ARTICLE

Why I'll Never Teach This Powerful Book Again

This teacher's classes were in the middle of reading a Sherman Alexie classic that spurred deep discussions and powerful writing. Then several women came forward to say #metoo about the author.

This week I heard the news, which in some communities wasn't news at all, that author Sherman Alexie has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment, intimidation and humiliation.

My sixth-grade English classes were right in the middle of our unit on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The book is an illustrated first-person narrative from the point of view of 14-year-old Arnold Spirit Jr., who leaves the Spokane Reservation to attend a school in a nearby white town. True Diary has provided a vehicle for us to discuss intersecting identities. For example, students make lists of Arnold's identifiers (Spokane, male, 14 years old) and use these to create questions like: What does it mean for Arnold to be both ___ and ___? (For example, Spokane and male?) How has Arnold discovered new ways of being ___? What does being ___ give Arnold access to? What does being ___ limit Arnold's access to?

At the end of the unit, each student writes and illustrates an "absolutely true" personal essay about their own intersecting identities. One girl wrote about being the product of artificial insemination. A boy wrote about how white girls didn't consider him dateable because he's black. Another boy wrote about the assumptions people make about him because he has ADHD. A student who later came out as nonbinary wrote about their experience of being forced to wear a dress. It's the kind of writing assignment where even the essays with grammatical or structural shortcomings are good because they're about topics that genuinely matter to the students, and their voices come through.

This unit has consistently spurred some of the deepest discussions and most powerful writing that students do in all of sixth grade and perhaps in all of middle school. 

So I am furious with Sherman Alexie.

I'm furious, first and foremost, over what an untold number of First Nation women writers said he did. These are women whose work and names I don't know—in part because of my own ignorance and blind spots, in part because of institutional racism in the publishing industry and in part (if we believe them, and I do) because of Alexie's actions.

I'm furious that this is yet another "teachable moment" for us to process. While I do believe in using current events to foster a sense of responsibility to act for justice, discussing this event will take time away from noticing and choosing how they want to relate to their reading, their writing, each other, the world and themselves. My students will lose a writing day for this discussion.

And I'm furious that this will become a distraction from the important work this unit has elicited in the past. When students remember this unit, they might or might not remember the questions they wrote about intersecting identities (What does it mean to have a mom and no dad? What does it mean to be black at my school? What does it mean to be nonbinary in my family?). They might or might not remember the cartoons they drew, the thoughtful responses they wrote or the emotionally charged annotations they scrawled in their books as they tried to make their pens keep up with their brains. But they will remember the accusations against the author whose book they loved.

The same day I heard the news, one of my school's diversity coordinators emailed me to make sure I knew. She asked what I planned to do. My grade-level partner and I decided—and our leadership and diversity teams agreed—that our school would stand by the women of the #metoo movement and would not contribute to Alexie's popularity or bank account by teaching his book next year.

My partner and I immediately got to work on identifying a new text about intersectional identities that we could teach next year, focusing on First Nations authors. We ordered copies of Eric Gansworth's If I Ever Get Out of Here and Cynthia Leitich Smith's Rain Is Not My Indian Name. We also ordered the anthology Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins, thinking these essays would serve as excellent models for our students' writing. Since we'd lose the parts of the True Diary unit in which students analyze the cartoons in the book and create their own, we talked about adding a graphic novel into the curriculum. We looked at graphic novels by women and authors of color: Cece Bell's El Deafo, Svetlana Chmakova's Awkward, and Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki's This One Summer. We're still not sure exactly how we'll fill the void True Diary will leave, but we're hopeful about the possibilities for next year.

What to do this year presents a more complicated problem. We won't ignore this important issue and want to teach into it: How do we respond when we discover that someone we look up to is not at all the person we thought? Is it ethical to appreciate a piece of work when the person who created it behaved wrongfully? We hope to discuss these questions after our classes finish the book so that we don't detract from their reading experience—although there's no telling whether the students will be as authentic or go as deep in their writing after learning about the allegations against Alexie.

In True Diary, when Junior is in the middle of his "grief-storm" over the deaths of his beloved grandmother and sister, he says that writing about his experiences became his grieving ceremony. This piece of writing is mine.

Porosoff teaches sixth-grade English and is the author of EMPOWER Your Students: Tools to Inspire a Meaningful School Experience.

4 COMMENTS

Thank you so much for your powerful words. I would like to offer some suggestions for graphic novels and comics that feature words & art by Native Americans. My book, "Super Indian" has two volumes and is available on my website (www.superindiancomics.com) and Amazon. Please also see Native Realities Press, which carries the book I edited (and provided words & art) - "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers." "Code Talkers" just won an award from the American Indian Library Association at ALA. Native Realities Press is at www.nativerealities.com. Native creators are out here!
There are some great graphic novels by Indigenous authors and illustrators, and a few recently won the American Indian Youth Literature Award or were named honor books: "Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers," "Wool of Jonesy," "Fire Starters," and (especially as a way to augment #MeToo teachable moments) #NotYourPrincess." Debbie Reese's "American Indians in Children's Lliterarure" blog post from February 11th, 2018 lists all the winners.
What a thoughtful piece! Greg Sarris' Grand Avenue is another work to potentially consider.

And, I think the issue of Alexie's behavior shouldn't deter the student's from authentic writing because the discussion relates to many of the complex identity questions you've been asking in the unit, like "What does it mean for Arnold to be both ___ and ___? " Except in this case it's more, 'What does it mean for Alexie to be a celebrated voice of a marginalized group and a cis male accused of using his power to victimize women?' His behavior (rather unfortunately) further highlights the value of your assignment; examining social constructs and identity politics (privileges and disadvantages) that influence behavior.
I'm glad you've been able to identify some other books and been so thoughtful and inclusive in your selections. One other book you might look at is How to be an Indian in the 21st Century by Louis V. Clark. It's a book of nonfiction poetry based on his life experiences from childhood through adulthood (written in the spoken-word storytelling style of his culture). I'm not sure about grade level appropriateness.