Confronting Alaska Native Issues in the Writing Classroom
By Trish Jenkins
Context of the Inquiry
ENGLISH 214, Persuasive Writing , Fall 2009 & Spring 2010
2--Do Alaska Native People Get Free Medical Care? And Other Frequently Asked Questions About Alaska Native Issues and Cultures edited by Libby Roderick
Undergraduate students receive instruction in writing based on theories of persuasion. This particular course also provides experience with and information about Alaska Native pedagogies as well as exposure to Alaska Native Issues and culture by way of reading and analyzing pieces in Do Alaska Natives Get Free Medical Care?
Focus of the Inquiry
Students are taught that their opinions have no place in academic writing. Ancient rhetoricians valued opinions and understood them as values share by a community. I wondered if requiring students to write about an issue in relation to their identity and connection to it (or lack of) would help them engage with complex issues and write with fluency.
Teachers who ask students to engage with complex issues in the hopes of promoting cultural sensitiity risk evoking resistance in white students and shame in minority students. I wondered if requiring students to consider an issue in relation to their identity and connection to it (or lack of) would help promote cultural sensitivity and allow for a sense of integrity.
Given these concerns, I sought to:
Course Design and Implementation
I required students to analyze pieces from Do Alaska Natives Get Free Medical Care? in the assignment that is the focus for this inquiry, students wrote an "exploratory essay," which encourages dialectical thinking and directs them to "narrate in first person chronological order the evolution through time of [their] thinking about an issue or problem" (Ramage et al. p. 35). Their issue was this: "Do some Native Corporations and organizations support drilling, mining, and logging on their lands?" Their purpose was to position themselves as an inquirer and in the process, clarify their own thinking in order to take a stand based on their values and assumptions. I asked them to begin their essay this way: "Identity yourself as it relates to the issue and discuss your connection--or lack--with the issue; that is, clarify your perspective for the reader and let him/her know what you bring to the discussion." I encouraged them to write from this perspective throughout the essay, making reference where relevant.
Most students were engaged and writing was fluent, indicated by lengthy essays with smooth movement from sentence to sentence. Most wrote with confidence and authority. Many made an effort to be understood--to make clear why they said what they said. Many seemed compelled to indicate sensitivity to those involved in the issue even if they disagreed with them.
My project has been inspired by the methods and values introduced in the Ford Foundation Alaska Native Ways of Teaching and Learning Faulty Intensive and informed by Gwen Gorzelsky's essay, "Working Boundaries: From Student Resistance to Student Agency." And it was supported by an argumentative textbook that provided the scaffolding I needed to make this assignment happen--a textbook that valued argument as inquiry.
I find that teaching this assignment at the beginning of the semester works well, and it allows me to get to know my students a bit--even the ones who are quiet in class. I understand better where my students are coming from.
I plan to continue teaching this assignment. Most students do well on it; that is, they write successful essay and that is satisfying for me and for them. What I found most satisfying--and surprising--was the degree of engagement. In her essay, Gorselksy argues that "many students actively engage with the concerns of critical pedagogy when the classroom ethos strongly supports their agency--their ownership of their developing ideas and texts" (p. 64). Thus, I believe that I provided a classroom atmosphere conducive to students growing as writers and thinkers.
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