Colin's Sandbox

STREAM Institute

by on Jul.19, 2013, under Uncategorized

Resources (open to the public for curation):

I took part in the STREAM Institute in July 2013 alongside my wife, a biology teacher at Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau.  While we didn’t get to work in the same group, it was still an enlightening experience for me in many ways.  My wife and I actually don’t talk as much as you might think about education.  We also have two small children, so we really don’t get a whole lot of time to talk about much of anything really except for immediate needs.  But the past few nights we’ve stayed up thinking about ideas for encouraging kids to get outside and exploring science outdoors.  We keep coming back to some of the same problems which plague many teachers in the larger school districts, such as scheduling constraints, logistics, and planning time.

Scheduling is a real concern for many teachers – students attending the field trip may end up missing portions of other teachers’ classes before and after the event.  Logistical hurdles are another, especially if you need to schedule a bus (more permission slips, anyone?).  If you don’t have a block schedule and are considering going to a location that requires the use of a bus, the transition and travel time takes away from valuable on-site time this alone likely makes the trip prohibitive.  There’s also the issue of cost.

Why engage in place based education?

“… the great waste in school comes from the child’s inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while at the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school.”

John Dewey, The School and Society (1899)

Let me say right now that I’m a fan of the model of place based education considering the unique facets of education in Alaska, such as:

Proximity to the outdoors – according to Richard Nelson, author, anthropologist, and most recently host of the “Encounters” radio show heard through Southeast Alaska, most every school in Alaska has access to the outdoors in some shape or form. From Anchorage on down, right outside their door, I think it is safe to say that Alaskan schools certainly have more access to natural settings than most schools around the nation.

Connection with Alaska Native Peoples – Due to many circumstances surrounding education in rural Alaska (such as the era of the BIA schools), there developed in many Native Alaskan families and communities a feeling of distrust towards formal education.  If we can bring education into the community, and allow the community more access to education, we work towards fostering a greater bilateral connection between schools and local villages and reversing this trend.

Building confidence – It’s no secret that Alaska has staggeringly high rate of suicide.  Combatting that and the High School dropout rate is a high priority for many educators around the state.  Place-based education can work to build students’ confidence in themselves by affirming the wisdom of the oral tradition that they receive their elders and putting the emphasis on what students are able to accomplish when exploring their world.

I spoke at length to a science teacher from the Lake and Peninsula School District and the differences were notable.  First, the teacher has the same students (and at any one time there’s not more than 30-40 of them) for several consecutive years, and teaches a wide range of ages at once.  Assessment is standards-based versus the more traditional grading based.  Most of his work in the classroom is project based, which is a key component in my view of an effective place-based approach.  Although in some respects he has a difficult job in managing such a wide age range in the same class, in other respects he doesn’t have the high pupil-to-teacher ratio that a teacher working in a larger district would have, so I got the feeling that for him that was the factor that made project-based education possible.

Much of what I took away from the conference came indirectly through stories.  The stories I’m talking about here come into a few different categories: formal stories told in the oral tradition of the Tlingit people, informal stories told to me by elders in reference to events in their lives and political struggles, and of course my own first hand accounts. The Tlingit people take ownership of their stories very seriously, and I would have to ask for permission for sharing any of the more formal stories with others.

If you have had a chance to see a really good orator, you should be thankful. The descriptive techniques used by a talented orator to draw the audience into the storyscape are an art separate from the simple textual narrative and you have to be present in the moment to do it justice.  On a personal note, I feel that this is one area where recording the performance falls woefully short.  All of the elders that I heard stories from in a formal fashion had their own distinctive style of connecting with their audience.  Each story I heard set a tone of the place: for example, prior to spending time on Amalga Harbor the group I was in was told a version of the Salmon Boy story.  What a great way to get ready to to explore an estuary and lagoon with salmon attempting to swim upstream along with the salmon carcasses rotting in the sun lending an authentic olfactory note!

I was also told more than a few informal stories while in my sessions, mostly concerning events in elders’ lives that gave me a stronger sense of what the people, the individual human beings themselves, went through and endured through their lives.  My own circumstance played an important part: just this past month I lost my grandmother, whom I had spent much time with over the years.  For me a large part of the sense of grief was guilt at not having spent more time listening to her and others’ stories before it was too late.  As a result of that, I realized the value of the gift that stories and histories can be between people.  This value is amplified between generations and cultural backgrounds in my opinion.  This calls to mind some of my favorite encounters of my own in rural Mexico.  Imagine traveling by bus while an elderly man tried his hardest to tell me a story whose whole meaning was lost as a result of my complete lack of ability to speak Spanish.  On and on he’d try, speaking slower and slower, and at times louder and louder, either to compensate for the sound of the engine as we accelerated around turns or as a strategy for enhanced comprehension.  Eventually he just stopped, looked right at me, and smiled a big warm smile, and sometimes that’s the entire point.

I’ll close my thoughts on the STREAM Institute by relaying what a teacher in my group said to me.  I recognized her as a musician from in town so during a down time I let her know that I thought I may have recently entered into an early midlife crisis by purchasing a guitar on eBay.  She told me this advice with regard to learning to play guitar: play with people who are better than you, whose ability challenges you to do better.  Play with others that have a style that you would like to learn to play, and to help guide you, have an idea of where you want to go with your practice over time.  I can’t think of better advice as I venture into the educational world.

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