S.9, E.2: “Gustavus Paved the Way for the Rest of My Life”

Learning for Life @ Gustavus host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumna and educator Luanne Bigbear '91.
Posted on April 12th, 2021 by

Luanne Bigbear ’91, an educator in Shelton, Washington, recalls her time at Gustavus, where she double-majored in History and Art and Art History, recounts her path from there to high-school teacher (including learning about her birth family along the way), and describes the innovative curricular initiatives she has participated in, among them Native-infused curriculum through a program at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.

Season 9, Episode 2: “Gustavus Paved the Way for the Rest of My Life”

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people teaching and learning it Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways that Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host, Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the department of history.

In the summer of 2018, I was in Washington DC for two week long national endowment for the humanities Institute on slavery in the Constitution. Having arrived and checked into the hotel, I had just walked out for dinner when the institute’s leader stopped me and said I needed to return to the lobby right away where they’d been speaking with Gustavus alumni I had taught. My first thought was that they must be mistaken. My second was if they aren’t, I hope the person is someone I’ll be happy to see.

They weren’t mistaken, and upon reentering the lobby, I was both quite surprised and thrilled to see Luanne Hicks. So 27 years had gone by since she graduated in 1991 with majors in history and studio art. We recognize one another instantly and had a wonderful time catching up over dinner. Luanne turned out, was now by marriage, Luanne Bigbear. And to my delight, a fellow educator with a master in teaching degree from the outstanding program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and more than a decade of full-time high school teaching experience.

Most recently at Cedar High School in Shelton, Washington, where she teaches English art and social studies. Like me, she was in DC for an educational development Institute focused in her case on the native knowledge 360 degree education initiative of the National Museum of the American Indian. Luanne not only teaches native students, but is also extensively involved in developing and facilitating teacher training in a native infused curriculum. Our work is innovative, timely, and important, and it’s very much in keeping with Gustavus own emphasis on justice, community and “Preparing students for fulfilling lives of leadership and services society.” For all these reasons I’m delighted and proud to speak with her on the podcast. So welcome Luanne. It’s great to be with you again even if only virtually this time.

Luanne Bigbear:

Thank you, Greg. It’s great to be here.

Greg Kaster:

yeah. So good to hear you. So, you just finished, is what? Two hours earlier where you are in Washington? Is that right? Or one or two hours? Two hours, right?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah, two hours. So it’s only 3:27 here. My finished my teaching day at, well, officially around three, but we have students right up until 2:35.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Well, let’s start with your day. First of all, how is it going teaching there in Washington, which of course had a rough time early on in the COVID pandemic. Are you teaching in-person or hybrid or a mix? Or I guess that is hybrid in person or online only.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. We’ve actually, in the school district diamond, we have been teaching online ever since COVID really hit. So right around mid-March, we went into lockdown as this whole state. That has been a journey in and of itself because when we first started teaching through the online model, I was very familiar with Google Classroom and it already familiarized my students with it. So that piece was in place, but that’s still a very stagnant way of learning. Like I could post videos and texts and students could write and respond. It’s a bit dry. And then this fall, our district decided to make… they were very concerned about equity and the types of things kids were being exposed to. So they actually paid, probably too much money for an online program called K-12 curriculum. We’re on a trimester system in the first trimester, we were facilitating that curriculum.

Luanne Bigbear:

I’m not going to publicly admonish that curriculum but it wasn’t engaging for a lot of our students. So because I am actually part of this brand new high school, it’s called Cedar High School. We went to the district and requested to break from all these other ways of teaching and start to implement what we see as our vision at Cedar High School, which is to have very… ultimately when we’re in person, one of our tenants is collaboration. Actually, the Cedar name stands for what we are, a collaboration. Of course now I’m not going to remember in this situation. Collaboration, engagement, diversity, age and [inaudible 00:04:51] and respect.

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. Those are our five kind of goals and things that we focus on as a school. And so what that meant as far as online teaching and how that changed, is I now work with another teacher. I have a co-teacher and we use a system called Echo, which is just a nice system for… we post agendas and all of our students will send their assignments into Echo. It’s just a great place. And that’s all under this network called the New Tech Network, which is an international, well, mostly national, but I think they extend to Australia now as well. And they’re a non-profit organization who helps schools work within this kind of… well, it’s called New Tech for reason.

Luanne Bigbear:

It was invented, or they came about in the early nineties. The idea was to incorporate technology into their teaching and learning. And what it’s really turned into over time is to facilitate project based learning and [crosstalk 00:05:57]. Learning that’s based in what’s happening right now, and how to engage our students with real life problems and issues. I will say the minute we switched over to teaching with two teachers, Zooming interactively with our students for the entire class period. My life changed a hundred percent for the better, and I think for our students as well.

Greg Kaster:

That’s all fantastic. That’s just great. Sorry, go ahead. You were going to say something.

Luanne Bigbear:

Just saying that it’s been an interesting evolution for me as a teacher. Like I finally feel like I’m in an online world that I can at least live with for awhile. It’s not [crosstalk 00:06:37] but it’s much better than it was.

