Sunday, December 21, 2014

Ambassadors from Indian Country in Post-Ferguson America

I've spent a little time thinking about how and why Ferguson didn't seem to affect my students. They hardly recognized the name Michael Brown, and they didn't outwardly express many thoughts about what happened after the non-indictment. Given the demographics in Montana, perhaps this isn't surprising.

So when I saw all those tweets and blogs about how to talk to my students about race in a post-Ferguson classroom, I initially scrolled right on by.

Today I had a moment of clarity. I live and teach on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Montana is a state where the multicultural initiative called Indian Education for All is required by law, where all students are to be taught about Montana's first people in culturally responsive ways, where schools are encouraged to make partnerships with local tribes, and where Montana's commitment to preserving the distinct and unique heritage of our American Indian populations is encoded into our state constitution.

Yet despite the 42 years of this constitutional mandate and the 10 years of funded professional development and materials for IEFA, these are some of the ignorant things my students still hear when they leave their home for sporting events, visits to historical sites, or even shopping in our nearest small city:

How come you guys get money from the government?
You shouldn't be able to hunt all year round.
Do you all live in tepees and ride horses everywhere?
Go back to the rez!
Okay, chief…
And worst: Hey, prairie nigger!

You read that right.

Even here at home some of the very same ignorance is evident. There are signs at the boundaries of some nonIndians' property (erected by those property owners) proclaiming "You are now leaving the Flathead Indian Reservation: All Constitutional Rights Restored." Others complain about the hunting rules for tribal members, and there has been a long, very contentious negotiation of a water rights in which ranchers (primarily nonIndian) have been haggling with others over water provisions.

Ten Ambassadors talk to sixth graders at an elementary school in Missoula.

With all this treatment ranging from misinformation to malice in mind, I created a club this year called the Reservation Ambassadors. We are a large group of both Indian and nonIndian students, boys and girls, grades 9-12, committed to changing hearts and minds of other young people through building relationships with them. We believe that creating relationships will help dispel stereotypes because once you know people personally, it's harder to categorize and dismiss them. We work with small groups of students either face to face or through Skype, discussing things like stereotypes and misconceptions and answering lots of questions.

Some Ambassadors talk with kids in Chicago via Skype.

Abby Yocum helps a group of 8th graders in Kalispell understand the tribal constitution.

Ambassadors teamed up with 9th graders in Kalispell to discuss stereotypes in a story we all read.

This club is not that much fun. It's not exciting like pep club; it's not feel-good like National Honor Society; it's not creative like FCCLA. Students often have to read things like the tribal constitution or a short story before going to a school. They miss lunches to discuss tomorrow's plans. Often we have long bus rides and sometimes they don't get back in time for sports practice or work.

But this club, and these kids, are making a difference. Students and teachers we've met have expressed that they didn't know what to think about reservations, but now they have positive impressions. They feel like they're learning things, and that's what we're all about.

In 10 weeks our club has worked with six different off-reservation schools and spoken to over 230 students in grades 6-12. In nearly every case, another teacher or sometimes an administrator has stopped in to witness what we're doing. In nearly every case, the host teacher has asked us to come back or suggested an exchange where her students could come to the reservation. I think this is one of the most exciting parts of the partnerships: the potential for further relationship-building.

When we visited the Tribal Council last week, I could not have been more proud of my two student speakers. They expressed the importance of the club, why they joined and what they've done. They were praised by the council members for their maturity and commitment, and I could not agree more.

Senior Zach Felsman (far right) and freshman Laurencia Starblanket speak to Council members about our club.

Now when I hear about Ferguson and see suggestions of what could be done in classrooms to help prevent such outcomes in the future, I will think about the part the Reservation Ambassadors are playing in helping make our state a better community.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


I love blogs. Teachers should blog, and I read a lot of great edublogs like Edushyster and Curmudgucation and ParentingTheCore. But I haven't been blogging much lately. I've been busy. What has been consuming my extra non-teacher time?

Mostly, it's twitter. I have been all about the twitter in the past couple of months. I want to tell you why.

First, for someone with the attention span of a sparrow, twitter is the best method of interacting with the world outside my living room. There is only so much facebook scrolling one can do, but reading the twitter feed, trying different search options, and finally reading blogs with the intention of tweeting them out is extremely satisfying both mentally and professionally. Plus I can keep my pajamas on.

Twitter, according to its teacher advocates, is one of the best sources of professional development available. You can follow people you like, participate in twitter chats, conduct searches of topics that interest you as an educator. You can publicize your ideas or your creations. You can promote your own students' work.

What do I do? All of that. I participate in the Sunday night #ECET2 chat (8 pm EST), the Tuesday night Montana Ed Chat #MTedchat (8 pm MST) and the Breakfast Club chat at 5:30 every morning (#BFC530). Through those, I joined voxer, a walkie-talkie style app on my phone where I get to listen and participate as we extend the #BFC530 topic. I also joined a book club on voxer; we are reading and discussing Thanks for the Feedback.

