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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Mary W. Moses-Mails


When a beaver comes to a new location and decides to stay, the first thing he does is start to build a place for himself and his family-a place to educate the children, if you will. The water area may be completely new, created recently by changing patterns of sloughs, and previously used only by a wandering otter or so. Or, it may be older and already well inhabited by muskrats and a host of other water animals. However this may be, the beaver will build a place for himself that is suited for a beaver, and he will use beaver ways to do so. If that means building a dam that completely changes the environment for the other inhabitants of the pond, perhaps flooding nests and killing incipient water fowl, the beaver will still do it. The beaver will never build a place specifically suited for any of the other water residents (cultures); he may tolerate their presence within his creation, if they don't disturb his affairs too much.

The Alaskan school system is like the beaver's habitat. Its builders and current occupants follow a pattern that seems to be so deeply ingrained that it is hard for anyone to even imagine true alternatives to these established ways. Most available educational alternatives are either like the beaver's choice to use an established pond (the subject-centered, traditional curriculum) or like his decision to dam a running stream to create a new pond (the process-oriented, project-centered curriculum). It is almost as hard to convince communities and educators to try any other truly different approach to education as it is to get a beaver to live in a crane's nest. Yet, it may be possible to get the beaver to consider modifications that make his home look more like the muskrats' houses.

Now in education, how could we go about this process of changing the beaver? For a start, it would probably help to have some sort of idea of what kind of educational system we want to be the outcome of this process-and then to realize that the end product most likely won't resemble this ideal much more than the beaver's house will ever resemble the muskrat's. The goal is to cause some change in the desired direction. The focus is on the adjusting process and not on a specified end product.

With this in mind, we need to look at the curriculum, teaching approach, physical setting, and school/community relationship which we would consider ideal, and then develop a process with which we will adjust the school. However, once we have started this adjustment process, we need to keep in mind that the original direction may change, so that at any given time, the school may not resemble what we first had in mind. The important thing is to have the adjustment process in place so that the school system can grow and adapt to fit the needs of the changing society.

The Ideal House

In his paper "Culture, Community and the Curriculum," (see this publication) Ray Barnhardt stresses the need for experiential learning. The ideal rural Alaskan school would employ experiential learning to the fullest extent possible, using a process-oriented, project-centered curriculum. The structured content of this curriculum could be patterned after Ron and Suzanne Scollon's "Axe Handle" curriculum (see this publication). This curriculum could be graphically presented by three intersecting circles, representing bioregional, cultural, and communication skills. Most of the learning process would be represented by the intersecting parts of the circles, reflecting the integration of the three skill areas in a project-centered curriculum. However, the ideal curriculum for rural Alaska would need to incorporate a fourth circle, encompassing the three previous curriculum descriptors and representing personal survival skills (see diagram). This area includes all skills and knowledge necessary for the individual to survive in the ever changing environment of rural Alaska.
In addition to representing everything included in the areas of the three inner circles, the fourth circle would encompass issues of self-care, such as health, physical fimess, and mental health. Learning in these areas is, of course, interrelated with learning in all the other curriculum areas, and is very much influenced by the teaching approach of the school. However, in the changing social and cultural environment of rural Alaska, it needs to be especially emphasized that children learn how to keep adjusting their ways of developing their self-identities, dealing with life events, and taking care of their physical and mental well-being. These very basic issues are more important to the survival of the student than all other curriculum content. If the school does not deal with the issues of personal survival, everything else taught is for naught! (There is no use in teaching a relocated beaver to push a button to get his food from a trap door if the beaver then swims into an oil slick and drowns.)

Another way in which the "Axe Handle" curriculum would have to be modified is by including mathematical and technical competence within the section for communications skills. Like other communications skills, mathematical competence is necessary for any individual to survive in any imaginable (or unimaginable) future. To gain true fluency in either bioregional or cultural skills, the student needs to be able not only to apply the calculation skills required by the cash and by the subsistence economy, but also to understand the basics of mathematical logic. Mathematics should be considered as simply another language or aspect of language and should be taught like a language, with adequate time, concrete experiences, and applications. It should also be integrated with all other aspects of the curriculum.

Competent adults also need to know something about current world technology, which is changing extremely rapidly and will likely continue to do so. As the Scollons point out, technology learning needs to include both learning the immediate technology of a given area and its cultural past and learning the technology of the world at large. In other words, communication skills require competence in using state of the art technology as it grows. This includes, in 1987, understanding of and ability to use computers (with modems for research and communication), international telephone lines and airports, and a myriad of other things (maybe even the ability to play video games?).

At the same time, the students need to know the technology of their cultural past. Not only does this afford them the choice of remaining in the rural communities or returning to them in times of economic depression, it also prepares the students for those future scenarios predicted by less optimistic prophets. In addition, this knowledge helps individuals to form a positive self-image, thus contributing to their kind of learning represented by the outer circle of the curriculum.

