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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

Preparing Rural Students for the Future


by Michael Stockburger
Lower Yukon School District


I would like to discuss the curriculum and teaching approach that I think is most appropriate for schools in rural Alaska. I do not feel at all qualified to state the kind of curriculum that should be followed on a statewide basis in rural Alaska, as my background is quite limited. I have taught high school/junior high for the past four years at Russian Mission School, which is in the Lower Yukon School District. Prior to this I received a B.A. in biology from Eastern Connecticut State University and satisfied the requirements for my teacher's certification through the University of Alaska in both Anchorage and Fairbanks. My student teaching requirement was completed in Marshall, Alaska, also in LYSD. I have an extensive background in construction - my father is a contractor/carpenter and started me off at the tender age of 12. This experience tends to bias me in favor of vocational education despite never having had any formal instruction in this area. 

The purpose of schooling is to help parents and the community prepare students for adult life. The school's area of responsibility should be the student's academic and vocational education. All students should have instruction in both areas. Those students with an aptitude for academics would have the main thrust of their education in that area, while the same would be true of those with an aptitude for vocational areas. Students in both areas should receive a good general education in the basics with courses that use appropriate, experiential materials. Equality can best be obtained by providing a good general background, allowing students to specialize based on ambition, motivation and aptitude, rather than by assuming that everyone wants or needs to be prepared for an academic career. I do not agree with filling the vocational areas with those that simply cannot make it in the academic world.

Students in this area, and in many areas of the state, need to be taught to be self-sufficient, to have a basic understanding of a wide variety of subjects. Twelve years of schooling is not much time to prepare a student for adulthood. Schools should be teaching students how to learn rather than teaching extraneous information that will never be used or that has to be learned over when it is to be put to use. To be a productive member of most trades or professions requires at least four years of additional education beyond high school. It seems to me that high school should be preparing students to make the most of these years by introducing them to what members of the various occupations do and how to enter the occupational field of their choice, and exploring whether or not they have the aptitude and interest to pursue the additional education required. This is especially true in rural Alaska where it is often a mystery to students how to enter an occupation which is invisible to them and where many opportunities at the statewide level are unknown. This information should be presented as options available with no pressure as to what a student should or should not do. The decision should be up to the students whether they choose an occupation based in their own village, one outside their community, or acquire a trade or profession that allows them to do both.

I am very much intrigued by the project-centered approach to curriculum design presented by Barnhardt in "Culture, Community and Curriculum" (LT/LL). I agree that students often have to learn facts or concepts that do not relate to real life other than they "will need this to enter college." Most concepts taught at the high school level can be tied into everyday life, but this takes a great deal of effort. The curriculum that our district is using requires very little effort for students to make the connection, especially for rural students. However, this is about to change. We are looking at several programs that have made an attempt to make learning more relevant for students.

I was able to attend an introduction to one of these, Applied Math, at the Academy in Anchorage and am hoping to use this program on a trial basis in my classes. Although not aimed specifically at rural Alaskan students, it does try to relate the learning of general math concepts to everyday life (at least for Lower-48 students). One aspect that appealed to me was the videos that supplement the program, showing the various concepts used by people in different occupations. Hopefully more and more of this type of program will be developed. Even if schools continue to use the traditional subject-oriented curriculum, the materials will be presented in a manner that better suits the needs of our students.

The ideal school for this area would contain courses of study that are experiential in nature - most of my students learn better when given "hands-on" situations. They would connect abstract ideas to concepts that students can understand and relate to. The courses would prepare the students for the "real world," helping them develop a sense of responsibility, teaching them how to think, improving their self-concept, and conveying the value of hard work. It seems to me that a project-centered curriculum would be an ideal means to accomplish these goals. However, I feel that there are at least two prerequisites necessary for this system to work.

The first is motivated students that are at least somewhat independent workers. If designed and run effectively, a project-oriented curriculum should motivate most students to work somewhat independently of the teacher, at their own speed in an area which will maximize their interest. Unfortunately there will still be those students that, for whatever reason, are unmotivated and uninterested in the program. Hopefully the high interest factor will minimize the number of these students.

The second prerequisite is teachers who are willing and able to put forth the energy, enthusiasm and creativity necessary to make a program like this work. Additional training at the university level would be a necessity and some incentive at the district or school level would also be required.

A project-centered approach to curriculum design combines components of both subject- and process-oriented curricula. This is necessary in small schools where a few students in a class will often represent a large range of abilities and knowledge. It seems to me that a subject-orientation is necessary when students are at lower levels, whereas, a process-orientation is important when developing higher level thinking skills - how and why something works rather than the fact that it does. The project-centered approach - basically cooperative learning - would allow grouping of students at all ability levels and use a combination of subject- and process-oriented curricula.

An effectively run project-centered curriculum could be an ideal way to avoid subject matter losing touch with students. This, in conjunction with a whole language program and when possible, being community-based, could provide a more productive style of education for rural students. Even though a complete restructuring of Alaskan education will take a very long time, hopefully the swing will continue in this direction.

The teaching approach that I would like to see in this ideal school would include as much team teaching as possible. I feel that the exposure of students to multiple points of view helps avoid the misconceptions that there is only one way to do something and that the teacher is always right. With the varieties of learning styles possible among any given group of students, the more diversity in the presentation of material, the more likely all students will gain at least a basic understanding.

As a proponent of an exposure to vocational education for all, I would like to see many of the projects based around the state coincide the teaching of vocational skills. At my own site I have been able to have students work on construction projects around the school as part of our voc-ed program. I try to combine the vocational skills of carpentry with academic areas such as math and science. We are presently starting a small business course which would provide students with credits in not only vocational education but also math and English. This would also provide exposure to journalistic, organizational and administrative skills. A problem we have run into is that the state and district guidelines for awarding credits are quite strict. Even though a course might cover a wide range of subjects, limits are placed on the subject for which the student actually receives credit. This provides another attractive aspect of the Applied Math program. Last year, as a pilot program, the Alaska Department of Education required that participating schools allow students to choose whether they wanted to receive vocational or academic credit for the class. Hopefully this is a sign that things are loosening up!

The Rural Academy sessions that I attended in Fairbanks were a workshop on strategies for teaching math and two workshops on the use of the Macintosh computer. Both of these areas can be easily incorporated into this ideal school. The math strategies class consisted mainly of "hands-on" activities for teaching math at all levels. This complements the program I discussed earlier. I will be using many of these ideas this year in my math classes, putting theory into practice.


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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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Last modified August 14, 2006