Greg Kaster:

It sounds great actually. I’m a little envious I admit. The other thing is I want to come back to that later because I think you’ve been involved with, what’s it called? New Tech, you’ve been involved with that, right? Doing project learning and training or something that I saw. Talk a bit more about that when we [crosstalk 00:06:56].

Luanne Bigbear:

I think back when I ran into you, that was sort of the beginning of our principal tasks. I came from Choice High School, which is an alternative high school. We had something like seven or nine programs all meeting different students’ needs. But we were tasked by our superintendent to take what we call just our day program. Which is a lot like a traditional high school program, and figure out a way to really elevate it, and make it more engaging and more exciting. I think we were doing a fabulous job of meeting kids’ needs, because often when a kid comes to, and I say kid. A student, when a student comes to an alternative high school, it’s for a lot of different reasons.

Luanne Bigbear:

Often it’s just they feel like they’re not being heard in a larger environment. And so one of the things I think we’ve always done well is really work with individuals, and help students grow. I’m a firm believer that we are now onto this. We’ve now launched a new school amidst a pandemic, but there are some exciting things along with that. We are creating a partnership with Olympic College, which is a small community college satellite campus in Shelton, Washington. That’s actually probably where the… So right now we’re sort of a school without a building.

Luanne Bigbear:

I mean, we technically could use the building we were in, but we are looking at creating a school next door to this college so that we’re really working with students and creating opportunities for them to take a college class while they’re in high school. And start to see their future in a really manageable way.

Greg Kaster:

That’s really great. So is this school, where you’re at now, Cedar is it like a magnet school or an alternative school or experimental or all of the above?

Luanne Bigbear:

I think our superintendent would like to see it become a magnet school. We’re enough out of the Seattle, or we’re about two hours from Seattle. But believe it or not, that urban area is just sprawling more and more and more. Shelton is still what I would consider a fairly rural area, but Olympia has grown immensely in the time I’ve lived here. I see that sprawl is going to start eating its way into Mason County, where I’m working as well. So, yeah. Our traditional high school is overflowing. So it is time for us to have, not just a bigger high school, but a school that’s a little unique and new and will draw hopefully a lot of students over to our school. Right now [crosstalk 00:09:45].

Greg Kaster:

Go ahead. I’m sorry, go ahead.

Luanne Bigbear:

We’re pretty small right now.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I was going to ask you, what roughly is the size of the student body?

Luanne Bigbear:

Only because we’re going to pandemic and we started in a pandemic, we’re still-

Greg Kaster:

How many students are there at Cedar would you say roughly?

Luanne Bigbear:

Right now we only have 67 students.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, really small, yeah.

Luanne Bigbear:

Super small and we have about seven staff. The kids are getting A plus education as far as-

Greg Kaster:

No kidding. And then you as a teacher, get to be on the kind of the ground floor and build it, which is cool. What’s the student demographic like?

Luanne Bigbear:

So the demographic in Shelton, Washington is still predominantly European American. However Shelton is, the town itself exists right between two Native American reservations. So right North of Shelton is the Skokomish Reservation or the Skokomish Nation. To be more respectful, I should say, the Skokomish Nation. And right South of Shelton proper there it’s the Squaxin Island nation. And so those two tribes actually are enormous contributors to education in our school district. The Squaxin Island tribe is actually one of the biggest employers in Mason County as well. This is historically, very historically obviously it was all native. And then, I think his name was David Shelton, is who the town was named after. Which is interesting because he actually didn’t want the town named after himself.

Luanne Bigbear:

He preferred the term Coda, which I’m still haven’t quite gathered what that term, what that name means. But it is the name of a street in our town. Yeah. So it’s an interesting history with historical… the tension between a law. It’s also was built to be a logging community.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’ve never been there. I’ve never been to Washington State, which I cannot believe. I want to go, obviously. And especially when you’re there, it will be so much fun. Oh, maybe I can come and do a guest lecture, or something.

Luanne Bigbear:

Absolutely.

Greg Kaster:

There we go. Figured it out. Boondoggle. Yeah. So, it was just so great to run into you. And that was by the way, the star , but for listeners. That was the start of a whole series of wonderful kind of run-ins with people I hadn’t seen in such a long time. Some of them, Gustavus alumnus is one of them. A person who works at the new African American history cultural museum. Who I’d gone to graduate school with. I hadn’t seen him in such a long time. Anyway, but it was so much fun, and I was so proud and excited that you’re an educator. That’s really what you are. But before we talk more about that, let’s go back in time so to speak, and talk a little bit about where you grew up and how you ended up at Gustavus?

Luanne Bigbear:

So I grew up in Rural, Southwest Minnesota. Tracy, Minnesota, to be more precise. I reached the age of, let’s see. Well, when I was a junior in high school, I loved where I grew up. And it was sort of magical to have all that space and wide open farm living. But I also got stir crazy. I was teenager who wanted out. I became an exchange student in Germany my last year of high school. While I was there, my mom and dad kept pressing me, where are you going to school? Where are you going to school? And I’ll be very frank, I had only ever visited this Gustavus Adolphus College because my boyfriend’s girlfriend, no, my boyfriend’s sister had graduated there and I had a sweatshirt. And so when my mom asked me where I wanted to go to college, I looked down at my sweatshirts and said, “I’d like to go to Gustavus.”

