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34. Teaching Poetry? Take Away the Rules with Dr. John Littlewolf

by Lindsay Lyons
June 15th 2021

In this episode we are discussing how to take away the rules for creative writing. So many kids may not like writing because we put writing in a box, follow these rules, these prompts, etc. There i... More

Dr john Little Wolf grew up in the city of catholic on the leech Lake indian reservation, he is anish knob, an enrolled member of the boy sport band of Chippewa. He began his law enforcement career with the white earth tribal police in 2009 as a patrol officer and later the leech Lake tribal police in 2011. During his career, his duties have included patrol officer, domestic violence and sexual assault investigator and criminal investigator. He is currently a conservation officer. The Shakopee Community education includes bachelor's in criminal justice from the Mid state University, a master's in public safety, executive leadership from ST cloud State University Masters in leadership and change from Antioch University and a PhD in leadership and change from Antioch University. He focused on law enforcement culture and trauma during his doctoral studies and his dissertation police officer, trauma in rural Minnesota. A narrative study was published in january of 2020 john has always been an advocate for his indigenous community. Currently, he is the Minnesota indian affairs representative on the Minnesota, violent crimes coordinating council and is also their community engagement and prevention committee chair.

He also serves as support member for the american indian family center in ST paul john is also a published author of a book of brilliant poetry and a self described activist. Get excited for my conversation with dr john Little Wolf. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher, leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro Principal Superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for teacher ship podcast, Let's dive in. Dr john little Wolf, Welcome to the podcast. I just read through your professional intro, but is there anything you'd like to add to introduce yourself to our audience?

Sure, john little Wolf is my english name, my indigenous name is Midge Mckee, I'm a snob, which is our people's name for ourselves, otherwise known as Ojibwe here in Minnesota, the meaning of my name means second thunderbird in english throw that in there. I'm here in Minnesota and happy to be joining you today. Thank you so much for sharing that as we think about this idea that I think we both connect with. We are, we're both in the same program of leadership and change together. We're both passionate about poetry and justice. This idea, I think really encapsulates all of that for me. Dr Bettina Love talks about it. It's called freedom dreaming dreams grounded in the critique of injustice. And so I'm really curious to know as you think about dreams grounded in the critique of injustice. What is your freedom dream for either education in your life, the world's in general? I thought a lot about this question in the last couple of days.

The thing that comes to mind is this my indigenous identity and a dream grounded in an injustice, is living and existing today because we have to first live as indigenous people first. That's that's given and that's a celebration in itself given historical genocide given um the unique assault that the United States government did in its own laws and its own policies against my people. And so the celebration today looks different than it did say 100 years ago today. It's it's graduation season right now. We're in May and I get to see these indigenous celebrations on my, on my facebook feed, I get to see the next generation coming up and I get to see the walk for them being just a little more easier. The same way that my parents set it up for me just a little bit easier and I had privileges that they didn't, it's mind boggling. We think of this historical genocide as being multiple generations ago. No, it was my grandparents time away, you know where my parents lived through this stuff and it's it is a victory in itself to to just be alive first, but then more so to even celebrate the accomplishments such as graduations, such as getting a job, such as all these life things that happen as we talk about poetry and we're gonna talk about poetry a lot in this episode.

How do you see that fitting into this freedom dream? This celebration for me. Poetry is it was always there, It was this underlying river, if you will, it was always there in my experiences and it would be delayed. So I would go through something, whether it be loss or an experience and days later, what I believe was my consciousness or my spirit was putting it together and days later out would come something I never expected. And it was always some of them I look and I'm like, oh my God, did I write that or that? I couldn't write that again if I had to that sort of mentality. And it's a surprise and it's a gift and I've come to value it as a gift. Poetry. I it'll always be there. It predates my career, it creates everything else. And yeah, I hope to leave a little behind or something. You know, I love that. It makes me think about, I can't remember the author now, but how the ideas of everything we write are actually in the world, they're just in there and we just have to like reach out and grab them and let them flow through us.

And I've always thought that was profound because I've done the same thing when I look back and oh, I wrote that and so that's so powerful, I think especially for Children, right, when we think about Children and educational spaces who maybe don't love writing because what writing has been to them historically in traditional school is a five paragraph essay following this formula and using these sentence starters and it totally doesn't connect with them as people or to justice or celebration or any of the things we value. So I appreciate that you're naming that there can be joy and celebration. I talk a lot about mindset being important to transformational work and education. So what mindset shifts do you think are important to being able to achieve the dream that you describe its emotion in its pure form. I mean it's it's encapsulated. It's the best thing that we have to a container for this motion and transmitting that across generations is this is the amazing part that I've always loved.

