Native American students learn 'their' literature

May 17, 2010

You’re a high school student of European descent, and it’s the first day of your senior lit class.

Your teacher passes out the reading list for the semester: Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” Louise Erdrich’s “The Plague of Doves,” and N. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn.”
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Wait a minute. What happened to Shakespeare, Steinbeck and Melville? The books on this list are all by Native American authors!

David, a student at Westwood High School in Mesa, was ready to drop out of school at the end of his junior year. He didn’t need those boring senior classes.

But then David, a Pima/Ute, heard that teacher Andi Box planned to offer a class in Native American literature in the spring, and he quickly changed his mind.

“He was the first one to sign up. “Midway through the semester he told me, ‘I come to school for this class. I deal with the other ones,’” Box said.

Box’s class, a pilot project created with the help of ASU English faculty members James Blasingame and Simon Ortiz, is the first literature class in the Mesa Public Schools (MPS) to focus entirely on Native American authors and texts.

It grew out of the Beta Project, part of ASU’s Educational Partnerships initiative, whose goal is to provide a continually increasing Web-based “treasure of resources for the teaching of English language arts,” said Blasingame.

After the Beta Project was launched, Cliff Moon, MPS’s director of diversity, asked Blasingame if ASU could help create a Native American curriculum, since there are a good number of Native American students in the district.

“Westwood High School has the highest native population, so we took the grants there,” Blasingame said. “We had some money to buy books so we bought Sherman Alexie’s book, ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,’ and Andi did a pilot project on his book. Alexie went to Westwood, where he spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of students.”

About that time, Ortiz, a nationally known poet and member of the Acoma tribe, joined the ASU English faculty, and Blasingame asked him to chair a consortium to put together a course.

“I became aware that the Phoenix area had many Native Americans when I moved here in 2006,” Ortiz said. “I was curious about the curriculum in Mesa Public Schools. I was involved in a public school curriculum project in Portland, Ore., in 1989-90, so I knew it was possible to do it in other places.”

Planning for the first course took several years and included librarians from the Pima-Salt River, McDowell and Gila reservations, ASU faculty and graduate students, tribal leaders and administrators from MPS.

The pilot class focused on regional Native American literature of the Southwest, and included material from books such as “Rising Voices,” by Beverly Singer, a collection of poems and essays by young Native Americans about their identity, rituals and the harsh realities of their lives; “Code Talkers,” a novel for young adults by Joseph Bruchac (which the students didn’t want to put down, Box said), and Alexie’s novel, as well as films such as “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

Class units have included “Finding Our Warriors, Finding Our Beliefs”; “Finding Our Inner Poetry”; “Finding True Education”; “Finding Frustration: The Rise in Indian Activism”; and “Finding Our Future.”

The class brought tears and laughter to the students, as well as anger and pride.

There were 36 students in the class (and only 34 desks but no student wanted to drop out), of which 12 were Native American, from the Apache, O'odham, Ute, Pima-Maricopa, Navajo, Hopi, Creek, Tewa and Zuni.

Box started by having each student read a 13-page packet about Native American historical events that have seldom been talked about in history or literature classes. “From that information, they then had to choose what they thought were the top 20 most important historical events that all high school students should know about before they graduate.

“When we talked about the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, for example, they were shocked,” Box said. “They asked, ‘Why has our history been whitewashed?’”

The students created 12-foot-long timelines, using their “top-20 events,” which they displayed around the school.

“I had many teachers and students come to my classroom and say ‘Thank you for teaching the truth,’” Box said.

The students also made posters, brought in Native dishes to share, created pictures to symbolize themselves, and wrote stories or poems about themselves. Box said she focused on both the positive and negative sides of Native American history.

For some of the Native American students, it was the first time they had read or seen an outsider’s view of their history.

“The students said they like the class because they got to hear how people were reacting to their history,” Box said.
“One student commented, ‘Every time we watch something in here it shocks me.’ A Hispanic student told me that she had cried three times in the class.”

The pilot class gave Box an idea of what should be included in the curriculum – and also what is needed as a foundation for the class.

“We have to learn some history first, before studying literature,” she explained, “such as how many tribes there are in the United States, and in Arizona.”

That Box is excited about the first class and others to come is evident by her e-mail notes, which are filled with exclamation points.

“There is too much to learn and not enough time!” she said. “I think next year I am going to have this class as a full year, with the senior writing class folded into it. Yay!

“We are all learning from each other, and it is such a joyous experience!”

Box wanted the initial class to be offered for senior students “due to the level of content and critical thinking I am expecting of my students,” she said, but Gary Loutzenheiser, acting education division director for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, suggested that senior year might be too late for some students.

“Among Native American communities, we have a lot of kids who don’t make it to the sophomore and junior years. They don’t have a chance to jump in and understand their heritage,” he said. “Such a class would bolster their pride, help them feel better about themselves – and stay in school.”

For Box and the consortium, the work will begin again in June.

“We’ll start the whole process over again with a social studies class,” said Blasingame. “The long-range plans are to develop appropriate curriculum for all ages so that Native American history and culture are infused into classes for younger students, as well as older ones.”

