A Remedy to Heal Divisions: Realigning Languages, Not Maligning Cultures

Melanie Stultz-Backus,
PLL Literacy Consultant


A Remedy to Heal Divisions: Realigning Languages, Not Maligning Cultures

“I quit school,” he said, and he sat back at the table.

“Quit?” Beth said.

“What did you expect?” he said. “ I didn’t know what I was doing there. I didn’t even want to go. I did it to stop your nagging.”

“You didn’t even try,” Beth said.

“For fuck’s sake,” Fellis said. “I didn’t belong there…—And I tried to pay attention but when I realized I’d spent two weeks—…thinking we were talking about that clothing brand—what’s it called,” he snapped his fingers, ‘—Aeropostale, yeah, that’s it—but we were actually talking about some guy named Aristotle, I knew I was screwed.”

Morgan Talty, from “Get Me Some Medicine,” Night of the Living Rez, 2022

This poignantly hilarious exchange between a young Penobscot man and his mother, a middle school teacher, points up the disillusionments and disjunctions of what it means to be part of public education systems in the 21st century, USA. The disparities between what is and what is “supposed to be” haunt, taunt and contort. With pressures from community, parents and the governing boards that direct schools—local, state and federal— the ideals that sustain teachers through self-doubt and doubt about the purpose of public schooling are under assault. Teachers need to reconvene a meeting of ideas inside themselves to counteract and counterbalance facile prescriptions.

Every week, every month in the public school culture there are deadlines to meet; every day the work of bringing the stuff of one’s discipline to each class with inventiveness and depth presses. The crucible of teaching practice creates fulfillment, but there are insidious by-products. The contrast between timeless satisfaction and the relentlessness of time’s constraints builds tension. Too often moments of reflection give way to immediate needs for a product, despite one’s resolutions to analyze and refine the process. Such is the quest for the transmuting power of the retort. If we are to remedy tensions, and salve the alienation our students experience, more consideration of how to dismantle barriers to universal literacies must be honored in our professional lives.

Teachers feel dissatisfaction with how students are learning. A quantitative scale to determine “learnedness” feels hollow; the attempt to convert assessments to qualitative matrices come up against resistance from the wider community. Do more books read and more “reports” written add up to a superior understanding of any discipline? Wide reading is laudable, but superficial reading and writing is forgettable.

In the last quarter century the split between students who have or don’t have cultural capital has become a widening gulf. We say we value the attainment of high standards for all students, yet even for students who have benefited from privilege, the act of reading is too often regarded as perplexing, mysterious, annoying, intimidating or worthless. It is a philistinism that has survived despite the widely held understanding that critical thinking must be nurtured and cultivated from early childhood through secondary school—yet the lack of grappling with ideas persists in conventional schooling. How can we find a cure?

Does this phenomenon exist because of problems in transliteration? What are the divergent alphabets that rule print media and other media? Is there an essential disconnection that teachers are missing? Are our students unable to bring their experience and insights about popular culture across into the world of books because we are somehow overlooking a means of transliterating, then translating? We must understand how students learn to read the world.

Teachers often look to other teachers for inspiration and support. Writers too are mentors who can help us reach answers. Their voices can set us on a clear path towards resolution of the imperative questions about how we and others read the world. The study of tribal writers of the Americas from the 20th and 21st centuries reveals the force, wisdom and authority of tribal people’s world view, shaped by robust oral cultures as well as Euro-American ideas of the primacy of print.

Leslie Marmon Silko, Laguna Pueblo, and Ray Young Bear, Mesquakie, converge to articulate a credo for seeing the world truly and acting in it responsibly and daringly. We thank our many and diverse cultural forebears for keeping us attuned to ideas and ideals; our contemporaries instruct us about how to keep heart in the 21st century.

Silko and Young Bear were born between 1945 and 1955; despite fundamental cultural differences arising from their tribal identities, we share among us a specific zeitgeist that encompasses post-World War II and VietNam Era sensibilities, complete with references to music, television and movies. More significant than these incidental, humorous likenesses are the strands of traditional adherence to an ancient vital principle of cultural sovereignty in defiance of the prevailing American mainstream.

