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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Building Bridges for Student Success

Engaging Kodiak's Students and Communities Through Place-Based Educational Practices

Chapter II - Literature Review

Every community has a history and a language that is connected to that particular place. The Sugpiaq have inhabited Kodiak Island for over 7,000 years. To date, they and their modern day descendents are known to be the most successful inhabitants of this area. The language of the Sugpiaq, Sugcestun, is a reflection of the surrounding environment. Much can be learned about the ocean, the animals, and skies as one learns the language. Their living culture is the adaptation to living well in this place with the available resources. The Sugpiaq, as their nairte reflects (suk refers to "person," —piat refers to "real"), are the "real people" of the Kodiak Island region. Those who refer to themselves as members of this indigenous family are not simply born into it, but have learned how to live a life that is appropriate for surviving and living well in. this place. Even a non-indigenous person may be adopted into this group if they have learned to live in the Sugpiaq way, respectful of themselves, others, and the environment, which sustains them, living a life that reflects the values of the people.

Ideally, place-based educational practices in the Kodiak region would also reflect the values of the Sugpiaq people. After all, much can be learned from the ones successful in living here of millennia. Perhaps, in order to improve our local educational system, we need to look toward the oldest education of this place, that of the Sugpiaq. We have a lot to learn from those successful in living here for thousands of years. Elders at home tell us to learn that which is good from others, but always to keep what is good from our own. Successful cultures are those that adapt to changes in the environment and utilize what is good from others, while staying grounded with what is necessary for life in their homeland. Not everything and every idea that is brought to our islands' communities are good for them. We must utilize the discerning eyes of the Elders of this place in making decisions and request guidance regarding political, economic and educational issues. We can teach more effectively by modeling their pedagogy of place and making use of our rich environment as a teaching tool.

While trying to understand our current circumstances, it is necessary to reflect upon the past. The following includes an overview of some of the reform efforts that have occurred during the past century that have led our educational system to the point at which it is today. Next, A discussion regarding a student's motivation to learn, as well, as the role of and individual's culture will take place. An overview of the value of place-based education will be shown as a valid option in preparing our children for life, followed by specific examples of place-based activities that have been adapted for and implemented in the Kodiak schools. These are specific examples of what a Kodiak-based education may look like.

A Brief History of School Reform

School reform is an interesting subject. When you think about it our educational
system has been in reform since its beginnings. However, it has been said that if
Rip Van Winkle woke up today, the only thing he would recognize would be schools. Are we really doing anything differently? Have we improved test scores? Are the students we are serving any better off than before the last great reform? Who is the reform geared toward? Have minority groups benefited from any of the reforms?

J. Abner Peddiwell's book, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum takes the reader to Mexico where Raymond Wayne encounters an old college professor from his "university days.' As the fictional story progresses, the Professor of Education discusses the "history" of education beginning in the Paleolithic time period. The education of the "cavemen" is depicted just as we see it today, simply using words and phrases referring to life during the Stone Age. Education is depicted as a grand idea of an individual that is soon shared with others surrounding him. Later, others begin to alter the original plan in order to accommodate the needs of a few. Factions are built both at the liberal and conservative ends of change, as some see no need for change while others are progressive. Politicians get their hands on the "newly" developed curriculum and demand there is concessions, therefore compromising the learning of the tribal people.

It is disheartening to this young, energetic teacher in the early years of what is hoped to be a long and fulfilling career as an elementary teacher to know that the copyright of this text was 1939! Realizing that discontent of our public schools has been in existence since the beginning of schools in America, I took it for granted that I was in the generation of people who would react with energy and competence and be a part of the change that must occur. To know that the author of The Saber-Tooth Curriculum probably thought the same of himself and ended up writing such a satire on education is depressing!

I keep searching for a reason that the current reform or restructuring movements are different than those of the Progressive Education Movement, or the actions taken in the post-Sputnik era that demanded changes in the curriculum and instruction in American schools. History, and Peddiwell for that matter, tells me that we will simply repeat the mistakes of the past and move on to another topic of reform. The one area that I see as being a bit different this time around is the number and various kinds of people directly involved in change. The demands and contributions from the business world to that of public education may not have occurred in the past to the extent that we see it today. Parent groups are implementing programs nationwide to involve and engage parents in the changes. State legislatures are passing laws that demand their schools to change, while others are allowing state and school district funds to begin charter schools statewide.

