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Leading By Example, in the 21st Century...

Teaching and Learning in Rural Alaska

Recently, I had the privilege of teaching summer school in Tuluksak. It was a time of sharing, growth, interaction and learning. On average, 20-30 students per day attended summer school and participated in a variety of activities: making tie-dye T-shirts, constructing model rockets, doing water testing and taking nature walks to learn about the flora and fauna of the village. In addition, we read stories about Yup'ik history and culture as well as creating stories of our own. The students had smiles on their faces and were excited about learning.

During the second week of summer school, we took a group of students out to fish camp to learn about subsistence. The students worked together to set up tents, organize camp and gather wood.

We were able to get out on the river to set net. After a lesson in patience, we worked as a team to bring in the net and get the fish into the boat. Traveling on the river gave us a chance to learn about local geography, river navigation and water safety. Back at camp, we had lessons in cutting fish, hanging them on drying racks and in smokehouses. The students were learning through culture, not just about culture, and they were enthusiastic about learning.

One thing that I will always remember about the community of Tuluksak is the hospitality and generosity of the people. When I got to the village, people welcomed me and invited me to their fish camps to visit. Young people would follow me around asking if I wanted play a game and just share a moment with them. People I had know from previous years offered me salmon strips, dried fish and told me the coffee was always brewing at camp and to be sure to stop over. The young people had smiles on their faces, excitement in their play and always showed the hospitality that is innate among the Yup'ik people of the region.

Much has been said about the test scores and the challenges that the Yupiit School District faces. Those test scores only tell part of the story. During the '05-'06 school year, Tuluksak made AYP (adequate yearly progress) in all areas except graduation rate. The students in Tuluksak attend Answer camp, State Close-Up, and are very active in the local Moravian church. Several students have participated in the Rose Rural Urban Exchange program, traveling to Anchorage to study and experience life in the big city. Students have participated in the Junior Iditarod and other sled dog races. I could go on, but the point here is that by looking merely at test scores, we miss the human element. Most of the students come to school every day willing to learn and try their best. They have goals, hopes and dreams and work hard to manifest those aspirations.

Success in rural schools is a complicated formula, but history gives us some help. What works is teachers who stay in a community for more than a year and take time to develop positive relationships with students; what works is having a curriculum relevant to the local culture and history; what works is to get community leaders (and elders) involved in the educational process; what works is to adapt state standards into local grade level expectations that have meaning to the students' lives; what works is to involve community and students in creating the curriculum.

I know the young people of Tuluksak, and they are perfectly capable of succeeding. All they need is more people to motivate them, believe in them, nurture them and share with them the beauty of teaching and learning.

But the change that needs to occur must come from within. A renaissance is going to happen in Tuluksak, but it will come from the hearts and minds of the intelligent and wonderful Yup'ik people who live there, not from Juneau.


Mark Biberg taught social studies in Tuluksak from 2004 to 2009 and during the summer of 2010. He is an advocate of placed-based learning, local control of curriculum and utilizing the local knowledge of the elders in the learning process.

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