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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide
 

A Film Study of Classrooms

in Western Alaska

PART TWO
ANALYSIS OF THE FILM

A Combined Prefirst/Second Grade in Kwethluk

Kwethluk is a large village with a new and, ideally, well-staffed school. As is common in village schools, the principal was expected to teach as well as administer. In the normal course of events for the region the staff had been depleted by illness and resignations. Accompanying readjustments in classes and duties of the remaining staff had to be made. The mix of second grade and prefirst described here was a result of these adjustments. It was taught by Mr. Principal, a credentialed teacher in his first year of teaching in Kwethluk. In his role as principal he was under particular stress because of staff shortages. The combined class was not exceptionally large, with twenty-six students in a large room. Mr. Principal had the assistance (not always utilized) of a local teacher aide (Collier, 1973, private communication).

The film starts with most of the students seated in three rough rows of chairs in front of the room for an ESL (English as a Second Language) lesson. A small number of students, under the supervision of the aide, are working with workbooks at desks in the back of the room. Mr. Principal has an ESL dialogue, concerning a lost child and a policeman, written on the board. The language of the dialogue, written for Puerto Rican children in New York City, is somewhat awkward. Mr. Principal reads the dialogue, explains it, and then has the group repeat it. His movements and gestures are fast, angular and harsh, meaning that they are linear in direction and carried out at high speed which is marked by abrupt stops and starts (Illus. 33-40b).

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A comparison of his pace to that of the two Eskimo women who taught the Head Start class indicates that he moves three times as fast as they did. Student response throughout this ESL lesson is marked by a lack of flow and uncoordinated pace. There is a great deal of fidgeting, twisting, and turning. These movements are generally uncoordinated actions of individual students. One boy claps his hands, puts them on his knees, raises his hands again and claps them in a rhythmic movement. But this whole sequence of action is totally ignored by the surrounding children (Illus. 41-46).

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At various times the group as a whole is oriented toward the teacher but these moments are brief and soon replaced by less unified behavior, including a fair amount of looking at the camera (Illus. 47-48).

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It is this inconsistency of group-wide orientation and coordination of movements which leads me to describe this session as having a discordant note and little flow.

As the lesson progresses the teacher selects individual children to come forward and act out the dialogue. An older boy plays the part of policeman. Several students come forward one after another to play the part of a lost child. These sequences present an opportunity to observe teacher-to-student interactions with two different students, a boy and a girl. The teacher smoothly ushers the small boy to the front of the room and positions him facing “Mr. Policeman.” In this sequence the teacher slows his pace and he and the boy move together (Illus. 49-51).

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However, as the teacher moves back the boy takes a frozen stance just as the teacher left him: feet together, elbows in, hands held tightly in front and motionless. After a period of waiting, the teacher moves in to encourage him. But now Mr. Principal has returned to his quick angular style of movement. He gestures vigorously, points to the board, leans over the small boy. The boy remains frozen in position. The boy is replaced with a girl. She, too, takes the same frozen position and holds it (Illus. 52-55).

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The remainder of the class continues in its chaotic state with pace and movements utterly uncoordinated. They are a group of isolated individuals, all moving in the same manner and at a similar pace, but not together. The teacher was able briefly to adjust pace and actions to mesh with the students. He was, however, unable to sustain these adjustments once the process of the dialogue was started and so could not help the students relax to a point where they could comfortably act out the dialogue. The frozen state of the students when they were singled out to perform in front of the group was repeated in several other classes with other teachers. The lack of flow in their movements in front of the class conveyed their extreme discomfort. Throughout the ESL lesson, Mr. Principal’s fast pace, and abrupt, angular movements appear to have made it quite difficult for the students to be drawn into the lesson as he presented it. The uncoordinated behavior of the children reflected the degree to which they were uninvolved with the lesson, as well as to the degree to which Mr. Principal’s actions and manner disrupted group unity.

After a brief period of reorganization, the ESL lesson is followed by a session of Mother Goose rhymes. Pictures of characters in the rhymes are projected on a screen while the teacher leads the group in chanting the words together. He starts out at a more moderate pace than in the ESL lesson; but, after a time, he returns to the hectic pace and gestures that typified the earlier session (Illus. 56-58).

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This period of group activity saw the most unified behavior on the part of the students and the longest periods of attention for the group as a whole. Behavior was less chaotic, and the increased consistency of attention was revealed by more unified body positions and facial orientation toward the teacher. There was some synchronization of pace within segments of the group, if not group-wide. An example of this was a period of time in which two students rocked back and forth together (Illus. 59-62).

