A New Path: Utilizing Alaska Native Ways of Teaching and Learning to get Students Writing

By Don Rearden

Don Rearden: Making Learning Visible

Using Alaska Native Ways of Learning in the Classroom: Part 1

Part 2

Context of the Inquiry

What if we attempted to integrate the ancient Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning into the college curriculum?  What if we endeavored to utilize an educational method that worked so well for tens of thousands of years in our own hallowed halls of academia? --- those same halls that for too long have silenced the voices of those who perhaps possessed some of the answers to the problems our Western society faces. What if?

Over the course of the past two semesters, I set out to answer that question in my own classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I teach preparatory writing courses, the lowest writing courses offered at our campus. Some of these courses are non-credit bearing, and statistically speaking, many of our students will take one to two years before they are prepared to take entry level college courses. Many of these students are at-risk, and for the most part our educational system has left them feeling like failures.

So what would happen if I challenged them by using Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning in our writing class? How would they respond to place based learning? What if I gave open ended due dates or slowed down the pace of the course when students needed more time? Would they become better writers if we didn’t have a text book and instead just went outside? Even if it was snowing and cold?

Course Artifacts

Focus of the Inquiry

This year, I have been participating in the Difficult Dialogues Faculty Fellows Program, a project funded by the Ford Foundation to help assist professors at UAA and APU to explore Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning and/or Alaska Native issues in the classroom. I have implemented some of the new strategies that I learned in the program during our class this semester.
During the semester we will be reading, discussing, and writing about Seth Kantner’s Shopping for Porcupine. This is one of UAA’s books of the year. Many courses on campus will be reading and discussing this book and several opportunities at UAA will be available to further examine Kantner’s text, climate change in Alaska, as well as issue surrounding Alaskan Native issues, sustainability, and future development and stewardship in Alaska and elsewhere.
In addition to the book of the year, we will be getting out of the  classroom as a part of this project. “Out” means just that. We’ll be leaving the warmth of the classroom and getting some fresh air and examining the “Big Wild Life” around us. You will be expected to dress appropriately and be prepared to spend some time each week outside. We will be taking note of the changing seasons, examining our surrounding, and sharing what we know about the outdoors as a component of the course. Through this experience I hope to help you build confidence in your writing voice and broaden your understanding about Alaska and its people.

Course Artifacts

Course Design and Implementation

No comments on course design and implementation.

Course Artifacts


Below are samples of student responses to the assignments as well as to individual class activities, such as going outside and practicing placed-based writing .


Student respond to Shopping for Porcupine and our discussions about Alaska Native Ways:

'We got to read an amazing book and I feel I benefited more from "Shopping for Porcupine" then I would have from any textbook.

'It has made me realize that I need to go back to Barrow periodically to refresh my memory of all the things that are dear to my heart. It enhances my knowledge of how people live the old way. it was the most fun I’ve had writing in a long time. It made me realize how interesting my life is.'

 "For us people in the big cities will never really know what Alaska truly is until we actually go out into the harsh land.  Until we live how the natives of Alaska live.  Here we are spoiled.  Out there they live on their own, fending for themselves, no electricity, no running water.  I learned what someone else loves."

 "It makes me think when I'am having hard times,  I will just think what my had ancestor had to go threw in their time. I have a new image of nature and life…Respect your elders and people around you, like the way you want to be treated. Life is to short, so live it to the fullest and lifes a journey with bumps and struggles along the way."

"Thank you, Don for teaching me to love school again. This class has taught me a great amount of wonderful things about the ways many have lived of the land of Alaska, and the way of many of the elders."

 "Before reading this book I knew very little about Alaska Natives, their "old"  or "new" way of life, and life in a village in general."

 "Honor, Respect, and Loyalty are some of the words that come to me when i saw this video.  Knowing that I live in a state where all these great people are is just amazing to know.  I think I feel better about where I live now .  Thank you Mr. Rearden."

 "I have lived in this state my whole life, and I have never known about the amazing people that have lived here and what they have done for this state. It is sad that it's not part of the curriculum in any school at least none of the schools that I went to. I think it should be. Watching the seven minute video was intriguing I wanted to learn more, and a few minutes of independent study I did and thank you for sharing this in a modern innovative way to keep people interested. Thanks again."

"I'm Aleut. You made a good point on respect them, honor them, and etc............. that was good."

