National Writing Project

The E-Anthology Helps Create a Space for Access, Relevance, and Diversity

Date: March 2008

Summary: The 2007 E-Anthology gave members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana a venue for telling their stories—which sparked an empowering dialogue among sites across the NWP network.

 

I am a large buffalo robe, spread wide, displaying variant shades of brown. I am furry, shaggy, and matted in places. My hide is thick, heavy, and warm.

I welcome you to sit and imagine a far off time when there was a people that depended on the buffalo (enee) for a way of life.

The Real People lived the circle way of life. Everything was connected and everything had meaning in an encompassing way of knowing.

So begins an E-Anthology entry by Kathy Kipp, a member of the Blackfeet tribe and teacher on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.

What I didn't anticipate was the power of voice it would give a population of people whose stories have rarely been heard by a national audience.

Kipp and her colleagues at the 2007 Montana Writing Project Browning Summer Institute wrote vivid and sometimes haunting pieces exploring Blackfeet history and the issues that affect the education of Blackfeet children today. The connections they made in their writing extended beyond their institute in Browning, however, reaching a national audience of teachers through NWP's E-Anthology.

The E-Anthology provides participants a safe online space to publish their writing and reflections during their institutes. In 2007, 144 sites from around the country participated, giving participants the experience of sharing writing across the nation through online forums.

Both Blackfeet and nonnative teachers were part of Browning's summer institute. The writing they posted created a passionate dialogue about the Blackfeet past and present in places ranging from Arkansas to Alabama to Pennsylvania.

"Sharing my knowledge benefited those who have the urge to know about our present Blackfeet practices and beliefs," said Rusty Tatsey, a Blackfeet teacher who has taught in the Browning School District for eighteen years. "The institution strengthened my native belief, by the fact that it's okay to be different and we still need other opinions to make the world whole around us more comprehensible."

"I was already enthused about the power of this online, rather anonymous way for writers to receive feedback from readers around the country," said Wendy Warren, director of the Browning satellite. "What I didn't anticipate was the power of voice it would give a population of people whose stories—especially contemporary stories—have rarely been heard by a national audience."

Exploring Native Language—and Educational Policy Issues

Koo-koo-mii-ki-soom (Moon) shining from the west. I face east, looking at the majestic peaks of Curly Bear Mountain, the barren rock cliffs, the tree line extending to the highest elevation in which they can thrive. Silence, broken only by the small stream as it threads its way through the Oak-ka-toks (rocks).

The use of the language itself helped open discussions about access, equity, and relevance.

As in this excerpt by Tatsey, many of the pieces posted included Blackfeet language, which, like many native American languages, is struggling to stay alive. The use of the language itself helped open discussions about access, equity, and relevance in the institute. In fact, as Woody Kipp pointed out in one post, Blackfeet is the name given to the tribe by the U.S. government—Pikuni is the true name.

"As our summer institute's writing and conversation moved from the personal to the classroom, because of the trust built through the sharing of story, we were able to begin asking some hard questions about issues of relevance, access, and diversity within our communities and inside the institution of education itself," said Warren.

In one post, Leslie Haggar, a member of the writing assessment team for the Browning School District, discusses a program mandated by her district. "Because the program fails to provide culturally relevant materials, our students' needs aren't being met. How do we convince our administrators that being locked in a scripted program does not benefit our students? What can we do to enhance what we have so that our children feel some connection to the lessons?"

"Even far across the country, problems seem to be the same," wrote Amber Berry of the Sun Belt Writing Project in Auburn, Alabama. "I teach in a predominantly African American high school in Alabama where my children have no sense of pride in themselves. My goal this year is to incorporate literature of their culture so that they might begin to care about their roots and the people who contributed to those roots."

Looking Through Others' Eyes

Writing was also a tool that allowed non-Blackfeet writers to better understand the historical experience of the Blackfeet. For example, Haggar posted a chilling poem about an old mission boarding school whose purpose was to assimilate Indian students years ago. Institute participants visited the remains of the mission as a "reflective journey" one day.

Hear the voices, soft whispered rustles, moaning and sighing
In the gathering gloom,

In the cottonwood, the ancient cottonwoods,

Which guard the crumbling tomb.

They whisper of loss, of family, of culture, the freedom of
their lands.

When the brothers, the Jesuit brothers

Dragged them from their mothers' hands.

"I am so enamored by your site and the writings on the E-Anthology that have their origin there," wrote Mike Rush from the National Writing Project of Central Arkansas. "Yes, it is a chasm, and you are wrestling. It's hard to remember at times that there are countless of us standing at the edge of the mat cheering you on as you wrestle."

As with many budding teacher-writers across the nation, Haggar felt supported to go further with her writing. "When we, as writers, take a risk by going outside the boundaries of our comfort level, it helps to have a supportive ear who says, 'Not bad, keep trying!'"

Sharing Stories to Build Bridges

Warren said that summer institute participants seemed to feel more empowered as their pieces drew readers from across the country.

"Might it be possible that, as happened within our summer institute, the sharing of stories from all the diverse communities within the NWP network could open hearts and minds to a new willingness to learn from people whose stories and contexts are unfamiliar?" said Warren.

In fact, the experience gave her a vision for how the E-Anthology might be used to enhance the experience of participants in summer institutes within the NWP network:

Summer institute participants seemed to feel more empowered as their pieces drew readers from across the country.

  • Everyone has stories to tell.
  • Stories are multilayered teaching texts.
  • Stories provide the reader a personal look inside a culture, including home languages that might be new to them.
  • Reading stories of people whose life experiences differ from ours is a powerful way to grow understanding and compassion.
  • The sharing of stories helps build community—locally and nationally.
  • An author's sense of empowerment increases exponentially with the size and range of the audience.
  • The E-Anthology can provide access for voices that are often silent to be heard in a national community.

You might say that Wendy Warren has summed up the goals of the E-Anthology. A writing project site is never just local, after all, but part of the NWP Network. There are many stories to hear, many stories to write.

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