Summer Reading Series: “Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning”

This is the first post in our dialogic pedagogies summer reading series; for more information and a complete list of texts, see here. Not all posts will be as long as what follows — this week’s text is just a particularly rich one for inspiring thought and practice. 🙂 

By Sarah Ropp

Title: Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (published 2013; available for free via PDF HERE)

Authors: Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff and Libby Roderick

Context of Creation: This book comes out of a weeklong faculty intensive organized through a partnership between Alaska Native educators, Elders, and community members and two Anchorage, Alaska-based public universities: University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) and Alaska Pacific University (APU). The book is a follow-up to 2008’s Start Talking: A Handbook for Engaging Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education (edited by Kay Landis; free PDF available HERE). The UAA/APU Difficult Dialogues programming, funded by the Ford Foundation’s national Difficult Dialogues initiative, is considered a torchbearer in the field of dialogic pedagogies, in large part on the strength of these two open-access texts. 

Context of Reception: I read most of this book sitting in my backyard, on a pleasant May day in Austin, Texas. As the authors encouraged, I took frequent breaks to breathe, reflect, and connect to my environment, attending to the sunlight filtering through the leaves, the birdsong, the temporary drone of landscaping machinery, a hovering mosquito, some new mushrooms in the grass from the rain. At one point, barely into my reading, a squirrel ventured close to me. She rose up to rest on her back legs, made eye contact with me, and mimed eating a nut, nibbling at the air between empty paws. She came closer, and put a paw on the orange suede toe of my sneaker. I had my legs crossed, so she had to stand and reach for my foot; the pressure of her paw was delicate. I had never before interacted with our backyard squirrels. Her presence brought me happiness, and infused the reading of this book with added pleasure and significance. 

I give thanks to the Alaska Native educators and Elders whose words are featured in Stop Talking, as well as the authors of the book, for sharing their knowledge and making it available free of cost. I acknowledge that my home in Austin sits on indigenous land and pay respect to the Carrizo & Comecrudo, Coahuiltecan, Caddo, Tonkawa, Comanche, Lipan Apache, Alabama-Coushatta, Kickapoo, Tigua Pueblo, and all the American Indian and Indigenous Peoples and communities who have been or have become a part of these lands and territories in Texas, here on Turtle Island. (I also thank Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) at UT-Austin for providing the language of this acknowledgement.) 

Overview of Structure and Content: The structure of the book mimics the programming of the five-day faculty intensive and reproduces much of its content, in order to give the reader something of the experience of participating and learning alongside non-Native faculty members and the Alaska Native people who served as their guides and leaders. The book, directed at transdisciplinary higher-ed faculty, quite clearly assumes a reader who is non-Native and may be unfamiliar with decolonialist thought and pedagogy. Besides summaries of each day’s programming and content and some contextual information on Alaska education and Alaska Native issues, the chapters contain these basic elements: 

  1. Short written essays and transcripts of oral stories, performances, conversations, and talks that represent the direct voice of indigenous Elders, teachers, performers, and community members present at the faculty intensive. They speak mainly to indigenous ways of learning, teaching, and being and challenges that indigenous students face in traditional Western education structures.
  2. Index-card style graphics presenting ideas to implement some of these concepts as concrete, transdisciplinary classroom practices. 
  3. Reflection questions for readers. 

3 Thought-Starters for Teachers

I am so glad I began this summer reading series with Stop Talking, because it has prompted me to attend to the ways in which I frame the opportunities for learning and reflection that a text provides. My first instinct was to title this subsection “3 Takeaways for Teachers,” but takeaway (a word I’ve often used) suggests that I am packaging up the insights contained in the book into a kind of goodie bag of products (and the word itself is extractive: what you take away). This reproduces the transactional and reductionist approach to education that defines the Western system, in which knowledge can be parceled into clearly delineated chunks, distributed, consumed, and mastered. The indigenous approaches to learning centered in Stop Talking, however, value reflection, recursiveness, and independent thinking. In that spirit, I’ll strive throughout this book series to present not neatly packaged “takeaways” but rather thought-starters, with reflection questions rather than teaching suggestions. And although these thought-starters from Stop Talking are still separated out into three distinct ideas, please receive them and think about them as deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing concepts. 

Place-based Teaching and Learning

Elder Elsie Mather, Yup’ik, says, in a conversation with other Elders, “In a way, it’s sad that we are becoming so dependent on reading for information. You and a book — you can closet yourself anywhere and learn (or not learn, depending on the quality of your reading material). You can be thousands of miles away from your source of information. When you have that book, it doesn’t matter where your learning takes place. . . . This dependency on books. I call it a monster because of the distance it puts between us and our sources” (57). 

