This November Expose Your Students to New Perspectives on the Native American Experience

With November just around the corner, Americans are preparing to celebrate not only Thanksgiving but also National American Indian Heritage Month.

For educators, this is the perfect time to explore new perspectives on the history of indigenous peoples in the U.S., as well as to discover the history never heard.  One way to do that is to get students thinking critically about what they don’t know — and why they don’t know it.

Of course, students know some things about American Indians. At a young age, they probably learned about wigwams, teepees and other culturally obsolete trappings of early “Indian” society. And all of us were taught about the first Thanksgiving – how the Pilgrims dressed and the “friendly Indians” brought corn to this peaceful gathering of fellowship and gratitude.

But then most of us found out, at some point in our adult life, that the Thanksgiving story was highly mythologized, and that the real history of indigenous people in the U.S. was marked by removal, slaughter, and forced assimilation.

So why don’t we teach that in school? That disconnect between what we teach and what we ignore provides a golden opportunity to expand students’ understanding of the true, historical Native American experience.

Wondering how to spark this discussion in your classroom? Here are some creative ideas:

  • Start simply by asking students what they’ve been taught about American Indians — their history, their culture, perhaps even their role in the traditional Thanksgiving story. Depending on what you hear, you may want to probe further into their knowledge of Native American genocide.
  • Next, try exposing them to true stories from the Native American perspective. One you might consider: “The Spirit Survives“ by First Nations storyteller Dovie Thomason.   It’s a personal account (available in audio and text) of her family’s painful experience in the Indian boarding schools,to which many American Indian children were taken by force, away from their families, to be assimilated into white culture. Dovie’s story and the associated lesson plan, available free and printable by clicking, exposes students to historical events that aren’t taught in most schools. It also touches on themes of cultural identity, inclusion and exclusion, and the power of forced education to oppress people.
  • After the introduction of this new perspective, you can encourage students to think critically about what they haven’t been taught. Get them talking with these questions:
      • What did you learn from this story that you didn’t know about the history of indigenous people in the U.S.?
      • Why do you think you never learned this in school?
      • Why do we need to explore this neglected part of history?
      • Why bring up stories that are painful or hard to listen to? What good does that do?

Whether you simply engage in classroom discussion or facilitate small-group presentations, exercises like this enable your students to explore more fully the history and experience of Native Americans.  And as we prepare for Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, lessons such as this will help students consider who’s been missing from the “American table” and how they can literally and metaphorically make a difference.

Download this lesson plan

Being Mexican-American : Caught Between Two Worlds–Nepantla

  smOlga_Lesson_Page_01by Latina Storyteller Olga Loya

In these warm and engaging story-excerpts professional Storyteller Olga Loya relates some of her life-story and her attempts to reconcile the two worlds and realities of ‘American’ and ‘Mexican American’. Audio-segments, story-text and classroom activities will engage students in exploring what it means be fluent in more than one culture at a time. The unit assists teachers to move beyond the Mexican-American experience to anyone who has been caught between two worlds and two identities. Use this unit to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month or to practice storytelling skills and to probe issues of difference and belonging.

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Storyteller Olga Loya tells of her experience growing up Mexican American in Los Angeles, trying to choose between the Latino and Anglo cultures, and realizing that she might belong to even more than two cultures and that perhaps there was a way to live with all of them.

This is a perfect lesson plan to use with students while talking about immigration, issues of being bicultural, or about how to use personal stories to address an issue.

A great lesson especially for Language Arts and Social Studies classrooms!

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Lesson Plan

Download the Nepantla: Between Worlds lesson plan (PDF)

Story Excerpts

The following MP3 tracks are story excerpts for use with the Nepantla: Between Worlds lesson plan. Please note that these excerpts are protected by copyright and are exclusively for educational use.

Story Excerpt #1 — Nepantla: Between Worlds2:35 minutes

Story Excerpt #2 — Spanish is Dangerous2:14 minutes

Story Excerpt #3 — Grandma Talk2:28 minutes

Story Excerpt #4 — Why Do You Want to Go to College? 3:26 minutes

Story Excerpt #5 — But You Don’t Look Mexican3:45 minutes

Story Excerpt #6 — What Does a Mexican Look Like?2:47 minutes

Story Excerpt #7 — My Own Rhythms – 1:41 minutes

Story Excerpt #8 — Mezcla: The Best of Both — 1:22 minutes

Story Excerpt #9 — Bridge Between Worlds — 1:46 minutes

(Need help to download the MP3 Story Excerpts? Click here for directions.)

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About Olga Loya

Storyteller Olga Loya was captivated by the vivid stories her Mexican grandmother and father would tll. Absorbing all of their secrets and following the tendrils of memory that bind people and families, Olga fashioned and invented herself, out of her own substance and imagination, a stirring universe of creation. Growing up in a up in the barrio of East L.A. where family rituals and traditions were the center of her emotional life, the young Latina, performing improvisation as a girl, has mastered the vocabulary of artful storytelling. With her poetic eloquence Olga’s stories are an impassioned quest to keep alive not only the fabric of her family but the larger Latino culture, richly robed in folktales, ancient myths, and history.