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

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools

 

by Bob Moore
Kenai Peninsula Borough School District

 

Nikolaevsk is a community of Old Believer Russian immigrants located on the Kenai Peninsula and known for its conservative position on many issues - educational and otherwise. The residents of Nikolaevsk had sought an "island of refuge" - a place where they could "practice, without interference, the tenets of the faith and raise our children in the truth," and had found, they thought, their dreams fulfilled in Alaska. After purchasing the land in 1967, and building homes from virgin forest in 1968, they were ready for a school. I began as the only teacher in the remote community in 1970, and although prepared professionally as an educator, I found I had much to learn. 

My first day of school in September, 1970 was spent in the homes, gardens and greenhouses of parents of Nikolaevsk students. A student fluent in both Russian and English accompanied me as I told parents the hours school would be in session and the subject matter which I would teach. I requested their support and told them I was not there to destroy any precept or belief they held, but to build upon those things which would insure capable, contributing citizens. My pragmatic approach was that I would not teach anything that they did not need to know. My able translator communicated my words in Russian and reported back to me parental responses in three short words: "We will watch." 

Little did I understand the real meaning in those words. But soon I learned that without television, radio, or phones in the community, my punctual arrival in the village each morning would be used as a standard to set clocks, and that lunch break and afternoon dismissal confirmed accurate time. In striding through the village going to or from the school building, I received bows, smiles and greetings from the elders and students alike. Daily, from one to a half dozen elders would visit the school to observe quietly from a few minutes to a half hour or more. They would enter quietly, bow to me as I taught, then observe student behavior and involvement, quietly whispering questions or concerns to students as they observed my interaction with their children, grandchildren, godchildren, relatives or acquaintances. I would respond to their arrival or departure with a bow or nod and continue working with students in grades one through eight.

I learned much in those first few years as we worked together in the classroom, as we dug potatoes, and harvested cabbages and other vegetables in the gardens, as we caught trout together in the streams, played soccer in the village road, picked up garbage and trash as it accumulated along the road, and a hundred other activities and projects. It was in late September, 1974, when several village elders came to me at school and asked, "Mr. Moore, will you teach us to be citizens of your country?" By then I had some knowledge of the intense persecution in the Old Believers' three hundred years history, and I could not help crying at this tremendous compliment they had given me.

I consented and our citizenship class started in October and would continue through April. Two nights a week for three hours was scheduled. Imagine my surprise on the first night when 65 people between the ages of 16 and 65 attended! Attendance did not drop, but continued high. I never got away with only three hours of instruction - more often closer to four hours.

At an early session where reading, writing, basic citizenship, and government were being taught to individuals who spoke Russian as a first language, and also spoke Chinese, Portuguese, and some English, an important lesson was brought home to me. After over three hours of instruction to adults and a long day of instructing children in grades one through eight, several elders and I were discussing education. One elder turned to me and said, "Mr. Moore, our children are like small boats, and the school is one oar. You may splash a lot or work very hard, but the little boat goes in a circle. The parents or home is like the other oar, and we too often make a lot of splashing, but the child, he goes in a circle the other way, but together we keep him straight."

Another shared, "How do you wash your hands to get them clean? Do you dip one in the basin of water and swish it around by itself, or do you bring both hands together in the water so that there is friction between the two to wash away the grime that has accumulated?"

These analogies brought greater appreciation and focus to me as an educator. First of all, education is not the total responsibility of the classroom teacher, but a shared obligation of many: the home, parents, siblings, community, other families, and organizations like the school and the church. None of us have a monopoly on knowledge, the future, or those things needed for successful living, and we can all learn from others. These resources, singularly and in combination, provide many educational experiences as we expose students to life and living.

Secondly, education is a lifelong process brought about sometimes through competition but more often through cooperation. We must provide opportunities for collective efforts and for teamwork, recognizing that none of us are islands in and of ourselves, but in some way we must contribute to and receive from those around us to insure survival. 

This idea is expanded to include the concept of service. We did not get to the position we now occupy entirely by our own efforts. Therefore we owe someone or society in general. Often we cannot return compensation directly to those from whom we have received. It becomes our obligation, therefore, to be a contributor to society generally and to individuals within our range of influence specifically.

Many secondary schools and colleges are requiring a service project as a graduation requirement. Our society, to a great extent, is a consuming entity and a required service project is often a student's first exposure to doing something for others with no compensation other than a grateful "thank you." In my opinion, this is an excellent way to combat selfishness and to teach a basic lesson in generosity.