Timothy W. Young begins his discussion about education in his book, Public alternative education: Options and choice for today's school, by clearly pointing out that "alternatives in American education are as old as the country itself" (1990, p. 3). The history of education and the alternatives that have been offered to American youth throughout time are interesting to review, beginning with the colonist's approach to education, which included such "options" as year round grammar schools for the middle and upper class boys and charity schools for the minority and poor of the communities. Two opposing points of view have stood out over time as in the case of Horace Mann and his "unqualified support for the common school," and Ralph Waldo Emerson's reluctance to "buy into" the "needless conformity" of the public school "at the expense of personal growth" (p.5). Understanding that these two points of view from the mid-1840's are major points of debate about public education to this day helps to put this discussion into a historical perspective.

As the late 1800's and early 1900's approached, the Progressive Education Movement created a number of model schools that attempted to undo the "wrongs" in American education (Young, 1990). Community-based learning and interdisciplinary approach were encouraged. None of these schools proved to be exactly what everybody wanted, thus, many were not continued. Young continued to explore the changes in American education throughout the mid-1900's. The author clearly states the reasons for change, including demands from the political arena to exceed the Russians in technological sciences in the 50's and 60's, and then, pressures from such philosophers as the ideological "romantic crisis" in the 60's and 70's. As the early 1980's were upon them, people involved in the world of education and businesses continued the debate originally begun by Mann and Emerson.

Young makes a clear case the alternatives in public education are necessary if we are to educate at all of America's youth. He points out that not one single of the options given to our nation's youth throughout history provided everything desired of education for everybody. The failure of American secondary schools, revealed by the 25% nationwide dropout rate, demands that something change.

Charter schools are on the rise in our nation as an additional option for elementary and secondary public education. The State of Alaska passed the Charter School Act in 1995 and is currently supporting 17 such schools. Many of the positive observations that Young recorded would not be enough for some communities, including politicians, parents and educators, to "buy into" the idea of alternative education. Charter schools, however, were created to empower parents, communities and educators to a greater extent by providing options within the public school system.

The issue of teaching all of America's youth was the prevailing theme in Asa Hilliard's "Do We Have the Will to Educate All Children? (1991)." Hilliard believes that the overwhelming amount of "bureaucracy" and "structured ideology" in our society today causes educators, and society as a whole, "to doubt the fundamental human potential of the masses of our children." In his article he states that, "Our faith in the students and in ourselves is often so low that our approach to the teaching task lacks the vitality so typical of natural human teaching/learning encounters" (p. 33). With this philosophy, Hilliard invites his readers to consider that perhaps the restructuring of schools that needs to take place has nothing to do with length of school day or getting rid of the existing physical facilities. Professor Hilliard questions existing reform/restructuring efforts as to whether or not they will "lead us to the philosophy, the thought, the affect, the energy, and the results of the most productive pedagogy in the field..." (p. 33).

Are we providing students with a reason to learn?

The philosophy that all students can learn and perform at higher levels than that which many educators teach to, regardless of gender, race, and socioeconomic background, is reinforced by Rene Baillageon's and Margaret Donaldson's work with infant's cognitive abilities. Their separate research efforts, as outlined in Hilliard's article, may lead to the rewriting of Piaget's "Stages of Cognitive Development," which has dominated and restricted our approaches to teaching children. Many of America's educators have only been teaching to the level (or even below the level) that Piaget established through his own research. As Professor Hilliard states: "Our current ceiling for students is really much closer to where the floor ought to be."

James A. Banks in his article "The Canon Debate, Knowledge Construction, and Multicultural Education" (1993), gives another perspective that can be related to why some students are not receiving the education they deserve. He explains his views in terms of the types of knowledge that are transferred to American students. Banks states: "Students must become critical consumers of knowledge as well as knowledge producers if they are to acquire the understandings and skills needed to function in the complex and diverse world of tomorrow" (p. 12). The Western traditional knowledge that is typically examined through textbooks and lessons dashes with many children's own cultural beliefs. A growing number of students are failing in our public schools, according to Banks, because "...cultural knowledge within their community conflicts with school knowledge, norms, and expectations."

Both authors suggest in their separate articles that the classroom teacher is able to make changes in his or her approach in instruction that may alleviate the dangers of both teaching to or below mediocre levels of excellence and teaching from one perspective. Banks and Hilliard suggest changes in the existing system at the level of theory, approach, and practice of the classroom teacher.