Teaching Approach

The best curriculum is worthless if the teachers who deliver it do not understand and agree with its overall philosophy, goals, and implementation procedures. The teachers also need to have some understanding of the students, their learning styles, cultural background, and current living conditions.

In an ideal education system for rural Alaska the teachers must view each student as an individual and focus on that student's present and ultimate competence in all four curricular areas. The teacher must agree that experiential education is the only education that makes sense to the students and therefore the only education that will be interesting and relevant to them. The teachers must believe that the process of learning to learn is the end product of education, and that the curriculum content is for the students to use to practice this process. For example, the outcome of science instruction is the students' ability to use the scientific method rather than their ability to display knowledge of the anatomy of a frog. Mathematical logic and fluency in mathematical reasoning become vastly more important than knowledge of timetables. In addition, the teachers in such an ideal system should agree that project-centered instruction is the best currently known vehicle for experiential education and they should be aware that student-generated projects are often more valuable than teacher-generated projects. (See Corwin, et al, this publication) The teacher's role, then, becomes one of a facilitator, guide, coordinator, counselor, and tutor who makes sure that each student masters the necessary basic skills and that help is available.

The teacher should expect each student to learn all necessary skills to the best of his or her abilities, and to a level which makes that student a competent member of his or her age group. The teacher should make sure that the students are always motivated and interested, viewing their education as their own concern and responsibility.

The Physical Setting

In an urban environment a "school without walls" may be the ideal setting for the kind of education proposed in this paper. However, in the transitional cultural environment of rural Alaska it might be difficult to support such a concept. Whereas in many communities, the traditional community house or kashim would be available for gatherings, this structure usually does not include the facilities necessary for implementing the Western portion of the curriculum. Therefore, it seems practical at this time to retain some type of school building.

What, then should this school building include? Several things are necessary to create an experiential learning situation which focuses on processes through implementing projects. There must be areas in which individuals or small groups can meet with a teacher/tutor. Books, media, audio-visual equipment, and computer terminals should be available. One or more large unobstructed work areas, with water supply and easy-to-clean furnishings, would accomodate art and construction projects. A shop area equipped for working with wood, metals, and engines would be needed in communities that don't have such a shop. An area for presentations and artistic performances would be nice, although these activities could usually be accomodated by the kashim. The students would probably like some individual space to keep their possessions and small projects. A gymnasium is a cherished feature of most present rural Alaskan schools, and the attendant shower/locker rooms is especially important in communities whose public facilities don't include this feature. Most parents also appreciate the school building as a warm, well-lighted, safe and monitored place for children to go during the colder winter days.

In addition, the school building would need to house those learning materials which are not available elsewhere in the community. All these features and functions might be best represented by a school building that would center around a circular library with a large, sunken, carpeted area in the center. In this library, students could read, seated on beanbags, foam chairs or on the steps. Dramas and presentations could be given in the sunken area with the audience seated around the edges. Computer terminals and other audio-visual equipment would be available at the periphery of the library. A section of several smaller "offices" would join the library area to a larger, open, and uncarpeted "multipurpose" area; which would be equipped with water, cooking, and refrigeration facilities. This area could be attached to a gymnasium and/or shop area. Individual student possessions and projects would be kept in lockers and cubbies housed in the multipurpose area. Smaller portable storage areas could be reconfigured to fit current usage needs.

The Community

This ideal school would not be separated from the community. It would be a part of the community, and the community would be part of the school. The school facilities would be equally shared between adults, children, and adolescents, and students would constantly use community facilities to carry out their learning projects. For example, adults would work in the shop at their own projects (such as, repairing snow machines and chainsaws, or building sleds) next to students who might either be assisting the adults and thus learning from them, or working on their own projects and receiving assistance from the adults. In the library area, adults might read, view a video film, use a computer, or even sew-again, eithcr together with students or simply next to the students who work on their own projects, from time to time seeking the advice of the adults. Similarly, all other areas of the school would be used by students and adults together.

Students would be in the community to learn from and with adults. A small group of girls might visit a home to watch the tanning of hides, or sit and sew with an adult artist. Applied home economics might require one or more students to spend time taking care of the household needs of an elder. Students would go trapping; run dog teams; make traditional items; work in corporate, city, and health offices; attend meetings-in short, participate fully in the life of the community.

Of course, this intertwining of the school and the community would require a lot of planning, scheduling, monitoring, and coordinating. The community would need to feel almost total ownership of the school and be willing to regulate the use of school and community facilities in a way that would give priority to the education of the children. Educators and community members would need to communicate openly and frequently. The educators would have to give up their fear of losing control over the education of the children, the use of the school building, and the entire process of schooling. The current lines between school and community would definitely have to be erased.

