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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 1

Connecting with Local Culture

At a tiny school off the coast of Alaska, authentic projects grounded in their distinctive heritage give Aleut students rich learning opportunities.

The Aleut people of St. Paul Island possess a rich and colorful cultural history. In the small St. Paul Island School, located 750 miles from Anchorage in the middle of the Bering Sea, students are learning what it means to be Aleut and to value their heritage.
This adventure in learning began when a 3rd grade class abandoned its traditional science text and began studying lessons organized around one of the world's great natural science laboratories: Alaska's Pribilof Islands. Now, 3rd graders participate in weekly projects and field trips to gather data and samples that will help them better understand the unique region they live in. The activities serve as the basis for integrating skills in math, science, art, history, and language arts.
These weekly projects engage all members of the class, including special education students. First, the activities involve students in action-based learning through hands-on, practical application of knowledge. By focusing on materials and events within the students' everyday world, the projects give them opportunities to apply prior knowledge in ways that validate their thinking. Second, the activities connect students with their community and provide a wider audience for their efforts. As students gain knowledge of a particular subject, they participate in more dialogue with the teacher, fellow students, and community members. Opportunities for frequent interactions build social skills, an important consideration for students who live in remote settings like the Pribilof Islands, with limited exposure to the outside world. Finally, the projects engage students because they are relevant: students see a purpose for doing the work.
Here are some examples of activities that have captured the interest of students, their parents, and the small community of 700.

Cleaning Up Island Debris

Getting students out of the classroom and actively involved in learning is an effective way to engage them. During field trips to nearby beaches, for example, 3rd graders were appalled by the amount of garbage found on the beaches and shorelines. Increased fishing activities around the island had brought a surge in population and, with it, an increased demand for goods and materials.
The class collected and categorized the debris into land-based debris, such as resin pellets, cups, bottles, and six-pack rings, and marine debris, which included discarded nets, buoys, and other fishing gear. Realizing that they couldn't tackle all of these issues at one time, the students decided to concentrate on doing something about the six-pack rings and the discarded buoys.
  • visiting store owners to discuss the possibility of ordering beverages without the plastic rings;
  • preparing a presentation for the St. Paul Island City Council; and
  • canvassing house-to-house to gain support for a ban on the use of the plastic rings. The class hopes to get this proposed ban on next year's local ballot.
The increase in plastic buoys showing up on our beaches also prompted students to action. The used buoys were durable and well made; why not try to recycle them? After writing to a local fishing supply store, the students found a market for them. A buy-back program was started, and once again an idea from local students helped resolve a community problem.

Attracting Tourists to the Island

Designing a brochure to encourage tourist travel to the Pribilof Islands involved students in their community and also gave them a broader audience for their work. Through classroom discussion of such topics as seal and bird rookeries, wildflowers, marine life, and Aleut and Russian traditions, the students began to see more clearly the unique environment of their island and to gain ideas for attracting visitors.
To create the brochure, the students involved a broad scope of participants: the Alaska Marine National Wildlife Refuge, Tanadgusix Village Corporation, Alaska State Division of Tourism, and the Nature Conservancy of Alaska. In addition to illustrating the brochure, students wrote personal comments telling how special the island is to them. To protect the beauty of the island, they also drafted a list of do's and don'ts for tourists. Once the brochure was printed and distributed, the sense of pride felt by the class and community became a springboard for other projects.

Launching the Rat-Alert Program

The Pribilof Islands are home to one of the last great bird rookeries left on earth. With a newly built harbor, shipping activities from all parts of the world are coming to St. Paul Island. One of the hazards of ships is the importation of rats. The Rat-Alert Program gave students a meaningful cause to pursue that would better their community.
After hearing about a rat sighting on a nearby beach, the 3rd graders wanted to learn more about rats—their habits and the effects they would have on our island. In addition to obtaining information from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the class ordered several films on rats from the University of Alaska. Through these resources, the students learned about a trap that catches animals alive and unhurt. They held a bake sale to raise money to buy a have-a-heart trap.
Next, the class wrote to the mayor of St. Paul Island to alert him to their concerns about rats and the devastating effect they would have on the island's bird rookeries. With the mayor's encouragement, the students contacted the harbor master, who invited them to visit the harbor and to set the new have-a-heart trap. For several months, the students made regular checks on the trap. Because of the success of this effort, the school now builds wooden traps with financing and support from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the City of St. Paul Island. Fortunately, rats have not become a problem on the island, but the alert system established by the 3rd graders is monitoring the situation.

Restoring Traditional Boats

Still another project that has engaged students is a study of the traditional open boats (called baidars) once used on the island. This project is action-based and connects students with their community.
Only three of these large skin-covered boats remain, and their hulls and partial covering have been set aside. Decades of nonuse and harsh environmental conditions have taken their toll on the once seaworthy craft. More alarming, only a few elders are left who have the knowledge of the intricate skin and rope assembly. The people of St. Paul Island are proud of their relationship with the sea and their seamanship skills. As technology has been embraced, however, traditional skills and knowledge of the sea are slowly being lost.
The 3rd grade study of baidars is an integrated curriculum activity that promotes cooperative learning, Aleut culture/language, mathematics, art, science, reading, and history. The strategies for gaining and using skills in many subject areas come into play as the project progresses. During visits to the baidars, for example, students measure the boats, estimate their weight, look at the types of materials used, and gather other data. As part of the unit, local elders come to class to discuss the history of baidars and the importance of preserving cultural heritage. During science, students discuss the properties of buoyancy, water displacement, and ballast requirements of the boats. Another objective of the project is for students to learn to tie the four knots used most frequently by Aleut seamen.
Over the past four years, various 3rd grade classes have studied the history of baidars, constructed models of the traditional boats, and participated in restoring the three remaining ones, thus preserving an important part of their cultural heritage. Because of the work of the 3rd graders, funds may be available to begin restoration of the baidars during the 1995–96 school year.

When the Classroom Extends Beyond the School

Because project-based instruction is authentic, assessment of learning lends itself to the use of portfolios, hands-on products, and student productions. Relevant demonstrations of student competence result in parent buy-in and acceptance of the value of demonstrations, which complement traditional reporting methods. As parents and community members increasingly come to value project-based instruction, a transition can be made from demonstrations of competence to exhibitions of excellence. Standards can be raised and expectations increased as the community grows more comfortable with this method of instruction.
The benefits of project-based instruction at the St. Paul Island School are already apparent. Improved student attendance and greater self-esteem are two visible effects. In addition, students are spending more time on task. “Learn this because you'll need it later” is not particularly motivating to most students. The reward with project-based instruction is the “now.”
Approximately a third of the teachers at the St. Paul Island School are now moving toward project-based learning centered around the island culture. Equally as important as student and teacher ownership is community acceptance of curriculum. When classroom interests extend beyond the school, the Village of St. Paul Island often reciprocates with materials, time, and labor. Building a school/community partnership results in pride, cooperation, and a better channel of communication between the people of the village and the classroom. And truly exciting is genuine community ownership of the school through a curriculum that is relevant to the Pribilof Islands.

Roy Rowe has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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