‘The Northern Journeys’ will help UAA, ASD teachers infuse culture into Anchorage classrooms

by Tracy Kalytiak  |   

The UAA College of Education recently received support for 'The Northern Journeys', a collaboration it's forming with the Anchorage School District, Anchorage Museum, Alaska State Council on the Arts and Alaska Native Heritage Center to prepare and develop skills that will help teachers become more adept at integrating the arts into their classrooms and teaching in a culturally responsive way. A kickoff event is set for Jan. 11. We spoke with Professor Hilary Seitz (HS) of COE Early Childhood Education and Project Manager Mike Belloni (MB), about what's ahead.

UAA student teacher Olivia Wito talks with a student in a K-1 classroom at Lake Otis Elementary School. That school and four others in the Anchorage School District will soon take part in 'The Northern Journeys', a project aiming to help teachers and preservice teachers integrate the arts into their classrooms and learn to be more culturally responsive. (Photo by Mike Belloni, ASD)

UAA student teacher Olivia Wito talks with Ashley Oktollik, a student in a K-1 classroom at Lake Otis Elementary School. That school and four others in the Anchorage School District will soon take part in 'The Northern Journeys', a project aiming to help teachers and preservice teachers integrate the arts into their classrooms and learn to be more culturally responsive. (Photo by Mike Belloni, ASD)

How did the Anchorage project first begin materializing?

HS: We were invited three or four years ago to begin the partnership. There were numerous transitions at the university and at the school district. Our third partner-the third leg in our stool at the time-was Anchorage Museum. All three of our partners kept shifting leadership, so it took us a little while to get on our feet and figure out the direction and make it solid enough to launch.

What other organizations are involved?

We are reaching out to community partners: Anchorage Museum, Alaska Native Heritage Center and the Alaska State Council on the Arts, which is through the Department of Education. All three of those arts entities are working with us and we're contracting with them to support the work we're going to do in the schools.

Why is the project so important and such a good fit for UAA education students, teachers and students in the Anchorage School District and the community as a whole?

MB: We want to constantly be bringing in local culture bearers and artists who represent the great diversity we have. I represent the Anchorage School District part of this. ASD has the top three most diverse high schools in the nation, the top six out of eight middle schools in the nation and the top 19 diverse elementary schools in the nation. The 20th elementary school on the list is from Hawaii but we hold the first 19 slots for diversity, across the whole country. As a result, as we're providing arts and cultural activities to help our student teachers and our new-to-profession teachers grow in their practice, we want to reflect what is a very diverse culture.

HS: Our project's goal is honoring the diversity of the Anchorage community; [the goals of similar projects in other Alaska communities] are more specific to a specific Alaska Native culture.

MB: Kodiak's primary Alaska Native culture is Alutiiq whereas we're a melting pot: [the] ASD Alaska Native [population percentage] is only about 9 percent, but white is only 42 percent. So we are a majority-minority school district.

HS: We plan to build on the strengths of Anchorage and the diverse cultures here, through the arts.

What do you, the project leaders, hope to accomplish?

MB: We're always struggling with the linguistics behind addressing art and culture. Integrating art is something people can wrap their mind around very well. But art does not exist in a vacuum. In our situation, we want to very specifically and intentionally address the rich cultural diversity we have when we're teaching our student teachers, new-to-profession teachers, how to integrate art and culture. But that's half of it. The other half of it is not just integrating in your lessons but also just being a culturally responsive teacher. You can be a culturally responsive teacher without integrating.

Where will the UAA student teachers and preservice teachers be taking part in this project?

HS: From our side of it, we're helping to prepare new teachers in Alaska. We're helping to have teachers in placements that will support the journey of becoming a culturally responsive teacher, partnering with school districts across the state, including schools in the Anchorage School District. In ASD, the Early Childhood Education program is working with five elementary schools, with 16-17 Anchorage-based student teachers and a host teacher and supportive principal at those five school sites.

MB: Susitna, Alpenglow,

HS: Huffman, Lake Otis-(laughing) see, we've been working together, we can finish each other's sentences.

