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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Jim Vait

In the following paper, I will briefly describe a situation in which I had an opportunity to involve my students in a village-centered project and then I will discuss what I believe were the main obstacles to our participation in that project. Finally, I will summarize some educational problems that might have been addressed had our school found ways to cooperate with the community.

During my two years of teaching in Atmautluak, the elders of that village became involved in the formation of the Yupiit Nation. Thus, I found myself in the situation of having to teach government in a village where a new government was being formed. However, unlike the teacher who used a captive spider as the focal point of a project which encompassed an entire curriculum (see Corwin, et. al., in this publication), I was unable to help my students become involved in the dynamic process that was unfolding in their community. The reasons for my failure to do so did not lie with my lack of interest or with the administrations' or the elders' objections to our participation, but rather with the fact that the school was structured and organized in such a way that a community-centered project could not be easily accommodated. For example, government class was scheduled from 10:40 to 11:25 a.m. which was not necessarily the time when the elders met to discuss important issues. On the other hand, the stated educational objectives that called for the students to "list" the eleven departments of the executive branch or to "tell" the year and month in which the Russians relinquished their control over the territory of Alaska did not exactly provide for the study of a government formation either.

In their struggle to retain title to their lands and to maintain their traditional lifestyle, the elders were combing books and historical documents looking for precedents and ideas that would provide the legal basis for the tribal government. They wrote letters to congressmen, lobbyists, and leaders of other communities with similar goals. They delivered speeches, expounding their ideals and desires. There were questions about the feasibility of beginning a fish farming project that might provide an additional economic base for the village. The elders' efforts during this retribalization movement reflected a vitality and an interest that could have commanded the students' interest. Here a project presented itself which could have encompassed the entire curriculum.

As these proceedings were occurring in the city offices, a scant 200 yards from the school, the students learned about history and government in the conventional manner. They wrote some letters, paragraphs, themes, and short stories as they were assigned in their writing classes. In speech class, the students read the Gettysburg Address, listened to speeches by Martin Luther King, and delivered some speeches on basketball. They learned about math and science in classes allotted to those subjects. 

The present education of our rural students seems to focus on preparing them for a life that exists only away from the village. The project of forming a tribal government could have provided the students with an immediate impetus to learning and with an opportunity to use their academic skills in the village setting. The students could have learned departments of the state's executive branch through contacting state agencies rather than through memorizing a formidable and somewhat meaningless list. Writing skills would have been honed by the need to communicate and, therefore, would have been better retained for future use, not only in the village but anywhere the students would choose to live. The students could have analyzed historical events to explain today's dilemmas instead of learning to view history as a series of static facts. Studies about the bioregion; its waters, soils, and life-giving capabilities; and the problems of increasing its productivity could have provided vital information for the village as well as a well-rounded science curriculum. I assume that the students would have compared government structures as well as government philosophies.

The elders invited us to participate in their retribalizing efforts. Unfortunately, the setting and structure of the village school didn't lend themselves to a melding of talents. I had my agenda to follow, and the elders had theirs.

Several factors would have been crucial for the school to be able to assist the village in the formation of a government. A keen sensitivity to the needs of the community and knowledge and respect for cultural patterns would have been required. Highly developed social skills would have been necessary to ensure a smooth relationship between the school and the village. Any notion that the elders were engaged in an exercise of futility would have needed to be set aside.

It would have been necessary that the school administration and the entire staff commit themselves to the project as an educational experience. The random activities which would have been generated in this type of project might have precluded a normal scheduling pattern. Unless the staff had agreed upon the validity of this approach, conflict might have arisen when an important meeting would have preempted the day's planned algebra lesson.

Most school activities are based on the notion that learning must take place in a classroom with students sitting in chairs arranged in one of a certain set of patterns. The education establishment has spent millions to construct these monuments and therefore expects that these settings will be used in a prescribed manner. For the school to be able to participate in such a community-centered project, new thinking about the use of classrooms (Could they be opened for village use? Would that be legal?) as learning sites would have to occur.

Such a restructuring of the school environment raises the question of control, which might make some people uncomfortable. Presently, the administration and staff determine which subjects arc taught and how the subject matter is presented. In a village-wide project this control would be lost, and many might feel threatened as community members gained the power to influence the direction of learning. Even more threatening could be the emergence of naturally gifted members of the community as teachers. Professional staff would have to reassess their roles as "transmitters of knowledge and skills"; they would have to approach the setting more as learners than as authorities. For some, it might be very disconcerting to realize that under such circumstances, the school would be serving the needs of the community instead of the community serving the needs of the school.

Another question is how teachers relate to such a project approach to learning. For some it might be difficult to visualize effective learning taking place in this setting. The happy positive part of mc can picture students cooperating and working diligently, inquiring and observing. The realist, skeptical side of me envisions the students at best hiding in corners, reading comic books or playing checkers. (Let's not even imagine the worst scenario!) Perhaps my experience with a project-centered approach is too limited. Methods of tracking, the types of objectives and the actual activities the students and teachers would engage in are not obvious to me. Unless the teacher has a vision of its workability, such a project would be doomed to failure. Specific training or exposure to an ongoing project would be helpful in learning to visualize the process.

The New and the Old by Dolly Norton 
Several problems that are endemic to rural schools would have been addressed had we been able to participate in the community's efforts to form a government. The students would have been free to learn within the existing cultural patterns of their community, rather than learning about their culture as it is perceived by outsiders. If the students and the elders could have worked together on issues of immediate concern to the community many of the problems of bilingual and cross-cultural education would have been addressed. Through discussing present-day problems with the elders, the students would have increased their fluency in Yup'ik and gained cultural insights.

The "failure syndrome," the downward spiral of teacher expectations, student motivation, and student achievement, which was articulated by Helen Roberts (see Roberts, in this publication), could also have been addressed in this project. I believe that any educator who is willing to be open will have to admit that he or she is familiar with this problem. Roberts suggested several activities to raise student motivation, such as developing more relevant school programs; developing cross-cultural materials; devising a flexible schedule to accommodate diverse lifestyles; involving parents in curriculum development, instruction, and evaluation. All of these would have been part of the project. Also included would have been several approaches to raising student achievement such as providing opportunities for individual and group achievement. In addition, the project would have contributed to increasing teacher expectations through involving the staff in curriculum development and through reducing teacher isolation. Since the project was governed by real-life demands, the community might have expected more from the students than the teachers do. The students' reading and communication skills could have been a valuable asset to the communities efforts. Through interacting with members of the community, the students could have contributed to improving the reading skills of the whole village.

This project was too large to undertake without related experience. I am not prepared to facilitate the restructuring of an entire education system. I have experienced some positive results with projects such as the yearbook and the ongoing project of the school newspaper. However, these have been school-centered rather than village-centered activities. I believe that for starting a more community-centered teaching/learning program, it may be appropriate to expand smaller and/or existing projects to include village activities.



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 14, 2006