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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

The Ideal School

 

by Jane Seaton
Lake and Peninsula Schools

 

It's a five mile commute from my home to Newhalen, where our village school is located. A friend and I make the drive through snowstorms, glare ice, pelting rain, and the occasional fine day. During the course of our daily journey we often engage in lofty conversations about the role of education in society, the latest research on how children learn, and last week's episode of "Dallas." Sometimes we talk about what a school would be like if it were "ideal." I'm glad to have the opportunity to express my thoughts on this subject.

The parents of our students (mostly Yup'ik, to one degree or another) are very supportive of education and want their children to strive for academic excellence. In a recent mission statement, members of the community expressed the hope that each child would be helped to reach his/her fullest potential and develop a positive self-image. This was a community-wide statement; beyond this, students typically follow very diverse paths. Some attend college or trade school, some join the military service, and others remain in the village. Newhalen School must meet the needs of all these futures.

Since this diversity is present almost everywhere, the ideal school I propose for Newhalen would be an ideal school anywhere. A good school is a good school no matter where it is. Every school should be structured around its students. The particular topics in the curriculum will vary from place to place, but a child-centered structure will adapt to societal and individual differences within its framework.

The ideal elementary school for rural Alaska (or any place) would begin with family planning. Every child born in the community would be wanted, welcomed, and loved. The child might live with a mother and father in a nuclear family, with adoptive parents, with one parent only, or with members of the extended family. No matter what the arrangement, at least one person would be committed to providing the time and care needed for that child to feel valued and necessary to the community.

 

Primary Grades K-3

The Kindergarten curriculum would consist of ample time to explore an environment rich in developmentally appropriate materials - blocks, puzzles, water, sand, paint, crayon, clay, musical instruments, animals, plants, books, magazines, dress-up clothes, puppets, and foods. None of these need be expensive. Many can and should be homemade or brought from home by the child. Situations in which the children could safely make their own decisions and learn to deal with the consequences would be encouraged. An important component of the curriculum throughout the school would be teaching children strategies forgetting along with others. Children need to be taught by modeling and role-playing to negotiate, to share, to defend themselves, to join a group, and to find solutions to their own problems.

Although the children would listen to stories, poems, and songs and would have chances to use writing tools, there would be no formal instruction in reading and writing at the Kindergarten level. The Math curriculum would consist of child-gathered collections, picture graphs, simple measurement, and counting games. Field trips to places in the community - post office, city hall, airport, store, etc. - would occur frequently, with drawings, stories, and group discussion the desired follow-up.

In the primary grades the active, experiential, hands-on curriculum begun in Kindergarten would continue and expand. The Whole Language Workshop I attended at the Rural Academy stressed that the most important component of "whole language" philosophy is that it is child-based. Children dictate or write their stories in words they bring from home and community. They write about what is of interest to them. They choose what they will read. This doesn't mean kids are just turned loose to do whatever they please. On the contrary, the teacher helps students learn strategies, rather than isolated skills. Unity is stressed throughout the curriculum. Grouping among the three primary grades would be flexible. Ideally one teacher would be available per ten children. Older students would be role models and informal teachers for the younger students. The older kids would benefit as well by having built-in audiences for plays and stories.

The Math and Science components of the curriculum would be indivisible. The focus for primary students would be exploring the natural world around them. The collection of weather data, for example, would engage children in using and reading numbers on a thermometer. Devising instruments for measuring precipitation and wind speed would put creativity and critical thinking skills to work. Charting and graphing the figures gathered would teach children to apply organizational and communication skills. Comparing and contrasting their data with that gathered in previous years would provide experience at using figures to predict and analyze. Learning about their own bioregion - its flora, fauna, and geographical features - would be the objective of the Math/Science curriculum. Learning the processes that are needed to learn more would be the focus for the structure.

