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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska


by Teresa McConnell
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District


In this paper I will be describing the kind of curriculum and the kinds of teachers and teaching approaches that I think could be most appropriate for an elementary school in rural Alaska. I will explain how the school relates to its particular culture and community environment. Most of these ideas have come from interactions with rural teachers and principals during the academy. The required course readings have also been highly beneficial in gaining insight into schools and communities in rural Alaska. 

The core of any educational program is the curriculum - what is to be studied -so this is one of the most important areas to be considered when looking at rural Alaskan schools. Traditionally, curricula are established so that the subjects are segmented and broken down by discipline. Language arts is separate from science, arithmetic is a separate course of study from social studies, and so on. For the most part, integration of "subjects" is not designed into the curriculum. However, I am sure some teachers are integrating on their own.

With a subject-oriented curriculum the teacher is the one dispersing the "knowledge" and the students listen and hopefully learn. Even with the best attempts that a curriculum-based teacher makes to present well-planned, meaningful, interesting lessons, it still is the teacher teaching and the students being taught.

In some areas this may be adequate, but in a culturally diverse school it can be a disaster. Breaking down what is to be studied into separate categories offers little meaning and little relationship to everyday life situations. If what is being taught is not tied into previous experiences by the student, little interest or learning results. In addition, many times the curriculum we are using is out of date in a rapidly changing society.

Some curricula include subject matter that will "bring in" the local culture and traditional skills using parents or elders. However, this is oftentimes treated the same as "teachers" teaching pre-determined concepts and skills within the framework of specific subjects.

The curriculum needs to provide an education that will give children confidence and the ability to face the world they will enter when they get out of school. They must be able to apply the knowledge they have gained in their own daily situations. Curricula need to prepare students for the real world they will face upon graduation.

Rural school students often have characteristics unique to their situation that are quite different from their urban counterparts, particularly in Alaska. There are different cultural expectations and roles that can make schooling difficult. Conflicting values and behaviors, varied learning styles, and different ideas about reality also can have an impact on how students learn. Instead of emphasizing either the dominant society (cultural assimilation) or the minority culture (cultural pluralism), another approach has been suggested by Barnhardt - that of cultural eclecticism (LT/LL). This approach to educating minorities combines the most appropriate aspects of assimilation and pluralism while leaving out their weaknesses. Thus, the school will be assisting the students in understanding the diversity of their experiences and also contribute to developing an integrated cultural perspective suitable to the student's own needs and circumstances.

A process-oriented curriculum is very different from a subject-oriented one. The emphasis is on process skills, so the concern is with how the students learn rather than what they study. Students' needs are changing and varied and a process-oriented curriculum provides for that. The students need to be learning about thinking and organizational skills, decision making, problem solving and most importantly, how to learn.

To be specific, and somewhat content oriented, I would emphasize the local environment, other cultures, geography, health education (diet, drugs, diseases, alcohol), citizenship, and computer technology (such as distance learning opportunities). Using real life examples, such as having a fishing boat as a science lab, would be outstanding.

Teachers in rural Alaska need to be chosen and cultivated with great care. These teachers are faced with a large and varied number of demands and pressures. There are adjustments that must be made, as the teacher is often viewed as an "outsider" to the community. Teachers need to be adequately prepared for the many possibilities that this opportunity will afford them.

Ideally, having several certified teachers who are from the same community or culture as the students would be excellent. Generally speaking, such persons would have the important advantage of being able to relate to and communicate with the community and the students. They also would have a better chance of staying in the community and providing a much needed consistency for the students that attend the school. A local teacher can also provide a tangible and positive role model to which students can better relate. Younger students, especially, could benefit greatly from having a culturally similar teacher, as they are having to adjust to the many expectations of formal schooling.

Outside teachers are also needed and can make their own contributions, which can serve to provide a perspective of the world outside of the community. This extra-community education needs to be handled in a delicate manner of course.

Teachers in the rural school need to have some special skills and certain attitudes to be effective. One of the most important qualities is that of acting as a learner with the students and for the students. This type of teacher may ask, "What am I going to learn today, or this year?"

There are some important qualities necessary to be an effective rural teacher. Rural teachers need to be highly organized so that many different activities suited for the varied student needs can take place in a timely and appropriate fashion. Teachers need to be counselors, sensitive to the many aspects of their students' lives.

Teachers in such a setting also need to be "team players." They must work well with other faculty and staff to see that the needs of the students are being met. Positive support from the others in the building is vital. In many ways these teachers need to be public relations experts, trying constantly to bridge the gap between the community and the child's education experience. Rural teachers need to communicate meaningfully with parents about their children, dealing with parents in an honest and positive fashion at all times. It would be an ideal setting if all parents viewed the teacher as their friend.

Teachers in a rural school should employ a variety of teaching approaches, potentially as many approaches as students. Different learning styles need to be identified and matched with appropriate and effective teaching styles. The same lesson can incorporate different learning styles, but it is important to know how each student learns best, and maximize the exposure of the student to an appropriate style.

A project-centered approach can provide much for rural school students, especially if careful attention has been given to planning. In a project-centered approach, student interest, parental input and the curriculum could be interwoven to meet many goals. The community could become greatly involved with the student projects. There are many options available to maximize effectiveness for such programs provided that all are preceded by careful planning.

Another important aspect of effective rural teaching is insuring that students are able to use the skills and knowledge they have learned. So many times things are taught but never used directly and the purpose of learning becomes nebulous. Students being able to understand and explain what and why they are learning certain things is necessary. Another teaching approach which is gaining popularity among many in the teaching profession is "cooperative learning.'' Students learn collaboration skills as well as a task or concept. Working closely with peers leads to a number of positive outcomes: achievement, self-confidence, and cooperativeness, to name a few.

Education as a process, integrating subjects, involving parents and community, and using students to teach other students are some approaches that would be effective in any school. Curriculum, teachers, and teaching approaches all need to interact and be flexible when striving to meet the total educational needs of the students. What is best for the student needs to be the central focus in selecting whatever actions will be taken in providing their education.


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 14, 2006