And so if we can transmit this emotion, then we can transmit other things. We can transmit this fire. Take for example, one of my favorite poet, activist, john Trudell, when you read his work and his activism and the time that he was in it just it lights something inside of you and I wish I had been exposed to him younger. I wish I had found his work when I was younger because it gave so much, it just lined up perfectly with what I was feeling at the time, but I couldn't put words to it. And so I see it as a catalyst for connecting inward with myself and then connecting outward. So, that is so incredibly well said. And it makes me actually think about, I'm reading our mutual professor john morgan's book now, Deep Learning, and he talks about a deep learning experience being emotional and dr Sherry Bridges Patrick, who we both went to school with, talks about generative, mobilizing discourse being connected to emotion. And so this idea of emotion as this powerful force for learning and growing and connecting.

I love that idea of connecting inward and outward externally. I think this is a huge mindset shift if we can think about learning in that way, as opposed to which worksheets by printing out for my students today. It is transformative when we think about it this way. Absolutely. I didn't know that, that, you know, writing in school and things like that, Take away the rules and I could write without those rules. I've always been able to write, you know, that's been a strong point, but nobody told me that you could take away the rules. You could you could just write what you feel and you don't have to write in a box. I didn't discover that until I was 26 and I wish I had discovered it sooner. I wish there would have been a teacher or a mentor or something along the way that I'm from a small town and there was not any artistic programs. There wasn't any we had banned in sports that was about it. As for creative writing. No, that was never tapped. And so it's set empty unused.

It was there. It was just yeah, manifesting in some unhealthy ways sometimes. So I'm glad that I found it. And today I'm a staunch advocate with people that I talk to. You can just, right, you don't have to write in this box and and be in prose or be in this or be in this this stanza form just just right and it comes. So that's been my style and that's exactly how my poetry comes. It's just a a flash, a regurgitation of emotion, a quick explosion. And then there it is. I love the idea of taking away the rules because even when we teach poetry as a unit in L. A. Or something, it's often very much like here are the ways you can be a poet, you can write a limerick. You can write, you know, like just take those rules away and let the emotional pieces flow through. You could always clean it up after adjust some words or whatever. If we don't start there with that emotion, that thing that needs to come through us and come out onto paper.

We're not really teaching poetry. We think we're teaching poetry, but we're really teaching rules for people to fit in boxes and poetry as activism and poetry for justice. It's getting out of those boxes. Absolute. poetry and activism. I should say for your audience, I am an activist. I stay active in a lot of causes and I find voice in that and I find meaning in that it goes with my identity. And yeah, it's just another lens to see the world with and and translate the world with And again, activism. Is there is there anything, you know, indigenous causes are inherently identity driven? You know, it's not a it's not a I was slighted because of something I own or some property or some third party thing. It's like, no, this hits to the core of who I am. And so you yeah, you translate that into emotion and into words and there's there's a message, I appreciate you naming that too because I think sometimes there's resistance from teachers or from leaders who are like, yeah, I'm interested in justice, but I'm not sure that I wanted to call this an activist curriculum, which I am a huge fan of right activist projects, but that's really what it is.

And I love that you name that it's it's not separate from identity, its core and central to identity. It is not politics. We've politicized it, but it's not politics. And so the idea of being fearful of parents or family members who are going to come in and say, are you brainwashing my child and things like that. I think that is the mindset shift, recognizing that is identity based activism is about identity and identities have been politicized, but they are not inherently political is really necessary to be able to teach like a poetry activism unit. That's absolutely essential. So, thank you for that framework, I think people need to hear that and as we think about people who are really excited to take some brave action here, what would you recommend in terms of taking action that can enable students to be able to write and share their poetry in a way that promotes justice? Absolutely. Just like I touched on my own journey was I missed out on a lot of years and, and you know, it is what it is right now and I've accepted that, but my job right now is exactly what I talked about to make it a little easier for the next generation and to tap into these younger minds and Just right, I mean, that's, that's when I got to 26 years old and I took a college writing course and, I'm like.

it was like intro 101, It was, that's when it started this intro one oh one college writing class in undergrad and I'm like, oh wow, okay, rewind to 14 year old john 2, 16 year old john and how I started to act out and I was acting out of emotion, pure emotion, certain things going on in my life and it was just, and what if that could have been harnessed a different way. What if I would have put voice to that, you know, almost like a recording, what if I would have saved that and there would be so much power and terrible message. They're terrible experience, their relevant experience for Today's 14 year old indigenous man was feeling exactly how I was feeling or 16 year old or you know, it just went on from there and so I keep writing of course as I go through my years, but now it's almost become a as I age and mature, it's become a responsibility to, to add emphasis to this, that there's actual meaning there, that, that it doesn't just have to be calculus and arithmetic and all that stuff that I sucked at.