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It may be that the pace or rhythm of the rhymes momentarily provided Mr. Principal with a pacing more congenial to that of the children, thus drawing them in. This beat was not picked up by other children, however, and unity of attention seen in the orientation of faces was soon replaced by twisting and turning, and by wandering glances. Mr. Principal was able to get their attention and involvement for a period of time but was unable to hold it. The situation suggests, as in the ESL lesson, that the pace and style of his presentation were too distinctly different from that of the children for any flow to develop. Consequently, he was unable to provide real direction to the class.

The next sequence of scenes shows the class scattered around the room: the younger children coloring dittos of Mother Goose rhymes, some of the older children working at a table with worksheets, and the teacher and seven students gathered around a table for reading. Despite the small size of the reading group and their proximity to each other, there is no sense of group unity, no thread which holds them together. They move, as so often in this class, at the same pace but not at the same time. While bodies turn, eyes wander all over the place. Each student moves alone without relationship of a consistent nature to neighboring movements. Some of them place their books on edge, making walls behind which they sit isolated, slumped down in their chairs. This isolation is indicative of the lack of communication among the children and with the teacher. The teacher sits hunched over at one end of the table (the table is too low for him) and vigorously pursues the lesson in the same abrupt, forceful and linear style which he used when he was projecting to the whole class in the ESL lesson. He reaches across the table several times to turn students’ pages or to draw attention to the books. These movements are sudden and at variance with the students. In one case, he accidentally hits a boy on the side of the face. Neither he nor the boy were sufficiently aware of the other to avoid the blow even though they were sitting side by side (Illus. 63-65).

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All these movements would have been intrusive and disruptive to student flow and involvement with the lesson if there had been any; but with things as they were, these motions were merely a part of a generally confused pattern of movement and interaction.

The camera swings to show the rest of the room. The aide, helping a girl with some writing, leans over and writes something. Student and aide move at the same slow pace, but the camera continues its swing and the scene is lost to view before any characterization of the interaction can be made. The younger students sit widely scattered, coloring, just filling in the lines. Each is alone with his or her sheet of paper and an individual set of crayons. The coloring process is slow and sleepy. Eyes wander readily to other parts of the room (Illus. 66-67).

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The camera swings and shows the aide with three students. All are bent intently over the table, focusing down together. One of the girls gets up from her seat and stands leaning on the table to get closer to the center of focus (Illus. 68-69).

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The camera returns to the teacher, now standing, who continues in the same energetic style. The students at the reading table continue the behavior already described.

The next portion of film shows a play period. Most of the students play alone or in groups of two or three. Behavior is generally similar to the play in the Head Start class. The only striking difference is that here there is a fair amount of bumping into one another, and the scene is correspondingly a bit more chaotic. This disorder may in part be due to the smaller size of the play area and the larger number of children.

Throughout this play period the aide continues to work with two of the three students she was last seen helping. They sit in the middle of the room in quiet concentration, heads and bodies focused down on the table or toward each other. They have created an invisible bubble of intense concentration in which they continue their work smoothly and without hurry (Illus. 70-72).

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The class ends with the whole class gathered at the front of the room as images are projected on a screen and students are called forward to point things out. The behavior is generally the same as during the ESL lesson, except for an interruption when everyone but the teacher turns to look out the window. Presumably, something of importance and interest, a plane landing perhaps, is outside (Illus. 73).

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The teacher ignores this intrusion and resolutely continues in his hardworking manner, pointing to things, gesturing and drawing students to the front of the room to point out things on the screen. As before, they stand in frozen postures and escape as quickly as possible back to their chairs.

This class was typified by a nearly complete absence of connection between the pace and movements of the teacher and the pace and movements of the students. The teacher operated at three times the speed of the students, and in a style of movement--angular, linear, and harsh--which was opposite in style from the rounded movements of the students. Except for brief moments noted in describing the ESL lesson, the teacher appeared oblivious to the position, pace and movements of the students. Had he attempted to relate to them more closely, the conflict in pace and motion would have been even more striking. The students’ chaotic behavior may have been partially a result of a non-verbal chasm between them and the teacher which made it nearly impossible for the teacher to create a situation in which the class could focus in on the material which he was presenting. Mr. Principal worked almost nonstop in his efforts to involve the students, yet the class was characterized by boredom and general lack of intensity of involvement with anything. Only the two or three students described working with the aide showed any extended involvement or intensity. Could Mr. Principal have modified his behavior, the structure of the class, or the role of the aide in such a way that student interest and involvement would have matched his own hard work and obvious dedication? It is ironic that Mr. Principal’s hard work and dedication, expressed as it was in increased pace and more aggressive movements, may actually have served to make the situation worse. Even such a small matter as a marked reduction in the speed of his movements might have led to improved student response.

 

 

 

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Last modified November 12, 2008