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Native Pathways to Education
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I

REFLECTIONS ON TEACHING IN THE KUSKOKWIM DELTA

  

by
Christine Anderson
Kasigiluk

 

Eclectic is a wonderful word. Human beings, in our infinite variety, require eclectic institutions. All our institutions, including schools, are continually evolving as we balance the tidy ideas of what should be against the untidy reality of what is. To add to the confusion there are multiple perceptions of both.

Social institutions are like nuclear time bombs ticking in our midst. The professionals are forever tinkering to make them work better, and they tinker well. But for my safety and survival I had best concern myself with their purpose and the manner of their use. Likewise with education.

Every dedicated educator has his own vision of what schools should be. He can, and should, share this vision with colleagues, students, parents, and community. Everyone should know something of the capabilities and limitations of the tool we call school. But, in the end it is the community that must decide the purpose for which school exists. The community must take and shape the school so that it transmits the skills, knowledge, and values the community wishes to preserve from their own culture and those they wish to integrate from the dominant mainstream.

Barnhardt says, "...we will devise an eclectic approach which allows for minority selection and adaptation of those features which they deem most desirable ..." (see this publication). Those who doubt this can happen should look at the role of the churches in the Kuskokwim Delta. It is fashionable to mock the early missionaries, but it seems they must have done some things right. The churches today are integrated into the culture and community in a way that schools are not. Why? Perhaps there are lessons here for modern educators. For one thing, the early missionaries did not come with inward doubts and outward apologies. They came with absolute conviction, and they came to stay. They learned the language of the community-learned it well enough to teach their message in that language. Guilty they may later have been of efforts to suppress and supplant the language. In the beginning they learned it.

They began immediately to train native leaders to take their places. They did these things so well that today the churches seem the most "Yup'ik'" institutions in the village. In the same way the school needs to be adopted, adapted, and integrated into the fabric of the village. Increasing numbers of native teachers can facilitate and accelerate this process. Knowing both worlds, they can help each understand the other to achieve consensus on the role and purpose of the school.

Scollons say, "Nearly everyone would say that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the world they will enter upon graduation. We all want students to have the knowledge and skills they will need to be mature, competent adults who have a range of options in employment or careers and who will be responsible, productive citizens" (see this publication). But what knowledge and what skills? Who will decide?

Roberts says, "...the emerging roles of the community vis a' vis the school staff in the curriculum development process are those of goal setting vis a' vis implementing education to reach those goals" (see this publication). Our school district already has in place both written statements of goals, and detailed curriculum guides, developed at great expense of time and funds, and approved by the school board. Administrative policy requires yearly time-lines and written weekly lesson plans showing how we intend to cover the required curriculum. "Cover" is the significant word here. On the one hand we have the administrations "need to know" that the curriculum is being "covered"-on the other hand are the real needs of real children. This is the problem with curriculum planning. No matter how much community input there has been, no matter how much skillful professional planning, a curriculum guide should be just that-a guide. We should not fall into the trap of allowing the tool to control the craftsman.

If you follow a good recipe accurately you can expect a perfect cake every time, but people arc not cakes. Children learn in different ways, at different speeds. There are so many variables in the educational equation that there can be no one perfect recipe. A good curriculum guide is a very useful tool to have, particularly if it is developed with community involvement for a specific situation. Administrators do need to know that teachers are using this tool. But there is a vast difference between "covering" curricula and teaching children.

Perhaps here a distinction needs to be made on the basis of content.. I can see some justification for "covering" all the content of a high school course on ANCSA, even if some students do not understand the first lesson. In the area of basic skills, there is an inherent order to the subject matter. It is impossible to teach long division to a child who cannot subtract. Spelling is another good example of how the curriculum trap can lure a teacher into bad teaching practices. Spelling books are usually divided into thirty-six lessons. Obviously we must complete one lesson each week to "cover" the content. But what about the student who fails the first week's test, and the next, and the next? By the end of the school year he has "covered" the material, but what has he learned? How to fail? How to hate school?

In the Lower Kuskokwim School District the teacher is caught "between a rock and a hard place," between the demands of a very detailed curriculum and the varied learning styles and levels of real, individual children. The notion of accountability is good to the extent that it is evidence of parent and community interest in the educational process, but I see inherent dangers. Rote learning is easy to assess and measure. Creative processes are not. Consequently, an over-emphasis on accountability tends to encourage rote teaching at the expense of more nebulous problem solving experiences.

I like the Scollon's "Axe Handle Academy" curriculum. I think it would make an excellent foundation on which to build a high school curriculum that would be both open-ended and truly specific to our district. This being out of my control, I do intend to use, borrow and adapt many of their questions to my classroom. "Were the stars out last night?" is a wonderful "wake up" question for the bulletin board. Others are good starters for writing or learning center activities, or around which to build learning activity packets. To quote Scollons, "We need to prepare students by giving them a solid understanding of their place on the earth, their place and identity in society, and the ability to listen, observe, reflect and then communicate effectively with others.