This is there and this was my best voice. I was never a great public speaker, I would stutter, I would sweat. But when he asked me to write something out now there's my best voice. I can do that unfiltered and with the truth with the absolute truth, it makes me think of how we respond to Children who are in our classrooms or in our schools that end up in detention end up with suspension. To just imagine in that moment if instead of yelling at a child or sending a child to the office, it was accused right down for me, what you're feeling could be a written recording, it could be oral recording, each kid is going to have their own, you know, way of doing that. But that's a transformative moment to be able to say, we could go down this path or we could go down this path. What would it look like for teachers to just give students an option to sit in a quiet place in the room and just right, what you said about sharing with someone else decades later, what if you share that with the student in the grade below you or the class next door?

Someone else in that moment who needs to hear that they are not alone because they connect with your poem and maybe that looks like having a poetry share day every month or something where everyone gets to be able to share that wants to, there's so many classroom practices that I see coming out of what you just shared would have been helpful for you. Oh my God. Yeah. To get out of the textbook and to get into something like that. I would have loved that. I mean I would have, I'm thinking about it now, oh my God, I would have thrived in that in that kind of environment. Instead, I barely graduated high school. I literally barely graduated high school and I have a doctor today. If that tells you anything I was disconnected and yeah, I text books and boards and lecture that was not reaching me and you've published an entire book of original poetry as well. So talk about being a writer, like a published author. Very few people get to say that each l a teacher listening right now is like, yes, my students published a book of original poetry, you know, or original anything.

I would be ecstatic as a teacher. And what's possible is there are so many youth, especially with platforms like social media that people can also publish poetry today. They don't have to wait till they're older if they're given these publishing opportunities where a real audience can can see their work. And I think it it starts with models. So I'm wondering if you would be willing to read one of your poems for us today to inspire that teacher who's thinking about doing a poetry unit and what does that look like? Or maybe even a child who's listening who would like to see what poetry could look like. I will probably have prefaced that there is a believable word in here. So you might want to add one of those things. But it gets to the emotion of what's tapped in here. And as a teenager, my words probably one of my writings would have had lots of bleeps and that would have been raw and real. Um, but instead it was contained and colonial Ized.

So, okay, I have not shared this one really. So here we go on a clear night. The clouds, sidestepped my town whispering, watching me isle, the isle eyes that cut into my pockets and remember what they looked like when I walked in. Blue eyed side eye, all that's left is Minnesota unsaid. Did I come here with those shoes and that shirt smiling and closed from the finest rummage sales? Because I darkened in the sun like my father and his father before him. Because my nose is to sharpen profile, high features that plateau akin to breaking water and rising ground. My skin is rain soaked, rutted by words heavily stained from them, not minding their goddamn business. Those summers I was about to fly, forgetting my station arms held out until winter dreams that bay. These brown bodies that obey watered from their run off our branches were late. They're blocking canopy rising higher and higher, blatant cruelty, These colonial brazen games.

My heart raced how my hands did tremble early, from the days of stealing rhubarb to yesterday facing the hateful masses born of this life where every space is borrowed. My blame, my shame, my basic needs. That place where we garnered stories is what makes them afraid contrary to the blindness. They crave to keep us childlike, iconic, forgotten and always away for sale on the wall at the company store. My family name hangs other things float nearby in the dirty river. My father's knee. My grandfather's back. Maybe we should give medals for crazy for UNmet needs over paid dues or a charge card for intergenerational debts. We'll keep them next to the scented candle that smells of sawdust theft and that lingering smell of sweat back to those glaring clouds. Fake ass postcard of Minnesota flowers.