Greg Kaster:

Great story. I love it. Oh my god, that’s fabulous. And you did, you really did.

Luanne Bigbear:

[crosstalk 00:13:52] did.

Greg Kaster:

So, how far is Tracy from St. Peter where Gustavus is? Not that far, right?

Luanne Bigbear:

It’s not that far. It’s about two and a half hours I think.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. That’s what I thought. Yeah, about two hours.

Luanne Bigbear:

[crosstalk 00:14:06] the laundry home on the weekend.

Greg Kaster:

Exactly. Yeah. That’s about what it was. I went to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. So it was about an hour and maybe an hour and a half or so. 75 whatever from where I had grown up. But so you came to Gustavus. I don’t recall when we met. If it was what year it was when we met, but I’ve known you for a long time early on in your career there. Did you come already knowing you wanted to major in art or studio art? I assume you didn’t know you wanted to major in history?

Luanne Bigbear:

And then you make a fabulous assumption. Yeah. I was pretty passionate about art and knew I wanted to major in art. That was secure, but I also knew that that might not be the wisest plan. I know art is a very challenging world to live in and navigate. I was adamant that I wanted to double major and I think initially I thought that might be in psychology. But then I know exactly when I met you, and you may not remember because I was just one of many of your freshmen students. But the first History 101 with Greg Kaster, you walked in and changed my world. I’m not just saying that because it’s true. You had such dynamic lessons, you had us reading such awesome literature. And you just woke me up.

Luanne Bigbear:

Like, I had never really realized all the struggles that so many people have gone through to create a world that’s somewhat equitable, and we still have a lot of work to do.

Greg Kaster:

We do. Well, you’re very kind and you’re making my day, of course. I mean, you’re a teacher, what teacher doesn’t love to hear that. So, thank you. And so that must have been the US survey course probably.

Luanne Bigbear:

I think so. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And that would have been what, 80. That would have been not long after I… actually had not long after I had started. Kate, my wife, Kate and I had started at Gustavus. You graduated in-

Luanne Bigbear:

[crosstalk 00:16:13] in the 87, so yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, my gosh. So that would have been maybe my first or second year at Gustavus. Wow. So I’ve known you a long time. My gosh. It’s like 33 years. That’s awesome. Tell us a little bit about the kind of art you were already doing when you came to Gustavus?

Luanne Bigbear:

So, I shouldn’t say typical high schooler, but I was very passionate about drawing. But I was mostly just drawing images that I’d see in magazines or that I found interesting. I did a lot of, I think, copying if you will. But I always support that as far as learning how to process, and just be involved in drawing and artwork. And I really continued that at Gustavus. In fact, I wanted to become better at painting. I never did feel like I kind of earned that badge while I was at Gustavus. So I did continue taking our classes after I graduated from Gustavus. And that’s actually how I ended up leaving. It’s how I ended up living in South Dakota after I graduated a few years later.

Greg Kaster:

I seem to remember looking at… I definitely remember your drawings, which were fantastic. I’ve seen some paintings by you. I don’t know if there were a water color when you were a student at Gustavus. You probably did some paintings, right?

Luanne Bigbear:

I did do some paintings. I think they would have mostly been acrylic or oil paint.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, yes, acrylic. That’s what they were, acrylic. Exactly. Yes. That’s what they were. I can see. Yeah. Both Kate and I love what you were doing, your art. I don’t remember whether I went to the senior show or not. I hope I did.

Luanne Bigbear:

I don’t remember either.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, it’s a long time. You were amazing, your art and the way you combine art and history, or you were passionate about both. When you weren’t taking classes, what else are you up to? Tell us a little bit about some of your, shall we say non-academic or non-curricular memories of the place?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, I certainly can say that I loved the campus of Gustavus and I was a student who lived on campus even my senior year. The only year I didn’t live there was when I was an exchange student my junior year. But it was really about the people. I didn’t land the best… I should say, without saying the negative about my freshman roommate, we did not see eye to eye. And so I was sort of fast. I was really wondering one day. I was dreaming of the perfect roommate, and then I ran into this amazing person at Gustavus named Vicki Stri. She looked at me and before I even got it out of my mouth, she said, “Would you like to be my roommate next year?”

Luanne Bigbear:

I couldn’t even believe it. It was like, she read my mind and I will say that Vicki, if anyone has had the opportunity to know who she is, sadly she passed [inaudible 00:19:23] in 2011.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, well, I didn’t know that actually.

Luanne Bigbear:

It was a really hard one, but she does makes everything fun and always did. The minute she became my roommate, even my moments outside of class were fun and creative and exciting. Whether it was going to the happy chef and writing papers all night long to… we had like a little contest in the dorms. We won the Christmas contest and things like that. She just had a way of making everything fun. I really enjoyed the comradery at Gustavus a lot.

