Editor’s note: The application window for the 2016 Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching will be open through December 15, 2015. To give educators more insight into the awardee experience, we’ll be featuring Q&As with four previous awardees on the TT blog throughout the application window. This spotlight on Amber Strong Makaiau is the final post in the series. Be sure to read the first, second and the third posts.
Tell us about yourself, including what you teach.
Born and raised on the Hawai'ian island of Oahu, I live in Honolulu with my husband and two children. I come from a long line of educators who have inspired me to take risks and to be creative in the work that I do to promote social justice in schools. I work at the University of Hawai‘i Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education. For close to 13 years, I used the philosophy for children Hawai’i (p4cHI) approach to teach social studies at Kailua High School. Now, I teach pre-service teacher education courses and professional development classes related to social studies and p4cHI. I also practice p4cHI with elementary and high school students and teachers across Hawai‘i and abroad.
What about the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching made you want to apply?
I had been teaching full-time while working on my Ph.D. when one of my professors encouraged me to apply for the award. I deeply respect TT and this professor, so I clicked on the link to the application and started reading through all of the questions. I remember thinking, Wow! These questions actually get at the heart of why I do what I do in classrooms. I couldn’t believe that there was a national award that recognized teachers for making these types of commitments! At that point, I decided to apply.
What types of relationships did you build with fellow awardees, Teaching Tolerance staff, etc.?
The opportunity to meet and build relationships with amazing educators from all over the United States has been one of the best parts of receiving this award. I feel like I’ve got a network of like-minded educators and friends across the United States, and that’s an incredible feeling when you live in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!
Not only have I met fellow awardees, TT staff, university professors and other educational professionals who are dedicated to social justice work, but I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with them on a number of meaningful projects. A really good example of this collaboration is the Perspectives for a Diverse America professional development experiences that we’ve been able to design and tailor to the specific needs and interests of Hawai‘i teachers. Truly a joint effort, this partnership with the folks at TT helped produce the Perspectives for a Diverse Hawai‘i evaluation.
What has the award meant for your practice (and, perhaps, your life)?
The award helped confirm my commitment to multicultural, culturally responsive and social justice education. A constant reminder about why I do what I do in the classroom, this award has strengthened my voice and boosted my confidence in my ability to make positive change in the world. It has also opened doors and expanded the ways in which I am able to support the students, teachers and communities that I work with. The most profound example is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet’s visit to Kailua High School. Largely due to the good exposure that the school received from the TT Award, his visit had a deep impact on our school community, including our increased dedication to creating a more peaceful, tolerant and compassionate society.
What recommendations do you have for people who are considering applying for the award?
Apply! You will have the opportunity to reflect on and identify the ways in which you draw from your students’ cultures and languages to create both a rigorous and relevant learning environment. The application process will improve your ability to articulate your practice to others, and it will help you think about the ways that you want to improve upon the good work that you are already doing. And this award is larger than just you! While it brings recognition to all of your hard work, it also increases the chances that more people will see the value of incorporating culturally responsive, culturally relevant and multicultural education practices into the mainstream curriculum.
And last but not least, what tips do you have for how teachers can stay fresh and inspired in their teaching?
Cultivate and nurture a professional community of inquiry. Begin by surrounding yourself with positive and engaged educators. Even if it is just one other teacher, find someone who you enjoy collaborating with and design a project that you can work on together. In all of my years of teaching, it has been my fellow educators who have helped me to think big and motivated me to make big things happen.
Give yourself the time to get good at something, and then challenge yourself to take a risk and try something new. This year, for the first time ever, I was given the opportunity to run a p4cHI class with a small group of elementary students at my daughter’s school. Talk about an opportunity to grow! It’s very different from the high school and college classrooms that I’m most comfortable in. I’m having to rethink tried-and-true strategies, come up with new methods of classroom management, and learn about the diverse interests of third- through sixth-graders.
Make sure to reflect. One of the most important tools that I use in my teaching practice is a journal. Through journaling, I am able to center my thoughts, deal with my frustrations and reconnect with the core reasons that I became a teacher. It inspires me to live an examined and meaningful life both inside the classroom and out.
Thinking about applying? Learn more here!
Discoveries in a recent report from the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education include serious problems for Native students, such as bullying, hostility when reporting culturally insensitive situations, Native imagery that harms students’ identities, and anxiety over misrepresentation in classroom lessons. One of the initiative’s recommendations is to “promote cultural awareness,” specifically to “promote the accurate instruction of Native American history and culture.”
A dynamic way to incorporate accurate instruction and promote cultural awareness of contemporary Native American experiences is through film. Incorporating a film into the classroom also acts as a multimodal entrée into a deeper conversation about representations of Native peoples in today’s social media, advertising, news and entertainment.
I recommend for high school teachers* the following films that feature Native directors, actors, writers and storylines or histories:
Smoke Signals (1998, PG-13, 89 minutes) Based on a Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene/Spokane) short story and directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), this now-classic Native American road film remains relevant as a film that introduces non-Native students to one story of contemporary indigenous experience with humor and poignancy. Post-film discussions might focus on family, humor, contemporary Native reservation culture, alcoholism and stereotypes.
