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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Steve Byrd

Secondary education in Alaska, as elsewhere, has been oriented toward the dominant society of the state and country. In the small secondary schools in rural villages, however, such an orientation does not adequately take into account the range of educational needs of the students, nor the limitations and opportunities of the small school. This paper will present a suggestion as to what might be done to address those issues. The change from the existing educational system to a more appropriate approach to education in rural Alaska would involve four basic dimensions of the educational program: (1) the purposes, (2) the content, (3) the structure, and (4) the methods.

At this time, the curriculum of some rural schools reads like that of a school that could be in Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington, or in any other city in the country. The only clues indicating that these curricula might be offered to Native communities are courses on Native land claims and on the Native language. Otherwise, the traditional canon of subject areas is offered. Language arts, science, social studies, math, and vocational education are taught to rural secondary students in conventional 50-minute blocks. Lesson plans following the Madeline Hunter format are turned in each week. Even though teachers with rural experience are sometimes given priority during the hiring process, most of the teachers are still recruited from the Lower 48. Since the teachers in rural schools are generally not from the local communities, the villagers are left to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation in which outsiders teach their children the ways of a world away from the village.

Life in rural communities is characterized by constant and significant change. Therefore, rural students need to learn how to cope with radical changes in their lives. They must know how to learn. In their adult lives, these students will not be able to "do what was always done before," as their ancestors did when the villages were isolated from the rest of the world. In order to teach rural students how to learn in a changing world, the curriculum must focus on process and not just on content. Barnhardt, in his study, "Culture, Community and the Curriculum" (see this publication) suggests, "If students are to be prepared to cope with new and changing conditions, they must be familiar with the processes by which knowledge and skills are acquired and utilized. They must learn how to think, communicate, organize, interact, make decisions, solve problems, assign priorities, and most of all, learn." If the students learn how these processes are utilized both at home and in the school, they can apply them whenever and wherever necessary. Static knowledge or even the ability to verbalize that knowledge is not as useful as knowing how to apply particular skills within a process. If people cannot apply the knowledge they learn to their lives, what good is this knowledge? If the people can see no use for this knowledge, why should they want to learn it? To be able to cope with their changing environment, rural Alaskans need to learn these processes along with the usual subject matter.

The Alaska State Writing Consortium provides an example of a teaching/learning process that is familiar to many Alaskan teachers. Writing can involve the students in the learning process if approached in the following way. The students and teacher collaborate to brainstorm topics relevant to the students' lives in the village. Then, everyone in the class, including the teacher, writes a first draft, knowing it will not be a final copy. Here the teacher functions as a co-learner, modeling learning writing for the students. This contributes to building the students' trust in the teacher because she or he becomes a "comrade in arms," by taking on the same assignment as the students. The students and the teacher share their first drafts with each other, editing only for style, grammar, and spelling-not for content. The results of this process are informative and non-threatening. The writers use this feedback to improve their papers. Before the final drafts of the papers are completed, more editing exchanges can occur. Final versions are always published, either by simply posting them on a wall or by printing them in a school publication. Through this effort, students learn not only the writing process, but also such skills as cooperating, listening, careful reading, and following directions. In addition, the students learn the content they address through their writing.

An excellent way to approach the teaching of process is through carrying out learning projects. This summer, the writing consortium class participated in a project that involved the production of a television show. The class was given this task with minimal directives, saying that the show was to be videotaped and that one student was to function as a director, determining the content of the show. After the director had decided on "The Newlywed Game" as the format, a student, who was in the cast, brought a television camera and showed another student how to operate it. Meanwhile, the director and the rest of the class brain stormed ideas for the host's dialogue concepts. These ideas were placed on the board so that everyone could contribute to expanding and revising them. Thus, the class completed a list that included the names of the characters, the places they came from, and the questions the host was to ask. For the show production, the class decided to write the answers by the contestants on a placard for the viewers to read and to include an audio tape with dubbed applause to supply the nonexistent audience. The production of the game show involved the whole class and provided great pleasure to everybody.

Many skills were employed in this exercise. The writing process was utilized. Efficient listening and organization were an absolute necessity because of the given time constraints. Technical skills had to be applied in operating the television camera and the tape recorder. Improvisational acting was required from some class members and all were expected to cooperate with respect for others throughout the process. People had to be responsible for props, equipment, and costumes. Critical thinking was employed in every phase of the project. The content of this particular project was interpersonal communication, but it could have been anything from American history to science trivia. It could be a dramatic production using literature created by the students or adapting a literary piece studied in language arts.

The completion of this task brought the class closer together, contributed to developing self-esteem, and motivated group members to take part in another challenging collaborative venture. The educational experience was stimulating, exciting and challenging. Student motivation was inherent in the project because the participants were united in their desire to complete the production. There was no need for external pressure. Everyone participated willingly, knowing that their work would be rewarded by a final product.

Another class in the Rural Alaskan Instructional Improvement Academy advocated the use of projects that involve television productions as a method for approaching social studies and language arts. For example, the production of interview tapes of elders, or videotapes of traditional artistic techniques could serve to integrate information about social studies or traditional arts and crafts with communication skills that are normally taught in subject-bound courses. In such a project, students would be required to write a scenario and complete a story board before the videotaping could begin. In addition, the students would be asked to elicit feedback from the teacher, the class, and community members. In gathering this information, the students would apply the proof-reading and editing portions of the writing process. In addition, the students would have to successfully communicate with a number of people involved in the production to make sure that people, materials, equipment and setting were properly arranged. The students would also learn much about the subject of the production. For example, if students produced a videotape on three-wheeler safety they would probably know enough about three-wheeler safety to be able to teach a course on the topic by the time the program was completed. Another example would involve the students in the production of a community news broadcast. By working on such a project, the students would not only learn the process of creating a telecast, they would also learn the ways in which their community functions and conveys information.