Greg Kaster:

Was she your roommate all four years?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, so I did make it through freshmen new year with the roommate I didn’t necessarily get on with very well. And she was my roommate my sophomore year and my senior year. But my junior year was spent in England. So I didn’t-

Greg Kaster:

Okay. That’s right. I wanted to talk about that too in a minute. I forgot that you mentioned you alluded to that. It’s amazing what you said. And again, it echoes what so many people have said on this podcast. Whether they’re faculty talking about what their experience is when they first came to Gustavus, but that sense of the people, and connecting with people. I remember that vividly. I have such a powerful memory of that coming to campus and just thinking, “Oh my god, this is so different from the previous place I interviewed in a much better way.” I used to think we just talk about that kind of stuff. It’s just rhetoric, but it must be real because so many of us have had that same experience. So whatever it is, Gustavus has has it. But the other thing you did is you went to England. Tell us a little bit about that? Was that Oxford? I’m trying to remember. Is that where you were?

Luanne Bigbear:

It was and thanks to you and Kate for not flunking me because I had gone through… I was young and I was a little emotional and I’d been through a breakup. I broke up with my high school boyfriend of all things. Then I suddenly wasn’t able to turn in the final, I think is what happened. But yes, you still supported me. I had applied to go to study at Oxford for a year and through Gustavus, it was this amazing exchange program they had. I hope they still have it. I don’t know if they do, but I did that. And that also was just one of the most fantastic years of my life. And to have that opportunity through Gustavus was… I couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a line around the block applying for that. But I think a lot of people are just afraid of adventure. I will say that I tend not to be.

Greg Kaster:

I don’t know whether we have that specific program. What I do know is that I would say, today many Gustavus students go abroad. We have a fantastic programs. As you experienced, they’re transformative, right? They change people’s lives. It was true of me when I went to Mexico as an undergraduate for just half a year. So you’d be happy as an alumnus to know that the international pre-COVID, obviously. But the international ed is just thriving. When you went to Oxford, were you studying art as well there? Or what were you… Do you remember what you were doing?

Luanne Bigbear:

I didn’t take a studio art class, but the beautiful thing about there was I did a lot of art history. And that equated with, I would just be told to go down… just walk down the road and go to the museum and study artwork. That was like my weekly assignment was just to go to a new section and study the artwork. So what a gift. It was amazing. It was [crosstalk 00:23:12].

Greg Kaster:

It is a gift. And you just reminded me, I recorded recently with, you probably didn’t know Don Meyers because there was no art museum at Gustavus when you were there. We now have the Hillstrom Art museum and Don is in the lawman and the director. And, yeah, just talking about museum work and art museums and their importance. We’re so lucky to have one on campus. But yeah, I remember the whole sort of crisis that you got through it though. It was so good for you. You’re resilient. So tell us a little bit about what happened in the immediate years following your graduation? What did you wind up doing?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah, so I graduated from Gustavus and was moving to the city. So I moved into a little one bedroom apartment with another classmate from Gustavus. We moved into, well, I will say it was a very affordable apartment and therefore, not exactly the lowest crime area of Minneapolis. I think we’re on first Avenue, but I couldn’t tell you which part. Oh, Franklin. Franklin I.m sure of it.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, no. Yes. I know it well.

Luanne Bigbear:

The first night I moved in, I watched someone break into a car and I went, “Wow, okay.” And it was my first experience with cockroaches. I’d never had to live with those. So needless to say, I also discovered that while I wanted to be a city girl, that country girl in me is really strong. I had only lasted until about Christmas. In fact, I think my folks helped me move back home in a snow storm. I know it was because we loaded up my dad’s truck and then had to get a hotel in Shakopee. And that’s okay because it was a good… I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I learned that lesson. And then from there, I just went home for a minute and tried to reorient myself. Like, what am I doing?

Luanne Bigbear:

I was still very interested in pursuing art. Actually just pushing myself. I wanted to be a more confident painter. And so initially I took a few more classes just at Southwest Minnesota. I think it has a different name now, but there’s a little community college in Marshall, Minnesota, which near where I grew up. And then I ended up traveling to Vermilion, South Dakota to visit a friend. And I actually traveled there in a snow storm. We had living bejesus out of me. I decided if visiting this friend and at that point, it was someone I was dating was so important to me, I wasn’t going to risk my life. But I also, our relationship was still very new. And so I didn’t want to move there just for him. I marched myself into the art room in Vermilion, South Dakota at the University of South Dakota. I was amazed at what they had going on there. To this day that has one beautiful art building. There’s a lot of energy in that little town in South Dakota.

Greg Kaster:

That’s neat.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. And I, sorry, I spent many years living in Vermilion, not making a ton of money. I just kind of did the artist lifestyle. I worked as a barista, managed a coffee shop, played in bands and made art, and it was fun.

Greg Kaster:

Were you taking courses to studying there at the university?

