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

Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I



Marilyn Harmon


Several years of teaching in the same grades-and in the lowest ones at that-sometimes cause me to lose sight of the whole school curriculum. I become quite an expert in my small area, but I miss the big picture. My experience could be compared to working in an assembly plant where one takes the pieces from the manufacturer and starts putting them together without ever asking what the end product will be.

One way of questioning curriculum is by asking what do we want to turn out at the end of our time with this child. My answer to this question would have to be based on my belief that the individual can make a difference in this world. Therefore, I would want the curriculum to contribute to individual students' sense of self-fulfillment, competence in decision making, and ability to engage in life-long learning. I believe that education should never limit students, but should alert them to their options and enable them to make choices. Therefore, the curriculum should focus on skills in decision making and on learning skills.

It seems that these educational goals could be best pursued with an approach to subject matter similar to that developed by Ron and Suzanne Scollon in "The Axe Handle Academy" (see this publication). Scollon and Scollon suggest that subject matter be organized around the following three areas: bioregional studies, cultural studies, and communication studies. Within these areas, students would learn to compare their own world of people and habitat with other worlds, to be able to better understand others and communicate effectively with them. This approach to teaching and learning may differ radically from the traditional subject-centered approach of the high school. However, it is very similar to what happens in most of the lower elementary grades. Most of our school day is spent in language and reading development. There is a strong emphasis on self-concept, communication and use of the environment. In the early elementary grades, the traditional subject areas are still integrated. Only as our students progress through the educational system does their learning become more and more centered around distinct subject categories. It could well be that early childhood education has been offering us a more effective educational model all along.

An important component of the curriculum content in rural Alaskan schools has to be the students' indigenous culture. Sometimes we "outsiders" seem to act as if this is an unusual idea. However, when I think of my own education in the Pacific Northwest, I remember that we celebrated our cultural holidays, that I learned about pioneers and studied what it would have been like to live long ago. I learned about my own culture. So why should it seem odd that rural students learn about berry picking, boating, ice fishing, caribou hunting, and whaling? We as outsiders may have to set aside some things from our own culture if they are not appropriate within the life style of the community. When I taught in an Inuit village in Canada, I celebrated the community's holidays in the school and cooked turkey on the holiday. However, I didn't impose my cultural celebration on the students in my classroom. Obviously, Alaska celebrates Thanksgiving, but we may find parts of the Western culture that do not fit into the village life style. The curriculum of rural schools should reflect the community's perspectives rather than the educators' background.

So often we educators are setting ourselves up as the sole and final authority and source of knowledge, instead of encouraging our students to gather information from their own environment and to control their own learning. For far too long, villages have relied on the decisions of educated outsiders. An unquestioned acceptance of externally imposed institutions has seemed to prevail. Decision making has been taken away from rural people by a process in which each organization has upheld what it knows best. This, of course, is not solely a problem of Native villages. We in the Western world often feel at the mercy of doctors, teachers, and politicians as well. Therefore, students need to learn that education can give them better decision-making skills, but that it is not infallible and that it is an ongoing process of lifelong learning. A process-oriented curriculum, rather than the existing subject-oriented curriculum, may be more conducive to developing in the students the skills for thinking and continuous learning.

Another aspect of the curriculum is relevance. Each activity, project, or bit of information must relate to something the student already knows, so there is a purpose for learning. For example, as educators we may have many reasons why a first grader should sound out words. However, if the child does not view this skill as necessary, we are fighting an uphill battle. Teachers from suburban backgrounds may be accustomed to children coming from homes in which newspapers lay around, parents read to their children, and road signs and billboards are a part of everyday life. These same teachers may feel overwhelmed when they find that in a rural, they must provide a reason for reading by showing their students the relationship between reading and the world around them. This is why I chose the community store as a place for my reading unit. Where else in the village could I find as many words and as many reasons for reading words? In addition, I found that directions for toys or food recipes increased my students' interest in reading. Last year, I passed out a little toy puzzle. A kindergartner figured it out first because he read the directions that came with it. He was very excited about his discovery and spontaneously shared with his peers that he had figured out the secret by reading. After all, isn't that why we learned to read, or tie our shoes, or anything else? We saw someone else doing it and saw value in it for us.