This questioning of the value of written sources of knowledge may be deeply counterintuitive — even shocking — to those of us whose work (and teaching) revolves around reading. We might argue that this ability to be removed from a source or site and still learn about it is precisely the power and value of reading! But from a decolonialist perspective, if we consider how little of the literature (scholarly and otherwise) about non-White and non-Western people and places has been written by non-White and non-Western people, this critique of reading as the ultimate form of access to knowledge makes all the sense in the world. Educator Paul Ongtooguk, Inupiaq, highlights this issue when he describes his lifelong pursuit to attempt to understand “the disengagement between this enormous amount of literature about [Alaska Natives] and our complete invisibility in Alaska’s school systems” (49). 

Reading, Elder Elsie says, is “a necessary monster” (57), but Stop Talking emphasizes that one essential way to indigenize or decolonize teaching is to complement “book-learning” with place-based teaching and learning. Place-based knowledge, the authors explain, “springs from a deep and detailed experience of a place and manifests as a sense of belonging to, identification with, and awareness of everything that goes on in that place” (19). 

  • How can we bring students closer to the source of knowledge (even and especially if our content is based on sites and peoples that are geographically or historically far away)? 
  • How can we connect ourselves and our students more to place?
  • How can we ground dialogues (no matter the topic) in the communities and environments in which we are teaching?  

Affirmation and Relationships 

Educator Martha Gould-Lehe, Upper Kuskokwim Athabascan, writes that Alaska Native students “need to feel valued; and will respond only to relationships (most will not work to please a teacher if they feel the teacher does not value them)” (54).

Educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Whenever I passed an adult, I would hear ‘aang laakaiyaax, exumnaakotxtxin. Hello young boy. You are good.’ I was never rejected, never judged, never criticized, always and only positively affirmed by everyone in my village nearly every day of my entire childhood. Can you imagine what that’s like, how beautiful that is?” (60). 

Throughout Stop Talking, the need to cultivate strong relationships between students and teachers through affirmation comes up again and again. Though it is something that the Native educators cited above speak about in the context of children receiving loving affirmation from adults, it transfers to university-level settings, even among faculty: one of the “Alaska Native Discourse Values” that faculty participants agreed to abide by in Stop Talking is: “Do not voice disagreement or use violent words; instead, say something positive about the previous speaker and then simply add your own thoughts” (7).

This may seem to be in stark contrast to “call-out” culture, or even “call-in” culture, in which direct challenge of another person’s wrong thinking or wrong behavior by peers is considered the right of oppressed people and the moral imperative of their allies. It also challenges the traditional Western view of the teacher as an evaluator, a grader, and a corrector. Instead, an indigenous approach to teaching uses indirect forms of teaching (for example, through storytelling or modeling without direct instruction) and encourages students to learn through observation and emulation. 

  • What is your reaction to these ideas? Where does that reaction come from? 
  • Are affirmation and non-violent communication necessarily opposed to “calling out/calling in”? Why or why not? 
  • What are students’ responsibilities with regards to affirming one another? 
  • What is the teacher’s responsibility with regards to affirming students? 
  • What is the role of affirmation in dialogue? 

Storytelling and Other Indirect Forms of Instruction 

One of the book’s authors, educator Ilarion (Larry) Merculieff, Aleut, writes: “Stories allow the teller to express whatever is most important and give listeners the latitude to take away whatever they are able to see or learn. Each person sees and learns different things from the same story. The story does not dictate the lesson to be learned; rather it creates the opportunity to learn whatever the individual is capable of learning. If I give you a direct answer, there’s no freedom. I am acting as the authority, the expert. But in the relationship between real human beings there is no one-upmanship. I am not the answer. I don’t know any more than you do. The only difference between us is our experience and how we use our inherent intelligence” (59). 

  • Do you integrate stories (either from your own personal experiences or literary/cultural stories) in your classroom? Do you invite students to tell stories?
  • If so, how do you guide students to make meaning of stories? 
  • If not, what place might storytelling have in your classroom? How might it enrich or add meaning to your content, even and especially if you consider your content to be very fact-based, data-driven, or objective? 
  • What is the relationship between storytelling and dialogue? Between place-based education and storytelling? 