Luanne Bigbear:

I was. I was just always doing part-time, but I was always taking art classes. Yeah. And that’s actually how I ended up meeting Gary, my husband.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Gary. I was just going to ask you about that. Your current husband, Gary Bigbear. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about that, and as a street story.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. When I first arrived and in fact it was the very first two dimensional design class, I think was the name of it or something. There was this guy that showed up in the class and now, keep in mind, I was in a relationship and I believed him to be in a relationship. We were just friends. But I was drawn to Gary because I really… his art spoke to me. I saw a lot of similarities in his approach to line and express his expressiveness. So I just related to his artwork. Meanwhile, he claims that I was the only one in the class who really would just treated him like a normal person, because he is Native American and had come up, South Dakota and Nebraska that area. Depending on who you’re talking to, there was a lot of animosity that Gary had faced in his life.

Luanne Bigbear:

And so he was just really happy to be my friend and we were friends for years. And then eventually my relationship ended and then his relationship ended. Then one day he just looked at me and said, “Hey, are you seeing anybody?” And it was actually the very first time I’d even considered him as more than a friend. And then the craziest thing happened in that I was also… so now it’s my late twenties and I’ve met this guy that I really like. I was figuring out my own identity, because while I grew up in Minnesota, I’m also an adopted person and I didn’t have any information on my background.

Luanne Bigbear:

And it took me until I was 29 years old to get the guts to write a letter to the adoption agency and just say, “Hey, who am I?” And what they actually did was I had written a letter to my birth mom that they forwarded to her. Then I was invited to Washington to spend Christmas with my birth family. In the process of learning who my birth family was lo and behold, I learned that my birth grandparents had raised Gary’s cousin as their own.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing.

Luanne Bigbear:

It’s amazing, and it doesn’t make any sense. That there’s no [crosstalk 00:29:23].

Greg Kaster:

It means you were destined to meet one another. That’s what it means.

Luanne Bigbear:

That’s the story we’ve always taken.

Greg Kaster:

True. That’s so cool. By the way, so with the adoption, you just indicate as an adoptee that you want to meet your biological parents and then it goes forward from there, or?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. So, Peg, my birth mom had the option of… she could have refused the letter. She could have opted to return the letter. And in fact, what she ended up doing was just calling me. So I got home from work one day on a Saturday, and the phone rang. Suddenly I was talking to my birth mom, and it was just bizarre. It was [crosstalk 00:30:05]. Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Did you discover you have siblings as well, or?

Luanne Bigbear:

I did. In fact, I discovered I have… Now the story gets even crazier. I have a full-blooded brother and he lives in Houston, Texas. I have a sister. So my mom had a relationship with my birth father that obviously did not end after my adoption. And in fact, she moved to Mankato. She flew from Washington, the State of Washington to Minnesota to give me up for adoption in secrecy. And part of that was because my birth father had just gotten a job at 3M. He was a chemist and he still is alive. He’s not working anymore. He’s retired, but he lives in the St Paul area. And anyway, they’re a fair continued. And so she ended up having my birth brother and then their relationship ended and she ended up marrying his brother. So my sister is actually more than my sister.

Greg Kaster:

It’s large.

Luanne Bigbear:

I know. It’s crazy scandal.

Greg Kaster:

It’s complicated. I sometimes just think we had a complicated my family, because my brother met his wife at Kate’s in my wedding. And his wife is Kate’s cousins. Not quite in the same league as your story, but these connections are amazing. So, you and Gary, I’m thinking you’re concentrating poverty. Two are just falling in love. By the way, friendship, that’s what Kate always says. It’s better to be friends first. That’s important. So I think that’s a good foundation, but you guys you’re both artists. And then when did you start to become interested in teaching and becoming an educator?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah, well, one of my first jobs beyond being a barista. So I will say that I should have done more actual planning of careers when I was at Gustavus, but I was there and didn’t really think ahead too far. But I worked for a short, maybe almost two years, but I worked in Sioux City, Iowa at a residential treatment facility for kids. Everything from emotional issues to addiction issues. They actually attended school in this. It was an old hospital building had been kind of renovated to be this facility for kids that were having really hard times. And while I was there, I watched their education and sadly, I was really disappointed in the education they were being given in that facility.

Luanne Bigbear:

The facility itself was great. I think the counselors are great. And so much of it was really positive, but the actual education these kids were getting made me sad. I watched a teacher tell the kids that animals don’t have emotion and therefore they don’t really love you. All I could think is you didn’t realize that some of these kids that might be the only love they’ve ever had.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a great point. Yeah. That’s an excellent point. Yeah.

Luanne Bigbear:

So, that sparked me to just start seeing myself as a potential teacher and keep in mind that I saw myself as a teacher when I was in kindergarten and I never really lost that idea. But I also wanted to live life and experience it a little before I got into the responsibilities of an educator. Because I personally could not been a teacher right out of college. I wasn’t [crosstalk 00:33:49].

Greg Kaster:

You know what? I’m going to agree with you Luanne on that one. I will second that, but on the other hand, all those life experiences also make one a better teacher, I think. And so from there, what happened? Did you actually enroll in education degree programs or what?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, Gary and I, at this point in our relationship, we’re both wishing that we could move to Washington. And yet it wasn’t really a feasible plan quite yet. We hadn’t figured out all the nuts and bolts and then connections. Connections are powerful. And we actually ran into a really a friend of a friend who invited us to house it for her in Olympia, Washington. And it was just like the gift from the gods. So we packed up our lives and moved out here in 2002. And along with that, I had visited the Evergreen State College briefly on a road trip in the early nineties.

