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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1999
Vol. 57
No. 1

Special Topic / Alaska's Logging Camp School

A visit to Alaska reveals a floating, one-teacher school that uses multi-age grouping and interdisciplinary teaching.

A typical school day at the remote J. R. Gildersleeve Logging Camp north of Ketchikan, Alaska, is similar to a day in the lives of students in the continental United States. Around 8:00 a.m. the camp begins to come alive. The 10 students who attend the logging camp's school have a quick breakfast. Then some review their homework or finish yesterday's assignment, while others head to their bedrooms to dress and get ready for school. But getting dressed for school in this Alaskan logging camp is far different from getting dressed in any of the Lower 48 because many of the students wear life jackets to school: Both their homes and their school float!

One of a Kind

During my sabbatical year, I explored my long-time interest in one-room schools by visiting some of the few one-teacher schools still in operation in Arizona, Alaska, and Maine. My visit to the Logging Camp School was clearly one of my most memorable.
The J. R. Gildersleeve Logging Camp is a unique place. The school gym, the bunkhouse, the fuel tanks, the water tanks, the mess hall, the students' homes, and even the students' playground constantly bob up and down on Tolstoi Bay. Most groceries, small equipment, household goods, mail, medicine, and other miscellaneous supplies arrive by seaplane. There are no stores, no restaurants, and no health facilities in the camp. Any special event that requires extra food or transportation must be planned a month in advance because the nearest supplies are in a town about 100 miles from the school.
Each of the 20 trailer homes is securely bolted to a large, floating deck and fastened to huge spruce logs with steel cables. Most of the logs are well over three feet in diameter and 30 feet long. The decks, built to withstand the tremendous rain- and snowstorms that blow across this isolated little bay, are lashed together. Each day throughout the winter, the logging boat drops off free logs for residents to use in their wood-burning stoves. The camp's three electrical generators supply electricity to the homes 24 hours a day; a 10,000-gallon tank provides filtered and chlorinated water. Wooden walkways connect the school, the bunkhouse, the playground, and the gymnasium.
The J. R. Gildersleeve School is built on a huge, concrete barge. The school and the barge were built in Washington State for $1.2 million and then towed to Ketchikan during fall 1991. The school has two large classrooms, a library, an office, a small kindergarten room, and a large storage room. The library and both classrooms are well stocked with books, magazines, and computer programs. The equipment includes VCRs, overhead projectors, eight computers, several printers, a fax machine, and a CD player. Above the school is a spacious three-bedroom apartment for the teacher, complete with a modern kitchen and two bathrooms. Large picture windows in the dining area, the living room, and the den provide beautiful views of Tolstoi Bay, the camp, the distant logging operation, and spruce-covered hills.
Although the students seem isolated from the rest of the country, they relish their unique lifestyle, and they are in no sense unfamiliar with the wonders of modern technology. The students in grades 3–11 use computers to create spreadsheets, to word process, and to graph. During my visit, the students used computers to write short stories, to publish a school newspaper, and to solve math problems.
On the day that I left the camp, all the students boarded a plane at the Ketchikan International Airport for a one-week field trip to San Diego, California. The students raised some of the money for the trip by selling hot coffee and cookies to the loggers before the loggers departed on their logging boat. The students generated the rest of the funds by selling insulated coffee mugs and cookbooks to friends and relatives across the United States.

