American Snippet

Content warning: contains racist slurs, swears, and expressions of hate

American Sniper is a movie based on a book that includes proven lies. Under typical circumstances, I would not waste my breath, my keystrokes, or my brain cells on it.

These are not typical circumstances.

In the last six weeks, I have been unfriended by no fewer than a dozen people on Facebook for engaging in “anti-military rhetoric” on my timeline. Whoop-de-doo. I lose friends all the time, usually acquaintances who are shocked when I speak up about something with which they disagree. While it’s no secret to most of my friends that I am non-violent and regularly engage in conversation regarding alternatives to war and violence, I guess people were surprised that I was vocal about my disgust with the hero worship of Chris Kyle and his self-aggrandizing book-turned-movie. And I was surprised that my criticism for a movie garnered sexist, racist vitriol, militaristic one-liners, misunderstandings of the word slander, and suggestions to stand in front of a spray of bullets.

Actually, I wasn’t surprised.

Last things first: I don’t generally use the word pacifist because most people misinterpret it as a passive choice. I am a non-violent activist. It may become my job to stand in the way of violence, between the oppressor and the oppressed. So when someone says, If you don’t stand behind the military, feel free to stand in front of them, chances are there may be a time I may be faced with such an option (I mean, this is one of my favorite books…). Saying this to me doesn’t make me rethink my position, but it makes the person saying it look simplistic and cruel.

I focus a lot of my blog posts on intersectional feminism in K-12 education. That’s the setting in which I work. It’s the focus of my masters program. It’s where I see myself working for the foreseeable future. So how does American Sniper fit in? It fits because of Benvolio.

Benvolio is not Benvolio’s real name. But there is a student whose family moved here from Iraq in 2008, and he is my Benvolio in Romeo & Juliet this year. He is, quite possibly, the brightest student I have ever had the pleasure to teach. He is the main reason I wish we were not using an adapted script: he came to our first rehearsal with his entire part memorized. So we gave him an additional part. He comes to me each week with ideas for his character, for staging, for mood. His instincts are good, which is notable because he can’t see the entire stage. He wears argyle sweater vests. He’s a pretty typical high school kid, he just happens to have a cane and read Braille.

He is also Muslim.

During my undergrad coursework, I heard over and over again that school needs to be a safe, inclusive, accessible environment for every student. Many of my professors iterated the guideline that celebrating holidays in school marginalizes students of diverse religious and cultural backgrounds and students who live in poverty. I have an ongoing dilemma trying to reconcile that with the Deaf school norm of celebrating every mainstream holiday because for some students, it is the only access to the background and explanations they have.

I have seen awful posts on Facebook about American Sniper. I have seen disgusting tweets. In short, the film offers a simplistic view of a war that is all grey, and does not inspire the best responses in much of the target audience. It is this response I will address, just to keep my notes as brief as possible.

This is the kind of thing Benvolio can read online. It’s also the kind of thing his friends and classmates can read online. With the number of students in our schools who are Muslim, or who come from predominantly Muslim countries, or who just happen to be brown and encounter people who don’t know anything about world religions and/or geography, American Sniper inspires a hatred and a brand of fevered nationalism that is dangerous to their emotional well-being, their concept of self, and their safety in school.

I’m posting a few examples; the rest can be found from even a cursory search or from this Storify.

Usually I stay out of Facebook comment conversations, especially those that are political. My acquaintances save me the trouble of unfriending them by deleting me first, but I wish they would view the world through a different lens. A lens that sees the damage this film can inflict, the hatred spewed by its most ardent of fans, and the attitudes expressed by even some of the more reasonable of fans. It’s a problem for students like Benvolio, for his family, for his community. When we paint the world as black-and-white, the white people generally write the narrative. And it isn’t the kind of narrative in which the hero thinks critically about his actions, sees the Other as a whole human person, or considers the nuance of the story into which he’s written. And when we consume the narrative as uncritically as it was written, we legitimize it.