Luanne Bigbear:

So I was very familiar with the school and had a lot of regard for it. So I applied for their masters in teaching program. Once I established residency in Washington, and then was happily accepted. And can honestly say it was a really challenging, but good program. They worked me.

Greg Kaster:

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s a well-known program. There’s a focus on social justice, and it’s pretty innovative. Talk a little bit about that program.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. It is very social distance based. I would say Evergreen State Colleges in general. That’s one of their main goals as a school. Our cohort of, I think we started with maybe 35 students and we had three faculty and it was a tough enough program. We did a ton of work around social justice and learning about all the inequities in education. We did not just one student teaching opportunity, but you do two in that program. At least you did at that point in time. We also wrote a pretty extensive master’s paper. We did not do our own research. But we gathered research to support our own beliefs, or not beliefs, our thesis.

Luanne Bigbear:

That’s what we were supporting. From that I learned that the key to education is really having adults interested. A lot of our kids just don’t have enough adults in their lives to really support them. And the more adults you can put in a students’ lives, the more apt they are to succeed.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. That’s a fabulous point. That’s a superb insight, and harder. It sounds like to throw all that work. When did you develop your interest in sort of what you call or what the pro’s call native infused curriculum? Was that almost from the start at Evergreen State, or did that develop gradually?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, I could actually link this all the way back to Gustavus, in that I did take one, I think it was a sociology class. But it was a class where we focus primarily on Native American studies. I remember the first day the teachers saying, “Put your books away, put your pencils away. We’re here to learn and respect the way of the past and the way of the present for an oral culture.” And it was mind blowing. I’d never really thought about how strong an oral culture is and how good memories are when you come from that culture. So I think it’s just anecdotal, but I’ve noticed in my own relationship with Gary over the years.

Luanne Bigbear:

Like his memory for things is really outstanding. I find that a lot in different groups that come from strong oral cultures. I don’t know. But I digress, or I’d go anyway. So that was sort of the seed. I became very fascinated with Native American culture at that point. And then that became further supported when I lived in Vermilion, South Dakota. There’s a high percentage of Lakota and people living there as well as the Winnebago people of Nebraska often will take classes at USD. And then I came out here and really, I did some work around that while I was in grad school, but ultimately it came to my first job interview. And this also connections, Carmen Hoover, who is a professor at Olympic college here in Shelton is the person who invited us to house it for her.

Luanne Bigbear:

So she let me know that there was this position open called, early college for native youth. And that was a Bill Gates grant that was in many schools across the nation in the early two thousands. I can’t speak to how that grant panned out everywhere, but I can honestly say that I started working within that grant. The grant money ran out 12 years ago or so, but to this day we still have a relationship with Olympic College and I do teach an early college for native youth class to this day. Yeah, that’s kind of how that came to be.

Greg Kaster:

That’s a success story it sounds like to me. And that’s a good point. We don’t know, or we assume, and the money was spent and nothing came up. But that’s clearly not the case in what you’re describing. When we met, as I said, I was so excited to see you and, and start to catch up. But you were there for this, as I mentioned in the intro, this sounds like a really cool program. It’s called Native Knowledge 360 degrees. It’s an initiative of the museum itself. Is that right? The American Museum of the American Indian?

Luanne Bigbear:

It is. Yeah. I’d already was fascinated with Native American history and creating curriculum all the curriculum that I I’ve taught over the years was curriculum created by Carmen and myself. And, we consulted with both of the tribes here as well to make sure we were keeping everything above board. And then this opportunity came in an email. That they was an opportunity to study at the museum for the Native American. Museum of the Native American Indian. I apologize. Yeah. So I applied and I was just so thankful to be accepted. It felt a little bit like winning the lottery because I just had to… I think the district, my district supported me getting there. And then the museum put us up in that hotel where I met you.

Luanne Bigbear:

It was phenomenal. The curriculum that they have created and are continuing to create is all free. It’s all available on their website. And I’ve had educators say, “Oh, I really want to do more of that.” Most States now mandate that you are teaching Native American history in multiple subjects. So I get educators ask me, “Well, how do I… I don’t know, I don’t have enough history. I don’t know how to do this in a culturally sensitive manner. I just say go to that website and use their curriculum. It’s solid. It’ll walk you through everything.

Greg Kaster:

Is it a curriculum that includes, I assume not just history, but other art culture. I mean, all of it.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. I would say so. I would say mostly culture and it is a lot of history though. It’s mostly history based.

Greg Kaster:

Well, that’s good. That makes me happy. And so you were there. So tell us a little bit about the purpose of the program in DC when you were? Was it to want to one, I suppose acquaint you with the curriculum or their initiative, and then to kind of make you what, I don’t know, what a proselytizer for it or a facilitator of it.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. I would say a facilitator. They very much did want us to not just come home and keep it all to ourselves. So I did in that. Especially in that first year after I got back. I collaborated with… it just was by luck that a person in a neighboring school district had also been to DC with me. So she and I got together and we did a few different trainings around both at a state level and just in a more regional area level training on that curriculum. And, I guess I haven’t been actively… well, now we’re in a pandemic, so I haven’t been doing that. But I certainly back it .it’s good stuff.

