Peer Talk: Hook me With a Story

While I am not a teacher, I can imagine that piecing together any course must be a daunting task: creating lesson plans, outlining lectures, putting together PowerPoint presentations, and connecting materials to online tools. As students, we may not consider these elements as we move through the course our teachers have so carefully created for us. I can tell you one thing we do think about though: the texts chosen to help us absorb this material. In many classes it may be necessary to have a traditional textbook (how else are we going to reference the structure of an atom, or how the synapses in the brain work). But for me, a book that tells a story connects me to a class like no other learning material. I had a science class once that included a novel telling the story of Galileo, and because of this I remember his contributions to scientific discovery. The weaving of facts and human experience solidifies concepts for me in a way that no textbook can match.

Recently, I took a class on Native American History that included one of the best examples incorporating novels I have seen yet. My favorite book on the syllabus was a novel by Sherman Alexie titled, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The class itself attempted to weave the history of Native American people from before European colonization to modern times. A potentially overwhelming task for any professor, and not only did this particular professor manage to whittle a massive tail into a beautifully crafted and coherent story, he connected it with novels like Alexie’s, bringing everything together in a powerful way.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may be a book aimed at teens, but it is full of poignant and relevant lessons to be absorbed by people of all ages. The story follows Junior, a Native American boy who battles medical issues and faces varying social challenges growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. Like most of us, Junior is on a journey to find himself, balancing the need to honor his individual goals and desires with family obligations and loyalty. Unlike many of us, some of Junior’s accomplishments leave him feeling weighed by grief because steps toward success often find him tied to a culture that has systematically squashed the hope of his people.

Contrary to many American K-12 students today, Junior’s choice to go to a different school—a move to get an education that challenged him and offered opportunities—brings a sense of betraying his community and pulls him from his home. One of the most haunting moments for me came in the form of a basketball game of all things. A top contending team, Junior’s new school was set to play his former basketball team from the reservation; Junior joked about how many people attended those games because it was like watching the cowboys and Indians duke it out in real life. Despite his ties to his old team, Junior was caught up in the thrill of the game and the focus to beat his opponents. When Junior’s team defeats their adversary, his teammates, coach, and the spectators were ecstatic, and so was he for a moment. Until it dawns on Junior that he is a part of the Goliath team and he has just beat not only David, but students who were all dealing with life and death problems like poverty, parents who were in jail, or addicted to drugs or alcohol. Junior’s uplifting win filled with pride and joy, plummets to a space of shame and realization that he is no better than the people who have been knocking him down his whole life.

I was left with my own sense of similar shame because while I rooted for Junior to evolve and triumph, I also saw how those moments were both joyous and painful to Junior’s community on the reservation. On a smaller scale, I think everyone knows the fear of becoming our own person and the worry that we are somehow betraying our families. The growth of Junior is pulled with duality on a scale that is hard for most of us to comprehend, and I feel like reading his story helped me to become a more compassionate human being. I am grateful to my professor for not only helping the course come alive, but for connecting me to the struggles of a community that I would have never been exposed to without his perfectly chosen text.

Resource

Alexie, S. (2007). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New York: Hatchette Book Group, Inc,.

Faith is a passionate student who is committed to use her compassion and skills to empower youth. She is currently working towards a bachelor of arts in Psychology with a minor in history because she believes they are both tied deeply to the stories of people. She plans on continuing her studies in a graduate program that will allow her to later step into a role as an educational guidance counselor. She believes that it is our job as those who work with students to guide them into maximizing their potential. Faith is also a member of MSU’s Honors Program, and is currently heavily involved in the Psychology Department as a Research Assistant. When not immersed in her studies Faith is also a part-time Office Manager for Smart-Girl Inc; a nonprofit organization that provides near peer mentoring programs for middle school aged students focused on teaching them social-emotional skills like communication and healthy decision making.

This post is part of a Peer Talk series originally posted on Pearson’s Teaching & Learning blog. Click here to see the other available posts.