Fire the imagination for the written word, and you'll fire the passion for learning.
So said the state of Montana's director of Indian Education, a poet and teacher who believes the power of prose will help narrow the achievement gap between American Indian students and their white counterparts.
"We have a very serious charge with ensuring that American Indian students experience greater success in school, that they have the opportunity to realize their educational potential," said Mandy Smoker Broaddus, a former teacher and administrator on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation who now works for the Office of Public Instruction.
Addressing teachers in the Margaret Johnson Theater at Sentinel High School on Thursday afternoon, Broaddus said it was the discovery of literature and poetry made possible by her teachers that held her up through some of the most traumatic moments of her life, and inspired her to eventually attend college.
Broaddus earned her bachelor's degree from Pepperdine University in California and her master's in fine arts from the University of Montana, where she received the Richard Hugo Scholarship.
Montana has a "unique mandate" to educate all its students about the state's rich Native history and traditions, and it must do more to reach and teach its population of Native American students, she said.
Too many students - especially Native ones - feel they have no voice, or that their voice doesn't matter. Writing, and not just poetic writing, can change that, Broaddus told the teachers. And that will make the students better in all subjects, not just English.
"If we can embed more literature that students can connect to and understand and relate to, it opens up a tremendous amount of possibilities for them," she said.
All around Sentinel High School on Thursday, more than 3,000 Montana teachers took in workshops, attended seminars and bonded as Big Sky educators at the annual Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers education conference, held once every four years in Missoula.
Continuing Friday, the confab lets teachers earn certification credits, shop for educational materials and listen to a host of speakers talk about everything from dealing with difficult parents to helping and teaching children who are victims of abuse or neglect.
For Broaddus, one of the best ways to reach children and inspire them to learn is by showing them the magic of self-expression through the written word.
Students who don't learn that lesson early on are in danger of falling behind or feeling that they're powerless and voiceless, she said.
Too often these at-risk students become a special group that builds its own walls - one with a world view that "I'm this kind of person and you're that kind of person," said Broaddus, author of "Another Attempt At Rescue," a collection of poems. "But there are things that connect them and bind them and that they can experience together through writing."
In Broaddus' experiences on the Fort Peck Reservation, Native students flourish in language if they are taught that it's the written word that lets them express their voice, and it's the written word that binds them to their culture, their past, their future and their environment.
"Some of their memory poems are so poignant and beautiful," she said. "And they really connect to an idea that's in the American Indian DNA: That they are where and who they come from."
As the state develops its own "Common Core Standards" (an initiative being adopted by many states), the OPI has been careful to include Indian Education goals, especially in the reading, writing and English skills section of the initiative.
If American Indian students are to bridge the gap, it will start with the written word, she said.
"We know that there's a lot of work there we have to do."
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.