MB: Sand...

HS: ...Lake. They're all elementary, it's all early childhood student teachers that live in Anchorage and are earning certification up to third grade.

MB: That's our current focus, P through 3. We're hoping, it's in the back of our mind to expand upward in the grades, but not at this time.

How will the project look and function?

HS: A [UAA] preservice teacher is matched up with a host teacher, a mentor.

MB: We care about the development of both, so both the student teacher and the host teacher are going to be receiving the enrichment activities, the training, the opportunities in order to grow.

HS: There will be training for the host teachers, some cultural training and awareness as well as art, so we're having workshops at the [Alaska Native] Heritage Center and at the [Anchorage] Museum and then we're bringing local artists into the classrooms as well as a Kennedy Center artist.


What is unique about 'The Northern Journeys'?

MB: The unique piece is that we're bringing artists into the classroom and those artists are from the community. I usually don't even use the word 'artist'... I use the word 'presenter' because they may be less of an artist and more of a culture bearer.


MB: I don't think you can divorce the two-a broad definition of art would include language, clothing, food, tools. It would include so many things.

What will these presenters do?

MB: They will be giving a model for what the host teacher and the student teacher would then be able to use, moving forward, to integrate into their curriculum. But they're not there to teach the host teacher or the student teacher, they're there to give the student teacher or the host teacher the 'Aha!' of saying 'Oh, look at this! Look what could be done. How can I then integrate this into my classroom going forward.'

HS: Ultimately the children are going to be the winners because they're the ones who are going to participate in all of these experiences. What it's going to look like is we're actually having artists in residence come out to all the different school sites and all the different classrooms. Each of those schools are going to select what type of art, what type of performance, what type of culture bearer they would like to have, so they'll have some buy-in for their own community so it's addressing their own school needs and their family's and children's needs. We're also fortunate to be able to bring in Kennedy Center artists.


What's ahead?

MB: What's going to happen is that at the beginning of the semester in January, there's a kickoff meeting with our student teachers and host teachers. That's largely informative. The Museum and ANHC will present something and we'll also have one of our local artists, Allison Warden, present. That performance will be a model of what they'll be expecting through the year. We can approach the question-here's local art, how can you integrate that into your classroom, how will that affect you and your teaching.

HS: We're going to have faculty involved, teachers, principals. It's the whole community working together.

MB: The next thing is, we're having a visiting performer, Faye Stanley, a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist. The week of the 23rd of January, she will do a concert in each of the five schools. Then she will do a workshop specifically on how to integrate music into your curriculum in the classroom.

And after that?

MB: In February, local artists will visit classrooms to offer a lesson, with a follow-up activity in which everyone gets to share what others learned in their classrooms. In late March, they will visit ANHC and the Anchorage Museum, which will offer training on their resource; and in May, there will be a culminating activity based on a two-week artist-in-residence scheduled for April. Starting the following year, it will repeat with a new crop of host teachers and student teachers, but with a slightly different delivery to new-to-the-profession teachers and their mentors.

How will all of this enhance the careers of UAA education students who teach or aspire to teach?

MB: The main focus is to improve teaching. By integrating the arts and the culture, you're inspiring the teacher to think out of the box, to think more creatively and to be able to differentiate to the needs of the student. That's the culturally responsive part. It's not for the purpose of making people aware of culture. It's for the purpose of using culture and art to make a better connection with the students and to teach better, so that we're more effective.

What are the big-picture goals?

HS: Our goal that's written for the grant is that our student teachers, our host teachers, our new-to-profession teachers, through this process, will all be more confident in their ability to work with many children and families of different cultures, and competent in their ability to work with kids.

MB: As far as the teachers go, all of this should also help in teacher retention. A teacher who can integrate, who is culturally responsive, is going to be more successful. And then they'll find the experience not only more enjoyable but, being more successful, they'll be more likely to stay.

'The Northern Journeys' project is made possible, in part, by a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation.

Written by Tracy Kalytiak, University of Alaska Anchorage

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