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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 Head Start Class in Kwethluk

The Head Start class was held in the Kwethluk community center with minimal equipment. It was taught by two young women from the village, Miss Annie and Miss Betty, whose training was limited to six weeks in a summer workshop. The number of students fluctuated during the filming but generally numbered eight to twelve (Collier, 1973: 75-78).

The film opens with Miss Annie and nine of the students seated on boxes in a rough circle reciting Mother Goose nursery rhymes. The teacher and the students are seated on the same level, so close together that everyone is touching his neighbor. The circle is tight enough that the teacher can easily reach across it. Miss Annie projects directly out toward the students with movements that are slow and rounded, meaning that the direction of movements is circular rather than linear. The pace of her movements and their form is identical with those of the students. Her movements and theirs are keyed to each other, giving an impression that the group is wired together. At one point the rhyme is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The teacher and students open and close their hands to mark the time of the rhyme and the twinkling of the star. The timing of these movements is synchronized between teacher and children and within the group. The students close their eyes as they close their hands and open them as they open their hands; when the eyes open, they are focused on the teacher. Attention is intense at all times (Illus. 1-5).

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This initial portion of film already defines the nature of the class. A unity of involvement and movement is seen that indicates harmonious pace and flow, giving a strong indication that the level of communication in this class is quite high.

The unity of the group is slightly broken by the rough-housing of two boys. The teacher quickly deals with this situation in a smooth and relaxed manner. The process provides a clear example of what flow is all about. Without rising, she reaches forward toward one of the boys, who in turn leans toward her and grasps her wrist. She guides him smoothly toward another place in the circle. The movement of the two is fluid and unified; their movements perfectly synchronized as if in a dance. The rest of the group is part of the “dance,” too. As the boy leans forward and brings his head down to meet the teacher’s hand, the heads and torsos of the other children also lean forward and down. As he comes up and moves across the circle with the teacher, the heads and bodies of the other children also come up and follow the movement toward its completion (Illus. 6-14).

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These fluid interrelationships are the epitomy of a high level of flow. The smoothness of the interactions are more striking because they are disciplinary movements. The reader might remember the flowing unity of this interaction and compare it to other scenes which will be described later. Smooth, relaxed interrelationships like this one suggest a high potential for quality communication.

After the nursery rhymes are over, the group sits together for a while. Several of the students rearrange their seating somewhat. Miss Annie reaches toward one of the children. He appears to be the youngest and has been somewhat peripheral to the group. She draws him in toward her, stroking his head as he leans against her, Then she sits and serenely looks out over the group. There is no hurry to do anything. After a time she reaches over to the bookcase behind her and draws out a book which she shows to the student closest to her. The smaller boy just mentioned reaches across to touch her hand. She turns smoothly around toward him and shows him the book directly. She then leans out with the book to show it to the remainder of the students. The small boy leans around the book to look at it again (Illus. 15-17).

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Then Miss Annie sits with the book on her knee and looks out over the group. The small boy leans against her again. As they sit like this without apparent organized activity, one of the boys starts to beat rhythmically with his hands. Several others pick up this motion and join in. Another student follows the movement and rhythm with a bobbing of the head. A dance of synchronized movement develops which is another example of the harmonious unity of this group (Illus. 18-20).

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The next portion of the film shows the students at a table, involved with jigsaw puzzles. Although the table is quite long, everyone sits close together at one end, shoulder to shoulder. The pace is leisurely and the teachers sit among the children. Since their pace and movements are the same as the children’s, the only thing that visually separates them from the children is size.

The film then shows a story session. Ten students and the two teachers sit in a rough ring as Miss Betty, seated on a low chair, reads from a book. The children and Miss Annie are seated on boxes.

The group has a steady pulse of movement while they listen. After a time, the teacher raises her hands from the book and gestures with both hands and head, projecting out toward the group. The pulsing movement of the circle of children (a gentle rocking back and forth together) is combined with a unified focus on the teacher’s hands and face. When she drops her hands a bit and looks down, they all shift their eye focus downward. When she raises her hands to gesture, they all lean back together with their heads and eyes rising to follow the gesture. As the hand comes down again, there is a smooth rocking forward and dropping of center of eye focus which follows her gesture back down to the book.