 "I had forgotten the Alaska history of Native heroes that I had once studied in high school. Not many know or even care to learn about the brave souls that have fought to keep the Native heritage alive and breathing in the youth of our great state. I loved taking Alaska History in high school and it also has made me appreciate having a little of a "local" history involved in a University's courses. I think all colleges should have a healthy portion of State history in their curriculum. It's part of choosing a school, you are looking for education in a specific part of the United States and that state should be represented, no matter what history is happens to be."


 "I hear the leaves crunching under my feet and the wind is blowing the last few off the trees. I can feel winter coming with every breathe I take. Frost covers the cars that are parked on the street and just the sight of it sends a shiver down my spine. My nose and ears are starting to feel numb; I make my loop around the neighborhood and head back to the warmth of my house."

 "Walking the banks of the Kenai looking for his next meal from the last remaining salmon swimming lifelessly upstream.  Looking through the camera lens I start drifting closer to the shore, closer to the Bruin.  He is not paying much attention to me right now.  Not a huge bear but a respectable one.  His dark coat shimmering in the suns rays.  He sniffs the air, looking at me.  Realizing I was about fifteen yards from him knowing that is only one leap for a bear that size I row a little farther out.  Then he lunges into the water, was it directed towards me or was it a fish he settled with.  I did not stick around to find out."

 "Crisp cool breezes, crunching leaves beneath my feet. The air is clean, with the faint hint of sweet smelling flowers of the last fall bloom. The wind swirls around the top of the trees with a rustle noise as they brush against each other. The end of fall makes me feel sad to know that the winter will soon be upon us, with no mercy. the winter for me is long hard and cold, oh the bitter cold."

 "Outside I saw that nature was taking it's turn from being several shades of green, to firey reds, deep burgundies, oranges, yellow, browns, and blacks. The leaves are beginning to fall. All of nature is preparing it's self for when the clouds in skies reign down the blanket of white."

'Life is like a gun. Preparations for life shoots so fast past us we miss what happened. Summers are so chaotic that it's like the powder being ready to be lit. By the time the gun is loaded, it's like a peace comes over, as if anticipating when the gun is going to fire. When it is fired a cold chill comes down the spine as if you know one day all this has to be started all over again. This is what i was thinking about walking, that there is such a peace in the fall that when winter hits, its as if you had been shot in the chest. Summers are so chaotic that we forget what it is like to come to this point, waiting, and listening for the howling winds of winter. So cold and so ridged that we forget what summer is like."


"When   i walked out of the classroom and out the doors, i had paused for a moment to   feel the cold air blowing gently among the trees, speaking as if hundreds of   grains of timeless sand rushed among each other. The bitter cold air i had   tasted when i took a breath filled me with a calm that hadn’t been there   before. I listened as i walked on the grass, hearing the wind blow in my ears   and smelling the chilly air and watched the colors of the trees turn."



"In   those moments, in those 5 minutes i had learned that winter was comming in   that short time. That time taught me some amount of respect for the ageless   nature that had been around for endless time and would continue to be there   long after we as a species vanish from the earth. Life, Death, rebirth of the   lands around us and the never-ending recyle of nature keeps going on. Never   resting or stopping, it would leave us beheind as it did to others before us   but not before showing some hints and promises of the wonderous secrets it   holds withen its grasp. Weeks ago i would have never gone outside or watched   nature in such a veiw. But now i have listened, and now i have learned."


  "I felt peacefulness of nature. No birds, no people (it happened no so often), nothing, but light wind touched my face. Beautiful trees covered by snow and no sun - unfortunately. When I don not pay attention to other sounds but sounds of nature - I feel like I am somewhere far far from real life. I felt so nice, and my soul fullfils by happiness. I don't know what happened with. When I stoped to listen noise, it made me feel much better.

Thank you for that."


"I went on a quick walk to get in touch with nature. I could feel the snow crackle under my feet as I walked. There was a small breeze coming from the east, not to strong but enough to feel it run down my neck. A magpie flew by and was chirping about something, perhaps it was the raven that was perched a tree. The air was brisk due to the lack of cloud cover."

