Pedagogy for Success in Alaska

Barb (QasuGlana) Amarok

In the community and area of Alaska where I am from, introductions are very important. They provide information to the audience, demonstrate pride in one’s heritage, and set the stage for interactions so I start by introducing myself.

UvaNa QasuGlana. SitnasuaGmiuNuruNa. My name is Barb Amarok. I’m an Inupiaq Alaska Native from Nome. My mother was IlliaaGlak from Nome; my father was Warren Tiffany from Bellingham, Washington; my grandfather was AmaGuaq from Big Diomede; and my grandmother was Maiyak from King Island.

At the 2016 AASB Fall Academy, Timi Tullis excitedly shared with school districts the Zaretta Hammond book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain. Because I am passionate about education, I immediately purchased the book and realized that the messages about schooling for Alaska Native children that I share when I teach ED 420, Alaska Native Education, were condensed into this one book.

One of the issues that the Alaska Association of School Boards and the Nome School Board are addressing is academic success of Alaska Native students. The intent for both entities is to increase graduating rates of Alaska Native students who are grounded in their cultural identity and have the ability to successfully pursue their goals.

Although the intention of schooling for Alaska Natives today is no longer officially to assimilate, this continues to be the result and those who are not represented by textbooks and methods, consciously and subconsciously, continue to recognize the messages. The children that have been labeled “failures” have often been the ones who’ve walked away physically and psychologically because the cost has been too great: to become de-formed.

We cannot presume that systems of schooling no longer have a negative impact on the individual and collective wellbeing of Alaska Native children. When I attended elementary and secondary school in the 1950s and 1960s, none of my teachers were from Alaska; none were Alaska Native. I wanted to learn even though school didn’t feel very welcoming or safe; nothing of my Inupiaq identity was represented. I learned to read with Dick, Jane and Sally books and I clearly remember wishing that my skin was lighter and that my nose wasn’t so rounded. I became ashamed and I became psychologically de-formed from the person I was born as. These effects of an education that is not multicultural are common today.

At the beginning of every chapter in her book, Hammond shares quotes. With Chapter 9, she quotes Leo Vygotsky: “Children grow into the intellectual life around them.” My mother, IlliaaGlak, attended the segregated school for Native children in Nome; she was taught at school and encouraged at home to speak English in order to be “successful.” She became de-formed from who she born to be and from who she would originally have been as a mother. My brothers and sister and I grew up with the message to be proud of who we are coming from home, but nowhere else. Our grandparents lived and worked in the segregated community of Nome where discrimination and oppression were acceptable. Their lives and the way they raised their children were de-formed and re-shaped by the “intellectual life around them.”

Whether intentionally or not, school systems continue to change children from who they were born to be. If there are still students, now a half a century later, who have the feelings that I have had, and if we hold the premise that Alaska Native children are not deficient, we are called to enact systemic change.

Systemic change requires pedagogical and philosophical shifts. Adults in every school in Alaska need to understand the concepts of intergenerational and historic trauma, commemorative history, oppression, privilege, institutional racism, colorblindness, decolonization, social justice and equity. An example of the distinction between equity and equality is seen in schools: Every child in a classroom gets a social studies book, representing equality, but when the majority of the students are Alaska Native, for those who do not see themselves represented in the textbook, there is a lack of equity.

Schools are not absolved of responsibility, according to Wehlage and Rutter, when cohorts of students fail to achieve. We need to support our teachers and administrators in applying their expertise within the context of the local community. Indigenous knowledge is of value to all and when the identities of students are represented, they become prepared for self-determination and local, state, national and global leadership. When the knowledge, life ways and principles of Alaska Native peoples are valued and affirmed in the schools of their communities, according to Hammond, we create safe and representative environments so that intellectual growth leads to independent learning.