Greg Kaster:

Do you find, this may be a hard question to answer and feel free to dodge it, but do you find… Do you find your relationship with Gary, your marriage with Gary? Does that at all influence how you approach teaching Native American history?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. I’m always honest with my students. I always say, “I know I have the name Bigbear, but I am a non-native in my, both in my heritage and in my upbringing. And yet I also have been in a relationship with Gary since 1993. That’s when I met him as a friend. I’d have to really ask my students, but my students seem very open to just my honesty, but they also know that I sort of get it. Certainly living with a person of color, a person who is navigated all the kinds of atrocities that you can experience when you’re a person of color and sadly in this nation. It has changed my perspective.

Luanne Bigbear:

It mostly has just made me very aware of my own privilege and I feel I have a very enormous responsibility to utilize what privilege I have to help. I guess [inaudible 00:44:31] if you will. I just want my students and whether they’re native or non-native, I want my students to understand that every place we stand in this nation once was native land and it’s art and it’s… We can’t fix the past. I always say that by knowing the past, we can begin to heal from the past.

Greg Kaster:

You’re making me smile here and so proud. That’s spoken like a history major. Yeah. That’s the hope, right? Does Gary ever come to speak to the students about his own background and story?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. Mostly Gary loves to talk art. His personal experiences, I certainly know a lot about. In a small group, he might be more willing to share some of those stories, but he is a fantastic speaker. In fact, I love to go like for example, he often does an adjunct teaching position at the Evergreen State College in their native pathways program. And I’d go to hear his lectures because I always learn something new about my husband and it always blows me away.

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool. That’s another secret by the way, to a happy marriage I might add is always learning something new. Usually good stuff. That’s awesome. I’m not sure I would have… going back to a comment you made. I knew you were calling. You only maybe only half kidding, but I’m not sure I would have predicted at the time that you would wind up doing what you do as a teacher. I know you’re so good at it. What is it you find so rewarding. You’re teaching, it’s high school kids, right? What? nine through 12th grade. And when I think of myself in high school, I think, “Oh my god, I wouldn’t want to flick myself on a t-shirt.” And thank God I had so many great high school teachers, but what is it about teaching that you find rewarding?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, I remember my teen years like they were yesterday I think because I did think they were really hard. And that is actually why I decided to teach high school. Is I thought I would at least understand where my kids were coming from. I guess the, wait, do you mind repeating your question?

Greg Kaster:

What do you find rewarding about it? Because teaching, it’s easy to talk about the challenges on the downsides of it, but what do you find so rewarding about it?

Luanne Bigbear:

I love interacting with teens. I love being there. I love hearing their opinions. I like hearing their take on the world. We have so many amazing young people growing up in this nation and just to be able to work with them is a privilege. I don’t know. I just have always had a hard time not teaching with my heart. That’s a huge part of how I work, and students respond to it or seem to. I’m not perfect. I’m certain that not every student of mine has been my fan, but it’s certainly wonderful when you get them coming back and saying, “No, you did make a difference.” Or there was a time when I received an email where a former student actually let me know that I had intervened at a time in his life that prevented him from suicide. I didn’t realize it at the time, but with stories is it makes you feel good to know that you maybe you have made a difference.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, no. Couldn’t agree more. You are making a difference. There’s no question about that. Yeah, a trustee I know could say, was trustee. He said that one of his professors at the Wharton School used to talk about the psychological, maybe echoing consciously or not WEB deployed, but the psychological wages of teaching. And when you get those emails, or you run into a loans or know to meet alumnus. So it’s so gratifying. Before we conclude, I want to ask you a bit about the New Tech. Is that what it’s called? The New Tech projects you’ve done? Tell us a little bit about what you’ve done there. I confess I’ve been a little, well, how should I put it. Resistant to the idea of project based learning, but talk to us a little bit about what that involves? What you’ve been up to with that organization?

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah, well, I found in high schools that kind of the way we’ve taught students for years, it works for a lot of kids. It does. Reading, responding, hearing interesting lectures, all of those things work, but we also have a lot of students that aren’t being successful in that model. I’m not saying that project based learning is for everyone, but I certainly am finding it of dynamic and exciting way to work with students who are buying into it. So for example, right now I have students working on creating public art models for this town of Shelton. Shelton’s a town. Yeah, it’s cool, right?

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s awesome.

Luanne Bigbear:

Yeah. We had Zoom with a person from our city council, a person from the radio station and a person from the museum that’s here in Shelton, and a local artists. So our students were exposed to the people in high places in the community. And we are going to hopefully show them the final products. You know what? It’s just a way to get kids excited and working on something that seems meaningful. It’s not just art in a box. It’s art with purpose.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. And they’re even starting, it sounds like in that case, starting to make some connections or learn professional life. You’re already starting to convince me because I realized just listening to you, I think what my problem is, I don’t mean to be confessional here. But I really did not like groups as a kid, or even as an adult. Like want to hear get into groups. Oh my god. And maybe that’s true because I communicate that dislike. I get feedback from students. We didn’t like the group, so-and-so didn’t do any work, but that’s different than what you’re describing.

