On Writing and Ojibwe: Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in Writing Classes

PALS is once again excited to announce a guest postthis time by Sonya Lawson-Salmasi, a lecturer at Ohio State University. Lawson-Salmasi writes about using Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in the composition classroom. Find out more about Lawson-Salmasi’s teaching here.

Dr. Yvette DeChavez’s call to decolonize our literature syllabi is particularly relevant in 2019. As DeChavez says “if academia continues to uphold white men as the pinnacle of literature, they’re also upholding white supremacy.” However, such work shouldn’t stop in the literature classroom. We can best serve students in other courses, particularly writing courses, by introducing and analyzing texts that they rarely encounter and issues they often do not consider. This is where Jane Johnston Schoolcraft comes in for me.

PALS has already published an excellent piece on teaching Schoolcraft in 19th century literature classes, and I have taught her work in a variety of literature courses myself. This particular post outlines how I have integrated Schoolcraft into my Second Year Writing courses. In thinking about teaching American Indian writers in composition courses, I relied heavily on the edited collection Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Jessica Safran Hoover’s “Rhetorical Sovereignty in Written Poetry” was exceedingly helpful for reframing Schoolcraft in a rhetorical mode, as it describes how code-switching and translation in poetic works represent survivance and autonomy for American Indian writers. This essay helped me situate the Ojibwe language and the act of translation within a rhetorical context and gave a great theoretical foundation for understanding the importance of translation and language for American Indian culture and literature.

With this theoretical backing, I developed a three-day sequence for two different versions of Second Year Writing. Because these were writing courses, the study of literature needed to serve the efforts of writing instruction. I chose to couple Schoolcraft’s work and my overall discussions on American Indian language and U.S. history within the framework of exploring how claim-evidence-warrant structures work within argumentation. Adding Schoolcraft adds diversity, yes, but also adds an opportunity for students to think through complex cultural assumptions and new forms of argumentation while also giving them an opportunity to tackle big ideas like the way history is written and erased and the place of language in a diverse conception of American culture and history. In working toward decolonizing my writing syllabus, I also expanded critical thinking and understanding of rhetorical situations and argument structures, making such inclusion doubly beneficial for my writing students.

Now, for the nuts and bolts of how I use Schoolcraft in class. Day 1 is all about introducing both Schoolcraft and American Indian poetry in translation. The readings for the day are two poems by Schoolcraft titled “To the Pine Tree on first seeing it on returning from Europe” and “On leaving my children John and Jane at School, in the Atlantic states, and preparing to return to the interior.” These poems are copied from Robert Dale Parker’s edited collection The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (2008). I use this edition specifically because of Parker’s focus on translation and his extensive editorial commentary. Students are asked to read the Ojibwe and English versions of the poems along with Parker’s notes for each.

To begin this day, I give a little lecture where I focus on who Schoolcraft was and her identity as a metís Ojibwe in early 19th century America. Having a very brief intro to the concept of metís culture in early America situates the linguistic, rhetorical, and historical stakes of Schoolcraft’s poetry while introducing the idea that, in some places and at some points in the past, American Indian culture was not always thought of as outside or apart from American culture. However, the bulk of the class is spent on a Think-Pair-Share activity. I use translation as the focal point and ask students to respond with their initial reaction to reading in an unfamiliar language and list some ways they can pinpoint differences between the Ojibwe and English versions of each poem visually.

Just viewing the first stanzas of each poem and translation gives a number of visual clues about meaning and intention in translation. Schoolcraft constructed “Pines” first in Ojibwe then in English. As writer and translator, the intention behind the meaning and form of the poem appears to be similar in both the Ojibwe and English versions. You can visually see the similarities in structure and grammar even if you do not know Ojibwe:


Shing wauk! Shing wauk! nin ge ik id,

Waish kee wau bum ug, shing wauk

Tuh quish in aun nau aub, ain dak nuk i yaun.

Shing wauk, shing wauk No sa

Shi e gwuh ke do dis au naun

Kau gega way zhau wus co zid.


The pine! the pine! I eager cried,

The pine, my father! see it stand,

As first that cherished tree I spied,

Returning to my native land.

