Like a River: Surprise Moments of a Rural Alaska Arts Ed Project

October 2010, Week 1 of 1

Posting from a rural Yup’ik village along the Yukon River in southwest Alaska. The wide, slow water highway isn’t frozen yet. Boats are still zipping in and out of the eddy at the foot of this hill. Men and boys and whole families are still heading upriver for caribou, or across the way for good berry picking. They lower their outboards into the water and then buzz away, leaving rainbow sheens lapping back toward the village. A walk on the ridge above the village, past the airstrip, affords decent berry picking too, and a long view downriver toward the Bering Sea. The view plus the berries makes it worth the walk.

Pilot Station from the air above the Yukon River - Summer

I arrive on a bush plane on a sunny Sunday evening, and the village school maintenance guy picks me up and drives me down the hill with my gear.  In addition to my clothes and packed dinners, I’m toting a binder full of research on place-based and arts-based education.  I’m ready to dive into a winter ethnodrama project—interview-based theatre—with the staff and students here. This week, my object is simply to get things started for the project: introduce myself; share a basic drama education vocabulary; and demonstrate a few classroom strategies. 

This is a struggling school—one which hasn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress in several years, that lingering mandate of the No Child Left Behind era. Many of the students don’t care about studying or graduating; they’re more interested in the caribou and the berries outside the window—or in the cell phones and iPods in their palms. The teachers’ task, at the beginning and the end of each day, is to increase these students’ test scores. I know all that. But I’m fortified by the memories of other interview-based arts projects I’ve facilitated in recent years in Alaskan schools that have ended successfully. I feel confident that the community collaboration inherent in an interview-based project will awaken engagement from students and boost buy-in from teachers.

Yukon River boats waiting for break up - Winter

Enter Mr. P, the second grade teacher here.  Mr. P is from Montana—Cutbank or Three Forks or some such barren-sounding outpost—and he’s been teaching for 31 years.  Unlike most village teachers, who tend to come and go at least as often as the river freezes and breaks up, Mr. P has been in this village for over ten years. 

I meet Mr. P in his classroom to ask him how he’d like to collaborate with me during this visit.  “I know how to get my kids to score ‘proficient,’” he says, “and it’s not by acting all…silly.”

I look around the space.  His 2nd graders’ desks are in tight rows, all aimed at the overhead projector screen. I look back at him. His unflinching honesty is almost brutally refreshing, but for the fact that it’s so aggressively squashing all my breathless idealism.

I assign a few tasks to the other classroom teachers for the school-wide interview project: select a topic that fits into the theme “Life & History in the Village.”  Select an elder from the community as an interviewee. When I return in the winter, we’ll conduct the interviews.  Then, in April, the students will create simple performance pieces based on stories or images from the interview, and the school will perform for the community.

By week’s end, Mr. P agrees to participate in the school-wide interview project, in spite of his blustery skepticism. I feel relieved and happy, and I take a stroll up the hill above the airstrip.  The springy tundra is beginning to lose its fall color, but there are still berries to pick and to stain my fingers and pant legs. The view down the river seems clear.

February 2011, Week 1 of 2

I’m back at the school, for a two-week stretch this time, for the series of classroom interviews.  The small propeller plane dropped me here a few days ago, skimming over the vast white world of snow.  Even the Yukon looked like every other thing, aside from the sharp boundary of bare willows along much of the shoreline.

4 wheelers and snow machines parked outside a rural Alaska school in winter

In each class, we’re preparing interview questions for the elders the students and teachers have selected as their guests. We’re also rehearsing the fact that sometimes you never quite know what stories you’ll wind up hearing, what questions you’ll want to ask next. We’ve been chanting together: “An interview is like a river.” It’s like the Yukon itself, practically just outside the door. We follow the interview’s current downstream, choosing to follow this or that braid or channel, never knowing what stories we might discover or what landmarks we might miss.

Mid-week, I host a professional development meeting with the school’s ten teachers.  I ask the staff to revisit some of the research we examined during my visit last fall.  Next, I dare to ask the teachers to share how they’re feeling about our current interview-based arts project. There’s a pause.

Mr. P jumps into the silence: “This all sounds great, but I don’t think it matters. The state measures us on one thing: how our students score on that test. And the only way I know how to get there is to teach, and review, and review and review what’s going to be on the test. My kids’ll do this interview thing…but I don’t think it matters.”