The camera angle shifts around behind the group and the pulsation of motion becomes more distinct. In and out from the center of the circle the students rock, like a jelly fish opening and closing its umbrella. This movement is almost completely synchronized through the group. The teacher is no longer gesturing, but the circle has drawn in tighter when the camera returns to view the group from the front. The focus becomes more intense. Bodies lean forward with just a slight back and forth rocking at the same pace as before (Illus. 21-13). The story ends.

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Miss Betty returns with another book and the camera moves to the other side of the circle. There is again the same slow pulsation of the group, including both teachers. Attention is so focused on the story that two boys who rearrange their boxes for a better view do so in time to the group-wide pulsation. The camera shows the faces all focused toward the teacher with intense involvement (Illus. 24-25).

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This unity of movement is important because it reflects the unity of attention, evidenced also in facial orientation, which Miss Betty was able to create, and the high degree of interpersonal awareness among the children. There was an invisible thread which ran through the group, a current of awareness that was not broken by anything in the presentation. She had only to interest one or two children and their interest would be transmitted through the group so that soon the whole group would be interested. It was easy for both Miss Betty and Miss Annie to hook into the current or thread which held the group together because the pace and style of their movements were similar to those of the children. In doing so, they became a part of it, feeding energy into it and receiving back from it. Many other teachers in the film sample, some of whom will be described shortly, cut across the current and prevented the development of fluid interactions among the children and between the children and the teachers.

The next scene shows most of the children coloring. As in the puzzle portion of the class, the children are all close together at one end of a long table with their papers touching or almost touching. The coloring is freehand and very animated. The children are lively; they show excitement in their faces and interact with each other a great deal while coloring. They all share a large box of crayons.

Miss Betty is seated at the table. Several of the children who are not coloring are elsewhere in the room playing various games. One of the children apparently has a sore throat and both teachers examine him. Miss Annie brings the sick boy to the coloring table and slowly shows him the crayons, and draws lines on the paper, apparently to show him the colors. The process is quiet and unpressured. The teacher leaves him and talks briefly to another student (Illus. 26-28).

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After a while there are more children on the floor, playing with puzzles, blocks and running around. The teachers join in these activities, one of them constructing a tower of blocks with several students. She quietly draws one boy into the process, handing him a block and showing him where to place it, then afterwards adjusting it to fit in a little better. The whole interaction is non-verbal as well as can be determined from the film (Illus. 29-31).

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The film then shows Miss Betty reading to a small group of children. As she reads she holds her hands together, wiggling them back and forth. The student next to her mimics these gestures. She then touches her nose and the same boy touches his nose. A boy in front of the teacher looks at the camera and then back at the teacher, picks up the gesture and touches his nose (Illus. 32-37).

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The film ends with everyone washing up for a lunch of soup, cheese, milk and pilot crackers. They sit at a long table, say grace, then eat.

These last sections of the class continue the patterns of the earlier portions. Communications between teachers and children are frequent, often intense and smooth.

One observer of this footage has remarked that the class reflected the philosophy of early childhood education and that the performance of Miss Betty and Miss Annie could in large part be related to their six- week training session (Connelly, private communication). The film clearly shows the influence of general early childhood education patterns in terms of content and, to a degree, in format. It is what happens within that format, and with that standard content, that is remarkable. The most important aspect of this class, aside from the smooth teacher-student interactions, was the sense of unity of direction and movement in the group. This unity, lacking in other classes, gave the class an unmatched intensity of interactions. It is unlikely that these characteristics resulted from anything learned in the training session. In any case, the nature of interactions within the Head Start class closely resembled the nature of interactions seen in footage of home and village scenes. This fact strongly suggests that the special aspects of the Head Start class reflect the transference of local Eskimo patterns of behavior into the setting of a Head Start class.

 

 

 

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Last modified November 12, 2008