Giving Thanks for Gifts From Mother Earth

We have a fractured relationship with Mother Earth. I hesitated writing “Mother” Earth because in so doing I acknowledge we are collectively engaged in an abusive relationship. If any children treated his or her mother as we treat Mother Earth it would be considered elder abuse and prosecutable.

Photo by Pixabay on

I also don’t relish going here, but (I believe) shift to this abusive relationship is first documented in the book of Genesis. Genesis may have been written by someone attempting to provide a mythological explanation for the behavior of the society at the heart of the Western agricultural revolution and how and why they engaged in such an abusive relationship with their Mother Earth. Or it was a directive.

This led to a misogynistic view of our relationship with Mother Earth. She is to be controlled, dominated, and used. Of course, individually most reading this will take offense. I take offense in writing it an accepting that I too am complicit. “Well, I never…” I can hear myself saying in dramatic style. Except we almost always, if not as individuals, then as an aggregate behave in such a manner.

This is evident when looking at the tragedy of the commons. The commons is made up of all the resources that we all use collectively: the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we share, and so on. The tragedy of the commons is the aggregated impact of many, seemingly benign (and not) individual (and corporate) actions that deplete or despoil a common resource or space. Protecting the commons entirely through individual action is not possible. Most individuals do not understand the complexity and depth with which all components of our natural world are interconnected, and therefore, that collective global efforts are the only means by which the commons can be maintained.

As it now stands, the commons are predominantly looked at from a privatized, market-based economic perspective. Individual property rights are valued most. Mitchell Thomashow writes:

People think they can best determine what to do with their things and they are hesitant to relinquish property to any collectivity, especially the abstract state. Hence Americans are suspicious of taxes. Without a collective notion of a common good, Americans will only grudgingly and painfully contribute to the state, the town, or any tax-collecting jurisdiction.1

In many ways we are at war with ourselves when it comes to the commons. All life requires it and have a right to the commons. Yet that is not what we see in action today. This brings me to a question raised by Thomashow, “In what way does property ownership convey power? By what process does a person come to own something, and to whose exclusion or exploitation?”2 The destruction of the commons affects those without the power to take “ownership” and the voice to express concern, both non-human life and also those without political and monetary power, first and the most.

I’m not advocating for communism or even socialism. However, the “market” of unfettered (or even partially fettered capitalism) will not preserve the commons or really any aspect of the resources Mother Earth provides for our use and/or survival. The market cannot look far enough ahead, nor does it even have the capacity to look beyond its own profits (thinking of the market as for-profit organizations). That is not what it is designed to do, nor its mission. Its mission is perpetual growth.

Back to my previous analogy of an abusive relationship, I think we have to think of the “market” is a sociopath. That isn’t a criticism. It is what it is. If it were a person, we would see that it cannot look beyond its own needs to consider the needs of others before its own. Corporations are not people, however, they are run by people, the majority of whom are not sociopaths, I presume. Individuals can make decisions with the commons in mind, but “[t]ypically, however, natural resources are perceived as economic investments—not integrated ecosystems—and a clash between economic and environmental interests emerge.”3 Preservation of the commons will require collective action, organized by a self-governed people to facilitate systemic change that impacts individual, societal, and corporate use of the commons. This is difficult because “most people have difficulty reconciling the fact that their materials come from the earth which they are trying to protect.”4

Feeling guilty yet? I do. I’m writing this on a device containing heavy metals and other toxins, probably mined in a manner that caused harm to the worker and to Mother Earth. You are reading this on such a device as well. But reading it on paper might not lessen the impact—just shift it to another ecosystem. I have learned in my years as an educator that guilt and shame are never reliable motivators for deep learning or lasting change of behavior. So, we need to move beyond those emotions to something more productive.