The Battle by Tommy Adams Jr.
There is no end to the topics that could be addressed by video programs produced by students. The work could focus on themes from science, health, history, speech, art, music, drama, even mathematics. But process skills such as problem-solving, creative thinking, communicating, planning, organizing, writing, and many others are applied each time the students produce a videotape. This approach to teaching reduces the need for using special techniques to motivate the students. Generally, the students want to produce videotapes and they know that they have to solve a number of problems in order to do so. The students desire to become involved in the video production motivates them to solve these problems. Educators everywhere know that if students are strongly motivated to learn they will learn. Perhaps there was more to Marshall McLuhan's statement, "the medium is the message", than we sometimes acknowledge. Students are mesmerized by television, but interest that can be channeled into a constructive experience when they produce the show.

For example, a television production class in a village high school produced a commercial this past year. First, each student had to come up with a script and story board for the commercial. Then, the class decided which of these ideas would work best and could actually be produced. The students selected a script for a Pepsi commercial which included the following elements: Students in their traditional Eskimo clothing happen upon a can of Pepsi on the tundra where there is no sign of civilization anywhere. One picks up the can, looks at it, feels it, smells it, and shrugs while saying in Inupiaq "I wonder what it is?" The others respond by shrugging and saying in Inupiaq "I have no idea". The Eskimo holding the can then pulls on the tab causing the can to open with a fizzing sound. Everybody runs away as if the can was a grenade with the pin pulled. When nothing happens the students approach the can again. The Eskimo who picked it up before picks it up once more, sticks his finger in the opening, sucks the bit of liquid from his finger, then, without hesitation, takes a long drink and extolls the virtues of its great taste, still speaking in Inupiaq. The can is quickly passed around with satisfied cheers coming from everyone. When a student discovers a six-pack nearby, the group responds happily and the leader shouts, in English, "Let's go party, man!" Immediately, all jump on their three-wheelers which have been out of the picture till now, and drive off in a cloud of powdery snow while a voice says, "Pepsi, the choice of a new generation."

Students involved in this commercial production did many things. They chose the setting and worked with the Inupiaq language teacher on the dialogs. They had to consult with people in the village about the appropriate costumes. Then, they had to find the clothes as well as the three-wheelers and make arrangements to borrow them. They had to memorize their lines and work on the delivery. They had to learn their blocking (stage movement) which involved reacting to the other actors while following the directions of the director. Of course, the script had to be written and the scenes had to be captured on story boards so that the camera person knew exactly what to expect. The students had to know how to use the camera properly. One student had to have an overview of the whole project in order to direct the other participants. The student who did the "voice over" had to practice articulating at the correct sound level. Virtually everyone had to attend the classes because each student had a function crucial to the completion of the project. Teamwork was vital. Needless to say, "instant replay" was employed throughout the process so that the students could evaluate parts of their production and make subsequent adjustments. The class did it all and could not wait for the next project. The medium was integrated with the message.

Another area in which the medium becomes the message is the use of microcomputers. Young people are not intimidated by the computer-they are fascinated by it. Therefore, when students can use a word processor to complete their writing assignments, writing ceases to be the drudgery it often becomes when the students are required to use paper and pen. Mistakes are corrected easily, and final copies accomplished without the anger and anguish of hurling crumpled papers filled with cross-outs into the nearest waste can. Anything the students do can be saved neatly on a file disk and recast magically on an electronic screen reminiscent of the familiar television set at home.

The Rural Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy offered a course in "Desktop Publishing" which taught the process of publishing written work in multiple formats on a computer. The course employed a method of instruction by which the students were asked to complete a project that suited their needs and were taught the publishing process at the same time. One student worked toward understanding a particular computer program that creates copy suitable for publication in a newspaper or magazine. This student was highly motivated to learn the program because he needed to complete a layout for a newsletter to be disseminated throughout his district. With little help from the instructor he produced a layout that was "camera ready" for the print shop. Once again, the process was the subject being learned, and the method was a project assignment.

This approach works for anyone, but it is particularly well suited for rural villages because the project involves concrete action, and the process applies to real situations that could exist in the rural community. Students in rural Alaska often learn to accomplish tasks by watching and doing, or by trial and error. They are rarely told how to do things, and reading is usually the last method they use to figure out a problem. Yet, teachers who come into these villages from the outside often use "telling" and "reading" to instruct their rural students. As a result, learning becomes a much slower, less joyous, less memorable (i.e., not retained as well) process than it needs to be.

A teacher reading this article may be thinking "But designing such projects would be so time consuming that I could never do it". There is an answer to this problem: Have the students help with the design of the projects. This may sound like the students are invited to design their own curriculum. However, this is not entirely true. The teacher is the one who knows the concepts and processes that need to be conveyed. The teacher presents these goals to the class and then they work together, creating a project that will accomplish these goals. Once again, the teacher functions as a co-learner and facilitator instead of acting as a knowledge spouter and evaluator. Students who have the chance to direct their own learning invest more effort in the process than those who must comply with teacher-designed assignments. The burden of producing an unending flow of motivating instructional designs is thus taken off the shoulders of the teacher and distributed to the entire class. This way, much more energy flows into the composition of an instructional unit.

Students learning processes through participating in projects do not see the world as being compartmentalized into social studies, language, science, math, etc. Many skills that are called into action in daily life, such as reading, measurement, language, listening, physical strength, cooperation, mechanics, principles of science, and even politics could enter into a project that involves repairing a snow machine. In this way, the classroom would reflect the world of the students. Skills and processes taught through projects would allow students of rural Alaska to carry out school tasks from inception to actualization, and thus become more capable members of their communities.



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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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Phone (907) 474.1902
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Last modified August 14, 2006