Teacher As Leader

Wil Sprott, the logging camp school teacher, is a strong proponent of reading and stresses the necessity of developing reading skills in students—especially students living in such a remote area as Alaska. On the day that I arrived at the school, the students prepared pizza for a special reading luncheon. Most of their mothers attended the luncheon and listened to Wil promote the importance of increasing each student's reading skills. As part of his short, informal talk, he invited the students to the front of the room to select a book that they could keep. Wil has also created a reading Iditarod, which students win by reading 1,049 pages.
Wil feels that his students benefit by multiage grouping: I like having all grade levels in a single room for certain periods of the day. . . . Certainly, I use peer tutoring anytime I can. The older students really like working with younger students, and, whether they know it or not, they are actually reinforcing the skills they have already learned. The younger students, on the other hand, are getting a big boost in their self-concept and self-esteem because they have their role models to look up to. I have many younger students who accelerate because they listen to me teach the older students.
On the second day of my visit, I watched with interest as the younger and older students worked together to determine the storage capacity of the water and fuel tanks. The younger students did the adding and subtracting while the older students determined the correct formula for solving the problem.
Although this outdoor activity might look like a simple, straightforward problem-solving exercise, Wil orchestrated multiage grouping, peer tutoring, and interdisciplinary teaching in this short teaching episode. But more important, Wil taught basic math concepts to half the class while the other half learned how to solve real problems by using advanced algebraic formulas and geometry postulates. In contrast to the traditional, organizational models of most academic programs, Wil demonstrated how to break down the false barriers that separate academic subjects into neat, little isolated boxes.
Wil effectively weaves the subjects into a pattern that helps the students make learning meaningful. He encourages the students to extract understanding from abstract concepts. For example, during the past year the students read myths and legends. Soon the students rewrote the stories into short skits, and they decided to present their skits to the parents. "They started discussing what makes up a good skit," Wil said, and he described how students decided to convert their ideas into a live play. They practiced speaking with expression. "So what we were doing," Wil explained, "was taking the language arts program and adapting it into several academic areas." The students then typed the script, using keyboarding skills that they had previously learned. Once again, Wil was reinforcing the idea that a student doesn't learn English only in English class, nor does a student learn art only in a 30-minute art class.
Wil organized many events and weekend activities for the students and their parents during the year. For example, the students presented their theater production in September. To raise money for their spring field trip to Sea World in California, he promoted a bake auction. On Saturdays, he helped coordinate cross country events, field trips, and a board game tournament. In October, the school held a sleepover and the Halloween Carnival. In November, the students held a pottery day, a pizza lunch, and pajama day. The year ended in December with a potluck dinner for students and parents. In February, the students donned their nicest clothes for their formal dress-up day, and throughout the spring there were volleyball tournaments, a pie eating contest, and computer evenings attended by the entire logging camp. Wil also finds time to give music lessons to two students.
Wil and his wife, Carole, are teachers at separate one-teacher schools in Alaska. Carole's school is too far from the logging camp for commuting. Wil and Carole have two children; their son, Max, lives with Carole during the week, and their daughter, Kate, lives with Wil. The family gets together only on weekends. Wil admits that although he loves teaching at the logging camp, he is trying to find a school where both he and his wife can work.

Adversity in Isolation

Because only 10 students attend J. R. Gildersleeve School, they have limited opportunities for sports, dances, or socializing, like meeting friends at a local hangout for a soda and a bag of chips. The students find this lack of a peer group a tough adjustment, especially if they have attended a school with an enrollment of several hundred.
For example, most high school students in the United States look forward to going to the prom each year. And it is becoming common to rent a chauffeured limousine to ride in style to the big event. The prom is just as important to the upperclass students at J. R. Gildersleeve, but because no roads lead from the logging camp to the prom at the district's high school 200 miles north of the camp, they have to charter a seaplane.
Even fire drills at J. R. Gildersleeve differ from those at a typical school. When the fire alarm sounds, the high school boys drag out the diesel-powered, high-pressure water pump. Another student attaches the fire hose to the pump while the younger students congregate in a designated safe area. When the teacher gives the all-clear signal, the students disconnect the hose and stow the pump.
Winter is a particularly difficult time for members of the logging camp. Logging operations are suspended from late December through the middle of February, the J. R. Gildersleeve School closes, and many families take extended vacations. Winter also brings bad weather—a frightening occurrence for people living in the camp trailers. Explains Wil Sprott, A trailer is a trailer, whether you live in Florida or Alaska. They have only a three-inch wall and these homes are getting pretty old. In bad weather, we can get four-foot waves even in this protected bay, and that's when these trailers begin to creak and moan. Decks smash against each other, and water splashes into anything that isn't watertight.
The J. R. Gildersleeve Logging Camp is probably one of the last of its kind. Unfortunately, because of the tremendous operating expenses involved in providing the residents with such essentials as water, heat, and electricity, this camp may pass out of existence within the next 10 years. About three weeks after I visited the logging camp that floated on Tolstoi Bay, the entire village was towed to a new logging operation approximately 200 miles away.

Robert E. Millward has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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