We need a change in our conception of our relationship with Mother Earth from one built on domination (resulting in abuse) to one built on reciprocity and gifts. A commodity-based paradigm does not result in a lasting relationship, only in a temporary transactional one—one that is often adversarial.5 A relationship built on advocacy and mutual reciprocity of gifts can be equal and sustained indefinitely. Mother Earth gives freely the gifts of life; the complexity of the interconnectedness of all life and natural resources then sustain all life. Instead of just managing to reduce our abuse of Mother Earth, how might we give back to help renew Mother Earth?6  

I’ll leave you with an exercise to help you to begin shifting toward a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth. It’s a subtle twist on an old environmental science activity—and it is a minimal and humble beginning at best. Pick an object you own, or a meal you’ve eaten and trace back the origin of all the resources and labor that went into that object or meal. You’ll soon realize that you don’t know, and maybe cannot readily discover, what resources used in bringing this object to you. Therefore, the true impact you have through the consumption of that resource, and then by extension how each action has an impact on the commons. What once seemed benign now can no longer be dismissed as so. Nobody likes to feel shamed and often our natural inclination is to obstinately push back against shame or ignore it completely because it is too painful. As exhibit A, I present climate change denial.

Instead, I’d like you to consider all that went into your object of investigation as a gift from Mother Earth. Part of the reason for this is to recognize that those things we may not think of as “natural” and from an ecosystem, such as plastic and metal, are as natural as the obvious things that are from Mother Earth—products from plants and animals. Give thanks for this gift and in so doing begin a reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth, a relationship built on the giving of gifts and mutual love. This requires an ongoing mutually beneficial relationship, not one built on adversary. Reciprocal relationships are sustainable, while adversarial relationships are only maintained for the minimum amount of time necessary. With that in mind, how might you give of yourself back to Mother Earth in reciprocity to help renew her and rebuild your relationship, or how might you refuse a gift that is asking of her too much sacrifice?

It’s a baby step, but I have come to believe, a crucial first step.

1-4 Thomashow, Mitchell (1995) Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist. MIT Press. Cambridge MA.

5-6 Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Press. Minneapolis MN.

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Why Grades Matter (but maybe not how you might think)

The act of grading someone for their work immediately changes everything. One cannot help but be influenced primarily by extrinsic motivation as soon as one is being judged and sorted. Of course, there are times this is necessary, such as on The Great British Baking Show…Mmmm, excuse me whilst I go find bake. The purpose of such a show is to sort and judge individuals that are already accomplished bakers. The purpose of the show is not to instruct these individuals, but to winnow the pool of contestants to a “star baker,” and to entertain the viewers. While the contestants might learn from their mistakes, they may only get one such lesson as the mistake might cost them participation in the next show. So, failure is to be avoided at all costs. The trouble with being motivated primarily by an extrinsic is that you will only challenge yourself as much as necessary to please the judge, but no more. Why swing at a high inside fastball when you could wait for a slower pitch over the meat of the plate?

I recently listened in as a team of teachers at Prairie Creek Community School planned for the independent student projects marking the culmination of their geology theme. Coincidentally, a promising student teacher from my university (though not a student of mine) is a member of this team. At the end of the meeting I couldn’t help but put on my teacher hat and ask her to reflect on the impact of this school’s policy of not using letter grades to score students. It was clear to her that the students were engaged, learning without fear of failure, and digging deeply into what they were learning—and doing so with joyfulness. So, I gave her a congratulatory sticker. Just kidding.

The students in this school, though they don’t get a letter grade or number score for their work are still being assessed. Because a simple alphanumeric score of some kind isn’t used, the teacher must provide more comprehensive feedback about not only the content of the project, but also the learning skills demonstrated—the more crucial objective for this project than the geology facts. However, the geology facts have a stronger chance of remaining accessible in the student’s long-term memory because of the method of learning those facts adheres much more closely to how the brain takes in, catalogs, stores, and eventually recalls information. This school’s method of project-based learning centered around conceptual themes follows the tenets of constructivist learning theory. I have developed a learning cycle framework for understanding and applying CLT to curriculum planning and lesson design called The Consider, Construct, Confirm1 that easily applies to this scenario, which can be conveniently purchased in the gift shop on your way to the exit.