He rambles on a bit, about last year’s faddish language instruction program which demanded that primary teachers act like animals to teach letters and sounds.  He refused the program. As he speaks, most of the other teachers remain silent or snap their gum. In the pressure of Mr. P’s heated perspective, I can’t decide whether to step into the debate with him. Instead, I wrap up the meeting, tidying my stack of papers and accepting a sympathetic squeeze on the arm from the pleasant first grade teacher. She had a baby in early winter and she seems to love my drama lessons.

An hour later, I’m on my cross-country skis, following winding snowmachine trails through the willows along the river.  I lugged these skis on three flights from home in Juneau.  They’re the best medicine for me in moments just like this: after a tough school day, downtrodden, a way to get out and move and breathe.

I’m thinking about Mr. P’s comments. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite heard a teacher so blatantly tout the “drill and kill” strategy we arts educators decry.  Yet somehow I can’t see past his pragmatism. Maybe he’s right.

Teachers and administrators in Alaska’s rural schools are hamstrung. They’ve elected—for whatever varied motives they may have—to become part of an education system that originated “Outside,” as some people here refer to the Lower 48.  They come to teach the kids here, and in many cases, they use packaged course curricula designed by and for people very far away from here. But that’s the job. It’s what each teacher’s contract states, and it’s the way each teacher earns her paycheck.

Meantime, most of the parents and other adults in rural communities remain jobless, living in large part on government assistance, with a food supply imported by airplane and barge and complemented in varying degrees by traditional hunting and fishing practices. There’s little evidence in front of any of us here that earning a high school diploma does anyone much good at all—that is, unless they want to leave the village, and maybe come back and work as teachers themselves.  And so, here in this low-performing school, some of the teachers—particularly high school teachers—are working as de facto babysitters, keeping an eye on disengaged, defiant students who are required by law to be in the building. The school staff muddles onward. Some of them fight the relentless battle to engage their students. Some of them give up, asking students to simply stay in the room till the bell rings. The kids send text messages and cruise Facebook while the teacher apparently does the very same thing over at his desk. 

Several of the teachers seem to my visiting eyes to be alternately rigid, despondent, or lazy. But outside of class time, in private conversation, these same women and men reveal despair over their own paradoxical situation. The principal—a white guy who’s lived here for a year and a half—put it to me succinctly: “If I’m a kid here, I’m thinking, ‘Why should I finish school? If I live next door to John, the one Native teacher on our staff, I can see that he lives exactly the same as me, only he has to get up early every day and go to work at the school.’ Why would I want to have to do that?”

To this quandary, Mr. P has apparently found a livable answer: he sets out to achieve the stated goal of his workplace (to raise student test scores) as efficiently as possible, and he keeps his head down to avoid confronting the context.  The context—the students’ challenged lives, their questionable futures; the disengagement of so many parents and community members; the village’s ebbing traditional culture—reveals all the awful complexity and possible irrelevancy of this generalized school institution in this particular place. 

Potlatch dance celebration in the Pilot School gym

The next day, I’m in Mr. P’s classroom. For his students’ interview, Mr. P has selected the topic of “potlatch”—an annual Yup’ik celebration of traditional dancing and singing for which several villages come together, sharing gifts and traditional foods and observing the ritual “first dances” of young people. It’s potlatch season now on the lower Yukon River, and Mr. P has invited a community elder, Wesley, to come and talk about the history of the tradition.  Before Wesley’s visit, though, I’ve planned a session for us to conduct a mock interview. The students will practice asking pre-planned “fact questions” and impromptu “follow-up questions.”

Our interviewee for the practice session is Mr. P.

“An interview is like a river!” We begin the session with our group chant and an accompanying movement, our arms waving forward like moving water. Mr. P stands by, ready to enter the space as our mock interviewee.

“Students, today we have a special guest with us: it’s Mr. P! Welcome, Mr. P—thank you for coming in today. We’d like to ask you some questions about your work and experience as a schoolteacher. All right, interviewers, who would like to ask our first fact question?”

The students begin the interview smoothly enough, dutifully asking our pre-planned questions. What’s your name? Where are you originally from? What did your parents call you when you were growing up? Then, I invite the students to begin asking follow-up questions about Mr. P’s life as a teacher.

