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

Building Networks


by Helen Eckelman
Lower Kuskokwim School District


The purpose of this paper is to examine the possibilities of building a teacher support network in the bush setting. Often the question has been asked, "Why is there so much teacher turnover in the bush?" It is a loaded question, with many variables to consider. It is a problem that can't be resolved in one paper, but I do have an idea that I'd like to propose as a plan for consideration. I am interested in building a network organization in the bush setting. I would like to design a tight organization where the community, parents and teachers have a vested interest in the education of the students. 

I conceptualize the environment as a nested-box problem: inside each box is a smaller box whose dimensions are constrained by the large box. Each box is independent to some extent of the larger boxes (and the small ones within it) and can be analyzed as such. It is also quite dependent on the shape of those within and without. The group is made up of individuals, but the individuals are made up of organs, the organs of cells, the cells of atoms - that is the regress. But the group may exist in a department, the department in a division, the division in an organization, the organization in an industry, the industry in a region, the region in a nation, and so on up to the universe - infinite progression.

The students would be tightly coupled with family, extended family, culture, school and friends. A disturbance or change in any one of them would quickly have ramifications for all the others. Each is linked to the other directly. The support groups are tightly coupled, and they deal with training, economy, politics, subsistence lifestyle, and health and extended schooling. Those left are the regulatory and special interest groups which are loosely coupled with the organization.

A tightly coupled network appears to blend itself to the communal lifestyle of the village. To cover the basic issues for the levels, I would set these goals:

  1. The system should be goal-directed.
  2. Rationality should be emphasized in the analysis.
  3. Random, nonpurposive, and accidental behavior should be minimized.
  4. Change should be seen as orderly, continuous, progressive and cyclical.
  5. Each unit should be seen as dependent on levels above and below it.
  6. The basic form of interaction should be cooperation and personal contact.
  7. The subunits should be loosely coupled.
  8. The behavior should be governed by cultural norms and values.
  9. The norms and values should be stable.
  10. The behavior should be a function of conditioning, learning, norms, and traditions.

To establish such a network, I would start with these three steps:

  1. Take our mission statement as the intended value, i.e., place the student as top priority in our goals for the school. The mission statement needs to be explained to students, parents, elders and everyone in the community.
  2. Restructure our hiring procedures, i.e., look for areas of expertise outside of education; consider applicants who are willing to make commitments - question their value system to assess the baggage they are bringing with them; look for community centered individuals, accustomed to living in a rural area; lean toward a mature age group that is settled and secure within themselves; look for experience in various community organizations to help build a cadre of expertise for various activities. The present policy of our district is to hire first year teachers, usually young and from cities. Their former lifestyles and expectations become a stumbling block when they encounter village life.
  3. Develop a list of goals for parent/community/school involvement for which we will all be working as a team. We need to establish goals for the students, not only for their education but for their future role as adults wherever they choose to live. 

The last step would be the most difficult as adults are not really sure what they want for their children. If education means losing children forever, this becomes a staggering price to pay for success in the outside world. The question becomes, "Do they need the skills of western society to succeed in the village?" I feel that many skills will be essential. A person who can't read or perform simple math will soon be unable to work in the village. The villages are changing with alarming speed. In the four years I lived there, we went from three pickups and one taxi in the village to well over sixty pickups and three taxis, plus numerous snowmobiles, three-wheelers, and motorcycles. Several offices were established within the village corporation due to the sovereignty issue, and four stores replaced the old one, while a friend was looking into establishing a fast foods restaurant and a gift shop. Dress styles went from half Native, half western, to 98 percent western. Students became unwilling to go outside for recess because their nylon ski jackets and Nike shoes didn't keep them warm.

I would target parent/community/school (PCS) involvement to enlarge upon. I consider this the key step out of the suggested three. By key, I'm suggesting it as most accessible to change. PCS involvement is a shared move toward a united effort, a blending of expertise from each source. Mutual respect merges from such united efforts. 