First, students must Consider what they already know about a topic (geology in this case) based on prior knowledge and experience. This is absolutely crucial in teaching and learning, but is often left out of lesson plans. We know that all new information is cataloged in the human brain by attaching it to prior information. If that prior knowledge is a misconception, then the misconception is often further reinforced by the new dendrites grown and additional synapse connections made, strengthening that misconception. We also know the more we learn, the more physical connections created in the brain increasing the capacity speed to learning and recalling more information, so learning is a bit of a snowball effect—success breeds success. This initial considering might occur through discussions followed by instructional activities similar to what you’d see in any classroom. There might be teacher-led lessons, but in this setting those lessons that appear traditional in design rely primarily on active learning involving students asking and answering questions through inquiry and investigation. This is so even if the teacher initially is guiding students to specific pre-determined topics of inquiry. The purpose of these initial inquiries is to not only introduce students to the foundational aspects of the theme, but also prompt students to uncover their prior knowledge (correct or incorrect) and then allow them to commence thinking about their own question within the theme. If this isn’t done, then the prior misconception will be what is remembered in the long run. Like mildew in humid bathroom painted over with regular paint instead of something to kill the mildew, it will grow back through the fresh paint unless purposefully addressed and corrected.

Next, the teachers facilitate more lessons allowing students to construct their understanding of the theme and to also begin answering questions they asked along the learning journey. This is done through additional inquiry and active learning, guest speakers, field trips, and so on. While for some lessons the teachers may be delivering information, instructions, and procedural knowledge (like how to properly conduct mineral testing) through direct instruction, the bulk of the learning is done with active, student-centered lessons. As students progress, the teachers lead them through brainstorming to prompt students generation even more questions about the theme. As students think of more and more questions, the specificity and content of those questions serves as a formative assessment allowing the teacher to assess student progress with the theme. When the teachers assess that students grasp of the required content about the topic, they are then turned loose to explore one of the brainstormed questions. This allows them to take a deeper dive into an aspect of the theme that is intriguing to them. This completing of an inquiry with a purpose is an essential component of using intrinsic motivation in teaching and learning. While completing these projects, though serving as the summative assessment activity for the theme, students are still constructing knowledge and making meaning. The act of completing the project requires them to apply and process what they have learned. The result of doing this in-depth project-based learning moves information learned from the short-term and working memory to long-term memory, in part, by attaching the information to a meaningful experience while using and applying the information.  In short, it’s more authentic than taking a test.

The final phase of the learning cycle allows students to confirm their learning. This is all about reflection. During this phase the students are sharing what they have learned with others, and in so doing, having to reflect on what they now know by synthesizing it, applying it, and then finally teaching it to someone else. In this case, these second and third graders were conducting a science fair during which other students from the school attended. For the first session, the audience consisted of fourth and fifth graders from the school. They know the drill and their role is to enthusiastically participate in activities designed by the second and third graders and to ask questions probing their understanding of the topic, but with support and kindness. The second session was for kindergarten and first graders. These little ones were a bit wide-eyed (often traveling in pairs holding hands for security) and often held in rapt attention by the older students teaching them about the rock cycle, geologic time, fossils, etc. My cuteness meter was red-lined!

Essential to the success of this curricular model is a decision made long ago by the school’s founders; a school assessment culture centered on authentic assessment and providing honest, individualized, thoughtful feedback instead of sorting and judging with a grade is the key. No matter how you dress them up, grades sort and judge. Authentic assessment without simple letter grades does not sabotage intrinsic motivation as the use of a final, simplistic letter grade may. It allows for individualization so students can to be pushed to their potential with their projects. This honors each student’s individual interests, gifts and weaknesses in inquiry to be practiced with teacher guidance. Completing the project of interest provides feedback to the teacher as to the depth of content learned by how they apply the required content to their project, and equally important, feedback as to the student’s life-long learning skills. Authentic assessment instead of simple grading is the keystone to a solid arc of meaningful learning. If in the end, the school culture was to give a single final grade for the project, undoubtedly many would have tempered their choices, so that they were doing a project on what they knew the most about of the theme, and could then present in a manner they already knew how to do well. They wouldn’t push themselves to take a risk to explore an aspect of the theme that truly intrigued them and do so in a way that pushed and challenged them to develop stronger skills of inquiry, analysis, synthesis, and presentation of what they have learned.