Four Sheets to the Wind (2007, R, 81 minutes) A coming-of-age story in the wake of a father’s suicide, written and directed by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Cree), this quietly thoughtful film challenges non-Native expectations of contemporary Native peoples. Post-film discussions might focus on contemporary Native experiences, leaving home, suicide and loss, family dynamics, alcoholism, and the active presence of Native peoples in American culture.
The Cherokee Word for Water (2013, PG, 92 minutes) This fictionalized retelling of the work that led Wilma Mankiller to become the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation challenges mainstream American stereotypes of Native women as sexualized and subjugated objects. This is the story of a smart, savvy, hard-working and compassionate Cherokee woman who helped bring her nation together in tangible and intangible ways. Post-film discussions might focus on indigenous feminism, contemporary representations of Native American women, tribal politics and water rights.
The Lesser Blessed (2012, R, 86 minutes) Originally a novel written by Tłı̨chǫ writer Richard Van Camp, this intense film tells the story of a First Nations teen named Larry trying to find his place in the world. (Note: Serious content that includes drugs, alcohol and violence.) The story is real and raw—and would likely lead to vibrant, honest and productive discussions about bullying, sexual abuse in families, grappling with the past, teenage experiences and the concept of redemption.
Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School (2008, G, 80 minutes) Most students have never heard of Indian Boarding Schools, and this documentary is an eye-opening starting point for discussions of diverse educational experiences in the United States. Students will have the opportunity to consider and compare their own experiences with those of the Native American students who often suffered the stripping of their culture, clothing, hair and language as they were forcefully assimilated into American culture via the education system. Post-film discussions might touch on racism, social justice, educational systems and Native American historical experiences.
Imprint (2007, PG-13, 84 minutes) Billed as a “supernatural thriller,” this film complicates notions of Native American women. The lead character is a Native American woman lawyer who returns to her home reservation after prosecuting a Lakota teen in a controversial murder trial, only to encounter and confront the ghosts of her past. Post-film discussions might focus on representations of indigenous women in films and in broader American culture, family dynamics, mother-daughter relationships and the complications that arise between Native cultures and the Euro-American colonialist agenda.
Reel Injun: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian (2009, NR, 85 minutes) This documentary dismantles everything students think they know about Native Americans in Hollywood films. Eye-opening post-film discussions might focus on racism, white privilege, misrepresentations of Native peoples in film, and the responsibility we all share to make sure students understand that the Hollywood “Indian” is not an accurate representation of living, real Native peoples and cultures.
*Because of the language and story content in some of these films, I recommend that teachers watch the films in advance to determine acceptability and appropriateness for their schools and students. Representing reality in film often means allowing the characters to speak and act in a realistic ways.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
The Atlantic: "High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings."
Disability Scoop: "Sixty percent of students with disabilities pursue postsecondary education within eight years of high school, according to a 2011 federal report. But, just 40 percent of these students complete college programs compared to 52 percent of students without disabilities."
The New York Times: "The Facebook groups insist that they represent the interests of white students, but also appear to be offering a counterpoint to university organizations dedicated to minority issues."
Parent Map: "It is vital we read books that are tribally specific, include Native sovereignty and depict Native peoples as diverse people of today."
School Library Journal: "From adult books for teens, books by and about Latin@s, and graphic novels, to audiobooks, and DVDs, School Library Journal's covered the best of everything in 2015."
Southern Poverty Law Center: "... [M]any transgender students across the nation attend schools with bathroom policies that don’t respect their gender identity – and the issue has become a flashpoint in the battle for transgender rights."
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org , and put "What We’re Reading This Week" in the subject line.
Two nights ago, shooters opened fire on a group of #blacklivesmatter protesters in North Minneapolis, where protesters have been gathered at the fourth precinct since the death of 24-year-old Jamar Clark. Police shot Clark in the head November 15 while responding to a domestic dispute. Details on both the Clark and the #blacklivesmatter shootings are still murky.
Three nights ago, I sat just a few miles from the fourth precinct at a Thanksgiving dinner with friends who had been part of the protests, freshly returned from days of singing, praying and holding hands around fires to keep warm. I smelled the smoke on them as they recounted the day’s events, apologetically checking their phones as videos were released, scrolling through Twitter for updates as they absorbed the warmth of our group, eating potluck turkey.
So this morning when I heard about the #blacklivesmatter shooting, I thought first of my friends. Had they been there? Were they okay? I called, I texted. An hour went by. Finally a response. They were fine.
Up until today, exploding racial violence across the country has affected me, but mostly indirectly because of my work as a social justice educator: local protests springing up, students asking for readings to help them better understand what is happening in our country. I grieved with the rest of the country after this summer’s church shooting in Charleston. I read, cried, posted, discussed in anger after Darren Wilson was not indicted last November. I cared.
