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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Dave Ringle
St. Mary's


The English language curriculum of many high schools includes a term paper which students complete during their senior year. Seniors in village high schools often find it difficult to select a topic for their paper that can be sufficiently researched with the limited resources available in the village. in addition, many students, especially those not wanting to continue their education, find it hard to become interested in the project. However, recently the teacher for Native studies in our high school, who is also the general manager of the local Native corporation, introduced mc to the I-search concept of the writing consortium for this assignment. This innovation has not only changed the nature of the term paper, but has also produced amazing results.

The research/I-search project was originally meant to focus on skills in researching, organizing, and writing a term paper. However, in implementing the concept, I found that the students also acquired new skills in many areas of verbal communication. For example, they learned how to conduct interviews and telephone conversations and how to cooperate with each other. In addition, the students expanded their computer skills as they revised their term papers. Yet, the area in which the students gained the most is the realm of personal growth as it relates to the students' self image and to their future plans. in a way in which no teacher could have done it, the research/I-search paper opened a completely new world of careers to the high school seniors.

I believe that every course taught during the senior year of high school should emphasize the question, "What are you going to do with your skills in the future?" All seniors are worried about the future, and many Native students are concerned about the fact that non-Natives hold most of the important and well-paying jobs in their village. However, most students take no steps toward ending their community's dependence on outsiders. This problem is directly addressed by the senior I-search project.

During the first semester, students focused on developing writing skills, exploring career opportunities (e.g. talking with successful Natives) and familiarizing themselves with Native issues including ANCSA. At the beginning of the second semester, I assigned the research project as follows: (1) Make a list of all non-Natives who work in the village, (2) determine what qualifications are necessary for Natives to attain these positions, and (3) develop a plan for yourself or Natives in general to gain the skills, experience, and attitudes necessary to assume these positions. The result of this project was to be a ten-page, typewritten paper with documentation in the form of footnotes and a bibliography. 

Even though the students were initially overwhelmed by this assignment, many were aware that the topic addressed an issue that of deep concern to their cultural pride and heritage. The seniors worked on the assignment for two months during which I instructed each student in the specific steps he or she needed to follow. Especially, I pointed out that a term paper must be approached with planning and time management and cannot be thrown together in one night. The first task of this project was for the students to list the jobs held by non-Natives in the village. When the students were working on this task, I asked them to also find out what qualifications are necessary for these jobs.

Most seniors are well aware of the presence of non-Natives in the community's cash economy. However, when questioned about qualifications for wage-earning jobs, the students often responded by referring to generalities about education and training. Therefore, I talked about work habits such as punctuality, dependability, and politeness. I kept emphasizing that these qualities may be expected of the students by their future employers, a fact of which only a few were aware. The students organized the information they acquired during this first step of the project by discussing it with others and through "mapping" and "bubbling." Then they utilized these ideas to develop a tentative outline for the term paper.

After completing this first task, the seniors needed to research the topics included in their outline. Very few of the resources necessary for carrying out this step were in the library. Career encyclopedias were helpful and I encouraged their usage. Sometimes the students discovered that the information they found was outdated. For example, several students listed the average teacher income as being $8,000 to $10,000. Whey they updated these figures they learned a valuable lesson about the changing nature of society and about the myth that all information in a book must be true. However, most of the information for this assignment could not be found in books. Therefore, the students had to go around the village and interview adults.

The students took different approaches to this task. For example, some grouped together and divided the total number of necessary interviews among group members. At first the interviewing process was slow. The students were reluctant to call village adults and discouraged when people were too busy to talk to them immediately. However, eventually most students were successful in scheduling interviews and were well received in the village. During and after the interviews, the students took notes which they then compared with the notes of other students who had interviewed different people with similar occupations. 

The benefits of this interviewing process were manifold, especially when the exercise was carried out in groups. The cooperation among the students created an atmosphere of "positive peer pressure" which seemed to reduce stress and anxiety. Questioned on the thoroughness of their research by peers, most students developed skills in note taking and in stating information accurately. The interviewing process also contributed much to increasing the students' self-confidence. In addition, the task opened new channels of communication between the school and the village and between younger and older people in the community. While all this took place, I tried to interfere as little as possible.

This research part of the assignment brought the students more into the world of work and higher education than any lecture could. The students learned about a variety of work-related topics, such as the difference between a bachelors and a masters degree, jobs that require academic or vocational training, and relationships at the work place. Most students commented on how much training was required for many jobs. While many seniors had been considering future education, they became more motivated and better oriented in their future plans by completing this assignment.

While these research activities can greatly contribute to stimulating student interest, one has to keep in mind that they are very time consuming and that deadlines are necessary to keep the students from procrastinating. Two weeks seem to be an ideal time frame. A simple method for the teacher to keep track of student progress is by asking the students to record interview data on note cards. These note cards become a very helpful tool during the next step of the project- the actual writing of the paper.

The Lazy Hunter by Janet Swan
After the students had become interested in the project through conducting the interviews, they found the writing task less intimidating. Since there was no shortage of facts, the students could plunge into writing a rough draft with only minimal help from the teacher. However, most of the seniors were confused about how to write introductions and conclusions. Therefore, it seemed advisable to review the essay structure after the research part of the assignment had been completed. This review helped the students to avoid one of the most common weaknesses of research papers, which is a simple listing of facts without analysis.

I began this essay review by reminding the students of the original assignment, emphasizing that the third part consisted of the question, "What would it take for Natives to replace non-Natives in village jobs?" This reminder helped the students to develop a notion of purpose and a direction for their writing. Some began to write by presenting an overview of current village conditions. Others focused on Native pride. Still others outlined a Utopian vision of village life. Many students unconsciously developed a thesis statement as they analyzed their information in the process of writing. By the time the students handed in their rough drafts, they had analyzed and organized their data and only needed to refine the structure to accomplish the final draft of their papers.

It must be pointed out that it is important that the students complete this assignment. Some may take as much as two weeks to write the rough draft and another two weeks to edit the paper and to add the bibliography and the footnotes. However, this process introduces the students to important aspects of college-level training that they will need if they want to take over the jobs about which they are writing. As the students restructure their papers for the final draft, they learn new computer skills such as moving paragraphs, adding statistics, and using proper formats. The result is a piece of writing any senior can be proud of.

The final step in this project would be the publication of the student papers. However, it is very difficult to publish such a large amount of writing. On the other hand, publishing only a few papers would mean singling out individual students and exposing both the strengths and weaknesses of their work. An alternative approach is to ask a teacher who has not been directly involved in the project to choose the best parts of several papers and combine them on a computer fite. The students can then edit and organize these excerpts and submit the final result to the local newspaper with a cover letter. In this way, the seniors will have not only their individual papers as an outcome of the project but also a final group paper which will have been published as a newspaper feature.

This research/I-search paper is an ambitious project. It can only be attempted after students have developed confidence in their writing skills and a wide range of writing abilities. I would suggest implementing the project during the final semester of senior English, when the assignment can represent both a culmination of high school education and a beacon directing students toward future goals. The project tries to relate the students' education in school to their lives in the village. Viewed as an English project, the assignment produces the tangible result of a paper. However, as much of rural education, this project also contributes to the accomplishment of a more intangible goal: graduates who can be competent adults, contributing to the betterment of Native village life.



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