And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…sorry, my brain cannot help finishing “and in the end…” with the rest of the Beatles lyric, which is further testament to memories being attached to positive emotions and experience (often associated with music). Let me start again. And in the end, what I observed was a school full of students joyfully learning and sharing what they have learned with others. It was noisy, active, and honestly, a bit exhausting—but in such a wonderful way. What might have initially appeared to be chaotic, upon more careful observation was not. All students knew exactly what, where, and how they were supposed to participate in this culminating learning activity. It was playful as learning should be. Mammals learn through play. The human brain retains more information when it is attached to positive emotions experienced during social collaboration with others. Such is not the case with didactic instruction culminating in a traditional test returned with alphanumeric grade as the primary feedback.

1Goodwin, Timothy (2018). Consider, Construct, Confirm: A New Framework for Teaching and Learning. Kendall Hunt. Dubuque IA.

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The Cost of Freedom

Veteran’s Day got me thinking about what divides us. Not the norm I know, but hear me out. If you watch the news and observe social media, it appears U.S. citizens are at each other’s throats—which of course some are, but that is not my daily experience. Instead, I find kind and decent folks who are good to one another and readily help out a stranger. You might accuse me of being naïve. You wouldn’t be the first. How does this connect to Veteran’s Day?

The evening before, I was watching the Vikings-Cowboys football game. During the game, the service of military personnel was highlighted and honored multiple times and ways by multiple sponsors. The message of thanks was for our young men and women being willing to give their lives for the freedoms of our democracy.

Then, Monday morning I heard the Crosby, Stills, & Nash song, Find the Cost of Freedom. It only has one couplet of lyric:

Find the cost of freedom. Buried in the ground
Mother earth will swallow you. Lay your body down

We are so divided that we cannot have a reasonable discussion about this cost of freedom. Is our democracy under threat from an outside invader that requires the loss of some of our citizens to die on the battlefield? Is the continued sacrifice of some and their families reducing the threat of terrorism, or is the unending war on terrorism bringing about more terrorism?

We are so divided that we cannot fruitfully walk these paths of discussion and inquiry to eventually get to the same place that I believe we all want to go—a safe, comfortable existence with our needs met with enough left over to enjoy life and love one another.  We make the road by walking and we live in the world the we have made.

It is easy to succumb to the naiveté of the ease and comfort of better times. I was reminded of this today by of all things an album from 1975, “An Evening With John Denver.” Odd, you might think—both that I’m admitting to listening to this album and that it caused such thoughtfulness. (I’m to the Ds in my alphabetical procession through a collection of old (and new) vinyl.) What caught my ear was the joyfulness with which he spoke to the audience and the joy in their response. The magic of music is you don’t know what emotions and memories it will stir. I was taken back with a flood of emotions and flashes of simple, pleasant childhood memories of life as a middle-class American child in the 1970s.

And then this scrap of memory plunks down right in the middle of my positive emotions like a big bird shit on the hood of a newly washed car. I recall an exchange with an adult I knew and trusted motioning to a car in the driveway saying, “You know what Pontiac stands for don’t you? Poor Old Nigger Things It’s A Cadillac.” And there it is. The casual racism of a my “simpler” time from a person who I’m sure would now be horrified at such a statement. I know it does not reflect the ideals he raised his kids with and has lived by. It’s a stark reminder that the past some pine for, others dread.