But this morning, waking up to news of the shooting near loved ones I had seen only days before, it felt different. It was different. My reaction went from the hypothetical concerns of a white ally to a different sort of connection. After sitting with my friends who could have been the victims, the shootings became part of my own story; they became more real to me.
My experience follows a pattern that social scientists have observed for decades: Friendships across identity groups can promote empathy. It made me think about how to help white students who may not routinely encounter racial microaggressions, discrimination and violence—or know anyone who does—understand these incidents as relevant and critical. Dr. Brittney Cooper, Rutgers professor and weekly columnist at Salon, writes that close cross-racial friendships are difficult and rare in the United States, and that many people do not have a single close friend who is racially different from themselves. If this is the case, how can I as a white ally amplify the voices of those affected by racial violence? How can I honor their stories?
My responsibility as a white ally is to stand with and behind people of color and demand systemic change. It is also my responsibility to recognize that the moment of connection I experienced was a function of my white privilege—and to use this experience to help my students make similar connections. One way I can do this, in cases where my students share few interpersonal connections across identity groups, is to provide opportunities for them to critically engage with the stories of people whose lives and experiences are different from their own. Hearing and reflecting on these intimate stories brings the tellers and their struggles closer, makes them more real and more connected to our own stories.
University of Chicago Professor Martha Nussbaum notes in her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform Liberal Education that students must cultivate a narrative imagination in order to connect with the lives of others they do not know. Writes Nussbaum, “This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person’s story, and to understand the motions and wishes and desire that someone so placed might have.” Stories build empathy, empathy builds compassion, and compassion brings true change—change our country most desperately needs.
Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.
The following resources support sharing stories across difference in the classroom:
Launched across the globe with the aim to end prejudice and discrimination, organizations can host their own Human Libraries in communities, featuring human “books” and human “readers.”
A collection of narratives used nationally in ally trainings, a great place to start is Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox’s story.
Offers viral social media postings with photos and quotes that are also good visuals for classroom use, including special recent campaign on Syrian Refugees.
Encourages archiving storytelling across generations and difference, including campaigns to collect family stories during Thanksgiving
Social justice curriculum including over 300 free readings labeled by lens and theme and aligned to the Teaching Tolerance Anti-bias Framework.
Recently, Phoenix*, a middle school student I’ve worked with for three years, said, “Miss, I hate when people are fake.”
I asked Phoenix to define what they meant by this, and they said, “You know, when they act one way when they’re with one group of people and another way when it’s just you and them.”
Phoenix was referring to a longtime friend. They described the ways in which the friend acted at the afterschool program where I work, compared to how this friend acted when they were hanging out in the neighborhood, just the two of them.
“Do you act the same way in class as you do in our program?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head.
I asked why that was, and Phoenix said there were different expectations in class, compared to in the afterschool program. At the program—a drop-in center—youth have a fair amount of freedom to make choices about what they want to do. In class, Phoenix articulated, they were expected to learn specific things so they could pass the end-of-year tests.
I nodded. “Do you act the same around all your groups of friends?”
Phoenix shook their head again.
The complicated thing about growing up, I said to Phoenix, is that people try on different personalities. They try and figure out who they are—separate from their families, separate perhaps from friends they’ve had forever and maybe even separate from the place they grow up. Usually, I said, it’s not even that people aren’t being true to themselves—it’s that they’re trying to figure out which parts of themselves fit best.
Since being authentic with the youth I work with is so critical to building trust with them, I spoke about my own experience. I talked about how, when I was in high school, most of my school friends listened to rap, and so did I. And most of my non-school friends listened to late ’90s alt-rock, and so did I. This was the influence of two different groups, and I enjoyed both types of music (and others). Neither situation was me “posing” or being fake. It was just different aspects of me.
I pointed out to Phoenix how different aspects of me are noticeable when I facilitate a permaculture activity—the activity, in fact, we were engaged in while having this conversation—compared to when I facilitate a game for the kindergarteners and first-graders. In permaculture, the side of me that is incredibly interested in science and the environment comes out. When I facilitate games with the younger children, the side of me that’s goofier and will collapse to the floor to act like a dead worm or a frog or a duck comes out.
“Do you think either of those is me being fake?” I asked.
Phoenix shook their head. “I guess sometimes it’s just hard to tell when I can trust someone if they act one way when we’re alone and another way when we’re with the group,” they said.
I affirmed this strongly and reminded Phoenix of something we’d covered in an empowerment class two years earlier: If someone makes you feel bad about yourself or demeans you, they’re doing it to build themselves up and it’s not something you have to—or should—tolerate.
“And sometimes,” I said, “friends grow apart. That hurts a lot. And sometimes it’s forever and sometimes it’s not, and it’s nearly impossible to tell at the time which way things will eventually turn out. But if you choose to let a friendship go, it’s also important to remember that person is still human—still has faults, still has positive qualities. When we forget people’s humanity, that’s when we become our worst selves.”
*Student’s name has been changed. This student’s preferred pronoun is their/they.
Clift provides informal education to youth in Denver, Colorado, and volunteers with several organizations that work on food justice issues.