No, I'm not from bemidji or walker. Fuck you. I'm from CASS lake. The space unseen between your store, your cabin and your bar. You know those two minutes passing trees? Two faces before you make that turn ignorantly indifferent. Can you see my moonlit middle finger reflected on the lake? My gift from the bastard side of the moon. And long before I must give them back to the pines, my borrowed skin. This inherent inheritance. I will push your paper sky away and touch the cattails, the reeds, the occupied nape, the loving space of the lake. You own that which was my home, if only for one day for the lifelong resident resilient for We fight in always, always fighting. Fighting always. If you know what I mean, then you know what I mean? And if you do know what I mean, Then say it again to you, My beautiful sister in quay spectrum. My son celebrated to brethren, wow, thank you so much for sharing that.

I sorry, I got choked up. There was a word there and I tripped over it and it just, it was a catch in my throat and I'm like that's the emotion that I wrote it with it. And even as the writer in third paragraph, Yeah, there it is. So that is so powerful to to hear your reflection of that, that right there is what poetry is all about to me and what it can be all about two students. That's the thing. Right? When we read that, where does your voice catch? Where does it catches an author? Where does it catch as a reader who's just reading a poem out loud? Being able to tap into that I think is the power because if we don't tap into that and we just read it in this academic way and we're just analyzing for rhyme scheme or something. We missed so much. So I love that you just gave us that insight into what was going on with you as you were reading. Thank you for your listeners. My beautiful sister in Quay spectrum is woman in Ojibwe.

My son celebrated to brethren to is warrior. So to my sister in law, a woman spectrum. We believe genders on the spectrum and we'll get you to the warriors takes many forms. That piece as well as the whole poem, there's so much linked to justice and I so appreciate that your activism is always intersectional. All of the pieces of identity. We're talking about gender on a spectrum. Talking about race. We're talking about nation. We're talking about language that we all hold so many identities. Our activism cannot exclude one identity at the expense of the other. I think of the women's suffrage movement. We want the right to vote, but not if you're not white, that's not the activism I want to be affiliated with. We're talking about this intersectional justice and I love that you bring all of those pieces in there just even in that one poem, it's so beautiful. It's such a great representation of what activism can be. Thank you for sharing it. Do you mind if I ask you a few analysis questions?

What inspired you to write the poem? Was it a particular event? A particular emotion? Where do you think it came from? If you're able to pinpoint where it came from? That one came out last year. Last year was a turbulent years. We all know, especially here in Minnesota, went to a lot of marches, went to a lot of actions and we're still we're still going forward. Line three is is big here in Minnesota. And then if you don't know that's a pipeline that's going through Northern Minnesota right now, it's being built and there's a lot of indigenous people standing up in, a lot of allies that are standing up to say this is not the best idea. Um, these things leak these things historically, it's not if it'll leak, it's one of the leak and we have evidence of that in Northern Minnesota from the nineties when the original line three leaked thousands of gallons. And so that was on my mind last year when this came out and this one and it came out quick And the imagery in there was about my own experience, my, what I believe my grandparents experienced the direct pillaging of the land through acts of Congress that allowed the literal replacement of indigenous people on their own land.

The poem itself, Yeah, it was powerful. It came out fast even now. I'm looking at it in different lenses and it changes. I mean that's the beauty of it. It it changes. And I'm like, wow, this is, this is relevant to things I have coming up. This is relevant to my, to my life and what I want to instill in my child someday. I mean, this is this is living. So yeah, I think that's the power of an amazing poem. Right? It's living. It can tap into something that's happening today 10 years ago, 100 years ago. And so I think that's so powerful that you share that reflection. I'm also curious to know what are your favorite lines of the poem where I tripped over where, where I was, where the emotion was the rust was when it was the standing up because throughout the poem and there's um, there's a an obedience, there's a, there's a surrender.

There's a beaten people and that's in there at the end of the poem is where the power is taken back. No, absolutely not. I'm going to flick you off through the moon and I'm going to say, no, I'm from here. This place. You ignore this place that you advertises this beautiful resort area with lakes and everything. No, this is indigenous land and there's abject poverty here. There's issues that are overlooked here. It's not your resort, your backyard getaway, This is our home, that great lake home that you have there, that was our land. And so there's power in there. And that's the resiliency and the uh exactly what I got to at the start of the podcast that that we are still here and we're often overlooked, but we are resilient and we're beautiful. And here we are. I'm thinking about all of the students or just people generally that are hearing this or will hear this poem in the future.