Martin Luther King said, “The arc of history bends towards progress.” Change is difficult, especially if you are suffering and feel you are being left behind. Fear of change is easily then used by some to sow discord and secure power. We can either continue to walk separate roads divided by artificial barriers, trumped up differences, conspiracies, and propaganda pointing to false cause and effect dangers to our freedom and democracy or we can choose to turn off that noise and refuse to be divided and instead work together for the common goal of the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. But we cannot go back to an easier and better time that doesn’t exist and progress is inevitable despite setbacks. It is up to us to not succumb to those fears and lose our empathy and grace for others. When we do, others become “Others” who’s rights it is all too easy to strip away and turn those others into objects of fear.

Which reminds me of one last bit of music from Greg Brown, that despite the title, is actually a call for unity.

Living in my beloved community
Take a look around and what do I see
See a lot of trouble, see a lot of tears
See a lot of beauty and I see it right here

Trump can’t have that
Trump can’t have that
Trump can’t have that
We ain’t gonna give it up

Look at the people, living on my own block
Look to the prayers from Standing Rock
Some want to conquer, some want to divide
Love is stronger and it’s deeper inside

Let’s keep talking and walking too
Let’s stay together, the whole way through
Let’s keep holding on to what is right
Let’s keep protecting every little life

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Ecological Citizenry

Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to ‘tell it like it is.’ On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

So begins a report published November 5 in the journal BioScience. The publishing of the report is the news, not the content. We’ve actually known this for at least fifty years. Maybe that is why the November 6 newspaper did not have any mention of this pronouncement that we face possible extinction on the front page. We are in ecological crisis; the actions of the affluent in the world are endangering all of us. By virtue of where and how I live, I am a part of the affluence that lies at the heart of the cause of this crisis.

We all must act as ecologically minded citizens; we each have a responsibility to observe the wider impact of our daily habits. Unfortunately, the actions of one person, or even a significant segment of the affluent, cannot solve this crisis. Societal and global coordinated action is required. An aspect of our individual action should be denying access to leadership those that hide behind ignorance, denial, or cost to act. No other issues matter in the end if we (or most of us) cannot survive in the limited places left containing potable water, farmable land, and stable enough weather and climate to sustain human life. This is no longer an existential crisis. If action is not taken, this will affect people alive on the earth right now. Ignoring this crisis is impossible. I can only describe doing so as sociopathic. Willfully doing harm to others for one’s own gain cannot be described in any other manner and such individuals should not be provided decision-making power. Cost cannot be an excuse to act, because the cost of not acting will be much higher. I’m not speaking metaphorically, I’m considering actual monetary costs. What will the cost be for dealing with billions of individuals becoming refugees due to climate change? For wars over water and places with breathable air?

Mitchell Thomashow wrote a generation ago:

The ecologically aware citizen takes responsibility for the place where he or she lives, understands the importance of making collective decisions regarding the commons, seeks to contribute to the common good, identifies with bioregions and ecosystems rather than obsolete nation-states or transnational corporations, considers the wider impact oh his or her actions, is committed to mutual and collaborative community building, observes the flow of power in controversial issues, attends to the quality of interpersonal relationships in political discourse, and acts accordingly to his or her convictions. The ecologically responsible citizen recognizes that he or she lives a life in nature, in conjunction with other people, in the common interest. Where does one practice this approach to life if not in the common domain?

It is now a matter of deciding if your ecological identity is one that is destructive to the ecosystem and therefore ultimately self-defeating or one built on a reciprocal relationship with each other and the ecosystems supporting all life and therefore renewing to all who call this biosphere home.

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This morning was like any other. I begin the day reading about such things as children of employees of a local fishing tackle factory having elevated lead levels in their blood due to lead dust being transported home on the clothes of the workers. Wildfires continue to burn in California while others in California endure power shutdowns to prevent sparking of additional wildfires. Each day numerous articles document the journey towards a presidential impeachment.

Children wear bullet-proof backpacks to school. That one can sit there for a moment.

We are living in an age of fear and continued stress. What is the impact of this on our decision-making and the ability to function and learn?