"I explored mother nature, and she did not really speak to me.  I heard the crush of the snow under my feet, and as other people walked around the area.  I saw areas of snow that were trampled over by other beings.  I also noticed areas of snow that were untouched my humans.  The snow here sparkled and resembled purity.  There was a slight wind outside; so slight you could not even hear it.  The trees were covered in snow, and nothing stirred.  I noticed the soothing quietness of the mind.  Nature has a way of relaxing the mind, with its beauty. "

 "It felt like I was walking around the nature but there was trees and little bit of birds chirping.  The tension felt quite different than where I came from because I felt like I was trapped from all those trees.  But when I took for a short walk it really cleared my mind thinking about nature and what it has done for us.  Reminds me of walking around the tundra back home but there would be trees all over the place.  I love to take a walk on natures, mostly walking around the tundra and see about a mile or so to see what animal we encounter with.  Everything looked different than the way I go out hunting other than walking through every tree and seeing huge mountains just around the side.  I just wish it was a lot more colder and it would feel like home for me because I miss the coldness back home and the wind that would go from 20 to 55 knots and create a blizzard. "

 "As I walked outside, I first felt the cold air upon my somewhat warm face. I can feel the coldness run down my spine as I took another step into the "outside" world. I closed my eyes as I walked a few steps more, taking in all the sounds that were being made. It was a little difficult to listen to the nature because the noise that was being made by man were louder. But I tried harder, finally catching the sound of a few birds chirping. How glorious it was....it put my mind at peace. And even though I was walking in the school campus, for those 5 minutes, I felt like it was just me and the earth. I can still remember how the snow looked sitting on top of the tree branches. The smell of "fresh" air flowing inside my body. And as I exhaled, I could see my breath traveling with me. For that moment, I forgot it was cold. I forgot my ears were turning red and my hands were becoming numb because the beauty of nature was all that was in my mind."

 "When I was outside, walking around the building, I felt relaxed, calm, and sleepy. It felt really nice to be outdoors in the fairly cold weather. I'm from Barrow, so, cold is not a problem for me. I might get cold sometimes but most of the times, I'm good. It's called being true native haha. What I heard outside is just nothing but wind, and very few birds chirping, and classmates talking to each other when I walk past them."

 "I have found myself admiring the sky a lot. Because the universal are seeing the same sky as we do. I loved how the moon, mountains, clouds, and sky looks everyday. I found myself wishing that I would have a glasss above of my bedroom so I can watch the stars every night time before go to bed. When I was a girl, and would go outside with a blanket to just laying down on the bench during the winter to watch the stars and moon. It is very fanastic sky, and wish I can do that again."


Course Artifacts


Student Comments on the Course and the use of Alaska Native Ways of Teaching and Learning:

"The learning process in this class is like no other. The enjoyment level is always high. It is a rare thing to have a class that you enjoy but also can laugh through out. I've learned so much in this class but in other ways, in way of my eyes and through my senses other than English or writing only."

"This class is hands on when it comes to education, it's not boring listening to a lecture for an hour. This class is more interaction with the class as a whole and it helps because you aren't falling asleep of boredom. You get to go outside and experience a new way of learning, a technique that is valuable to education. Your learning experience expands and so does your creativity. Its nice to expand outside of the classroom."

"I feel that the scary stories that we have shared had been pretty crazy because there was a lot of different kinds of stories told from different cultures. I personally felt chills after class, but it's cool. It is also very interesting and  crazy about how all the stories kind of relates too all of us. There were stories about personal experiences and stories about histories."

"I think it is important to let students work with their hands because experiences stick with the students better than just some guy talking. Kids today have a very short attention span, me included with them, and most of the lectures some teachers give just goes in one ear and out the other; there's no experience to put the memory with. I will remember every thing we have done in this class because along with writing we make experiences to put with the memory of what we did."

"I like the different style this class has had. I love to make stories and this class has helped me in so many ways, my way of thinking of brainstorming style of writing. It is way different from any of my other English classes I have had. I enjoy coming to this class."

"This class has been very valuable in learning some of the Inupiaq Ways.  My partner is 3/4 "white" and 1/4 Inupiaq.  It is neat being able to share with him, about the things I am learning.  I honestly, was a little nervous entering the class with out one text, but the book is very interesting.  I beleive that using different learning techniques helps all of us learn better, because we all do think differently."

"So today we're suppose to fastwrite about the "crazy" teaching method Don uses.  I don't think they are too crazy.  I think they are interesting and get your brain moving in ways it's not used to.  I like that we take the class outside and just listen and see what is going on and then write about it.  I enjoy the assignments about the AK native culture.  I especially enjoy reading Shopping For Porcupine.  I have learned a lot about Alaska and the culture up here.  It has really opened my eyes being a brand new military transplant to Alaska."

"In this cool class of Professor Don, it gets more and more interesting about how he teaches. He uses various methods to help his students to achieve a better way about looking at things in different perspectives. I am really glad I have him for a Professor. His methods really helped me look at things in different ways and had improved me in lots of different ways. I notice my English and writing has gotten a lot better."


Course Artifacts

Faculty Contact

Assistant Professor Don Rearden

University of Alaska Anchorage, Community and Technical College