Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

Engaging Students in Meaningful Dialogue

by Alan Villarreal

I usually teach junior high English and history, but every year or two I like to step out of my comfort zone by teaching a high school class. I enjoy the high schoolers’ maturity and ability to deal with adult-level material, although they can sometimes be harder to win over, at least initially.

This year I am teaching a US history course on the American West,w02_RA524337which focuses primarily on the 1800s and how various peoples have seen the West as a land of dreams, sometimes despite hard truths and messy realities. Our main “text” has been the PBS documentary The West (1996), produced by Stephen Ives. This is a remarkable documentary, not only because it is visually stunning and provides an easily accessible narrative, but also because it focuses on many different perspectives and individual stories. On most days, we watch a segment or two of the documentary, the students write impressions or questions in their journals, and we have short discussions about what we’ve seen. In addition, I often add background information and have them read and analyze primary source documents, usually in small groups.

I planned and taught this class four years ago, and it went so well that I decided to repeat it this year. But as any teacher will tell you, every class has its own dynamics and develops its own identity, depending on the students who are “creating” it with you. Even the time of day and the room have their effects. This year, I haven’t had as many outgoing contributors to discussion, and so I have sometimes wondered how intellectually and emotionally engaged they have been with the material. And yet, something beautiful happened yesterday.

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Little Big Horn

During the previous class, we had finished watching Episode 6 of The West, which deals with the Indian Wars of the 1870s: the Battle of Little Big Horn; the forcible transportation of the Plains Indians to reservations, where they were dependent on unreliable government food rations and supplies; the flight of Lakota Chief Sitting Bull to Canada; and most moving of all, the story of the Nez Perce and Chief Joseph, one of the most memorable Indian leaders in history. For those who aren’t familiar with it, here is the story of the Nez Perc in a nutshell (Good Words).

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The entire history of Native American contact with Europeans is a tragedy, and the events described in Episode 6 are particularly hard to take. If you care about people and human rights, and you also want to love your country, watching this part of the documentary is a punch in the gut. How could a country that professes to believe that all men are created equal, and which had recently freed its slaves, treat Native Americans like less-than-human aliens in their own land, destined to be swept aside, penned up, and forgotten? I could see the gloom spreading among the students, and I was worried about their getting too depressed to see what an amazing story of human resilience this was and how Chief Joseph’s life also represented hope for reconciliation.

So I decided to begin the day by asking the students to recall the story of the Nez Perce, who after fighting well and leading the US Army on a wild goose chase across half of the West,

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The Nez Perce’s ill fated flight to Canada and Sitting Bull

were herded onto a train and sent to a bleak reservation in Oklahoma. I asked them to imagine what American citizens might have thought of these events if they had read about them in the newspaper. One student responded that the newspaper stories were probably biased, and so most people probably thought the Indians had gotten what they deserved. Another student said that he might have admired the way the Nez Perce fought, especially how they didn’t attack civilians or desecrate bodies, as other rebellious tribes had done. Then I asked them whether they thought some people might have felt that the Indians had been treated unjustly, reminding them that some Americans had joined Abolitionist groups prior to the Civil War because they thought slavery was immoral. A few people nodded their heads and said they could imagine that.

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The Nez Perce delegation in Washington

At this point, the entire class was awake and engaged. Next, I asked them to read a remarkable speech (IV) given by Chief Joseph in Washington, DC, two years after the Nez Perce had been defeated.

In the speech, Chief Joseph says that he cannot understand why so many promises have been broken, and why, despite meeting the President and hearing sympathetic words from various government officials, nothing was being done for his people. He says he knows that the Indians must change, but that they ask for nothing more than to be treated as men, and to be judged equally under the law. After reading the speech, the students went off to discuss the document in small groups, and then returned to their desks to write a short interpretation of its meaning and significance in their journals. Finally, they shared their interpretations out loud and we had a general discussion.

I was so impressed with the students’ thoughts. Here are a few of their responses:

“This makes me so angry! This is my country, and this makes me so angry! I mean, we weren’t there when this happened, but the US was acting just like a bully–this is our land, and you Indians better get off it or else.”

“Why haven’t we been taught about this? Why don’t people talk about this? We hear about the Civil War and slavery but not about this.”

“I was shocked by how Chief Joseph spoke about equality and equal treatment under the law. I thought that’s what the US stood for, but the Indians weren’t treated that way and he’s pointing that out.”

“Did this prick the Americans’ conscience? Was anything done after this?”

“What’s happening with American Indians today? Are they still living on reservations? [Yes, but conditions aren’t good.] Well, they can leave, right?”

There are good days and bad days as a teacher, but this was a good day. The true significance of these events was sinking in and having an impact on the students’ thinking. Tomorrow, we will watch more of The West and read a story entitled, “How Standing Bear Became a Person,” which is about the first time an Indian was recognized as having legal rights in 1879–ironically, the same year that Chief Joseph gave his speech.