When our brains take in new information through one of the senses, it is first identified and unconsciously categorized by the reticular activating system as a normal sensory input or something out of the ordinary pattern and thus requiring immediate and focused attention. In conjunction with the amygdala, the unconscious decision is made to either send the information to the upper brain or the lower brain. If not so out of ordinary pattern and not perceived as a threat goes to the upper brain and processed and catalogued and eventually stored as long-term memory by the thalamus, cerebral cortex, and hippocampus. If it is an unrecognized pattern it is sent to the lower brain where chemical signals such as adrenaline and peptides such as the stress hormone cortisol are released to prepare the body for fight or flight. This is an immediate and unconscious process that evolved as a necessary survival mechanism (think predators on an African savanna), and still operates as a necessary survival mechanism, though, a list of what those stressors are in modern society have accumulated at a much faster pace then the rate of biological evolution of the neurological fight or flight mechanism that takes over during times of perceived or real imminent danger.

This process of sending the information to the lower brain has been called “downshifting.” Maybe we are collectively in a state of downshifting. And if so, what impact does this have on our kids’ ability to meet their learning potential in school? They are feeling these same stressors either directly or indirectly through the actions of their parents, teachers, coaches, etc., plus the normal stresses of school and childhood that might also induce downshifting. This might include such things as1:

  • Anxiety related to speaking in class, answering questions, or oral presentations
  • Fear of being wrong
  • Physical and language differences
  • Test-taking anxiety
  • Boredom as result of prior mastery or absence of personal relevance to the material
  • Frustration with material students believe exceeds their understanding
  • Feeling overwhelmed by the demands of school assignments
  • Inability to effectively organize time in response to the demands of academics, extracurricular activities, and out-of-school chores and jobs
  • Feelings of isolation or lack of acceptance by peers or teachers.

During a combination of such common and normal stressors, coupled with the heightened state of collective anxiety we appear to be in, this can lead to kids downshifting and acting out (fight) or zoning out (flight) behaviors. I’m not providing an excuse for kids to fail in school nor am I excusing disruptive behavior. I do believe this however: everyone wants to learn and to do well. When they are not, then we must consider what is occurring either externally or internally that is interfering with that innate nature to thrive. It’s our responsibility to recognize the cause and either remove the stress, or better yet, help that child understand and appropriately process, respond to, and manage that stress to avoid downshifting when fight or flight isn’t an appropriate neurological response.

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1 McTighe, Jay and Judy Willis (2019). Updgrade Your Teaching: Understanding by Design Meets Neuroscience. ASCD. Alexandria, VA.

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Dog Wisdom

Ike 3This is Ike. He’s a pretty good-natured dog. He’s small and looking up at the world most of the time, so he’s a bit anxious and quivers a lot. He’s getting pretty old, 14 now, but he’s still got game and can teach us a thing or two.

Enjoy life, even when you have embarrassing slips along the way. Two days ago he slipped on the last step into the garage and did a face plant. But he bounced back up and was still ready to go. No matter how old and creaky he gets, he’s still up for a walk. Yesterday, he bounded off into the patch of tall grass near our house. He bounced around in there for a bit, his ears popping up above the 24” – 36” grass so we could track his movement. He then bounded out, doing a front roll as his snout caught in the thick grass on the edge of the weedy patch. He popped up, wagged his tail, did a quick playful down-dog pose and went back into the weeds.

Don’t go down steps in the dark.

Kill flies. Flies are very annoying. He growls and snaps at them whenever they buzz past him. And biting flies are the worst. He’s only caught one that I’ve seen. He still snaps at them, so it must have been satisfying. He snaps at bees too, but those aren’t as satisfying to catch. When we lived in Bemidji, I usually didn’t need to put him on a leash for our walks on the country, gravel road. If the biting flies got bad, he’d give me a backwards glance and then take off in a sprint towards home, leaving me to be the only thing attracting the biting flies. He’s a pretty smart dog.

Chase cats.

Run and play every day. His favorite toy is a stuffed penguin. He’s always got energy chase and retrieve it and play tug-o-war at least for a few minutes every day, before he’s got to take a rest. Unless it lands on the heat vent in the floor, because that shit is scary.