The hard work will pay off when every student in Arizona routinely learns about the Native communities around them, Blasingame added.

“Eventually, we hope to follow in the footsteps of the Montana Office of Public Instruction and make Native American curriculum a part of the state standards.”

It was a close call for David, but, thanks to the Beta Project and Box’s enthusiasm, he made it to graduation – and into boot camp for the Air Force.

Professor honored for dedication to education

May 17, 2010

Commitment to students and bringing real-world experience into the classroom earns an ASU engineering professor a prestigious international teaching award

Arizona State University faculty member Richard Farmer has won a top teaching honor from one of the world’s leading international engineering and technology organizations. Download Full Image

Farmer is the 2010 Outstanding Power Engineering Educator Award winner, selected through a highly competitive process by the Power and Energy Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE has more than 390,000 members from about 150 countries.

Farmer is a research professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, a part of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He’ll receive the award recognizing “outstanding contributions and leadership” in power systems engineering education during the IEEE General Meeting in July in Minneapolis.

Four decades of teaching

After earning a master’s degree from ASU in 1964, Farmer began working for Arizona Public Service Co. (APS), the state largest utility company, in 1965.

A year later he was asked to teach a night course at the university for one semester. He has been working at ASU part-time for the more than four decades since then, continuing to teach after a nearly 30-year career with APS.

Farmer’s work at APS spans the full range of subjects in power engineering.  He is perhaps best known for his work on what is called subsynchronous resonance.

Involving high power flows that can result from long- distance power transmission, it is a phenomenon of resonance at frequencies below synchronous frequency due to series capacitors in long power lines. It can do extensive damage to power-transmission equipment.   

Farmer is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.  He and APS colleague Baj Agrawal wrote a book on the subject of modeling of large generators.

Breathing life into classroom

“Dick Farmer brings 40 years of industrial experience into the classroom, giving our students invaluable training that greatly enhances their education,” says Vijay Vittal, the Ira A. Fulton Chair Professor of power engineering.

Over the years, says ASU Regents’ Professor Gerald Heydt, “many of our graduates have told us it was the extensive first-hand knowledge they received from Dick Farmer about the real-world power industry that led them to successful careers in power engineering. “

Using that on-the-job experience, Farmer has “breathed life into a wide range of courses with extremely technical and intricately complex subject matter,” says ASU associate engineering professor Dan Tylavsky, “and invariably he has inspired students by creating vivid images from lifeless content.”

Fellow ASU engineering professor Ravi Gorur says he has used Prof. Farmers’ lecture notes to help him teach a graduate-level class.

Farmer’s teaching approach is to “start from facts and concepts and proceed to unravel complex engineering phenomena in simple terms” that help his students both learn from and enjoy his classes, Gorur says.

Commitment to education

Farmer was nominated for the IEEE educator award by two former ASU students, Siddharth Suryanarayanan, an assistant professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, and Elias Kryriakides, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Cyprus.

Farmer brought “a rare blend of academic excellence and wealth of industry experience” to his teaching, Suryanarayanan says.

More than that, Farmer is a mentor who shows personal interest in the career development of his students. “He possesses empathy, native intelligence, patience, and a high level of energy and a commitment to education that is not easily matched,” Suryanarayanan says.

He also points to Farmer’s role in education beyond the classroom. He recalls when Farmer contributed to educating the public in times of need, such as during the California energy crisis of 2000 and the widespread power blackout in the northeastern United States in 2003.

Kyriakides notes Farmer’s continual effort to adopt innovative teaching approaches and new educational technologies.

Farmer has, for instance, helped develop new software for a computer program now used to teach courses throughout the world on electric power devices and power system analysis.

Some of the course projects Farmer developed for his students are now included in leading textbooks on power system analysis and design.

In his years at ASU, Farmer has led the development of at least nine new power systems engineering courses.

Inspiring teaching style

Mark Stapp, a 1991 ASU graduate and now an engineering and operations director at the Greenville Electric Utility System in Greenville, Texas, recently wrote a “long overdue” letter to Stephen Phillips, director of the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, telling him that Farmer “was the best teacher I ever had.”

“What made Prof. Farmer standout was his apparent love for teaching and his approachability,” Stapp wrote. “[He] would stay late after class until all the student questions were answered.  If further research was necessary, Prof. Farmer always followed up and got back to us … [he] even gave out his phone number and allowed us to call him at home.”  

It was Farmer's “dedication and his teaching style that influenced me to pursue power engineering,” Stapp wrote. “I want to thank whoever was responsible for bringing Prof. Farmer to ASU.”

Farmer recalls his early years of teaching power engineering at ASU, “when we hoped to get just 10 students enrolled, just enough to keep the class from being closed” because of lack of interest.

Today his courses can attract more than 70 students, and the power engineering program at ASU is one of the world’s largest, with more than 80 undergraduates enrolled, and an additional 80 in the graduate program.

“The power field has really picked up,” he says. “There are jobs in the industry.”

Teaching still brings the same satisfaction, but no less work.

With frequent advances in modern engineering and power systems, and changes in educational technologies, “I have to constantly keep educating myself,” Farmer says. “But I love teaching, so I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to have one career in industry and another teaching at ASU.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering