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

Curriculum Resources for the Alaskan Environment



Imagine a classroom where students are clustered in small groups. Several students are drawing a chart on poster board with magic markers. Others are listening to a tape recorder, stopping it periodically to discuss what they hear. They make notes together. Others students are poring over text books, almanacs, dictionaries, and how-to books. All the students are talking to each other. Several are involved in intense debate.

This is, in fact, the description of a fifth grade science class in a school serving children from a rural black community in the South in the early 1970s. The students were all boys reading at second grade level or below. None of them had ever passed a unit test.

The class was planned as an experiment to help overcome student disinterest in school and was organized around a complex of community-based projects. The projects were designed to minimize the essential strangeness of school knowledge by linking it to familiar, community kinds of knowledge. The projects took the students into the community, increased their contact with community adults, and brought community members into the classroom. The projects provided hands-on activities that engaged the students effectively in the cognitive pursuits of school. They maximized students' opportunities to actively participate in their own education. (For a more exhaustive analysis and description of the projects, see the original paper, Learners as Ethnographers, Heath, 1974).

The fact that the students all passed the unit test at the end of the class was one measure of its success. Twelve out of 23 students scored about 90%. Students also showed an improved attitude toward what school was about. And school-community relations improved.

Although the projects that worked so well in the science class just described were designed in part by an anthropologist working with classroom teachers, many elements of the class can be reproduced by other community-based projects, designed for different settings, and with other student populations in mind.

In this collection you will find project outlines tailored to rural Alaska, contributed by rural Alaskan teachers. They are intended to generate ideas on how to augment a standard curriculum in order to make school activities more appropriate for rural Alaska and to make schooling more meaningful for rural Alaskan students. We hope that these projects, like the projects in the science class, will help to bridge the barrier between the school and the community. Let us explore the ways that projects can serve this purpose.

First, a community-based project takes the students into the community and brings community members into the classroom. It breaks down the isolation of the school.

Second, a good project provides that the school serves community interests by addressing needs, issues, and problems within the community. By devising a garbage disposal system or starting a small business, the students learn how to deal responsibly with problems they might face as village residents. And a school that serves the needs of the community generates increased community support.

Projects best serve community interests by helping to ensure that students become competent, active participants in community life. Projects should be designed to equip young people with basic life skills, by embedding skills in the context of daily affairs. Students who go out of the classroom and into the community are obliged to deal with people, organizations, and businesses on professional terms.

Finally, projects help to minimize the strangeness of school by building on what is familiar to students. This is accomplished by increasing student participation in their own education, allowing students to make maximum use of their background knowledge and existing skills to deal with unfamiliar, academic requirements.

Projects often take students out of the classroom and out of the supervisory bounds of the teacher. In so doing, opportunities for student self-management are increased. By promoting student self-management and relying on small groups to accomplish specific tasks, the teacher encourages peer interaction. Peer talk reinforces student socializing patterns outside the classroom and frees students to grapple with the new, cognitive demands of school in their own terms and to build new strategies for learning and relating based on their existing communicative competence.

The projects included in this collection vary widely in detail and complexity. They are all incomplete in that they still need to be incorporated into existing curricula. Teachers must design their own lesson units, sequence activities to build cumulative skills, and, in general, bridge any community-based project they choose with the particular curriculum of their school. The projects are conceived to help teachers build schoolwork onto what is relevant and familiar to students. They are not intended to substitute for or minimize academic endeavors.

The projects are grouped into three basic categories:

Communications Arts, encompassing language arts and fine arts subjects 

Cultural Ecology, encompassing social studies, career development, and cultural studies subjects

Environmental Studies, encompassing science and math subjects

The following is an overview of the sort of projects included in this collection:

Communications Arts 

  • Community art which utilizes local resources, beautifies the environment, and preserves local traditions and lore
  • Language arts projects including projects using local events as subject material for writing, projects to develop local literary resources, and projects to build grant and proposal writing skills
  • Media projects in TV, film, and photography
  • Crafts such as ceramics and textile arts


Environmental Studies 

  • Increase awareness and understanding of physical surroundings: map making, investigations of weather, astronomy projects, investigations of snow melting
  • Investigate and improve human environments in Alaska: experiments on insulation, energy efficiency, alternative energy sources, construction projects
  • Understand transportation: small engine maintenance, principles of aviation
  • Study Alaska's traditional human environments: subsistence tools and activities 
  • Learn about biology: Alaska flora and fauna, natural history, food webs, nutrition
  • Study and develop expertise with marine resources
  • Investigate agriculture in Alaska: gardening, greenhouses, chicken farming
  • Increase awareness of health, safety, and village improvement: water usage, garbage disposal, dogs, fire safety


Cultural Ecology 

  • Raise funds for other school projects
  • Gain access to resources not available locally
  • Prepare for careers and jobs
  • Understand community affairs, business and corporate management, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
  • Study village life: family ties, local tradition and heritage
  • Promote cultural awareness and exposure to other cultures
  • Enhance village life, sports, and first aid 

Although this collection represents a wide range of rural Alaskan life, numerous needs, issues, and problems remain which have not been addressed by the projects suggested here.

More attention might be given to the nature of bilingualism and biculturalism to increase awareness and understanding of these pervasive characteristics of rural Alaska. Projects might include descriptions of speech and behavior, and encourage discussions about differences in lifestyle. Environmental studies projects are stronger in the fishing industry than in forestry, mining, and oil. One particular weakness of this collection is that it offers no project ideas in the area of technology where much research lately has been done on exciting ways to use computers in the classroom.

These projects represent the ideas of a handful of rural Alaskan teachers. Other successful projects have been conducted, and will be conducted in the future. If you know of a successful project, please take the time to outline it and mail it into:

Small Schools Project
College of Rural Alaska
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Fairbanks, AK 99775

Also, if you find these projects useful, please send your comments to the above address. A positive response will support similar efforts in the future.

An attempt has been made to present the project outlines in a consistent, one-page format. Each outline notes subject areas which are pertinent to that project Besides subject areas, other headings at the top of each page note the author(s) of the project, and the author(s)'s recommendations for the target grade level(s) and for an adequate Timeline to accomplish the project.

The remainder of the project outline consists of suggested activities as well as some possible Variations. Resources the teacher will need as well as additional recommended resources are listed at the bottom of the page. More inclusive information on resources can be found in the resource catalog at the end of the collection (see table of contents). 

Some projects include widely divergent subject areas such as science and history, or photography and physical education. In carrying out the project, teachers are encouraged to apply academic requirements within all of the noted subject areas; where necessary, to cooperate with other teachers; to link disparate school requirements to the integrating and highly motivating projects suggested here; and to fully explore the learning potential of whatever projects they choose.

The project outlines are not intended to be recipes. They are presented as easy-to-use idea sheets, rough guides to comprehensive, community-based projects that will require the energy, resourcefulness, and support of teachers, students, and the community, all together. Each project is expected to be modified to suit particular village and classroom needs.

Judy Diamondstone



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified August 17, 2006