ARLEE – Go inside Anna Baldwin’s classroom at Arlee High School, and there are times you’d swear you had walked into a history class, or one studying American government.
That might not be your last guess – chemistry class comes to mind – but it might be close.
Yet there the English II sophomores are, studying Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, or the Flathead Irrigation Project.
Why? Because they’re going to read “Wind from an Enemy Sky” by D’Arcy McNickle. It’s a fictional story centered on a very real event: the construction of Kerr Dam on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1930s.
And Baldwin wants them to understand everything – including the Hellgate Treaty – that led to the real events into which McNickle inserted his fictional characters.
“I can’t divorce literature from its historical and social context,” Baldwin explains. “With ‘Wind from an Enemy Sky’ it’s so obvious. I have to connect the life the students are living to the book they’re reading in class.”
Baldwin does it with every book the teenagers read in English II.
“We do a unit on Jim Crow laws before we read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” she says. “Some people say I’m a history teacher in disguise, but I believe you have to incorporate the historical and contemporary social issues with the literature.”
When Baldwin had questions about tribal history as she developed her approach to “Enemy Sky,” she often put them to Julie Cajune, then director of development at Nkwusm, the Salish language school in Arlee.
When Cajune was awarded a $1.4 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in 2010 to develop a variety of projects associated with authentic tribal histories, she remembered the Arlee teacher who went the extra mile to make sure the tribal perspective was part of her lesson plans.
And that led to “Inside Anna’s Classroom,” a 54-minute documentary produced by Cajune that follows Baldwin’s English II class as it prepares to read McNickle’s novel.
The documentary premieres Thursday morning at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, where Cajune is now director of the American Indian Center for Policy and Applied Research.
Baldwin and 10 of the 12 students who appear in the film will be there.
“It was going to be a surprise,” says Baldwin, a Georgetown University graduate who taught at Two Eagle River School for four years and has been at Arlee High School the last nine.
“I was going to tell them a photographer had come to take their picture, take them all outside, and a bus would be waiting to take us to the premiere,” she goes on. “But there are a few copies of the film out there and people were starting to talk about the premiere, so I had to tell them.”
The documentary is intended primarily for other educators, so they can see how one teacher goes beyond studying Sitting Bull and Geronimo, or focusing on Native American crafts and dwellings, to incorporate Native American themes into her classroom.
But Sarah Bennett, managing editor at the American Indian Center for Policy and Applied Research, says more than teachers can take something away from it.
“It celebrates work being done by a racially diverse group, to cross barriers and discuss topics adults have a hard time discussing sometimes,” Bennett says. “The kids do it with real ease, and handle it with such grace. I think the film could be a benefit to anybody.”
Cajune, who was on another project that had her out of cellphone service Tuesday, will also be back for the film’s first formal showing, at the Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Theatre on the SKC campus.
“Inside Anna’s Classroom” – the subtitle is “A Model for Best Practices” – shows Baldwin’s students trying to group words from the U.S. Constitution their teacher has written on sticky notes into some form of their relationship to each other.
They move on to Article 6 and its Supremacy Clause, where they get just three words – “federal,” “state” and “tribes” – on sticky notes. How would the students place them to show their relationship to one another?
“They had to get this, and none of them got it at the start,” says Baldwin, who stresses that the federal government had to view Indian tribes as equals in order to negotiate and sign treaties with them. Article 6 also establishes the U.S. Constitution, and all laws and treaties made in accordance with it, as the supreme law of the land, and that states, their courts and constitutions are subordinate to it.
The proper placing of the sticky notes, therefore, would have “federal” and “tribes” next to each another, and “state” below them.
“It was a real eye-opener for them, and a real eye-opener for me that they didn’t know that,” Baldwin says. It led to a discussion among the students of everything from hunting rights to tribal jurisdiction.
At another point, Baldwin removes all references to “Hellgate Treaty” and cuts the treaty into chunks, passes them around and asks the students to figure out what document they’re looking at in piecemeal form.
This section of the unit is called the “tea party,” and the reference has nothing to do with the present-day conservative group, or even the tea party in Boston in 1773. To deduce the identity of the document they’ve been given clues to, they mingle and talk with one another, as one might at an actual tea party.
The students also employ a Socratic circle, where half form a small circle on the floor to discuss the treaty, and the other half sit in desks around them and analyze not the treaty, but the discussion itself.
It brings out some interesting viewpoints – Baldwin says some of the best occur when students verbalize a thought after prolonged, awkward silences – about whether the treaty was good or, given the potential consequences had it not been signed, bad for Indian people.
The unit ends with a field trip to Kerr Dam itself, where Bill Swaney, head of the Salish Kootenai College Natural Resources Department, explains the effects Kerr Dam has had on the Flathead River, a sacred place to Indians. Even that, Baldwin says, induces a dialogue among the students, given that the dam has become an important source of revenue for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
It’s a far cry from a classroom that studies the difference between a wigwam and a tepee, and calls it Indian education.
And it happens in an English literature classroom. Among other places, “Inside Anna’s Classroom” will be available to educators from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at email@example.com.