And I'm wondering what your hopes are in terms of the impact of the poem. I honestly hope it. I hope it fires someone up. I hope it makes someone say this is this is what I'm feeling. And I can align with this. And I'm going to own my own identity. I'm not gonna be the shame based belief system. And for so long, I I want to go down a rabbit hole. But the shame based upbringing that happens to a lot of people of color. A lot of, especially indigenous people with the colonialism, with the force Christianity and this, this mindset that that is wrong. Your indigenous identity is wrong. I mean that's the definition of shame. And so to own that identity. This is a lifelong journey for me. And I I I sadly didn't start until I was in my twenties again, that came along with the poetry in my own journey. But yeah, to to tap into that, to to have that poem there, I hope somebody reads it someday. And it's like, yeah, absolutely.

I can identify with that. That's what I'm feeling. And maybe I can read some more about this guy's journey when I think about teaching poetry or enabling students to create their own poetry. The human is often divorced from that. It's often let me teach the stands. Let me teach all the things. I just appreciate, that. You've just given us insight into the humanity that comes with poetry that is integral to good poetry. And I hope that helps people envision themselves as poets and as people who are capable of getting these brilliant ideas that we all have on paper in a way that helps improve the lives of someone else or at least resonate with someone else and see I'm not alone in this. I have a connection to someone. There's so many things I get in the way masculinity. Oh, God, you were a man, that was it. I mean, you can imagine small town Minnesota, that's what you did. You you worked. You didn't complain. You were allowed to show the emotion anger other than that, and no fault of my father.

I mean, that was just how it was. And so to do a practice in poetry and extreme practice and vulnerability that's contrary to that masculine identity. I hope it's a common practice for the next generation. Absolutely. It's just poetry is practice that is embodied activism. It's so profound. Thank you. And as we think about, you know, wrapping up the episode, what is one thing you would encourage someone listening to do when they end the episode? I often think of this as like, how do we live in alignment with the values of justice, the values of equity? How do we show up as, as the best version of ourselves that embodies those things out there that, you know, having found an author that speaks to them, you know, definitely find one that lines up with their values. For me, it's john Trudell, I cannot get enough of his work and his, his life and his words. Um, but there's new incarnations of that, There's new branches as as we move forward.

Um, and so find an author that speaks to you. Maybe it doesn't, maybe it's poetry, maybe it's maybe it's story, maybe it's something, but there's there's words out there, there's people that have helped pave the way before us that's so encouraging to, for student or a teacher who has a student that they think they're not a fan of reading. And my opinion is always like, you just haven't found the thing you love to read yet. Everyone is a reader. Everyone loves hearing words and and can connect with their beauty and their possibility. It's totally about finding the person that resonates and I love that suggestion and actually I just recently found I will link to this in the show notes, the social justice poetry database and look at some different poems that connect. So if you are thinking about creating a unit or putting on a poetry show or something, that could be some really cool inspiration in there too. You are always learning and growing and passionate about being a lifelong learner. What is something that you're learning about lately or what is something that you've been working on to help other people learn.

Being a exactly what you said, someone that speaks to you. I wanted to put a plug in for this book right now as we have always done indigenous freedom through radical resistance. This author, Liane Better smoke Simpson, her words are, I can't get enough of it. I spoke to a tribal college class recently and I suggested this book. I actually sent the professor a copy of the book and I'm just like, please read this because I wish I had read this. You know, it's new. It's actually a new book. But I'm like, I wish this had been around five years ago and I wish I would have found it then. I love that and I can link to that in the show notes too. So people can just click on it and get a copy that's on my to read list now. Thank you. You are all over social media. You're always sharing, you know, your activism but also just you as a human being and I love following all of your journeys. So where can listeners learn more about you, connect with you in those online spaces? I guess Lincoln is if anyone wants professional connection, I'm always there, my social media is just a goofball and it's just how I live in a pretty outgoing kind of guy there.

Um, but yeah, Lincoln, if anyone ever wants any more information um, yeah, happy to talk to anybody awesome, thank you so much and I will say every person that I know who knows you is just so excited to be in your presence, just feeling heartwarming as they experience time with you and connect with you, thank you so much for being on this podcast. It was so fun chatting with you. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening. Amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it to continue the conversation. You can head over to our time for teacher ship facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries Until next time leaders continue to think big act brave and be your best self

34. Teaching Poetry? Take Away the Rules with Dr. John Littlewolf
34. Teaching Poetry? Take Away the Rules with Dr. John Littlewolf
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