I am trying to engage students in preparation for our study of Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. For their opening question (we have to call it a ‘Do Now’) I asked, ‘What do you know about American Indians?’ I expected to get some facts, some stereotypes. Mostly, though, I got . . . nothing.

Here are some student samples —

“I do not know a lot about American Indians.”

“I think that they were the group that had been killed by the Pilgrims after taking them in and teaching them everything.” (This same student later said that they invented Thanksgiving.)

“I wanna say the American Indians are like Indians that live in America.”

The students, by the way, are in Grade 11.

“I know they were here first people in America.”

So, there are a lot of hooks for this novel – hey, I’m in Cleveland. We can do sports mascots. We can do the Columbus Day & Thanksgiving Day controversies. I found a useful lesson in Teaching Tolerance about stereotypes (featuring Alexie’s essay about Tonto), but how do they get the stereotypes much less the impact of them if they have little to no background knowledge? (There’s an on-line portion of their work that will feature some background knowledge.) How will they ‘get’ Junior’s conflicts in the novels without knowing more in advance? And how do I introduce them to more without creating an assignment that’s easily plagiarized?

Today, I introduced them to the work of American Indian artist Bunky Echo-Hawk. I thought it would hook them and they would write about an image in preparation for writing about an image in the novel. It did not go well.

Bunky Echo-Hawk