So far, I have pointed out that an improved curriculum should focus on the process of learning and incorporate reasons for learning. Now I will have to decide how this should be accomplished. Every student has a specific way of learning that best suits him or her. Learning may be approached primarily through visual or auditory or kinesthetic modes. Most of us learn best when these approaches are combined, even though we may lean toward one or the other. I have found that many of my students in the village tend to do better when using kinesthetic and visual modes of learning. Therefore, if I rely completely on an auditory approach, I'm bound to fail and will probably end up diagnosing my class as "dumb" or "slow." On the other hand, If I use another learning modality, I may well find reason to judge those same students as "bright" and "fast."

I am afraid I had to discover this the hard way. When I taught in a village for the first time, I was given a certain reading program, which I followed faithfully instead of analyzing my students' strengths and abilities and developing an appropriate approach. As a result, all the children in my class flunked the placement test. As I continued to teach the program, the same concepts and skills were reinforced 100 times. However, when the students had to apply these concepts and skills in the achievement tests, everyone failed. At this point, I began to ask why the students had missed concepts that had been taught repeatedly. The students had given me the verbal cues required by the program. However, they had not really learned the concepts. Gradually I came to understand that the students had not been able to internalize the concepts because they had not seen them in different contexts and had not acquired them in a learning modality suited to their strength.

Bear Fishing by Manly Norton
In another year, I worked with a different reading series which started out with nursery rhymes in kindergarten. I tried and tried by using pictures and saying the rhyme over and over. Nothing I did seemed to work to get the kids to repeat that four-line poem. I gave up and decided that it was just too difficult to teach the kids a poem that had no meaning for them because it was not reinforced by the culture of. the home. The next year, I happened to sing a rhyme. With seemingly little effort, the students learned the rhyme and loved it. After that, I kept increasing the number of rhymes we learned because I felt that rhymes were a good means for teaching the students the English language patterns. We ended up working at a new rhyme almost every week, singing them all, and looking at related pictures and reading the words. Sometimes, we also did art projects pertaining to our rhymes. As the year progressed, I asked what part of school my students liked best. I expected to hear P.E. or computers or playing in the playhouse, but- the students invariably referred to the nursery rhymes as a favorite part of school. These were students from the same background as those I had so much trouble teaching to read. The only thing that was different was that I had changed my teaching method.

In situations like this, a project approach can be very useful because it allows the students to apply varying learning modalities and pursue different interests within the same framework. In addition, the goal of wanting to accomplish the project adds meaning and reason to the students learning efforts. For a project to be successful, a goal must be established, information needs to be gathered and organized, and decisions on what is important to the goal and on how to achieve it must be made. All of this should be done by the students, with guidance from the teacher, so that they can develop the learning and thinking skills that are the main thrust behind our curriculum.

As has already been pointed out, the main goal of this curriculum is to enable the students to make appropriate choices in their adult lives. Society is a complex and ever changing system, requiring constant adaptation and decision-making. Again I will try to illustrate this by looking at how my own educational and cultural background has affected my life's decisions. What is the normal person doing in my home town? They are probably married, have 3 to 4 kids, live in families in which both husband and wife work, and own a ranch-style house with a station wagon in the driveway. They chose that life style, but I chose differently by teaching in rural Alaska. Some people back in my home town have decided that I'm crazy, while others have envied me. How did I make the decisions that brought me this far? They were, indeed, influenced by what I learned from my home, my school, and my community. School gave me information about my local culture and about the larger communities of my country and of the world. It provided me with the skills I needed to decide whether to go out into the "world" immediately after finishing high school or whether to further my education in college. College opened my eyes to a greater variety of options and it allowed me to discover my special interests. Education became one of those interests.

I first taught school in my own culture. Then I had an opportunity to teach Inuit people in Canada. There I learned to appreciate the Eskimo culture and I chose to live and work among the Inupiaq people. With each of these decisions, I chose what I wanted out of life. I realize that I gave up some of the ways of my own culture by living in another. This is why I feel lost when I hit the smog-filled asphalt streets and see people hurrying by. However, I feel that I can choose to hang on to those parts of my culture that I like and let go of others that I don't value as highly.

I hope that our high school graduates will be able to choose in much the same way. I hope that they will be able to decide whether to use their skills in their own community or elsewhere. And I hope that their education will enable them to realize their impact on the world and to recognize the world's place in their lives.



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