Educators in the past generation have used catch words like individualization, individual educational program, diagnosis and prescription to describe the ideal methodology in dealing with students. As practitioners of the teaching art, we agree with this personalized philosophy as it applies to individual students or extensions of the individual classrooms. In rural Alaska, however, it seems that we balk at making that same application to individual schools and communities that, in reality, are as unique from others as personalities and characteristics are in individuals. School districts often, in their desire for standardization, treat individual communities in a way that they never would tolerate toward individual students.

Flexibility and capitalization on the uniqueness of individuals are just as critical for individual communities as they are for individual students. Just as we carefully diagnose and prescribe separate educational programs for individuals, we need to be sensitive to communities and the schools represented in each of them. That diagnosis cannot be complete without an awareness of the cultural, linguistic, economic subsistence, and emotional characteristics which help make up the whole picture of the community.

This knowledge makes it critical for us as educators to be involved with the community in which we serve. We don't have all the answers so we seek input from all elements within the community. We must ask questions like these:

  1. What comprises education in this community? What is it that the adults of this community expect children to know?
  2. What are we preparing these children to be?
  3. What are we preparing these children to do?
  4. Are the expectations of teachers, parents, students and community shared and communicated?
  5. Are the goals of the community and district the same? Are they compatible? Where do we put our emphasis or priority?
  6. How can we best use the resources at our disposal?
  7. What modifications do we need to personalize education for our clients in this community?
  8. Have we examined all the details completely so that we will have the best educational program possible? 

Not only must we ask these questions but we must honestly evaluate the answers and information resulting from our questioning.

Often in our examination of entire educational needs, we find that the curriculum presented by our district just is not compatible with our community. We see economic and subsistence needs and practices which do not mesh with state and local regulations. We see an emphasis on assimilation and a lack of appreciation for non-standard lifestyles or practices. We see children who are expected to be dropouts before they even enroll. We see a dominant culture blatantly insisting on compliance to unacceptable standards by the minority culture. Is it any wonder that our minority students have a poor self-image or lack self-esteem?

What are the answers to problems of rural, culturally different schools and communities? The RAIIA has thoughtfully examined these issues for three summers now and offers many viable solutions, which if implemented in whole or in part, would be beneficial.

Curriculum modifications which result in an experiential, community-based approach to learning are most desirable. We need to think universally but act locally. We must build upon the expectations of the adults, children, and communities we serve. We must provide opportunities for growth, but build upon the values and culture modeled in our communities. Expectations must be high, and high quality must be required.

The climate of our schools must demonstrate everything desirable from our communities. The environment must be supportive, safe, and comfortable. Students should see every adult in the school environment as an asset, as a friend they can talk to, question, or seek counsel from - not as answer dispensers but guides toward self-actualization. The structure of the school calendar should reflect the needs of the community - not vice-versa. The school should be responsive to the needs of the community it serves, demonstrating a real commitment to local control and positive input.

Since the school is organized to satisfy community needs, evidence of parental involvement should be obvious. Parents will be involved in advisory groups and extracurricular activites; active as teacher aides and resources for local lore and culture and as experts within their individual vocations and avocations. Students and teachers will be visible in homes, businesses, and organizations within the community. All will be members of the same team with the mutual goal of constantly providing a positive, healthy learning environment for all participants within the community. As a result, we will witness an increase in school pride and student self-esteem.

All of the above are critical to the development of ideal schools in rural Alaska. Yet perhaps more important than any or all of the above, however, is the unselfishly committed staff who must organize and operate the schools. Commitment is a key concept where service is the rule rather than the exception. The type of committed service I visualize is more closely akin to a mission than to a job.

Teachers, administrators, and support personnel are pleased to get a paycheck at the end of the month, but it is the icing on the cake. The real thrill is in joy received from seeing the spark in a child's eyes when a new idea is realized. It is in seeing self-esteem blossom into the radiance of self-worth extended in friendship, and lifting up one who needs a helping hand. It is in seeing a child encourage another that you could not reach yourself.

Teachers and administrators provide this encouragement by structuring the environment, involving the parents and community, modifying the curriculum to meet local needs, exercising flexibility in scheduling, and recognizing that the same program is not for every student, nor is the same curriculum right for every community. By incorporating this more human element into our schools, we place ourselves on an accessible level to students and community and make of ourselves students. In doing this we become more capable, competent, and confident as citizens with a special responsibility -teaching for the betterment of our total society in a way that proves beyond any doubt that we really care.

 Winter Trees

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