Do I sound a little sick? Well, consider this: twitter is so beneficial, I decided, that I initiated Twitter Jedi Training Week in my district. I started by asking everyone in the district to respond to a quick survey about whether they are on twitter or not, and are they interested in learning more. After that I set up a week of activities complete with prizes for participation. One day I had trainees participate in a scavenger hunt. Another day they set up an account and submitted their handle. I used a google form for each one of these participation calls.

Another day I showed them the power of the hashtag search; in advance, I sent out a call on twitter for people to welcome my Jedi Trainees from #arlee - so when my district participants searched #arlee they found an enormous collection of welcome messages from the twitterverse. It was awesome. See some of the responses here.

Thanks for reading this overdue blog about twitter. I'm just going to tie things up here, get another cup of coffee, edit and add links and images.

And then - pretend like you didn't see this coming - I'll tweet it out.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hey You! Go Make Some Change Happen!

What are you waiting for?

I mean you. You, Kindergarten teacher who's got your hands full with five-year-old needs and their sweet charms. You, elementary P.E. teacher whose jump-ropes keep going missing. You, eighth-grade science teacher who's got a love for biology you want so much to transmit.

You've all got wants, needs, and complaints about how things are. Maybe you dislike your schedule. Maybe your administrator is unresponsive. Maybe you oppose testing. Maybe you want to promote positivity amongst your staff but you don't know how.

Guess what? None of these challenges are going away by themselves. NONE OF THEM. Just like in your real life (the other, non-teaching one) there are parameters but mostly your happiness is up to you. You have to make the changes you wish to see in the world.


I take my own advice to heart. I've been super inspired this year to do some of this in my own world (the teaching one). Let me share. First of all, I've been tweeting into the Breakfast Club daily twitter chat; it meets at 5:30 am and the hashtag is #BFC530 if you are so inclined to join. It gets me going EVERY MORNING.

One of the ideas I got during #BFC530 one day was to create a shout-out board. I made it with a twitter theme - here's a pic after just a few hours. Two weeks later, the board was filled with shout-outs.

First tweet ever in Salish? 

Another idea I conceived was the Reservation Ambassadors club, a club dedicated to building relationships with off-reservation schools in order to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes. The first meeting of this club drew 25% of the high school population. We quickly got moving to make connections with teachers and their classes. The photos below show our kids in action, working with these schools from different areas. We've based our work on shared videos and texts. When we can't get to a school due to distance, we skype!
Our master planning board!

Skyping with New Trier school in Chicago

Working directly with 6th graders at Target Range Elementary in Missoula

Guess what? I hate useless furniture and wasted classroom space! A long-time desire of mine to change my classroom is finally coming to fruition as I commission the shop class to demolish my counter (made possible by removal of desktop computers, made possible by adoption of chromebooks by the district). Moved the whiteboards, painted the wall, putting up bulletin boards...oh yeah! It's a work in progress. My final move will be to replace the desks with round tables, lamps and power strips.
Before, during, and ... after is coming!

I'm also not satisfied with my certifications. I want to be the BEST teacher I can be! So I've embarked on the journey to National Board Certification, which everyone says has made them more reflective and purposeful. I'm relying on my NBCT colleagues to push me along.

I can't do any of this alone - notice how all of the above require support from others? Yep, I try to remember that at all times. However, nobody but me initiated any of this. That's because I have the desire to do it...and who knows what else I'll decide to change in the coming years?

So: take some time right now to think about one thing you want to change. One thing you can change. One way to make your life better. One way to improve your world... and go do it.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Bringing It Back Home

We teachers love to attend good conferences. We swap ideas, weigh down our suitcases with free stuff from the vendors, and let's be honest: it's all about the local food. We get to say to our colleagues for years afterward, "Isn't this a cool lesson? I learned it at that conference in Philly!"

I just attended a conference in New Orleans without teaching workshops. Without vendors. Without poster presentations. And this was the most inspiring conference I've ever attended.There was singing and dancing at this conference - yes, I participated. There was a parade - yes, I participated. There were problem-solving, colleague circles, cage-busting, high-fives and shout-outs. Yes, I participated!  I did not want it to end. I looked for my colleagues on the plane. I sought them out on twitter with our hashtag (#ecet2nola). I've continued to interact with them since via facebook and voxer.

So here it is: ECET2 New Orleans. ECET2 stands for Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers and the entire convening - that's what we call it, not a conference - was wholly focused on this task. Funded by the Gates Foundation, it elevated and celebrated our work every day. The staff and organizers did this. Dr. Irvin Scott, the Deputy Director for Effective Teaching, did this with daily calls to convene (and sing, and dance!) The attendees picked that ball right up and did it when we supported each other through colleague circles.