The pine! the pine! oh lovely scene!

The pine, that is forever green.

“On leaving” was only written by Schoolcraft in Ojibwe, then translated into English by her husband, and translated differently for Parker in his edition. Each version varies in length, grammar, and structure, which is clearly visible to readers:

JJS Ojibwe Version:

Nyau nin de nain dum

May kow e yaun in

Ain dah nuk ki yaun

Waus saw a kom eg

Ain dah nuk ki yaun

HS (JJS Husband) “free” Translation into English:

Ah! when thought reverts to my country so dear,

My heart fills with pleasure, and throbs with a fear;

My country, my country, my own native land,

So lovely in aspect, in features so grand,

Far, far in the West. What are cities to me,

Oh! land of my mother, compared unto thee?

Newer English Translation (2005) by Dennis Jones, Heidi Stark, and James Vukelich:

As I am thinking

When I find you

My land

Far in the west

My land

Seeing how translation by the author verses translation by others differs can point students toward an understanding of how connections with theme, intention, or audience change depending on who is writing/translating and how they are writing/translating. Both poems touch on issues of home, love, and family, yet the varied specific subject matter and personal issues at the center of each could mandate how and why Schoolcraft decided to construct the poem in a given language(s). In seeing her choices (and non-choices) in language on the page in front of them, students begin to think through the ways Schoolcraft’s Ojibwe/English usage may reflect what she valued in each poem and why, rhetorically, she would decide to translate or not translate.

Day 2 introduces argument structures in connection with our understanding of Schoolcraft and the work of centering American Indian language and literary history. The readings for this day are a brief outline of Claim-Evidence-Warrant structures I created and a short book review of Parker’s edition by Margaret Noori – “Bicultural Before There Was a Word for It.” This review focuses on how language is used, discussed, and presented by Parker, Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, and Henry Schoolcraft (her first editor). It presents a clear argument about the value of the recovery work Parker did in order to create this unique collection.

We begin the class with a review of what constitutes a good claim, how evidence should concretely connect to a good claim, and how implicit/explicit warrants function. We then use Noori as a way to think about these new argument concepts. I give students 10 minutes to review their Noori article, asking them to find as many claims as they can. We then, as a class, list claims on the board and break each down, seeing what evidence is used and how they are connected through warrants. This is a day where argument is the central focus, and it shows how writing instruction can still include examples and texts that value the work of indigenous voices and present indigenous issues that may be ignored in the writing classroom.

Day 3 is about dictionaries, language, and history-making – something students don’t often consider. The reading is light, just a short, translated Ojibwe story from Schoolcraft – “The Origin of the Robin.” We start with a lecture on the creation of English and American-English dictionaries in the 18th and 19th centuries, connecting each to concepts of nationalism and exclusion through language. This leads into a viewing of “Marie’s Dictionary,” a 2015 short documentary (9:36), which follows Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of Wukchumi, in her efforts to create/record Wukchumi stories and a dictionary so her American Indian language can potentially survive after her. After viewing the film, we discuss Schoolcraft’s work in translating Ojibwe stories into English and how the two projects highlight language, history, culture, and preservation.

Afterward, we do a quick Pass the Claim activity. Students create claims regarding the subject matter for the day then think of possible concrete evidence from the texts (story, editorial notes, and film) to support the claim created by a fellow classmate. Finally, they pair up and discuss how the evidence works with the claim and what implicit and explicit warrants would function within that structure. For example, one student could make a straight-forward claim like “Using language helps preserve culture.” The second student could then point to particular moments in Wilcox’s story of dictionary creation and Schoolcraft’s practice of translating Ojibwe stories into English as two different ways in which this claim could be supported with concrete evidence. Paired conversations about implicit warrants could then focus on particular cultural beliefs we have today about language and culture or the importance of preserving forms of both for future generations. The explicit warrant discussion would require the pair work together to literally put claim and evidence in writing to see what logical moves, explicit explanations, or style issues are needed to make such evidence connect with the claim. By using Schoolcraft and Marie’s Dictionary for an activity that could actually be done with a wide variety of different texts, they not only become familiar with these complex and diverse language issues, but also become acclimated to creating arguments about such issues and using a variety of sources that show differing ways of knowing/arguing in an academic context.