Hammond references Nieto and Bode, 2007 and I quote Nieto and Bode, 2008: “When multicultural education is conceptualized as broad-based school reform, it can offer hope for real change. Multicultural education in a sociopolitical context is both richer and more complex than simple lessons on getting along or units on ethnic festivals. By focusing on major conditions contributing to underachievement, a broadly conceptualized multicultural education permits educators to explore alternatives to a system that promotes failure for too many of its students. Such an exploration can lead to the creation of a richer and more productive school climate and a deeper awareness of the role of culture and language in learning. Seen in this comprehensive way, educational success for all students is a realistic goal rather than an impossible ideal.”

Multicultural education is a process because it primarily involves relationships among people and it concerns such intangibles as expectations of student achievement, learning environments, students’ learning preferences and cultural variables that are absolutely essential for schools to understand if they are to become successful with all students.

Hammond shares another quote from political theorist, Benjamin R. Barber: “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successful and the failures, those who make it and those who don’t. I divide the world into learners and non-learners.” Educators, even those from the community itself, must enter school systems and classrooms as learners. They should not feel afraid, nervous or overwhelmed by messages about social justice, systemic racism or assimilation. Rather, the energy should, as Hammond writes, be harnessed to cultivate the academic mindset of both teachers and learners. We must accept the challenge; have an open mind and heart; and provide authentically multicultural school experiences that build each child up to be the best that he or she can be.

According to Nieto and Bode, true multicultural curriculum includes histories, viewpoints and insights of many different people. Topics usually considered “dangerous” are talked about in classes, and students are encouraged to become critical thinkers. Families and other community people are visible in these schools.

For students, “developing a multicultural perspective means learning how to think in more inclusive and expansive ways, reflecting on what is learned and applying that learning to real situations. Whether debating a difficult issue or developing a community [project], students learn that they have power, collectively and individually, to make change.”

The 2016 NEA publication, Educators Rising Standards, is an excellent resource not only for up-and-coming educators but also for current educators. Rising educators understand that they must explore their own identities and, based on this understanding, they can examine their histories, values and beliefs to assess their personal attitudes. They discover their strengths and uncover their biases.

Rising educators recognize that accomplished teachers engage students and other stakeholders to learn as much as possible about students. Accomplished teachers know their students’ interests, motivations and aspirations. Based on the understanding that there is often more than one version of a story, one answer to a question or one way to solve a problem, rising educators learn the significance of different opinions and beliefs and recognize that some of these ideas may challenge their thinking.

Rising educators carefully consider their methods of communication with students, determining how to share information and exchange ideas so they can help develop equitable, empowering learning environments. Similar to Hammond’s message, rising educators must strengthen students’ cognitive skills by integrating critical thinking and other crucial skills into activities so that all students have the opportunity to analyze ideas and synthesize learning.

The overarching and cross-cutting themes of the Standards state that educators are able to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures other than their own, work vigilantly to provide all students with fair and equitable access to resources and learning opportunities, achieve clear-eyed understanding of historical context and work proactively to nurture an anti-bias learning environment. The teaching profession is a helping profession that promotes social justice and advocates for education and opportunity for all. Teachers should articulately and skillfully promote the interests of students and communities. They must learn the proper channels to take appropriate actions as change agents and to empower peers, students and other stakeholders to express their views.

In closing, I quote Zaretta Hammond. As adults in children’s lives, we educators must daily ask ourselves two questions: Do I ensure that each child in school feels safe and affirmed? Can each child trust me to cause no harm?


Barb (QasuGlana) Amarok is a board member of the Association of Alaska School Boards

This article was part of the presentation Barb did during AASB’s First ever Equity in Education Summit in Anchorage last December.


Barnhardt, R. (1997, March/April). Teaching/learning across cultures: Strategies for success. Sharing our pathways. 2(2).

Freire, P. (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin A SAGE Company.

NEA. (2016). Educators Rising Standards. Washington, DC: Educators Rising.

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008).Affirming diversity. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Wehlage, G.G., & Rutter, R.R. (1986). Dropping out: How much do schools contribute to the problem? Teachers College Record, 3, 34-392.