Close up photo of traditional Alaska Native beadwork.

The Morris Thompson Center: the Landscape for a Learning Journey

On April 18, ten student teachers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks drifted one by one into the Denakkanaaga elders’ living room at the Morris Thompson Center. They gathered there, seated in a half-circle facing a group of people ready to share many years of accumulated wisdom about teaching and learning.  Elders Dr. Elizabeth Fleagle and First Chief Reverend Anna Frank were joined in-person by educators Beverly Kokrine and Kathleen Hildebrand. By teleconference, educator Sonta Roach joined from Shageluk.  Sharing in the experience were the Executive Directors and staff of Doyon Foundation, Denakkanaaga, and the Morris Thompson Center. Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly was excited to learn about the unique event, and took time to stop by and show his support.

Some weeks earlier, Professor Doug Cost had reached out to see if the Morris Thompson Center could host a learning journey for his students in a course called “Multicultural Education and School Community Relations.”  The course included both undergraduate and graduate students who were working on education degrees and initial licensure to teach in the state of Alaska. Few of them, however, had experience in rural Alaska or deep knowledge of the history of Alaska Natives in western education. They needed some context, and this was an opportunity for them to gain understanding of challenges faced by Alaska Natives in an education system that still struggles to acknowledge and incorporate Alaska Native languages, knowledge, and ways of being and doing. The students also enjoyed learning about the panelists’ many successes and achievements.

The well-educated, successful Native women on the panel shared stories from their own educations and thoughts on how to approach teaching today. Their powerful stories brought to life essential values that are the ingredients of successful relationships between students and educators, including connection, authenticity, and respect.  They talked about the importance of understanding how cultural context influences a student’s learning style and interests. For example, a new teacher in a village might see a boy drowsing in class. If he doesn’t realize that boy is considered an adult in his community, and that he spent the early morning hours providing food and firewood for elders, the teacher might misunderstand and not make the best decision on how to re-engage with his student.

Listening to these stories took the students on a mental adventure to Nulato, Huslia, Alatna, Minto and Shageluk to learn how teaching and learning are done in rural Alaska. They eagerly noted nuggets of wisdom on how to connect with Alaska Native students in their future classrooms. Denakkanaaga’s Sharon McConnell advised that “character is more important than cognitive ability. Teach with respect for all students.” Valuable advice to guide the young teachers in their craft – and in becoming their best selves.

This cooperatively-organized event embodied perfectly the Morris Thompson Center’s values of collaboration, celebration of diversity, and diplomacy.  As the students listened to the panelists and asked questions, they were bridging some of Alaska’s deepest divides: cross-generational, rural and urban, and Native and non-Native.

At the end of their learning journey, Doug and his students took a few minutes to walk through the exhibit hall.  Perhaps one of them stood in the Thompson Family smoke house, mind awash with new perspectives, and imagined teaching in rural Alaska in a new light:  as an opportunity to teach and to learn, grow, and connect with others by openly experiencing different ways of life.  In their culminating projects, many of the education students chose to share photos from this event and reflections on the influence this learning journey had on their preparation to become teachers in Alaska. Two of the student teachers are headed out to teach in rural Alaska; one to Nenana and another to Koliganek.