Doing work with and through a figure like Jane Johnston Schoolcraft in the writing classroom refines and complicates assumptions about what American language is and who has and does participate in creating and sustaining literature and culture in America. All of this brings diversity in text and thought while reinforcing issues of language, style, argument, and textual creation central to a writing classroom. My process of decolonizing my courses is a continual process. As a white woman, I have a responsibility to use my privilege to open space for other voices that are not privileged in our society and to, as De Chavez states, “push against whiteness as a default” in all classes, whether it is a literature or writing course.


DeChavez, Yvette. “It’s Time to Decolonize That Syllabus.” Los Angeles Times, 08 October 2018. https://www.latimes.com/books/la-et-jc-decolonize-syllabus-20181008-story.html. Accessed 9 August 2019.

Hoover, Jessica Safran. “Rhetorical Sovereignty in Written Poetry: Survivance through Code-Switching and Translation in Laura Tohe’s Tséyí/Deep in the Rock – Reflections on Canyon de Chelley.” Survivance, Sovereignty, and Story: Teaching American Indian Rhetorics. Lisa King, Rose Gubele, and Joyce Rain King, eds. Utah State UP, 2015. 

mhrange. “Teaching Jane Johnston Schoolcraft.” Pedagogy and American Literary Studies. 25 September 2017. https://teachingpals.wordpress.com/2017/09/25/teaching-jane-johnston-schoolcraft/. Accessed 9 August 2019. 

Noori, Margaret. “Bilingual Before There Was a Word for It.” Wellesley Centers for Women. Update 2019. https://www.wcwonline.org/WRB-Issues/bicultural-before-there-was-a-word-for-it. Accessed 9 August 2019. 

Parker, Robert Dale. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft. U Penn Press, 2008. 

Vaughan-Lee, Emmanuel. “Marie’s Dictionary.” Global Onenesss Project. Accessed 16 September 2019. https://www.globalonenessproject.org/library/films/maries-dictionary.

Bio: Dr. Sonya Lawson-Salmasi received her MA in English Studies from the University of Louisville and her PhD in 17th-18th Century Transatlantic Literature from Miami University. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. There she occasionally teaches literature courses when needed, but the bulk of her teaching work is in First- and Second-Year Writing courses. She has presented on her teaching at a wide variety of national conferences such as the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and the Multi-Ethnic Literatures in the United States conference. When not teaching, Sonya enjoys spoiling her cat, reading romance novels, and watching horror films. You can learn more about her teaching here.


The Agentive Classroom

PALS is excited to welcome a guest post by Kristin Lacey. Lacey is a PhD student at Boston University working on nineteenth-century American literature. In her post, Lacey explores how she and her students form their classroom community and how they build agency into the semester’s activities.


With each semester I’ve taught, I’ve asked more of my students. By “more,” I don’t mean more reading and writing—I mean more investment in building a meaningful classroom community together. Asking students to regularly provide feedback on the class’s progression and their experience teaches students—particularly those who are reticent to ask for help or speak up in class—that they have agency in shaping their educational experience. None of the exercises I do with my students are groundbreaking alone, but taken together, they form the backbone of a classroom that honors students’ work and learning. Below I outline several activities I do in the beginning of the semester and one activity we do throughout that help give my students agency in the classroom. 

Paradoxically, giving students a stake in the classroom begins with an exercise that students 1) have no say in and 2) meet with almost universal outcry. This terrifying proposition? Learning (actually learning) their classmates’ names. I learned this strategy from Johanna Winant on Twitter in 2017 and have been using it since to great effect. In the first class during syllabus review, I tell students that they will take tests on their classmates’ names at the start of the second, third, and fourth class sessions; this might vary depending on class size—in my class of nine, a third test was unnecessary. I also say that they must get at least 70% on the last test. I don’t give them the other end of this toothless ultimatum and have never had to—your mileage may vary. I have never had a student miss more than two names by the last test. The actual test looks like this: I ask students to take out a pen and half-sheet of paper. I then stand behind a student (in a non-threatening manner) and their classmates write down the student’s name; we then go around the room until everyone’s name has been written (or wildly guessed). I correct the tests after class (or during, if they’re doing a free write or pair share), write the correct response for near-misses, and hand them back. 

