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Teacher conveys tolerance; award honors work on reservation

Sherman Alexie accepts the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” at the 58th National Book Awards in New York in November 2007. (Associated Press)
Sherman Alexie accepts the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” at the 58th National Book Awards in New York in November 2007. (Associated Press)

ARLEE, Mont. – When high school students in the Bitterroot Valley finished reading a Sherman Alexie novel last year, their teacher was concerned with the primary impact the book by the Native American author seemed to have on them.

Why would anyone, they wondered, choose to live on an Indian reservation, or remain there if that’s where they were from?

The research they did seemed to back up their feelings, showing high rates of poverty, alcoholism and teen pregnancy.

The teacher emailed her friend, Anna Baldwin, wondering if she had any ideas on how to present a different side of reservation life.

Baldwin had more than an idea.

She had classrooms full of students who live on a reservation.

Baldwin, who has taught for 14 years on the Flathead Indian Reservation, the past 10 at Arlee High School, took a handful of her students to the Bitterroot school to meet with the 35 seniors who had read Alexie’s novel.

“I picked five or six students who are articulate, knowledgeable and good at engaging with others,” Baldwin said. “There was one senior, but the rest were freshmen and sophomores.”

Some were Indian, some were not. They divided into groups, fielded questions on those tough subjects of poverty, alcoholism and teen pregnancy, and explained the upsides to reservation life.

“Students like Donovan McDonald, who is a drummer and singer, talked about the positives of growing up in the culture, and how important family and community are on a reservation,” Baldwin said.

She’s not sure it changed minds – “They’d heard so much the other way,” Baldwin said – but she agrees with the parent who emailed her saying it was good for the students’ voices to be heard, and heard outside their own community.

Anna Baldwin has been named one of five educators in the nation who will receive the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching.

The center’s Teaching Tolerance program, it says, works to “foster school environments that are inclusive and nurturing – classrooms where equality and justice are not just taught, but lived.”

The other four winners are all from urban schools in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and Florida.

“These educators have demonstrated remarkable skill for teaching and inspiring students from diverse backgrounds,” Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, said in announcing the selections.

Each will receive $1,000, and be flown to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 25 awards ceremony.

Baldwin said her philosophy has been to recognize that culture is not limited to one’s ethnicity.

“Yes, we live on a reservation and that’s part of it,” she said. But “there is teen culture, home culture, as well as traditional culture. We have students from Native American families, homesteader families, cowboy culture – and some whose backgrounds include all three.”

“For everything, we try to use multiple perspectives,” Baldwin said, “and find other ways of looking at things.”

That’s true when her history classes study Lewis and Clark’s travels through Montana, Baldwin said, and true when her students read Sherman Alexie.

“That’s one of the largest criticisms of Alexie,” Baldwin said, “that he perpetuates stereotypes, but I don’t think he purposely does that – I think he’s using humor and irony.”

Baldwin should know – she co-authored a book, along with Heather E. Bruce of the University of Montana and Christobel Umphrey of Salish Kootenai College, called “Sherman Alexie in the Classroom.”

Baldwin’s Arlee students read Alexie’s award-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” as sophomores, and his “Reservation Blues” is among students’ choices in another class.

She’s almost embarrassed about how she came to be considered for the Teaching Tolerance Award.

“I like their stuff and I’m on their mailing list,” she explains, “and that’s where I read about it. It sounds tacky, but you sort of apply for it yourself, and I thought I could come up with something to say.”

There were “six big questions” concerning culturally responsive teaching and how to implement it in the classroom. Baldwin answered those, sent them in, and three months later learned she was a semifinalist and was asked to write a supplement to her original submission.

That led to her being named a finalist, and then she was contacted, told she was one of the winners, and informed a film crew would arrive in Arlee that Friday to make a video about her and her students.

Her students think it turned out pretty well. The video is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, and you can also view it at


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