Greg Kaster:

It’s not just in class group work. It’s much more than that. The part where they’re out in the community meeting people, whether through Zoom now or in print, that appeals to me. And certainly something like public art. Yeah. That sounds cool. Do you know of something come up that will the students be able to… This art will actually show up in public in Shelton at some point you hope, is that the idea?

Luanne Bigbear:

Well, right now, we’re in the week of the students are starting to upload the images of what they’re working on. So I would love to think that someday some of this will actually become real in the community. I’m certainly not going to get rid of any of these ideas that kids are coming up with. And the town does have a… like there’s some art here, but there’s certainly room for more. So we’re going to do our best to get it out there. It might just start with putting something in front of our school, [crosstalk 00:52:05] come up with, but [crosstalk 00:52:08].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Best good luck with that. Go ahead.

Luanne Bigbear:

And then I just want to show another project I have students working on right now. And this is a history, no, yeah, history we’ve combined. We combine two different subject areas. So this is a history language arts class. And we’re working with immigration as our theme and we have worked. So we’re actually going to be interviewing people from the community that are immigrants recent or otherwise. And the students are going to be documenting their stories, and we’re going to come up with like a storybook of people in our community. And when you speak to group work, I totally hear you. I know as a teacher, we were taught that it’s the best form of learning. It’s so challenging. In the long run, I’m hoping that once we’re in person, we really will kind of systematized when there are group work projects a way that the kids all are participating in all are collaborating. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:53:11].

Greg Kaster:

You will. You’ll do it. This reminds me too of professor [inaudible 00:53:17]. My colleague at Gustavus, who’s just a top-notch young immigration historian. I am going to hook the two of you. I haven’t done that already. Have I hooked you up with Madeline?

Luanne Bigbear:

No.

Greg Kaster:

She also has done something like you’re describing or with Gustavus students. I was able to see some of that when I sat in on a class. Just fantastic. I mean, just great. That’s a great project. That’s not only useful to the students in terms of their learning, but useful to the community too. So what kind of just quickly, what kind of immigrant population are we talking about where you are?

Luanne Bigbear:

I realize I left that out when I was talking about the makeup of Shelton. We do have a huge migrant population. People from Mexico and Guatemala. It’s primarily our shellfish industry here. A lot of fishing and clamming, which has also… so there’s shellfish. And then there’s also a lot of picking of salal. Salal grows wild in our forest, but it’s a plant that’s used in the floral industry. So that gets picked a lot too by our migrant workers. And then just so many of our students are either first gen, or literally have just shown up. And we’re a very, very friendly community in the sense that everyone… I feel like everyone here is truly welcomed, but that is not the history of the community. There’s still some issues there.

Greg Kaster:

Sure. Oh, that’s just fantastic. You’re doing great work. Both those projects sound terrific to me. Like projects I would be interested in in a sense as a teacher and as a student. As we wind down here, I want to give you a chance to reflect on Gustavus a bit more. And imagine you’re speaking maybe to one of your students, right? What’s your pitch for Gustavus assuming the student has only visited Gustavus and isn’t wearing a sweatshirt. When someone hears their mother calls, where do you want to go to college? But in all seriously, what’s your pitch for the place looking back on it?

Luanne Bigbear:

I think if you want a state of the art education, but in a small learning community where you’re not just a number, I think Gustavus is where you need to go. I think it’s an outstanding. I can only say good things. The education I got at Gustavus paved the way for the rest of my life. There’s no question.

Greg Kaster:

I think he just gave me the title of this conversation. Yeah, I’d never heard of Gustavus before I applied for the job until that day when I saw the ad. But I’ve come to appreciate more and more what you just said. I didn’t attend to liberal arts college small the way my wife Kate did a bar college, or you did at Gustavus. But yeah, I think it’s really true. And it’s amazing to me talking to alumni how no matter the age, how much they still value their experiences at Gustavus supposed in the classroom and out. So you just doing great work. I can’t wait to be out there one day, and finally see Washington. See you in action in the classroom. That would really be fun.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you so much for taking the time after a long day. I know how teaching it’s not always revitalizing. It takes effort, and energy. But thank you so much, Luanne. It’s been awesome speaking with you. I will never forget that encounter in Washington DC. I really thought those two guys were like maybe a little off. Are you really sure there’s someone in there? Then I thought you, it was just great. So take good care, stay safe. Good luck with the… your second trimester. Where are you at here in the teaching? Where are you at?

Luanne Bigbear:

I think we have about four weeks left in this trimester, and then our plan is to go in person for third trimester. And yet I’m going to wait and see. [crosstalk 00:57:28] we’ll see what’s really happening.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Well, here’s to vaccines. And then that happens sooner rather than later. But I’m super proud of you. Fun to chat. Take good care. And we’ll talk soon.

Luanne Bigbear:

Sounds great. Thank you so much, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Say hi to Gary too. All right. Bye-bye.

Luanne Bigbear:

Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning For Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus office of marketing. Gustavus graduate Will Clark, class of 20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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