Many Eyes, Many Voices visits Indian Township
Outside Indian Township School, the August morning hangs heavy and hot over Big Lake. Within the hallways, the air swells with a heady mix of disinfectant and anticipation. Teachers wielding staple guns, nametags, and clipboards decorate classrooms that will be filled with Passamaquoddy students just three days from now. Only in the school library does the commotion subside as tribal elder Wayne Newell blesses a gathering of educators by invoking a spirit of reflection and respect.
| Core titles for Many
Eyes, Many Voices
ABC's of Maine
Written & Illustrated by Harry W. Smith
A Chair For My Mother
Written & Illustrated by Vera Williams
Houses and Homes
Ann Morris, Photographs by Ken Heyman
Night Shift Daddy
Eileen Spinelli, Illustrated by Melissa Iwai
A Somali Alphabet
Nadifo Ayanle, Illustrated by Melissa Girardin
The Ugly Vegetables
Written & Illustrated by Grace Lin
Visiting Aunt Sylvia's
Written & Illustrated by Heather Austin
We Are All Alike, We are All Different
Written & Illustrated by Cheltenham Elementary School Kindergarteners
We Can Do It!
Margy Burns Knight , Illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien
What A Wonderful World
George Weiss and Bob Thiele, Illustrated by Ashley Bryan
It is here that the Maine Humanities Council presents its Born to Read training Many Eyes, Many Voices: Talking About Difference Through Children's Literature. The Council collaborated with Maine Indian Education, the Downeast Child Care Resource Development Center, and the Washington County Consortium for School Improvement to bring together teachers and childcare providers from two distinct Passamaquoddy communities Indian Township and Pleasant Point for this training.
In the two years since its inception, Many Eyes, Many Voices has provided training and books to over 600 teachers, providers, and volunteers. The program is designed to introduce ways for its participants to help the children in their care begin to appreciate difference. Often, the challenge is convincing providers that even in groups that appear homogenous, children notice and are eager to talk about differences in areas such as ability, family structure, and religion. Today's training is the first to reach the Passamaquoddy population, and this new effort produces new challenges.
Approximately half of the caregivers gathered here are non-native, while the other half are Passamaquoddy. Although they receive no formal cultural training, non-native teachers and providers are immersed in local culture.
"I think I've learned more about Passamaquoddy traditions and history than I learned about my own heritage in my education," notes Shirley, who works at a day care center at Pleasant Point. All the teachers are acutely aware of what sets Passamaquoddy children apart, and while they celebrate this uniqueness, they don't care to dwell on it.
Sherry, a kindergarten teacher at the Indian Township School, says her students already know they're different when they come to her class. "When do we get to focus on what we all have in common?" she wonders.
Council scholar Linda Levesque points to the books on display for the training, titles selected for Many Eyes, Many Voices by a committee of scholars. "You'll like these books," she says. "They celebrate how we're different and how we're alike." Sherry's response captures the hunger for resources in Washington County, where poverty and unemployment rates are among the highest in the nation and where 18% of adults function at the lowest rate of literacy. "I like books no matter what," she says. "I eat them up."
Levesque's co-trainer is Dennis Corso, Ph.D., who has worked to bring technology to Washington County's rural schools so that teachers can share resources from a distance. Now he uses this technology to project the image of a book cover onto a screen, and the library fills with nervous laughter. The 1971 title is Not Enough Indians, and every participant recognizes at a glance that it is hopelessly archaic. Their critique of its images and language headdress, trading post, squaw is shrewd and decisive. Yet when the book has been thoroughly deconstructed and rejected as obsolete, Corso opens the cover to reveal the imprints of three Washington County libraries where it has been shelved next to other "easy readers." Difference can be affirmed in a lesson plan, but stereotypes lurk in unforeseen spots. Corso's example reminds teachers and providers that they need to be prepared to talk with children about stereotypes wherever they emerge.
Corso and Levesque hand out the bookbags provided by the Council and ask participants to think about questions they might face when sharing the books with the children in their care. Each bag holds the twelve core Many Eyes, Many Voices titles (see list above). At first, the discussion is reluctant-the teachers are too busy reading. They're captivated by illustrations of the Maine woods in Heather Austin's Visiting Aunt Sylvia's, and the gentle father in Eileen Spinelli's Night Shift Daddy brings tears to their eyes. "We're just like kids," offers the preschool teacher from Indian Township. "You give us books, we're going to look at the books."
With some coaxing, participants turn to the questions and activities they envision using to discuss the stories' themes. This is the essence of the Born to Read training, which goes beyond distributing books, taking the uncommon step of inviting caregivers to talk about them. After all, the Born to Read mission is not only about reading aloud to children from birth. It's about nourishing a passion for books and ideas in Maine's youngest citizens by engaging them in topics like difference themes that transcend the individual and help children negotiate their place in Maine's evolving communities.
Before the teachers return to their frantic preparations, Levesque and Corso hope to bring the focus back to the local level. Wayne Newell is part of the "culture team" responsible for enhancing the curriculum in the two Passamaquoddy schools with tribal language, music, art, stories, and other cultural content. He reminds participants that "school is not a native structure." Even as Passamaquoddy childcare sites and schools attempt to meet federally mandated standards, they devote significant energy to preserving the oral tradition. The culture team has begun translating children's books into the Passamaquoddy language, but they are careful to select books with relevance to the community. "The translation doesn't always do it," says Newell. "You have to have the spirit."
That spirit is palpable as culture team member Gracie Davis reads aloud from her translation of Roy Henry Vickers' The Elders Are Watching. She leans close to the pages where she has affixed her version above the English words with Scotch tape. The Passamaquoddy caregivers in the room mouth the sentences silently as she speaks. From the library walls, tribal elders are watching from framed photographs, arranged reverently like a child's favorite stories, just above the shelves of books.
Brita Zitin is a program officer for the MHC's Born to Read