Evan, a boy in the third row who sports a rattail and no front teeth, eagerly raises his hand.

“He yells at us!” Evan exclaims.

A pause. I look to Mr. P.  He’s unresponsive.

“Now, friends,” I say, “remember that we’re supposed to be asking questions. Evan, that’s not a question.”

Brittany raises her hand. “He’s mean to us!”

Mr. P’s expression remains unreadable. I’m unsure how to proceed—though it’s becoming very clear that I didn’t adequately define the concept of a question with this group. I stick to my script: “Um, how can we phrase that as a question?”

Brittany turns her eyes from me to Mr. P: “Why are you mean to us?”

The room is silent. The classroom power structure seems suddenly to have flipped upside down, and the students are calling Mr. P to be accountable for his behavior. Stony-faced, the teacher slowly opens his lips.

“I’m mean to you,” says Mr. P, “because sometimes you don’t listen to me or do what I say or follow directions. Then, I have to be mean to you.”

His voice wavers only slightly; I imagine that a pink hue is filling his cheeks. I don’t have the courage to follow this channel of the river. Instead: “Let’s ask a new fact question. George?”

I don’t bump into Mr. P that day after school, and I decide not to seek him out.  I’m unsure whether he was much disturbed by what had happened with his students. I’m also frustrated with myself: the interview activity took a surprise turn as the students tested their ability to ask critical questions, and it opened a space for teacher and students to share an authentic dialogue about their relationships and their learning environment.  Such authenticity is a valuable possibility of drama-based work, a value which I’ve been touting to teachers. But in that moment of real honesty, I was too afraid to follow that channel of the river. I still wonder how the students might have continued their line of questioning, and how Mr. P might have answered, had we continued.

February 2011, Week 2 of 2

A ground storm has come up this week, and the snow is blowing but not falling.  No planes are coming in today, and you can’t even see the other shore right across from the village. At school, it’s the day of the interview itself.  Wesley, the elder, is here, and the students are asking their pre-planned fact questions. Their follow-up questions, though, are slow to come; some students seem disengaged.  Part of the challenge is that Wesley’s speaking Yup’ik to a room full of young people who, for the most part, aren’t fluent in their Native language.  They’re getting squirmy as they wait for the teacher’s aide to translate Wesley’s words into English. Mr. P is asking more and more of the follow-up questions himself. He alternately shushes little Evan in the third row, then listens to Wesley with intent interest again. 

I’m feeling increasingly distracted, attempting to keep the class focused on the discussion, wishing that Mr. P would allow more wait time for the students to generate questions.  Then, I realize: Mr P wants to do this interview himself, far more than his students do. Like his students yesterday, he’s enjoying a new opportunity to ask critical, honest questions, a way to understand this community better. He’s looking at the context.

And here is Wesley, who, I can assume, spends many of his days in a cluttered living room watching television, occasionally preparing some subsistence-caught food one of his children brings him, a seal or a caribou.  He probably doesn’t find many opportunities these days to sit and speak to his great-grandchildren and the other youths of this village. Now he’s eagerly talking, boisterously. And the person listening most attentively, with the most open heart, is the usually gruff teacher. The white guy, the one from Outside. He wants to know more.

“An interview is like a river.” I feel that way about this whole project, myself.  I’ve been discovering hard questions I’ve never known to ask before, and I’ve been watching a story unfold that doesn’t quite match the one I’d imagined.  I see a little more clearly the uncomfortable bind in which teachers here in rural Alaska schools find themselves, striving to make the grade, straining under workplace dysfunction and community dysfunction, and unable to find outlets for their own joys and curiosities.

But here is Mr. P, trying to learn something more about where he is and the families he serves. He himself wants to feel engaged. Perhaps he doesn’t know how to find that feeling. And perhaps this classroom arts project has given him that chance for a moment, no matter his bluff and bluster about the project’s potential futility.  He invites Wesley to come talk with him at school—the project creates a space and a purpose for this conversation to happen.

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p class=”MsoNormal”>And so, whether or not the final performances of this sprawling project turn out polished later this spring, perhaps at least one good outcome of this enterprise has been to bring both Mr. P and me out onto the river in a new way, asking questions, making discoveries, and participating in the place around us.

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