Bilingual Privilege

When I finished student teaching, I worked as a substitute paraprofessional while I waited for my teaching certificate to process. One day, I accepted a one-day sub job at a local elementary school which turned out to be in the Spanish immersion first grade shadowing two students with some minor behavioral challenges. I did not know it would be in Spanish immersion until I arrived. I am not fluent in Spanish. I barely have a survival knowledge of Spanish. Those first graders owned me.

Speaking of my survival knowledge of Spanish: I took two years in high school, which was enough to test out of a semester at college. I took four semesters of ASL, which satisfied my language requirement. My friends took Spanish, German, French, or ASL. A few took Classics (Greek and Latin). My Deaf Ed. classmates and I would practice signing whenever we could, but we would revert back to English for difficult conversations or when we were tired. No one judged us or gave us the side-eye for using our native tongue.

A Google search for “baby sign” pulls up over 491,000,000 hits. I think by now the whole idea of “baby sign” has jumped the shark, but for a while it was everywhere. Except, you know, most speech-language pathologists’ or audiologists’ offices. Advocates were touting how baby sign could boost the language and communication abilities of hearing babies, while parents of deaf babies were hearing that letting their children sign would prevent them from ever learning to speak.

And now, finally, I get to my point: In the U.S., bilingualism is considered an asset if your first language is the privileged tongue. Otherwise, you are a liability. Not just your language–your person is a liability.

My students are on track to be bilingual adults. They are already fairly bilingual children, navigating a world of English and sign language, adeptly code-switching based on their environments and conversational partners. Voice off with the Deaf counselor, voice on for the librarian. Each of them is the only deaf or hard-of-hearing person in his or her family, and they are developing the skills to communicate their needs and be happy little humans that are growing into happy full-sized humans. BUT–they are behind in reading and writing and most other measures of English proficiency. At least two of them will probably need interpreter services for a long time, possibly forever. One of my students is tri-lingual, and he owns it. He is proud of his languages, as well he should be. He can tell you his family is from Mexico and that they speak Spanish. He can tell you he is Deaf and that he uses sign language. He can tell you that he also uses English. But he reads a year behind grade level, so he’s failing.

There’s a little mandated test here that measures a non-native English-speaking student’s English proficiency and, presumably, growth. Here’s the kicker: since the test measures English, directions cannot be signed. Even if a student could complete an English writing task if given the directions in ASL, the directions must still be given in spoken English. So our deaf students who take the test never show any growth, even when their English does, in fact, improve. English is the language of privilege; growth cannot be shown on your own terms.

Here in Idaho, students who immigrate are given a one-year waiver on state standardized tests. After that, they must take the language, reading, and math tests in English at grade level. The score is included in the school’s reporting. After a year in the country. Only once in my life have I seen a student become proficient in English in a year; I’m pretty sure that student is quite an anomaly.

In Deaf education, we talk a lot about providing language-rich environments, not just English-rich environments. We use ASL and English all day. We use strategies like chaining and sandwiching and fingerspelling to connect the two languages. We read and we write. We use sticky notes and we draw pictures. We record ourselves signing and we watch the videos and revise and rerecord. This is the advantage to working at a residential program. Well, most of the time, anyway. Every so often, someone thinks we are ruining the kids by letting them sign. But one look at my kids and you can see that they are so not ruined, I almost don’t even have to defend my philosophy any more.

In the Spanish immersion class I mentioned before, the students were all white. And there was a waiting list a mile long to get kids in to the program, which ran from Kindergarten through grade 5. The school also had an ELL/ESL program. Those students were not white. Those students were labeled “at-risk.” You know, because they speak Spanish (or one of the other forty-plus languages spoken in that region).

In my experiences, students who are ELL/ESL/LEP (limited English proficient) are targeted for special intervention and pulled out of class for direct instruction or tutoring by an ELL/ESL teacher. These classrooms are usually small. The teacher’s caseload is usually quite sizable. The environment is far from “language rich.” The students are tested and probed often. This is called “progress monitoring,” but I think we should call it “How to be an Acceptable American Student in 1000 Data Sheets.” Language richness and context don’t fit on data sheets. English English English.