How can writers’ voices apart from the mainstream help the teacher navigate an even course through the obstacles of working closely with students? They alert us to the realities of inequity, they reawaken us to the unsolved problems of social injustice, they keep us alive to the necessity of cultivating more than what is expected in our intellectual cosmos. They prove the absolute currency of language.

Young Bear calls himself a “word-collector.” An heir of a vigorous oral tradition, he learned not only how to read and write first in his native Mesquakie, but also how to bring his thoughts over into English. His bilingual genius enables him to mediate between worlds. This is what we want all good readers and all good writers to do. In his 1992 fictional memoir, Black Eagle Child: The Facepaint Chronicles, he writes: “ For too long we have been misrepresented and culturally maligned by an ungrateful country of Euro-American citizens who have all but burned their own bridges to the past”(140). His critique of Euro-American culture arises from his Mesquakie being, yet he speaks for any minority, any class. When we insist on imposing a set of values on students, whether or not we intentionally demean their inheritances, we are inflicting harm. In the everyday pursuit of teaching kids to read and write, we are walking a thin line between validating their unique fluency with language and putting more value on the canon of conventional schooling in its many dimensions. As we wrangle with issues of required or censored booklists, reading rights and reading wrongs, we would do well to step back and consider what greater validity written words have above spoken ones.

Leslie Marmon Silko is an inheritor of oral tradition and a poet, novelist, storyteller and artist. In her 1996 book of essays, Yellow Woman and the Beauty of the Spirit, she makes a cogent point about the relative reliability of written and spoken words: “One has only to look at the volumes of corrections and emendations of James Joyce’s texts or the ever-shifting translations of Marcel Proust to realize that the written word is no more and no less reliable than the spoken word”(172). Silko points out both a fault and a fear of a common educational philosophy. We are too often guilty of overvaluing written language without thinking about its weaknesses; our fear is that if print is lost, then culture will be lost. A robust oral culture has no such fears. We must discover, as both Young Bear and Silko have done, a way to mediate between cultures without denigrating the one less familiar to us. Such mediation has curative properties.

We can confer with these writers, and many more of our contemporaries, such as Mr. Talty, to find out how language works in “unschooled” cultures outside narrow borders. Language treads common ground and crosses frontiers, but even in a common landscape there are darkened and unreadable reaches. Gathered at the conference table, a new body of linguists, the teachers we are, the writers we respect, and the leaders we hope to become, can re-form a vital pattern for transliterating, and then translating, unknown alphabets into a common and universal literacy. Our hopes for helping students become educated people of the world must center on the power of transliterating from the alphabet of one language to the alphabet of another. Alphabets can line up, words can be spelled out, and thoughts can make a clear passage between cultures. No more maligning, but instead realigning not only words, but ideas, in a consecrated understanding among cultures. When our students cry out “Get me some medicine,” these are benign and potent remedies for the bodies of misrepresented cultures and classes in our currently misaligned nation.

Melanie Stultz-Backus, M.Ed., Literacy Consultant for PLL

Melanie is a retired English teacher whose career spanned thirty years at Mount Abraham Union High School in Bristol, Vermont. She first worked as a Chapter I teacher of reading, collaborating in many classrooms across the disciplines in Grades 7-12; next, she taught an array of required and elective courses in grades 9-12.  American Studies, a course in 20th century Literature, History and Culture she team-taught for over twenty years, was critical to her growth as a practitioner of collaborative teaching and performance based learning. Influenced by mentors from her high school and college years, she strove to make student agency central to her teaching. Mount Abraham’s early initiative of a school-within-a-school focused on both personalized learning and rigorous development of competencies and performance based assessments. Melanie was privileged to integrate her roles as teacher leader, literacy coach and English instructor into efforts to refine and forward the goals of the Performance Assessment Working Group under the Investing in Innovation (i3) grant through the Center for Secondary School Redesign (CSSR, Providence, RI). This culminating experience deepened her interest and expertise in authentic learning, the art of coaching, and cooperative approaches to professional development as exemplified by Critical Friends Groups’ philosophies. She treasured her twenty-year tenure as a member of the Coordinating Committee of the New England Young Writers’ Conference at Breadloaf. In 2008 Melanie was named a UVM Outstanding Teacher for the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union.