Weaving Curriculum Web s by Corwin, et al (see this publication), describes what can happen when a spider comes to school. One magical experience like this stands out in my memory. One glorious morning in Northeast Oregon, teacher and students were outside raising the flag and giving the Pledge of Allegiance. On this particular morning, our leader was a first grader-probably mentally retarded, certainly language deprived, and being raised by a retarded mother and an alcoholic grandparent. As we finished the Pledge, Anita, standing by the flag pole facing the rest of us, pointed silently at the sky over our heads. We all turned and there, touched by the morning sun, outlined against the blue sky, were three geese flying in a perfect vee. We all watched until the geese turned to black specks and disappeared in the blue distance. Then the children turned spontaneously to Anita and thanked her for showing us this wonderful sight we would otherwise have missed. Geese kept coming up all day, in the children's writing, and in their art. One of the readers happened to have a story about an injured wild goose. The primary science lesson was on signs of autumn. Unanswered questions sent several students to the library. Beyond the curriculum webs we wove around the geese something magical happened to us as a group, because we had shared and valued that moment together, because the "least" of us had been our teacher.

Alaskan Wildlife by Janet Swan
I try always to remain alert and sensitive to moments like this. One device that helps me do this is to have the children spend the first five minutes of the day writing journal entries. By scanning these as I collect them and at morning break I can get a good indication of anything special that has engaged the children's interest. Of course, we can't wait for the spider to come to school. Bulletin boards, manipulatives, video tapes, music, field trips, mysteries, learning centers, projects, and activity packets are all efforts to provide the stimulus about which to weave relevant curriculum webs.

As much as I believe in flexible open-ended curricula and spontaneity, I also believe in structure, drill, and mastery learning. Teachers need to be well trained and well prepared. They need to know their subject matter thoroughly. Here is the place for the kind of curriculum guide our district is using, as a kind of check list for the teacher to use periodically to be certain that basic skills and knowledge are being mastered as we weave our relevant webs.

For my own use I write lesson plans somewhat differently from the ones I am required to submit to my administrator. I like to write individual prescriptive plans for each student at the beginning of the school year and at intervals throughout the year. If report cards are prepared on a nine-week basis, it usually works well to review these "IEP's" at the same time.

My prescriptive plan for each student will tell me where he is now in basic skills, in reading, math, English, spelling and handwriting, which skills he needs more practice with, and which he needs to learn next. For science, health, social studies, art, etc., I will write group plans but will also note individual weaknesses, and plan corrective activities in these areas. Learning centers and individualized activity packets allow for a range of interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Children like structure and predictability. They like to know what they are supposed to be doing at any given moment during the day. One system I like, and children seem to like, is to prepare daily lesson plans in the form of job tickets for each child. The student's job ticket will tell him what he is expected to complete during the day, what pages in reading and math, how many lines of handwriting, what spelling words to practice, and what his computer time will be. It will also specify group activities and a variety of options for free time.

It takes a while to prepare these job tickets every evening, and I have found it self-defeating to prepare them a day ahead, but the savings in teaching time in the classroom is invaluable, especially in the multi-graded classroom. This system helps students assume more responsibility for their own learning. A student can see exactly what he needs to get done, and can begin to learn how to budget his own time. After a few weeks on this system, students will begin to move independently from one activity to another without interrupting the group that is working with the teacher. If a child is stuck, he can flip up a "Help" sign on his desk, and move to another activity until the teacher is free to help him.

Independent and group activities are interspersed throughout the day. the trick is to keep drill and practice activities within achievable limits and always to include several open-ended reward" activities so that students are neither bored nor frustrated, but spend a maximum amount of time in meaningful activities aimed at advancing them along the continuum of skills and knowledge set forth in the curriculum guide. There will be times during the day for whole-group activities, and times for the teacher to give individual help. Such a system provides both for the drill and practice necessary for true mastery of basic skills, and for challenge, variety and spontaneity within the structure.

I was very interested to hear one of the Rural Alaska Instructional Improvement Academy instructor's comment that we do our students a disservice by not helping them learn to concentrate in a noisy environment. This instructor was recommending that students read aloud to themselves from their computer screens as they practiced key-boarding and reading skills. It certainly worked for our adult group, each of us testifying that we could attend to our own voices and shut out our neighbors' as we read aloud and typed. Children too attend selectively and can learn to work efficiently in classrooms in which different activities are going forward concurrently.

Such a classroom may appear unorganized and noisy at first glance. But if the teacher knows the subject matter, and has planned well, continued observation will demonstrate that educational objectives are indeed being met in a positive learning environment in which students are learning how to learn.

An appropriate elementary school for the Kuskokwim Delta will be shaped by and integrated into the village. It will reflect the values, traditions, and skills selected and adapted by the village from the Native and mainstream cultures. Curriculum guides will be flexible, relevant and open-ended on the model of the Axe Handle Academy curriculum. Teachers, many of them Native, will be well trained and knowledgeable, sensitive to individual differences and cultural ambiance. These enthusiastic teachers will have high expectations of their students.

Teachers will stay flexible and alert for the "teachable moment", respect the interests of their students, and use every device and trick of their trade to make the skills and knowledge they are teaching relevant to the students' world. Teachers will be "learners" too and model the attitudes, processes, and skills that will make life-long learners of their students. There are ills in Western Alaska, as elsewhere, that the schools did not cause and cannot cure. Students who graduate from such a school will be part of the solution not the problem.

 

Foreword

J. Kelly Tonsmiere

Introduction

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

 

 

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.

 


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Last modified August 14, 2006