In the U.S., the students most likely to be the most naturally bilingual are the ones whose bilingualism is the least likely to be celebrated. What’s more, the United States of America has more monolingual “experts” on bilingual education than any other country in the world.*  This is what we tell ELL/ESL kids: If your first language is not English, you get pulled out of your class. You get removed from a print-rich, language-rich, context-rich environment. Eventually you’ll figure out that you are “at risk.” Because even though English is not your first language, you are not stupid, and you can figure it out. Your friends? They can go to an immersion class. Their budding bilingualism is an asset. They will be Leaders, because ours is increasingly a bilingual world. But the English speakers are the rule makers, so your bilingualism is still a liability

*Bahruth, 2004  Perspectives on Teaching English Language Learners.  Heath/Serrano (Eds.)  Newberry, FL:  Glanzer Press.

Knots on a Counting Rope, or How Feminism Ruined My Childhood

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault Illustrated by Ted Rand

Book Cover: Knots on a Counting Rope
by Bill Martin, Jr., and John Archambault
Illustrated by Ted Rand

This week, a small piece of my childhood died.

My students love Reading Rainbow. I started using the old episodes when Idaho hooked every teacher up with a subscription to Discovery Education. Over 150 old episodes are available for streaming, and most of them are captioned for my deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I interpret them anyway, but the captions really help my students catch vocabulary words and sentence structure. When we read If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, we watched the accompanying Reading Rainbow, which was fascinating: we got to watch some great domino-crash cause-and-effect footage. It tickles my nostalgia bone, too. I was thrilled to find the episode with the clip about making paper from recycled denim. With that many episodes, we find a lot of uses for integrating the videos into our units.

I am starting a unit on the Native American tribes of Idaho. I sought some videos and books to introduce the unit so we had some common literature experiences. Reading Rainbow offered an episode featuring Knots on a Counting Rope. I hadn’t read that book in years and only had vague (but positive) memories of the story. So I previewed the video and cracked open the book.

Intersectional Feminism ruined a piece of my childhood this week.

This book was a classic, a staple of every elementary classroom. It features Indians! And a blind kid! And he overcomes his blindness and becomes one with nature! How great is that!

I wish I could say I read this story to my kids and they loved it and the end. Or I guess I’m glad I can say I didn’t and they didn’t and NOT the end.

This book is an example of intersectional (or what I call “ampersandwiched”) literature: it portrays the intersection between two areas of marginalization. But this book is done poorly, as many attempts by authors who are not Native and who do not have disabilities are. It falls into a number of common traps.

  • The “Magical Native American” or “Mystic Shaman” trope is present in speaking to the wind and the horses speaking to the newborn, among others. Most of this book could fall under that stereotype. This cliché depends upon the idea that all Native Americans commune with nature and are imbued with special powers or insight because of that connection. The mystic shaman is considered by many to be a positive stereotype, but it is a stereotype nonetheless. Stereotypes limit the depths of characters and limit our understanding to a flat representation.
  • The “Magical Differently Abled Person” trope is present in the character of the grandson. In overcoming his fear of racing his horse while blind (by becoming one with nature, by the way), we are meant to feel inspired by him. I wrote a paper on this for my Feminist Theory class last semester: going about life with a disability does not automatically make someone “inspirational.” Far too many books that feature a character with a disability fall into this trap of objectifying that character and using the disability as a plot device. At the end, someone learns a lesson (often it’s us, the reader, or another able-bodied person in the story) and we all go away better people. I will be digging into this phenomenon more as I work though children’s and young adult literature over the upcoming months.

I am not saying anyone is a bad person for liking this book. I am sharing my journey in reassessing what I consider “classic” children’s books. I remember this book fondly; years ago my sister brought it home from school when my aunt was visiting, and I remember them snuggling in the recliner while my aunt read it to her. It hurts to reread something so well-loved and see how it could have contributed to my own stereotypes, and how I might still cling to pieces of those stereotypes as an adult.

For more on people with disabilities as “inspiration,” take ten minutes to watch this TED talk by Stella Young.