San Pedro, Timothy J. “Silence as Shields: Agency and Resistances among Native American Students in the Urban Southwest.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.2 (2015): 132-53. Print.
Timothy J. San Pedro recounts insights from an ethnographic study conducted over the course of three years as a participant/observer in a class on Native American literature taught at a high school in the southwest United States (132). He draws on “field notes, artifacts [such as written and art assignments], and audio-recordings” as well as “semistructured interviews” (150n3), featuring three female students who identified as Native American (133). San Pedro shares these students’ experiences in their classrooms, especially in their history classes, as they negotiate their identities in the context of the “settler colonial discourse” they encounter in their school environments (135).
San Pedro focuses on a stereotype of Native Americans and Native American students as “‘naturally,’ ‘biologically,’ or ‘culturally’ reflective, silent, timid and/or nonresponsive” (134). He states that as he began his study, he was influenced by scholarship that posits that these features of Native American students’ classroom behavior resulted from “mismatches” between the kinds of discourse they experienced in their home communities and the discourse expectations in United States high schools (139). However, in his article, he explores how he came to see these three students’ silence as a form of resistance to the dominant narratives expounded in their classrooms and to the systemic “macroagressions” they experienced, as well as “microagressions”—exclusionary or silencing acts teachers and fellow students might not even be aware of (134, 136).
To frame the ways in which the students’ choices constituted resistance and to explore the effects of that resistance, San Pedro uses the term “critical silent literacies” (142; emphasis original). In this critical practice, the students respond to micro- and macroaggressions by withdrawing from classroom discussions. “Storying” and storytelling through relationships of communicative trust with others then allows the silenced students to make sense of their responses to these aggressions, responses that are therefore “voiced” to allow the ways they both protest and protect to emerge (143, 149).
San Pedro explores different kinds of resistance to analyze how the students’ use of silence and then of storying embodies agency. Resistance can be “damaging and self-defeating”; San Pedro notes how zero-tolerance policies can limit students’ options for productive resistance (142). Other forms of resistance can be what D. Solorzano and D. Delgado Bernal call “conformist”; this resistance allows students to “accept or reject” elements of the conflicting cultures they must negotiate (142). Other resistance can be considered “resilient” (T. Yosso, qtd. in San Pedro 142), leading to a “survival-through-resistance strategy” that G. Vizenor labels “survivance” (qtd. In San Pedro 142; emphasis original).
To illustrate that students choose silence in order to resist rather than passively bringing silence into the classroom because it typifies their home cultures, San Pedro presents several anecdotes in which the students experienced exclusion and even mockery from the dominant culture within the classroom. Each student offered active participation but felt unable to breach the systemic exclusion. “Nisha’s” teacher stopped calling on her when she questioned norms as presented in the history books (140-41); “Shila” was laughed at for not knowing Native American history that had not been taught 145-46); “Eileen” discovered that her history teacher did not know who Chief Sitting Bull was (146-47).
For San Pedro, the slowly developing trust he was able to share with the students allowed them to interpret their reactions to these experiences and to turn them into resilient forms of resistance (149). Such resilient strategies, San Pedro argues, can lead to productive change. He considers the silence of the students he studied resilient because it expanded, through shared storytelling, into an awareness of the kind of resistance they were practicing and became “agentive” (149). Such acts of agency, when voiced and shared through critical silent literacies, San Pedro contends, effect change by encouraging educators to examine more carefully how their teaching choices can subtly or explicitly exclude and silence. He invites readers to consider themselves part of the community of sharing that recognizes the agency in these students’ choices and is moved to a productive response (149).