HST 277 American Indian History
I’m teaching American Indian History this semester, a course I’ve wanted to teach for years. The down side is that it is an elective topics course that fulfills no general education requirements so I wasn’t sure I would get anyone signing up. After drop & add, I had eight students and was delighted to discover that the reason they were in the class was that they were very interested in the topic. I’ve been teaching freshman history surveys for a long time, so I was used to having to provide motivation for the class. Having personally motivated students is a real treat!
There are no tests or quizzes (unless people don’t seem to be doing the work, in which case I’ll have to put those back in). So far, almost everyone is doing the work. Each week they read about 150 pages and write a reflective essay of a thousand words or more. They turn that in on Sunday at 5:00 pm, so I can read them and give feedback and prepare for the classes where we’ll discuss their readings on Monday and Wednesday. Each student takes turn being a “leading voice” in class, meaning that they have responsibility for one of the chapters and will help lead the discussion in that chapter. We have five books that we are reading:
Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nunez (2012). Chronicle of the Narváez Expedition (Norton Critical Editions). Ed. I. Stavans, Tr. D. Frye. W.W. Norton & Company. 256 pages. ISBN-10: 0393918157
$13.13 on Amazon
Axtell, James (2001). Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America. Oxford University Press. 418 pages. ISBN-10: 019513771X
$19.95 on Amazon
Seaver. James E. (1826). A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, who was taken by the Indians, in the year 1755, etc. Howden: R. Parkin. 179 pages. This book is a public domain PDF and is provided to the students through Gullnet, the local name for the Jenzabar LMS.
Brown, D. (1972). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the Northwest. Holt Paperbacks. 512 pages. ISBN-10: 0805086846
$11.56 on Amazon. I also allow the students to use the older paperback versions (originally published in 1972).
Dog, Mary Crow (2011). Lakota Woman. Grove Press. 272 pages. ISBN-10: 0802145426
$10.17 on Amazon
Writing the reflective essay was new for almost all of them. A few started by writing opinion pieces without evidence, but are now providing evidence for their arguments. Often those essays were also poorly organized, and they have improved with practice. Others were skilled writers but wrote detailed summaries of the pieces and came to class exhausted because all the reading was on new material and there was too much of it. Now they are starting to be more selective about the sections they comment upon and approaching the work as free writing and therefore finding it easier to do. All of them are now describing what they found surprising or confusing or confirming in the readings, which allows me to assess their level of understanding and what I need to do to customize the class for them. I’ve also told them to go looking on the web (including Wikipedia) or at the library (ok, that won’t happen!) if they run into something they don’t understand or want to know more about. Some of them are starting to do that, and include those in their reflections. The word count on the reflections are starting to come up as well. The lowest so far was 700 words, the highest was over 4,000.
Because the class is so small, the discussions are large group discussions. I toss out divergent (open-ended) questions to the students and try to get them to talk about this as a group. Some of them took to this method immediately; others seemed more used to lecturing and wanted me to tell them what to write down. After five weeks of class, all of them are starting to think for themselves, and I encourage them to do so. I see my role primarily as teaching them how to read and think critically, which I do by questioning their understandings, by modeling careful reading of the texts, and by sometimes instructing them on particular skills (looking for the evidence, using specific technology, etc.). Occasionally I’ll occasionally expand upon the conversation by bringing new material into the conversation (comparisons with other historical lessons, bringing in material from my own reading of other texts, or playing audio or video of native Americans expressing their opinions, giving advice, or remembering their past).
At the mid-semester, I gave a stop-start-continue, which is a classroom assessment that takes about ten minutes. I asked them to give me feedback on the semester and tell me what they wanted us to stop doing, what they wanted to start doing (in case they had particular hopes for the class that had not been realized) and what they wanted to continue doing. Here’s the results. After typing up the results, I talked about them with the class the next week. I was really pleased that everyone liked the format of the discussions. I held my ground with the thousand word minimum on the reflective essays, because frankly any less really doesn’t give me much idea about what they have and have not done. I definitely agree with the use of more video, because our readings have been valuable but in the colonial period they give us only an outline of the Indians because they are mostly written by Europeans. I mentioned the danger of reading current beliefs back into the past, but noted that we had already seen a lot of continuity among the indigenous peoples of North America (beliefs about spirits, food ways, tribal structure, marriage patterns, dances, burial rituals, and the like) and because we will see similar continuity among the oral histories and beliefs of modern native Americans, we could have some confidence that we would be seeing the Indians better by listening to today’s Indians. The interest in New England Indians also made sense to me, so we’ll do more on that. Next class the students will investigate the original inhabitants of their hometowns, the tribes they belonged to, and what they might have been like. I’ve also been putting together a GoogleEarth KMZ on native Americans, and we’ll add to that at the same time. That KMZ, by the way, has been very useful in illustrating where Cabeza de Vaca journied, where native villages and early colonies were located, and in the first weeks demonstrating how early humans might have come to North America and where we have evidence of early habitation. On days we couldn’t hold class because of the snow, I used screen shots like the one below to illustrate the virtual lecture web pages I put together on the LMS. THis one is the area around the early English settlements of Jamestown and Roanoke. Green circles represent native settlements, red triangles are English colonies, and white diamonds are tribal organizations.