Seal Hunting by Theres C. Barr 

The Ideal Day

So in this ideal school with this ideal curriculum, what would happen during any randomly selected ideal day? The following scenario considers a group of seventeen students, K-l2:

At about 9 o'clock in the morning, students would gather in the library, each recording the time at which he or she arrived. These time records would be kept, increasing in complexity with grade level, in order to satisfy American institutional requirements as well as to help the students learn that some cultures and some employers pay a great deal of attention to clock times. The first activity of the day would consist of a general meeting of the teacher(s), students, and any others present to talk about events of the past day(s), the morning newscast, and events planned, both long term and for the specific day. General housekeeping matters would be taken care of. Then the students would work individually or in small groups on their ongoing projects and write in their journals, while the teacher would meet with individual students to review plans for the day. Students would have individual learning plans which outline broad objectives, and progress would be reviewed at least once a week. Most students, especially the younger ones, would also have daily or weekly work plans (contracts) which would be reviewed every day and revised as necessary.

After the students would have met with the teacher, they would either return to their ongoing projects or pursue other learning activities, either in school or in the community. These activities would be scheduled at the morning meeting, with the schedules including definite time and space arrangements and back-up plans. Teacher aides or adult volunteers would be available to help students carry out their daily work plans.

On this particular ideal day, one of the first graders brought to school a collection of frog eggs which he scooped out of a nearby stream. He presented his find at the morning meeting, and the teacher agreed to help all students who wished to know more about frogs. Since a group of primary students showed great interest, the teacher arranged a time for frog research right after the individual meetings.

During the frog research time, the students listed what they wished to know about frogs, and planned how to take care of the frogs and how to learn more about them. The teacher helped the students to find resource materials in the library, and she assisted them in writing a group-experience story, outlining the events and plans of the morning. The students then wrote/drew individual stories, made word-bank cards, and continued their research either individually or with friends. Within a week, the students were making books of frog stories, displays of the life cycle of frogs, folded paper frogs, a habitat for frogs in an aquarium, clay frogs, and various other artistic representations of frogs. They were telling frog jokes, singing frog songs, counting frog eggs, predicting how many tadpoles would hatch, playing leapfrog, looking at frog eggs under the microscope and drawing what they saw, and reading at least ten new "frog" words, even the kindergartners!

While the teacher worked with the frog research team, a group of intermediate students worked in and around the shop. Together with an aide and an interested community volunteer, they were assembling a small television broadcasting studio. This involved a number of different activities and educational objectives, ranging from basic skills (reading and following directions, computing and measuring, writing signs and scripts, figuring times and schedules) to higher level thinking skills (forecasting, planning, decision making, creative alternatives).

At the same time, the senior high school students were working on a family history project, which was to be presented in a museum display and in a broadcast by the TV studio. Some of the students spent most of the day interviewing members of the community, others using word processors to write first drafts of their presentations. One student worked in the photography lab developing pictures to illustrate his part of the presentation. Another completed an ERIC search (using a computer terminal and fax machine). At the end of the day, the students logged their progress and their times and either went home or continued with their projects. In this school, the school day and "free time" are not well distinguished, and many students continue on into the evening with their projects.

During the day, various adults were available as tutors and/or counselors of individual students. A variety of community members participated in gym activities that were available at various times throughout the day. For insurance reasons, these activities were supervised by a paid employee.

From Reel to Ideal

The described scenario represents a community-integrated, student-centered, process-focused, project-oriented school as the ideal learning environment for rural Alaska. The existing educational system, however, is basically community-segregated, subject-focused, and product-oriented. In many cases a workbook or worksheet exercise represent the closest approximation to experiential learning. Therefore, the question is, how do we start from what we have to move in the direction of our ideal?

Some suggestions might be drawn from a paper by Helen Roberts titled "The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District" (see this publication). In this paper, Roberts presents a triangular model of community development, curriculum development, and staff development, which definitely includes the necessary components for such a process of school adjustment. Unfortunately, the existing school system changes much more slowly than rural Alaskan communities do.

Once it has been decided that the educational system needs to be changed, it may be best to start initiating the changes in the area of community development. In community meetings, people could discuss ways of improving the education of the children. Advertise these meetings, offering refreshments and door prizes. Once people are attracted and realize that real change is about to happen, they will keep coming back. The ones who come back are your committee to plan and initiate the changes.

At the first community meeting, discuss the objectives of change by addressing questions such as what is happening now, what would be possible for the children to achieve, what do the parents want for their children. Let the community members discuss this and iron it out, but offer certain key ideas and moderate the discussion to lead it into the desired directions. Inform the community that the next meetings will present some ideas for improving the school for them to consider. Make them aware that they will be the ones who will have to decide which suggestions to use.