The Social Studies component, usually a separate subject with its own textbook, would be closely tied to the Language Arts, Science, and Math. Projects would encourage the children to become familiar with the histories of their own families. What was it like when their parents went to school? What foods did they eat? How did they travel? If the children are lucky enough to have grandparents living in the village, they can find out about life two generations ago. Children at the Primary level are also fascinated by the cultures of other people throughout the world. They should be exposed to the art, music, dress, foods, and customs of different societies and cultures. In this way they will be able to view their own culture as a unique part of the whole.

The goal of the primary grades should be to produce students who:

  1. like themselves and feel confident of their abilities
  2. are interested in and know how to find out about the world around them
  3. make as many of their own choices as possible and deal reasonably with the consequences of their actions.

     

Intermediate Grades 4-8

The child-centered, Whole Language approach would still be used for the intermediate grades. In addition to the curriculum areas already described, other components would be added. 

Since many of the residents of our area make their living at the seasonal occupation of commercial fishing, they are not formally employed for much of the year. Subsistence activities that used to be necessary for survival have been modernized, and the job of staying alive takes less time. This is true not only for rural Alaska, but for most places in our country. The ideal school would expose students to meaningful, creative leisure-time activities. Photography, painting, drawing, carving, skin sewing, basket weaving, gardening, playing musical instruments, and participating in group or individual sports should be a part of the curriculum.

Extensive use of the Artist-in-Residence program would be one way of teaching students about the possibilities in the various arts. Many times local craft persons could be the teachers. School districts might also hire an expert in one of the arts for a nine-month period. This expert would travel from school to school in the district, giving intensive workshops at each site. The traveling expert plan could utilize the regular teachers of the district. A teacher with an exciting unit on paper-making and book-binding, for example, might switch sites for one or two weeks with a teacher who can take students through a unit on air pressure.

Since villages are usually quite isolated and some children have little opportunity to see what lies beyond their own domain, the school would give students the chance to travel more widely. Students in Naknek visit nearby Katmai National Park after earning part of the money for the trip and studying many aspects - historical, geographical, cultural - of the area. In the ideal school, working on fund raising projects would be an integral part of the curriculum. This would help students with their abilities to plan, gather information, show responsibility, and keep accounts. The travel should have specific objectives that the students understand. A trip to Anchorage might have as one objective that each student will pass a lifesaving course at a public pool. Another objective of the same trip might be to have students watch a professional performance of a play, concert, or sporting event and use what they've seen to put on an original performance back in the village. The destination, objectives, and duration of the travel would depend on the needs of the particular students. Ideally, students would travel at least once each year in the intermediate grades.

 

Evaluation

In the ideal school no standardized testing and no assigning of letter grades would be done at the primary level. Instead, a developmental file would be kept for each child. Samples of the children's writing would track progress through the stages of handwriting, spelling, organization, syntax, word usage, and clarity of content. Teacher notes would be needed to show the activities and strategies used if a child was having difficulty progressing from one stage to another. A cassette tape of the child's reading would also be kept in this permanent file. The date of each reading and the approximate reading level of the material would be noted on the tape by the teacher. An example of the type of operations the child has mastered in Math would be included, as would an anecdotal record prepared by the teacher relating strengths and weaknesses.

By the intermediate grades standardized testing could probably not be held at bay, even in the ideal school. Indeed, in our society it is important to be able to take and pass tests in order to show qualification for everything from getting a pilot's license to entering the armed services. Students should be taught strategies for test taking. They should know how to take notes and study certain material. But a continuation of the file begun at the primary level would provide the best information for the student's teachers. At the intermediate level letter grades would be given, based on completion of assignments and mastery of objectives. It would be recognized in the ideal school that not all students progress at the same rate. The amount of effort and cooperation with others, which is so hard to quantify, would be important.

 

Conclusion

It is easy to see by the quality of the workshops, the commitment of the teachers, and the thoughtfulness of authors of articles in Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned that we are striving for ideal schools throughout Alaska. The vision of the ideal school may vary from one community to another, from one educator to another, but as long as the development of each child's fullest potential remains a central goal, we are moving in the right direction.

 Dog on Rocks

Foreword

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

 

 

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 18, 2006