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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students


by Debra Buchanan
Cordova School District


Cordova is a rural community of approximately 2,500 residents located on the eastern side of Prince William Sound. Like many coastal communities, the town makes its livelihood from the sea. The majority of the population work as commercial fishermen or in fishing related jobs. Local businesses cater to the needs of fishermen, and the school board even considers seasonal openers and closures when deciding the school calendar. Prince William Sound and the waters beyond thus fundamentally influence and impact the lives of all Cordovans. 

In such a fishing-oriented community the school plays a particularly vital role. For high school students who spend their winters with computers, calculus and Shakespeare, the school bridges a somewhat modest, remote lifestyle to a complicated and busy modem world. Many students "cross the bridge" and leave Cordova for a more urban lifestyle. The school then must offer a curriculum that links students to the "outside," but more importantly, integrates information into their unique living situation. Teachers need to tie school learning with the "real world" of Cordova, or as Barnhardt suggests in "Culture, Community and Curriculum," we need to seek "cultural eclecticism." Computers, calculus and Shakespeare will have little value for Cordova's students if taught out of context with their everyday experiences.

As a new teacher to remote Cordova, I was guilty of imposing rather than integrating the English curriculum upon my students. I came to Alaska a product of urban east-coast schooling with a traditional mind set of what students needed to know in high school. My list of "college bound" reading was comprised of classical literature: my methods encouraged the same competition I thought students would meet in college - all of this neglecting the orientation of my students and the community. While they read the literature and did the assigned work, it had little connection to their lives, so I began to look around for something more appropriate. Thus the following "Sea" literature unit for high school English students in Cordova begins with their "real world."

The idea for "Sea" English has grown naturally out of what has and has not worked in my classroom. It is also a collection of practical methods gained from Phil Brady's "New Ideas for Teaching Language Arts" workshop in the Academy. Its goals are threefold. First, it attempts to integrate what students already know from their own life experiences with similar literature. It begins with writing of and about the sea and fishermen and eventually moves into "adventure" fiction and nonfiction. Second, it develops critical reading and writing skills, which are basic goals of all English curriculum. And third, it encourages an interdisciplinary and community approach to content reading, much like what Corwin, Hem and Levin suggest in "Weaving Curriculum Webs." By incorporating Brady's practical approaches and the three mentioned goals, the "Sea" English unit will better help to serve the needs and interests of my rural students while involving the community in the learning process.

Integrating Reading With Experience

The "Schema Theory" of learning argues that the mind can assimilate new information only when it is linked to information already stored in the long term memory. Once linked to one's present schema, the new information builds new schema which in turn can assimilate new information and so on. If the new information cannot be linked to a student's present schema, the student is unlikely to comprehend it, much less retain it. Under this assumption, in order for new reading material in English class to have any relevance for students, it must have some connection to their own lives. What better choice for my students, who spend their lives working and playing around boats, than literature that speaks personally to them? If what they come to class with is a storehouse of boating experiences, then adapting reading selections to their experiences would make classroom work more comprehensible and meaningful. Rather than separate reading from their lives outside the classroom, a "Sea" literature unit would create a link to it.

There are many titles, at all reading levels, that can be used to teach a unit of "Sea" literature. The unit could begin with a simple novel like Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea or Steinbeck's The Pearl in the 9th grade and goon to works like Homer's Odyssey, Dana's Two Years Before the Mast or Melville's Moby Dick and Joseph Conrad's sea novels for 10th, 11th and 12th grades respectively. Other resources could include classic Greek myths about the sea; Coleridge's narrative poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"; true accounts of adventure sea travel like Dove and Adrift - both stories of young men who traveled by sailboat alone; or practical non-fiction reading like The Alaska Fishermen's Journal. Students would be more apt to read books of these kind because they can specifically relate to them - the plots and vocabulary are familiar. Students can appreciate, for instance, Hemingway's old man's stubborn refusal to let go of the giant fish in spite of all the trouble it causes. Similarly, students can understand the dangers found in Adrift as the narrator retells how he survived for months in a life raft. Such books will help students realize that literature can be about their lives, instead of just a requirement in English class divorced from their outside world. Also, the "Sea" unit may bring a new perspective to the student's own sea experiences - enhancing them rather than viewing them as simply "work".

An interesting spin-off of the "Sea" literature unit could be literature about hunting and wilderness adventure, or biographies and autobiographies about great seamen, mountaineers, etc. Works of this nature would include Jack London's stories, Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, or Captain Cook, John Muir or Amelia Erhardt's life stories. Again students would be more apt to read, comprehend and retain works of this nature because they can readily connect them to what they already know. We must choose appropriate, interesting materials and get students reading what they can understand first if we are to meet the second goal of this unit - to read and write critically.