The issues of choice and learning were examined by Kohl through a series of personal examples and an interpretation thereof in I Won't Learn From You (1991). He explained what he termed "not-learning" by comparing it to what we, as educators, understand to be failure. Kohl is adamant that there is a major difference. He supports this idea by saying " failure is possible since there has been no attempt to learn" (p. 43). Kohl characterizes failure as the"... frustrated will to know," and willed not-learning as "...a conscious and chosen refusal to assent to learn." This non-conforming method, when recognized by others, may actually reveal a great amount of intelligence. It can even be seen as "...a healthy response," as many social non-learners have earned leadership positions in our society, rebelling against such things as racism, sexism and a variety of other forms of bias. Non-learning can also result in a "dysfunctional response." This creates, in the imaginations of the observers, a non-conforming monster: one that, perhaps, should be eliminated from our society.

"David" came to mind as I read Kohl's book, also. He was a student in my fifth grade class during the 93-94 school year. Taking Kohl's advice to "think. . .about roads people choose to not-travel and how those choices define character and influence destiny," I see David's reactions to class work as his way of simply doing the minimum in order to get him to the point of dropping out. David often spoke of quitting school so that he could be a fisherman and subsistence hunter. He was an awesome storyteller and fully comprehended the outdoor adventure stories that he read avidly. When someone spoke about something he was interested in, no one in the room listened more intently than David did. However, he would not conform to my behavior or academic expectations, or those of his previous teachers. David had no need for traditional "book learning." He became rebellious, even violent. I knew that deep down David had a good heart, but he chose to be a loner and my worst "discipline problem."

Kohl describes many of the behaviors that we as educators see in the context of our careers and daily lives. If only we would choose to see some of these children as something more than behavior problems and menaces to society. But then, those who do not choose to understand Kohl's perspective may be in their own mode of "not-learning!"

Most people visualize the "typical" high school drop out as drugged out, eccentric, not normal, a loser, etc. The some of the public may view these children, and many others in the special education programs as being the ones "taking" funds away from their own child's education. True, there is specific funding available for Special Education, migrant workers, American Natives, and low socio-economic groups. We often over look the possibilities of using these funds to benefit of all children. We don't often visualize our own children in the category of "at-risk." It appears to be someone else's child.

I can understand, and even sympathize with those people who believe they have children who are "normal." Many times these same parents believe that if their child did not have so many special needs children in their class year after year they would not simply be normal, but perhaps gifted and talented! Only after thorough review and study of at-risk youth do we realize that all children can and probably will be at-risk during some time in their lives. Parents need to understand that all children can greatly benefit from the restructuring of public education and! or school wide programs.

The Role of Culture

In his biography, Chief Peter John speaks frequently of the "Indian Way" in contrast to the "Whiteman Way" (1986). He never states that the white man's way is wrong, simply that it may not be right for an Indian. The elder stresses the need to take what is good from the Indian Way, and that which is good from the Whiteman, blend the two and allow both cultures to grow. Peter John relays the message to his people, and to other Indians and Eskimos, that there is a need not only to preserve Native cultures in books and other documentation, but also for those people belonging to a culture to live it. He is discouraged by the fact that the Whiteman has lost his culture: "The White people got their way to understand...But then you go back three or four hundred years and think about what their culture was. None of them living today understand it. The White people, too. So the old culture is not only lost with the Native people, it's also lost with the White people" (p. 58). He does not want to see the total loss of his culture. Enough has been lost in his eyes. It is time to "make kids understand" (p. 58).

This book can be seen as an extremely relevant tool to be used while developing curriculum for Athabascan communities. Any community developing curriculum should be aware of the cultures represented in its schools. For a long time American education has been criticized because of the limited knowledge that is being transferred to American students. The Western traditional knowledge that is typically examined through textbooks and lessons clashes with many children's own cultural beliefs.

Professional educators know that each child brings with them unique characteristics and abilities. The individual child needs to be honored in a classroom. Their strengths should be enhanced, their interests pursued and their weaknesses given the chance to improve through varied approaches and curriculum. None of this can be effectively done for all of our students until our schools are restructured to eliminate the factory model (pushing kids through a system), and create smaller learning environments. Then we will be closer to accomplishing what we need to do for each individual that comes to our classroom. In this kind of atmosphere, a teacher is more likely to know his/her students' strengths and weaknesses and will be able to effectively teach to each individual's needs.

