There is Truth in Metaphor

There is Truth in Metaphor

Toward the end of the first quarter of any school year, it is critical that teachers take the time to reflect on what it is that we are doing. From my perspective, however, this year has been challenging in ways that the previous pandemic year was not. Whether this challenge can be attributed to the continued politicization and inconsistent interpretation of public health policy (to which I alluded in my previous post), to the additional strain placed on students and families as they return to in-person learning more regularly, or to simply doing all within our power to meet students where they are in their learning and hope to move them forward, it has been exhausting.

When I performed my own reflections in this moment of uncertainty and fatigue, I found myself drawn once again to the value of recognizing beauty in the world and the art that it produces, and how it can be therapeutic simply to gaze upon the good work of others and regain that affinity for the humane that we undoubtedly need. Earlier this academic year, I was fortunate to attend a gallery exhibit in one of the neighboring towns which showcased the artwork of the Wabanaki Confederacy—an entity which is comprised of Indigenous tribes recognized in Maine (the Abenaki, Penobscot, Maliseet, Miqmaq, and Passamaquoddy). Among other beautiful photographs and pieces, I was drawn to the incredible intricacies of the woven baskets—objects that tell the story not only of the individual artists who made them but also their cultural histories. They are, in effect, prime examples of what could be called “craft.” That word, and the objects that evoked it, prompted me to recall a number of bigger questions in the gallery and at my desk.

Teaching, too, has often been referred to as a “craft,” but I wondered to what end this term is used.

By happenstance, one of the craft-persons exhibited in the gallery that day was Professor Rebecca Sockbeson, a researcher at the University of Alberta who has written about her experience as a Wabanaki woman in the academy, about Indigenous knowledge in the education system, and whose work I had come across last year. Her piece, “Waponhaki Intellectual Tradition of Weaving Educational Policy” (2009) helped me become familiar with Indigenous Research Methodology (IRM), her efforts to resist the “Epistemicide” of her people, and the role that traditional craft plays in that resistance. She writes, “[The Wabanaki] come from the ash tree…Our baskets are significantly linked to our creation story, and the weaving of our baskets is fundamental to our cultural heritage and survival.” The weaving, then—the very craft comprised of process, vision, and execution—helps to explain her and her ancestors’ relationship to an education system that marginalized and dehumanized their practices and beliefs for the vast majority of American history. It was a compelling read and a sobering message to convey with a crafted object, but it was also one which spoke to the critical role that contemporary education and educators play even in difficult times such as these.


Her later work, “Maine Indigenous Education Left Behind: A Call for Anti-Racist Conviction as Political Will Toward Decolonization” (2019) discussed her work as part of the Wabanaki Studies Commission which sought to promote and incorporate Indigenous history and culture into all public schools in Maine via LD 291, which was passed into law in 2004. As of her writing in early 2019, many schools had not yet fulfilled the mandate, and she called on the state of Maine to “assert the political will required to fulfill its legislated commitments.” Thankfully, Maine’s social studies standards, which were revised later in 2019, now compel the teaching of Indigenous studies including Wabanaki studies, but to what extent and degree remains dubious; my own school now offers a full Native American History course and we have broadened our incorporation of Native American Oral Literature and contemporary literature across the curriculum, but that development seems unique. Without question, the legal mandate to acknowledge and incorporate Indigenous studies K-12 helps us to better address one of the many blind-spots that educators may carry, and it offers a model that could be applied in other domains as we strive to meet the needs of our students in a diverse world. These are important trends in our profession, yet I was reminded of all of these things and the impact that these legislative and curricular changes will have on our students simply by taking the time to reflect while gazing upon individual, beautiful craftworks.

It was an instructive moment. As the year goes on and further challenges arise, I will remember to celebrate artists and craft-persons of all stripes—storytellers, makers, and teachers. Craft and art are salve for chaotic times, an expression of humanity, and a reminder of why education in all forms matters. And, personally, I am supremely grateful that Professor Sockbeson and other talented people are able to share those craft skills and knowledge with the broader world in the metaphors and objects which convey their truth.

Joe Hennessey is a high school English teacher in Guilford, Maine and is the 2019 Maine Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National University Teacher Award Winner for Maine. Additionally, he was selected by his students as the Faculty Speaker in 2015 and 2018 and received the Yearbook Dedication in 2016 and 2018. Prior to moving to Maine, in 2013-2014, he received the Yearbook Dedication and was named the Teacher of the Year at Collegiate Academy of Colorado. Mr. Hennessey is a Graduate with Distinction in Humanities from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He is a proud member of NNSTOY and can be followed at @MeTOY2019.







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