Students often meet this task with shock or ask “why” point-blank; I respond that it’s important to practice collegial scholarly conversations by knowing who we’re talking to and responding directly. Perhaps the best unintended outcome of the exercise is the immediate student camaraderie that results from facing this seemingly insurmountable task. One class immediately burst into a strategizing session: “Everybody, take a selfie and put it in a Google Doc so we can study!” Inevitably, I walk into the classroom on the second day and students panic as they remember their impending fate: “Wait, what’s your name?! What’s her name?” and sometimes will organize their own rapid-response icebreaker as a memory tool. Rather than nag students throughout the semester about addressing each other by name, I simply require it, and they always rise to the occasion.

In my second class session, I ease students into providing reflective feedback by doing a group brainstorm about what works well and what doesn’t in a group discussion. Students begin to understand that I will be asking them to reflect on their past experience in order to make our class a more effective learning environment. Selfishly, this is also a great way to get students to say, “I hate when one person dominates the conversation!” so that I don’t have to. I ask students to remember what they and their classmates find useful for discussions, and the list we produce together serves as an aspirational backdrop for the conversations we have thereafter. Later in the semester, we do another group brainstorm about what works well (and doesn’t) in peer review workshops. It is here that I hope someone will say, “It’s annoying when my peer reviewer doesn’t give me anything to work on and just says it’s great!” If not, I take my cue and share that nugget of wisdom: No paper is ever perfect or “done,” and you can always find something to improve. 

I use the second class, too, for an exercise borrowed from my beloved undergraduate mentor, Samina Najmi: I ask students to think about perceptions we have about students who stay quiet in class—not perceptions that they claim or believe, but that someone in the universe might have. Students are often reluctant to be the first to voice negative perceptions, but after reassurance, students say variations of the following: Quiet students can’t keep up, haven’t done the reading, or simply don’t care. I explain that the neutral or positive perceptions—quiet students are anxious, thinking, listening, forming their own responses—are much more likely to be true, and that I welcome whatever form of participation students can muster. I find that students don’t take this as an excuse to remain quiet, but instead as a promise that they won’t be judged for being quieter or for not having perfectly polished answers. This past semester, I had one student say that she’s always been terrified of speaking in class, but that after our class, she found it “wasn’t so scary.” This is a particularly important message to convey to marginalized students, including first-generation college students who might take longer to find their way in class discussions—for me, there isn’t a single definition of participation, let alone of valuable participation.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I check in with students anonymously throughout the semester through what I call “Post-It check-ins.” Once a month at the end of class, I ask students to anonymously write what works well for them about our class and/or what they’re struggling with; they then leave the Post-Its on the wall or board by the door on their way out. Afterward, I adjust in-class activities, discussion structures, or reading schedules to reflect their needs. This can be as easy as including a ten-minute refresher on writing a claim, preceded by the acknowledgement that some students had questions about it. Students are incredibly thoughtful, even in the space of a Post-It, about their experience and their genuine investment in improving their work. It’s important, though, to actually do something with the feedback you receive to maintain students’ trust as they share their important (and sometimes vulnerable) thoughts. Even if you’re unable to change lesson plans in the days following a Post-It check-in, a verbal acknowledgement that you’ve read and plan to address students’ worries goes a long way: “I know some of you are confused about passive voice—how to find it and how to change it—and we’re going to do an exercise next week that should help.” 

Trust students to be your collaborators in the classroom. It doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for their learning, or that you need to call your students “co-teachers,” or that you don’t have authority: it simply means that giving students a stake in the classroom—how it’s organized, what you spend time on, and what skills they develop—makes it a more just, livable, and human place in which to learn. 

Kristin Lacey is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Boston University. She has taught courses on satire, nineteenth-century American literature, and literary representations of “madwomen.” Her dissertation studies the rise of individual ambition in the nineteenth-century United States, particularly how women navigated this cultural shift in fiction and primary materials like conduct manuals and women’s magazines.