Diane Ravitch, in her article "A Culture in Common," makes a strong case for not teaching to a particular cultural group within our American schools. She believes that the very fact that our nation has become so ethnically diverse is reason enough to support her position. After all, many practitioners are revealing their frustrations as to whose culture they should be teaching to. Ravitch begins her argument by stating that the "priority must be given to teaching about the history and culture of the United States." According to her this "history" includes such things as a Colombian woman celebrating after her naturalization ceremony "by going out for sushi." The history that Ravitch refers to also includes other things, such as "...Coca-Cola, IBM...Oprah...Henry Ford..." The list of our so-called "common culture" goes on and on. Ravitch does not disagree that our students need to be exposed to other cultures so that they will be able to function in a global economy, and that they should be taught all of the basics in order to have the skills needed to work successfully in our nation. She does disagree, however, with the transfer of an individual's culture through the public school system.

History, therefore the "culture" that Ravitch refers to, are events interpreted through the eyes of the dominant Eurocentric leaders. It is all of those "important" people, places, and things that someone else, perhaps, 50 or more years ago, thought was significant. My interpretation of the definition of culture would lead me to believe that anyone not participating in a community may not have some of the "...socially transmitted... behaviors and... beliefs..." that Ravitch lists in her article. The immigrants that have joined our country just in the last decade do not share our history. Black Americans, denied the freedoms that White Americans were born to, do not share all of the same beliefs. People who live in depressed areas of our country may not place as much, if any value on the items that Ravitch claim as our culture. Native Americans certainly understand the value of our land and their freedom, but may not believe in the "American Dream" of the little house and a white picket fence on a paved street.

I agree that public schools should not be the primary vehicle (family should fill this role) to transfer an individuals culture, but there is no way that schools can effectively teach children without validating the individual's ethnicity and worldview. Certainly as new immigrants come into our country they should be exposed to the history of the United States and should understand our democratic government and their role in preserving and participating in it. But our country, and its people, make up the history. We cannot ignore, any longer, the fact that people other than our Founding Fathers played significant roles in the history and development of our nation. We must struggle to understand the various perspectives that interpret our history. We must struggle to understand the various cultures that make our country unique. Without "race-bashing and nation-bashing" we must allow the individual to introduce us to the various points of interest of their ethnicity and individuality. Teachers must allow discussions and debates to broaden the ability of their students to understand different perspectives. Teachers and other professionals working for the benefit of the children, must expose themselves, even study, the cultures represented in our schools. We must, in order to be effective teachers, validate the individual and each history and culture that they bring to us that makes our classrooms, and our country, unique environments. This can be done through place-based educational practices that utilize a child's immediate environment and current situation as a teaching tool which engages students through relevant, hands on learning that can be applied and transferred to their life beyond the school walls.

Returning to an "Old" Approach

Perhaps its time to go full circle with the current educational reform movement. We may need to turn to the oldest model of education in this land to improve our American education system; that of our Native American people. David W. Orr suggests in his book Earth in Mind (1994) that until we recognize the myths that our current dominant culture, therefore our educational system, holds as truths, change will not occur before the end of American, or for that matter, human society. Some of the myths of education that he identifies, include:

  1. Ignorance is a solvable problem
  2. With enough knowledge and technology, we can dominate our earth
  3. Knowledge, therefore human goodness, is increasing
  4. We can adequately restore that which we have destroyed
  5. The purpose of education is to give students the means for upward mobility and success
  6. Our culture (Western civilization) represents the pinnacle of human achievement (page 8-12)

Whose values do these reflect? Orr suggests that Western civilization (and its educational system) is leading all of us to the destruction of the earth and suggests the following changes in the way we think about education:

  1. All education is environmental. By what is included or excluded, students are taught that they are part of or apart from the natural world.
  2. The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter but mastery of one's person. Subject matter is simply the tool.
  3. Knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world.
  4. We cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities.
  5. What is desperately needed are (a) faculty and administrators who provide role models of integrity, care, and thoughtfulness and (b) institutions capable of embodying ideals wholly and completely in all of their operations.
  6. The way in which learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses (12-14).

