, so James and I divide the students in those roughly even groups when we are assessing their work—I assess the work of students in the English section, and James assesses the work of students in the history section. Of course, both of us conduct formative assessments on students through discussions, conversations, and the like in class, and we both facilitate discussion. We plan our lessons together, meeting at least once a week during one of our planning blocks. At some point, I should share more about that course on my blog, but I think that context is enough to understand our approach to teaching There There

Because of the special cross-curricular nature of this class, some of the lessons I will describe may need to be adapted for your purposes. However, I might argue that it’s important to share the historical and contemporary context of the novel, even if your students are not taking a cross-curricular class, and when I teach other novels that require this kind of contextualization, I teach the history or contemporary events (see, for example, my resources for teaching Homegoing).

This year, James and I decided to start the unit with something interactive: a role play. There are two great options available from the great educators at Rethinking Schools. One lesson in their book Rethinking Columbus involves putting Columbus and his men on trial. We have a colleague who likes to use this lesson when teaching US History, which I inadvertently discovered the first time I taught There There and some of the students informed me they’d already done this role play. Truthfully, one part of the role play is problematic, and students pointed it out as well: we shouldn’t hold the Taínos responsible, and it shouldn’t even be on the table to contemplate that they might hold any responsibility for their own genocide. The role play invites students to consider that the Taínos themselves might be responsible for their genocide.

James and I decided instead to use Ursula Wolfe-Rocca’s role play on the Dakota Access Pipeline (Ursula is a great follow on Twitter!). This lesson is perfect for our class’s focus on social justice because it asks students to consider what is the right course of action—what’s the right thing to do? We use Michael Sandel’s text Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do, particularly his framework on thinking about justice decisions through a consideration of competing interests of welfare, freedom, and virtue. Asking students to take on roles and consider these competing interests in connection with the DAPL was a perfect way to start our unit (thank you, Ursula!). Everything you need to engage in this lesson is provided at the link I shared and also at the Zinn Ed Project (note: you’ll need to create a free account and login to access the downloadable materials). Our students found the lesson really engaging, and it turned out to be an even better way to start the unit than the Columbus role play because it exposed our students to a present concern most of them didn’t know much about. To quote Tommy Orange in the novel’s Interlude, “we’ve been fighting for decades to be recognized as a present-tense people, modern and relevant, alive.” Learning about an issue that impacts modern indigenous people was a perfect way to start engaging with Tommy Orange’s novel. 

James and I ask our students to do a great deal of reflection. We invited students to contemplate what they would have decided had they not been assigned a role. In other words, would they have built the pipeline or not? Most of the students felt they wouldn’t have built it, but a few saw economic advantages, and it seems as though they were swayed by the arguments they had to take on as part of their role. We had an interesting discussion.

The next class period, we started with a land acknowledgment. If you’re not familiar with the concept, a land acknowledgment is simply a statement acknowledging that the place where you are gathering is Native land. You might find this resource on land acknowledgments helpful. You can use this resource to find out whose land you’re on. It’s important to mention that land acknowledgments should not be an empty gesture. Debbie Reese, an enrolled member of the Nambé Pueblo, has a great blog post on land acknowledgments. Our school happens to be located on the land of the Nipmuc people, and I shared with students the name of their current chief, who lives in Worcester, as well as the fact that they named the area where we live Quinsigamond, a name they’re familiar with as it lives on the name of several local places, including a lake famous for crew racing and a community college. The Nipmuc Nation is recognized by Massachusetts, but not by the federal government.

After the land acknowledgment, I share a Nipmuc creation story with students (embedded in the slide deck below). If you do something similar, I highly encourage you to find a story from the people whose land you are on.  We discussed the ways the story is similar to other creation stories they have heard. I explained that many indigenous people refer to North America or even the whole of planet Earth as “Turtle Island” and that the turtle features in many indigenous origin stories.

We use a lesson from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) that quizzes students on their prior knowledge about Native peoples. Unfortunately, in the renaming of their website and subsequent moving around of tools and ideas, I’m not able to find the quiz. However, I created a Pear Deck slide deck (that allows for interactive quizzes) based on the questions in the quiz. The answers to the questions are in the Notes sections of slides, and you can make a copy of the presentation embedded below by clicking this link.


After engaging in this important work of grounding our unit in the place our school calls home, we learn about Tommy Orange. I will share my slide deck for the unit in a future post, but here is the biographical slide.

We shared the video embedded below as a way to introduce students to Tommy Orange. He reads a brief excerpt from the Prologue to There There in this video.

PBS News Hour interview with Tommy Orange

In the next post, I’ll discuss how James and I teach the Prologue to There There, which packs an emotional punch and introduces students to history they may not have learned before.