3 Concrete Practices for Immediate Implementation:

Center Listening by Outlawing Reading & Writing for a Day

Stop Talking emphasizes the value of presence, stillness, and receptivity. At their faculty intensive, no one was allowed to take written notes. The authors write, “In the embodied, direct, oral and visual style of learning common to most indigenous cultures, there is no writing it down. Instead, you pay keen attention, listen closely and deeply, emulate the wisest and most experienced among you, learn by doing, and take what you learn so deeply into yourself that it becomes part of your identity” (4).

Prohibit students from taking notes one day during lecture or dialogue. Likewise, do not write anything on the board or refer to any written materials. Encourage them to receive and share without recording. Build moments of silence into dialogue, to give participants time to process what they have heard and/or reflect and prepare to speak. Discuss at the end of class how it felt, how they adapted, what was challenging and liberating about it, and what they believe they will remember and carry with them. 

Center Marginalized Voices through Conversation Observation

Stop Talking encourages a “fishbowl” activity, in which a small group of students, representing a marginalized viewpoint or set of viewpoints (e.g. first-generation students; LGBTQ+ students), sit in an inner circle in the middle of the room and engage in dialogue with one another. The rest of the students sit in respectful silence in an outer circle (in an online classroom, you might have the “inner circle” leave cameras on while everyone in the “outer circle” turns theirs off). They observe and receive the conversation without participating and with the intention to learn from, not critique or debate, what they are hearing. After the inner circle completes their conversation, the observing students reflect and debrief on what they have learned.

In the faculty intensive of Stop Talking, Native educators and Elders formed this inner circle and non-Native faculty formed the outer circle. However, in a classroom setting, I believe this activity would have the potential to unduly burden minority and marginalized students (whether they self-identify this way or have been designated/assumed as such by instructors) with the pressure to agree to become a spectacle for the pseudo-scientific scrutiny of their peers. Unless you have students who are eager to participate in the “inner circle,” I suggest instead showing a publicly available video of a conversation between people who represent those whose experiences you desire to highlight, or inviting guest speakers to converse with each other in front of the class. 

Center Students’ Experience with a Critical Incident Questionnaire

The facilitators of the faculty intensive administered what they called a “critical incident questionnaire” at the end of each day’s programming, in which they asked participants to  respond anonymously to the same set of questions: 

  • At what moment today were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What activities did you find most affirming or helpful? 
  • What activities did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What surprised you most about today?

You might administer these questions in written form as an “exit ticket” at the end of a lesson or unit, or use them as the basis of a classroom dialogue. 

One In-Depth Activity

Responding to Alaska Native Discourse Values

This is an activity that uses short excerpts from Stop Talking to foster critical reflection and expose students to indigenous discourse paradigms during conversations about community agreements for dialogue early in the semester. 

These questions can be answered independently in writing, or in oral or written dialogue with partners, small groups, or as a class. Collaborative annotation via Hypo.thesis or Perusall is one option for responding in community; one or more shared Google docs is another option. 

If you would like students to work directly in Google docs, create a force-copy version of this document, which contains embedded hyperlinks to the texts. If you would rather access both the texts and the questions in a single file to share with students, use this PDF.

Next Week . . . 

We will be reading How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay (2019). 

 

3 thoughts on “Summer Reading Series: “Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning””

  1. I was so excited to see this book at the top of Sarah’s list. It’s one of my favorite pedagogical texts, and one that also influenced my work as a researcher. The Critical Incident Questionnaire served as a model for an “exit ticket” I called “Three Questions,” which I asked students to complete in the last five minutes of every class meeting. Students responded to three prompts: one thing you enjoyed or something new you learned today; one thing you didn’t like or found confusing ; something you’d like to learn more about. Their responses guided my classroom practice by showing me which concepts that required more explanation, which activities were helpful, and what topics the students wanted to know more about. An unexpected outcome for me was an affirmation of my teaching practice. We all have days when we walk out of the classroom thinking, “Ugh, that really didn’t go well.” From reading my students’ responses, I learned that there was not one single day that everyone thought was terrible. Sometimes days that I thought were flops were loved by the students.

  2. Like Melissa, I was happy to see this text, and appreciated the overview afforded here. I used it as the title of an undergraduate lecture on indigenous communication that I recorded in early May for use in a large introductory core class at the Moody College (which was supposed to be on collaboration and indigenous worldview, so, really, the title was perfect).

  3. The Humanities Institute was fortunate to host Larry Merculieff and Libby Roderick in Austin a few years ago for an extraordinary day-long workshop. I am still trying to internalize all that I learned about listening and being more attentive. One thing that I have incorporated into my teaching is having students listen to each other in dyads, without comment, without reaction, without judgment. Having done this we all return to a group discussion with a calm and open mind, feeling heard and able to listen.

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