I would start at home base to insure involvement with the staff in ways to give them an ownership in our school. I would start first by involving all the staff (custodians, cooks, substitutes) in staff training sessions. I would extend invitations to the community as well, going beyond written notices to calls and personal invitations. Enlisting the staff as our public relations department in town, I'd use the custodians to talk in classrooms on playground behaviors and respect for the school. They would also help in discipline matters, supplying after-school work for students. I'd ask the cooks to speak in classrooms on lunchroom procedures and health and diet guides, explaining their menu cycle in the form of math questions. They would discuss the dental hygiene program and the basic Native diet, stressing how these fit their needs. To eliminate misunderstanding, I'd look to the Native staff for interpreting skills for every parent/teacher conference and communication involving the village. Aides who are trained in alcohol and drug programs could counsel students at school and interpret in school counseling sessions. Every aide should feel comfortable to address students for behavior unacceptable to their culture. School collegiality and teamwork depend on trust and respect. To further both, I suggest that teachers take their time to get acquainted in the school and community before voicing their opinions. If they wait a while, they might find their opinions have changed. 

Respect for the culture would be my suggested topic for the fall inservice for teachers. The inservice would be built around the case model of "Different World Views" that outlines the understanding so vital for respect. I would suggest input from board members, aides, parents, and past teachers to strengthen the views. Also the differences in learning styles should be stressed and considered as part of teacher evaluations. Learning styles have been given lip service but have been quickly forgotten. This is the time teacher goals and expectations should be discussed and written down for the school year.

Each quarter during the school year, the PSC involvement can be carried further through fairs, focusing on two major concerns in the village, health and environment. For example, a science fair could use the following resources with booths set up for each of the following:

  1. Elders presenting lessons on survival skills needed on the tundra.
  2. Elders making and mending fish nets.
  3. Village craftsmen carving and explaining kinds of materials.
  4. Methods of preserving food and a sampling area.
  5. Fish found in the river and tundra lakes.
  6. Lessons on jigging, kinds of bait and stick used.
  7. Animals relevant to tundra area - students could branch off into animal habitats and food.
  8. Building snares.
  9. Ecosystems on the tundra.
  10. Housing today and yesterday. 

Incorporate the skills of the village along with the school expertise, and you will have a science fair that uses all the resources at hand, stimulates interest, and involves the community. This is an area of strength for Native students.

Another area of concern that could be covered in a different fair is sanitation conditions. You could have a health fair using the same format:

  1. Native berries, roots and plants used for medicinal purposes.
  2. River water testing for drinking purposes.
  3. Trash - the threat to their environment - this is an area where the "Myth of the Commons" applies well, as all assume someone else will clean up after them and care enough to preserve their environment.
  4. Alcohol and gas sniffing with the local VAC. 
  5. Parenting skills.
  6. Physical health with local health aides doing a variety of tests.
  7. Dental awareness (dentist, school coordinator for dental care, health aides). 

The list becomes endless if you really try to involve the expertise and culture of the village in the school system. This is along the same line as Oscar Kawagley's talk at the Academy of Curriculum Alignment and the Culture. There are many ways to build a network and mine would be through the Natives themselves. As outsiders, we do too much, too fast, and expect it all to happen at once. My feelings are very strong, but I saw a program coldly trying to involve parents in writing curriculum fail this year. Why? The proper groundwork wasn't laid and the parents didn't have a vested interest. Or more to the point, they didn't understand what we were trying to accomplish. Had the proper framework for involvement been built in small increments with teamwork, trust, and respect, we'd have accomplished the goal. I feel we can pull so much from the village setting; for example, the high school students in our village should be learning first-hand about the issues of sovereignty. At present it is the driving force in the village. I felt the government class should have listened at the council meetings and heard the elders speak. Then self-government would have assumed a closer and clearer perspective.

With Parent/Community/School involvement, you could involve all support systems as well as highlight the Native strengths in the area. Once interest and understanding is established, you can start to assess educational values the community wants for the students. The educational process can turn into a community venture, with everyone having a vested interest. I know it's "pie in the sky" talk for the present, but through the Rural Academy I have started to conceptualize a dream for building a future network to insure an elegant education for the students in rural Alaska.

 Blanket Toss


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



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Last modified August 18, 2006