Sound hokey? Yeah, in the way an old-fashioned revival is hokey. Yeah, in the way a wedding is hokey. Yeah, in the way meeting the President is hokey. Not hokey! One hundred percent genuine, and you don't hear me gush like this often. ECET2 got it right, folks.

Here's a video about the convening, made during the convening.

Now why did I get to attend this incredible weekend in New Orleans? I was lucky enough to be selected as a keynote speaker for the "Cultivating a Calling" series. All the speakers in this series are teachers sharing our stories on stage. We rehearsed and supported each other throughout the weekend. Our stories are here: Anthony MarshallDwight DavisMatthew Keefauver, and me.

Let's break this down. What do the ECET2 people want? Why did Gates pay for all these educators to travel and attend and eat at this conference? Because here it is: They want teachers like us to bring it back home. They believe that elevating and celebrating effective teaching and teachers will promote positive problem-solving, professionalism, and improved opportunities and outcomes for students. Because as every educator knows, a school's culture can have an enormous impact on all of those elements, which in turn affect student achievement. If educators do not promote and participate in this kind of positive, uplifting behavior, we will be impaired in our efforts to teach students effectively. That's the bottom line.

So what happens next? What happens is I keep in touch with my #ECET2 pals. I help plan a Western Montana ECET2 convening. I get the sound system ready. I invite teachers to speak. I practice my shout out voice. Because that's what we do: we lift each other up, we celebrate our successes, and we plan for more.

And for the record, it really is all about the food, y'all.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hope for the Teachers

The annual MEA-MFT educators' conference is always an exciting, engaging couple of days where teachers from all over the state share their experiences and classroom ideas. I love presenting here, and I so enjoy being with my people.

This year was especially poignant because as the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year I had the opportunity to speak about my year at the banquet honoring our 2015 Teacher of the Year. You can read those remarks here. While I was writing my speech, all the work I'd done during my year came flooding back to me in a wave. It was a huge wave. The wave, comprised of all those activities, was brightly colored in my mind, for hope: because I realized that everything I did centered on hope for improvement, hope that my efforts might change something in education, hope that I might reach a preservice teacher or two along the way.

2015 Montana Teacher of the Year Finalist Casey Olsen, English teacher from Columbus

I think hope is a defining characteristic of committed teachers. We hope to reach students in the deepest ways, to teach them our content but also something about life and humanity. We hope to improve our communities by creating relationships between our schools and surrounding people, businesses, and organizations. We hope to create a sense of family within our school buildings and districts, so that we can support each other as educators in the most profound ways.

The educators' conference itself is sign of hope. When thousands of teachers of all subject areas and grade levels come together to share ideas and demonstrate expertise, we cannot help but be filled with pride at the path we have chosen. View a local channel's news coverage of the event here.

During my two days, I spent one whole day in a symposium sponsored by the Montana Digital Academy, where MTDA teachers came together (face to face, for the first time ever!) to learn from each other and from the MTDA staff. I spoke during the symposium about the role of feedback in online courses. I also presented to my English teacher colleagues on audio visual student work in my classroom, and I participated on a panel called "Demystifying the Common Core." Attendees demonstrated concern about the Smarter Balanced tests and where they are going. At all of these experiences, I was surrounded by hope: hope and a commitment from every teacher to improve their teaching and reach their students in more profound ways.

Despite the local flavor of this event, I am always mindful of how local conversations play into larger discussions occurring in the regional or national arena. The Common Core/testing debate, for example, is national in scale, playing out from Florida to Colorado and New York. The search for meaningful multicultural education resources brought teachers from Minnesota to this conference, because reaching all our students is a national concern as well as one in Montana. The Montana Digital Academy, although smaller than some other virtual schools in the country, is certainly part of a growing shift in instruction from paper-and-pencil to online and blended learning: just note that October is Connected Educator Month.

At the banquet on Thursday night, I had the opportunity to introduce the 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year, Craig Beals. Craig is connected, active, and hopeful about teaching and about his students. You can follow him on twitter here. I look forward to watching his activities during this year, and hearing about his work during next year's banquet, where our cycle of hope will renew.

With Superintendent Denise Juneau and 2015 Montana Teacher of the Year Craig Beals

Monday, October 6, 2014

Welcome to the Big Sky

Do you see some words that speak to you when you think of classrooms and students? Do you wonder where some other words are? I'll be going in different directions in this blog, but always talking about education communities.

I will reflect on and investigate political influence on education, the crisis of overtesting in public schools, teacher leadership options, active and engaging pedagogy, and partnerships between communities and schools. 

This will be a place to share with my colleagues and community how I envision and enact service as 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year. Thanks for joining me under the Big Sky.