McLaughlin has served as
an educator of Native
youth for 11 years. The
past 7 years were spent
at the Santa Fe Indian
School (SFIS) in New
Mexico. At SFIS,
McLaughlin founded a
spoken word program that
philosophies. Today, the
SFIS Poetry Team is
for performance poetry
and has won many awards.
It's been featured in
the New York Times, on
the Jim Lehrer News
Hour, and in an upcoming
HBO TV series about teen
Q: How did you incorporate the SAC into your classroom?
A: In some cases, I created class assignments directed toward the focus theme and then introduced the contest, and in others, I just announced the opportunity and discussed ways to approach the contest. For the older kids, I also read aloud last yearís winning essays by April (Chavez) and Nolan (Eskeets). With the 7th graders, we started with a writing activity about Native identity so the kids would write about specific aspects of Native culture instead of making overly abstract statements that just mimicked the words of the theme. In all cases, I encouraged the students to create a personal narrative that offers a compelling, flavorful story.
Q: What advice would you give to teachers who may have students entering for the first time?
A: Help your students to fashion a unique story. Native students are quite often exceptional listeners and grow up in environments rich with oral tradition. As a result, they develop an internal comprehension for the elements of a good story and just need a little encouragement and guidance to become storytellers themselves, even at a young age. Our role as teachers is to help the students manifest what is inside them, to gift them with the permission and confidence to express their individual truth or the collective truth of their family or tribe. We can do this by simply getting to know our students, discovering who the important people and significant events are in their lives. These are the building blocks of a solid, resonant piece of writing.
Q: What suggestions do you have for teachers on how to incorporate the SAC into their curriculum?
A: Again, I think doing some pre-writing before actually attacking the theme helps to get ideas flowing and generate some raw material that can be utilized when constructing the essay. Choose subjects that relate to the theme and about which your students have real things to say, and then develop some basic writing prompts around those subjects. You want the kids to think and express freely and creatively before throwing a contest at them so they arenít paralyzed by pressure. Like with any effective educational project, we teachers should suggest possible good paths for our students, and then mostly get out of their way as they travel one, simply guiding their steps here and there.
Q: What advice do you have for students who are entering for the first time?
A: Go for it. The only way to learn and grow is to try new things. Fear rarely leads us anywhere positive in life. Write about something and/or someone that means a lot to you. Let the first draft just flow onto the paper, even if you think itís terrible. Then get somebody smart to read your work and be ready to work on it some more. Patience is very important because it takes multiple drafts to make a really good essay. Donít worry about winning, concern yourself with creating a beautiful work of art with your words.
Q: How did you get your students interested in the competition?
A: In many cases I put out a tester assignment and then approached the kids who I thought had a product worth working on further and who might enjoy doing so. When a teacher shows an interest in a student, they have a sense of being chosen that is energizing. This must be done carefully so to avoid hurting the other students. With all the kids, I stressed that the competitive aspect is not the focus, but that it may be fun to enter the contest. The challenge was to refine their essay to the point where it was ready for a larger audience, where it spoke clearly and with personality. I simply told the kids that they have a powerful message, so they should go ahead and deliver it to others.
Q: Why do you think itís important for students to get involved in the SAC?
A: Creating art is one of the highest expressions of humanity. Itís a sacred process. Through crafting a story and then sharing it, you bring blessings to yourself and to your audience. Also, Native students come from profound cultural backgrounds, from perspectives grounded in spirituality and community, and so their writing carries important messages. Society is hungry for these messages and for greater connection on many levels. Plus, the contest is a healthy way for youth to enter into artistic dialogue with each other, to share stories and learn from one another. Through submitting an essay, a young person learns to speak their truth, to actively engage with the world.