Read the room; approach dogs you don’t know with caution. Small dogs are usually ok to play with. Raise your hair and growl at bigger dogs until you know they are safe. And some dogs it’s best to not even look them in the eye. Pretend you didn’t see them and hopefully they’ll leave you alone.

Be mindful of where you leave your crap. He’s very particular about where he poops. He’ll search and search for the perfect spot to poop, even when it is 10 degrees outside and wading through deep snow. And then, as if offended by what he’s just done, he’ll sprint away from it, leaving me to pick it up. Who’s in cIke 2control here?

Every now and then it’s okay to take a break from impeachment, climate crisis, struggling schools, increased teenage suicide rate, and just sleep hard so you are ready to pick yourself back up and get back in the game.

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The Three Sisters

For centuries, the Iroquois (and now many other cultures) have been growing corn, beans, and squash together, referring to them as the Three Sisters. Corn grows tall and strong, serving as a natural pole for the beans to climb. The bean plants have nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules in the roots, providing fertilizer to all three plants. The squash, with its broad leaves, provides shade and ground cover reducing weeds and preserving moisture in the soil.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013) writes this about the three sisters in her book Braiding Sweetgrass—a book I want everyone to read!

The way3 sisters of the three sisters reminds me of one of these basic teachings of our people [RWK is Anishinaabe]. The most important thing each of us can know is our unique gift and how to use it in the world. Individuality is cherished and nurtured, because in order for the whole to flourish, each of us has to be strong in who we are and carry our gifts with conviction, so they can be shared with others. Being among the sisters provides a visible manifestation of what a community can become when its members understand and share their gifts. In reciprocity, we fill our spirits as well as our bellies (p. 134).

Many Americans would identify hyper-individuality as the bedrock of American democracy and the U.S. constitution, while idealized conceptions of many American Indian nations are looked upon as examples of tribal communal or socialist examples. This of course is an oversimplification fraught with misconceptions, especially considering the influence of the Iroquois Confederacy of nations on the writing of the U.S. constitution. This hyper-individuality become more apparent during election season when any proposals from the left such as progressive taxation or increases to the social safety net are labeled as socialist or communist—that label and comparison to such countries with such programs serving as the ultimate derisive comparison and criticism.

I find this ironic living in a country with a culture encouraging and rewarding conformity (while espousing to encourage individuality and creativity). This is often expressed in a desire to keep up with others and to reduce individuality of “others” through criticism, hazing, punishment, and marginalization of those that are different. We see it in our politics, schools, social clubs, neighborhoods, etc., as the mainstream purposefully, or unwittingly, marginalizes those outside the norm—everything from brand of shoes a child wears to who someone falls in love with. We can easily see this in our marketing and advertising maybe more than anywhere else.

I see it in our education system with continually refining methods of identification of those outside the normal ways of learning and behaving as having a disability needing to be managed, overcome, or fixed in order to be successful in the mainstreamed education system. As a teacher, I’ve struggled to find the balance between identifying a disability to be corrected and having a difference that is a gift to be honored and nurtured. Do not mistake this attempt to understand the complexities of learning disabilities as support for a view that there are not students with learning disabilities that present significant roadblocks to their learning, thus requiring accommodation.

All of this occurs in a culture claiming to honor individuality and individual rights above all else, but at the same time criticizing, marginalizing, and even attempting to eliminate cultural practices that are rooted in tribal practices that do honor the individual while operating in much more communal or socialist ways. We dismiss as socialism any political, social ideas that challenge the American norms—even when those norms are damaging, limiting, and constricting of the ability of the individual’s pursuit of happiness in favor of the success of the individuals, families, and corporations which have accumulated and protect the majority of the country’s wealth and power. I think we would be well-served to pause and see what lessons we could learn from the three sisters. They’ve been teaching it for centuries now.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Press. Minneapolis.

Three Sisters Image:

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