In their contribution to Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned titled, "The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education" (1986), Ron and Suzanne Scollon describe a different kind of approach to education that "would genuinely give our children a sense of confidence and ability in facing the unknown world they will meet upon graduation" (p. 86). They emphasize that public school curriculum has become a "collage of confetti" (p. 86), as we make step-by-step changes in it, adding to it as a way of meeting the demands of society, and subtracting from it because of the limitations of the school day and funding. The Scollons argue that America has spent too much energy trying to plan for the future; a future that is unknown to any of us. Instead, we should be preparing our students for whatever challenges they will be facing. They believe that "planning," as we know it, actually restricts the possibilities and controls the outcomes. "Preparing," on the other hand, will enable our students to be ready "for a future that we cannot know by giving them a solid understanding of their place on the earth, their place and identity in society, and the ability to listen, observe, reflect and then communicate effectively with others" (p. 94).

Ron and Suzanne Scollon suggest a three-pronged curriculum that includes Bioregional Studies, Cultural Studies and Communication Studies. It is concluded that the present "hodgepodge of subjects..." be integrated into these elements of study. The authors of the Axe Handle Academy believe that tracking is an unnecessary evil. All students should be equally and skillfully prepared to be successful when they leave high school. It is argued by the authors of this article that all people, no matter what their profession, should understand the impact of their own decisions on another human being (Bioregional Studies). All of us are members of a culture and a "solid sense of identity is essential for a healthy adult life as well as for productive contributions to the society" (p. 91) (Cultural Studies). We all understand the importance of skillful communication in a modern technological world, no matter if one fishes for a living or becomes a lawyer, teacher or doctor (Communication Studies).

If we all can agree on the above, then what is so different about the Axe Handle Academy? The teacher becomes more than simply a technician as he or she teaches implementing this approach to learning. The teacher is seen as a true professional; one who is expected to deal with diverse problems that cover an immense body of knowledge. Putting this theory to use would mean that teachers would be entrusted to "exercise their judgment in arriving at a decision which can be the basis for action" within their classroom. The teacher would be recognized as knowing how to learn and being able to model that to his or her students. "...Teachers are expected to exercise their professional abilities as learners of new and complex materials as they work together with students in developing their understanding and knowledge" (p. 92).

This approach to curriculum development would enable local communities to adapt to it easily. The Axe Handle Academy would allow the teacher to implement the Socratic Seminar in the classroom, as well as reflective thinking and cooperative learning. Such an approach would lend itself to alternative assessment and other experientially-oriented changes in education. If we are truly looking at having our students being prepared for a global economy, where decision making, communication and understanding will take place cross-culturally, then we will need to look more closely at such possibilities as the Axe Handle Academy.

People expect things to be different in various locations around the world because of climate, local culture, and the physical environment. A bilingual teacher in my hometown who worked primarily with the new immigrant population once told me that many of her student's families struggled with the lack of local culture visible in our schools. They did not expect things to be the same in Kodiak. Alaska as the last United States city they had lived in. Our Coast Guard population thrives on learning about the latest place that the government has placed them. They are thrilled to learn of local culture and participate in community wide events that celebrate with local flavor. Our Alutiiq Museum programs have more participants from the Coast Guard and their dependents than from any other sector of the community. When I taught at the school that serves primarily Coast Guard children, I had more parental participation in the outdoor education camp I held that year than from any other group I worked with before then.

The fact that the children we are teaching "ended up" in the place that we are teaching tells us that each one is now a part of that place's historical timeline. Each one of their cultures has influenced, even in some remote way, what we know and perhaps how we do things. It is our job as educators to relate our student's personal life and cultural background to what it is we are teaching. Each student then is able to gain a sense of pride and accomplishment through their understanding of themselves and the people he or she identifies with.

Place-based Education

When we acknowledge that our nation's peoples are struggling with a cultural identity crisis and apply what we know about how humans learn and construct knowledge, place-based education starts to makes sense. Young children are naturally curious with concerns about their natural world (animals, people, the trees and flowers, the mountains, rivers and forests). They are environmentalists. They are filled with questions. Place-based educational approaches utilize the environment in which an individual lives as a tool to strengthen teaching, taking a child from the concrete to the abstract through hands-on, relevant teaching activities. In doing so, education will allow children, and communities at large, to celebrate their place in the world and then, perhaps, allow some to identify with and carry on its unique culture. One thing that makes our children unique in the world and binds them together no matter if they are indigenous to the region or a new immigrant, is that they live in Kodiak, Alaska. It is what locals consider to be the most beautiful place in the world, even when it's rainy and foggy. Celebrating our place in the world can engage student learning in a powerful way.

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Last modified April 24, 2009