Critical Reading and Writing

As previously stated, students need to be able to relate new information to their present schema in order to understand it. The same must be true for critical analysis and writing, as these are higher thinking skills based on comprehension. Ultimately, our goal as English teachers is to develop these higher thinking skills. One way to do this is in assigning reading material relevant to students' experiences. Subsequent questions and writing activities also need to draw upon students' prior knowledge. The following are sample questions to accompany Moby Dick. The questions address both the students' experience and the literature itself.

  1. Name the modern equivalents to some of the parts of the ship in the novel.
  2. What does the sea mean to you and what does it mean to the characters in the novel? To what do you attribute the difference in meaning?
  3. How are Ishmael's responsibilities on board the boat similar or different to your own?
  4. What forces influence the feelings and attitudes of the men in the novel? Have these forces changed for a modern seaman?
  5. In what ways are the fears, dangers, and problems in the novel inherent for all men who go to sea?
  6. Why do you think Captain Ahab is so obsessed with catching Moby Dick? Is his behavior possible on a ship today? Why or why not?

Possible writing assignments could address the above questions or involve the following:

  1. Write a letter to a prospective crew member in the novel telling what he can expect regarding working conditions, the weather, other crewmen, etc.
  2. Keep a ship's log for the novel, but from Moby Dick's point of view.
  3. Describe a modern "Ahab" with whom you have had an encounter. What happened and why was he/she similar to Ahab?
  4. Are Ahab, Queequaq or Ishmael believable sea characters? Argue why or why not in a formal essay.
  5. When does the pursuit of a fish, or in the case of the novel - a whale - become more than a sport and turn into an obsession? (This may also discuss the pursuit of anything.)

Like the sample questions, the above writing suggestions draw on what students know from their daily lives and tie it to their reading. By asking students to think about their experiences first, they are better prepared to consider more difficult concepts because they have a foundation from which to answer.

Applying ideas from the Academy

Prior to each session - reading, questioning, and writing - Phil Brady's SMART method (Semantic Mapping and Reciprocal Teaching) can be applied. As students begin each process they will create "semantic maps" illustrating what they know about the subject. When completing each process, "maps" can be enlarged to show the connections that new information has to prior knowledge. A pictorial representation of each process will facilitate students in seeing relationships between information in addition to helping retain new knowledge. The "Reciprocal Teaching" section of the SMART model would encourage students to work collectively on more difficult reading material. While the premise of the "Sea" literature unit is to choose relevant material, Reciprocal Teaching will assist those students who still need additional explanation. The advantage of Reciprocal Teaching is that it is done in peer groups who may be better able to explain new information because they use familiar and understandable language. Reciprocal Teaching also reinforces what the "teaching" students already know and builds positive self-esteem.

Interdisciplinary and Community Applications

While the "Sea" literature unit involves the "everyday" fundamentals of a student's life, we can also incorporate the unit into other academic disciplines (or to use Corwin, Hem and Levin's terminology - we can "weave a curriculum web"). One reading selection could, for instance, lead to other projects outside the scope of the English class. Using Moby Dick as an example, interested students could research the various types of whales to learn how they live, who hunts them or simply more specific information on sperm whales. Those interested in geography could map Ahab's chase of Moby Dick, calculating the distances and time it took him to reach all these places, thus applying math skills. Another project could involve researching the history of sailing ships or whaling. Artistically inclined students might like to sketch the more colorful characters in the novel or create scale models of the ship. All of these activities stem from one reading, yet the possibilities are numerous. The initial premise of all these possibilities though is that they begin with what a student knows from his life and builds on that knowledge.

There are also a myriad of community-oriented projects that could come out of the "Sea" literature unit. Some simple suggestions could be to interview "locals" for their best "fish tales"; develop manuals to operate various pieces of equipment aboard fishing boats; or bring in "experts" in different fisheries to give talks, etc. Again this teaches the student that school and the world outside of it can connect with one another. The community also learns the same lesson, thus improving the relationship between education and the community at large.


Assessment of students' work for the "Sea" literature unit could be as varied as the activities mentioned. Given the method of instruction used - lecture, discussion, group activity or individual projects -the teacher would decide the most appropriate means of evaluation. In some cases standard essay tests would be one means while final projects would be another method. All of the evaluative measures must be constructed on the same premise with which the unit was created - by using the students' experiences first and testing new information as it relates to prior knowledge. Using what our rural students know and what is important to their daily lives, we not only introduce them to meaningful reading, but enrich the very lives they lead outside their reading. As students grow and mature in their experiences, so may their literature develop and change.


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.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
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Last modified August 14, 2006