This process of community development will require a series of meetings. It may well take up to a year before the community is ready for any significant changes in the school. Small changes may occur sooner, but don't expect an overnight transformation.

While the community meetings are going on, educational leaders need to be visiting community members to talk about the proposed changes. A lot of personal footwork is needed to initiate a change in a small rural community where all social relationships are at the primary level and secondary roles are not easily distinguished from personalities and families.

While the community is discussing approaches to changing the school, similar efforts need to be made by the school staff. Staff members need to agree that change will happen, that they will participate in it, and that they will stay long enough to make the process effective (that is, to start and establish a new pattern). Staff members need to participate in the efforts at community development so that the community can "develop" the staff. Changing the educational system to fit the needs of rural communities is a two-way process of cultural transition. Most likely, the result of this process will fall somewhere between the two cultures, perhaps near the "ideal" described in this paper, or perhaps somewhere on either side of that ideal.

The third component of Roberts' triangular model of school adjustment is curriculum development. Community development and staff development are a part of curriculum development since the community and the school staff will jointly develop the goals of the curriculum. Educators will add specific learning objectives, but will cooperate with the community in establishing methods of implementing the goals and objectives of the curriculum.

The process of curriculum development is lengthy and intensive. It requires a lot of work outside the regular teaching day, and a lot of interaction between the community and the school staff. To insure that the curriculum is responsive to the needs of the community, this interface between the school and the community cannot stop once the curriculum is completed, but must continue while it is implemented and adjusted to the requirements of the changing educational system. Throughout this ongoing process, the community members must feel that they own and control the school, and the school staff must feel they are a part of the community. Given the close relationships existing in a small community and the intense interactions suggested by this model, disagreements, tiffs, and even feuds will be unavoidable. Therefore, there must be a forum and a process for working out such problems. A local school board or committee could constitute such a forum, provided it is awarded respect and authority by both the school and the community so that its decisions can become binding for both sides. This way disagreements could be avoided that cause one side to withdraw during the most crucial phases of the development process. 


This paper points out that although the existing educational system is not always well suited to meet the needs of rural Alaskan communities, it is extremely hard to change. A model, or ideal school system for rural Alaska is described as one that fosters experiential learning through a process-focused, project-centered curriculum geared toward the development of individual students. The content of learning is categorized into four major areas: bioregional skills, cultural skills, communications skills, and personal survival skills. An integrated school-community relationship is described as one in which the school and community are closely intertwined while student learning is structured and monitored to insure mastery of skills. The paper includes a description of an ideal school facility to fit contemporary needs of rural Alaskan communities. A narrative of an "ideal day" illustrates how all elements of this ideal school system work together.

Finally, the paper includes suggestions for transforming the present school system. These suggestions address the transformation of individual schools in individual communities. It is assumed that such individual adjustments will eventually result in change of the entire educational system. It is emphasized that the adjustment process must be viewed as multidirectional process of cultural change which affects all parties involved. It is further pointed out that this process must be ongoing, continually adjusting the system to the changing needs of the people it serves. At any given moment along the continuum, the school system will differ from the ideal model in that it will reflect the combination of all the cultural forces at work at that time.



J. Kelly Tonsmiere


Ray Barnhardt

Section I

Some Thoughts on Village Schooling
"Appropriate Schools in Rural Alaska"
Todd Bergman, New Stuyahok

"Learning Through Experience"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"The Medium Is The Message For Village Schools"
Steve Byrd, Wainwright

"Multiple Intelligences: A Community Learning Campaign"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Obstacles To A Community-Based Curriculum"
Jim Vait, Eek

"Building the Dream House"
Mary Moses-Marks, McGrath

"Community Participation in Rural Education"
George Olana, Shishmaref

"Secondary Education in Rural Alaska"
Pennee Reinhart, Kiana

"Reflections on Teaching in the Kuskokwim Delta"
Christine Anderson, Kasigluk

"Some Thoughts on Curriculum"
Marilyn Harmon, Kotzebue

Section II

Some Suggestions for the Curriculum
"Rabbit Snaring and Language Arts"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"A Senior Research Project for Rural High Schools"
Dave Ringle, St. Mary's

"Curriculum Projects for the Pacific Region,"
Roberta Hogue Davis, College

"Resources for Exploring Japan's Cultural Heritage"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music"
Rosemary Branham, Kenai

Section III

Some Alternative Perspectives
"The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education"
Ron and Suzanne Scollon

"Culture, Community and the Curriculum"
Ray Barnhardt

"The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District"
Helen Roberts

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum"
Rebecca Corwin, George E. Hem and Diane Levin

Artists' Credits



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Last modified August 17, 2006