Indigenous Knowledge - A professional development course for Alaskan educators

by Vicki Heisser  |   

In Alaska, the majority of the teachers come from outside the state and many are unfamiliar with Alaskan culture and Alaskan Native peoples. As PWSC’s Dr. Johnson explains, many “teachers who teach in Alaska...come from the lower 48 with very little to no understanding of what they're coming into…The historical precedence, the cultural communication, they're unprepared for a lot of these things.”

It is because of this that PWSC has created a class that addresses diversity, inclusiveness, and student experience to help educators learn more about the populations they serve. The course is a standards-based professional development course taught by the Department of Education and Early Development’s Dr. Bjorn Wolter with Dr. Beth Ginondidoy Leonard, research professor of Indigenous Studies at Alaska Pacific University (APU).

Johnson continues, “The intention of this class is to help educators who are new to Alaska understand the issues that Alaskan educators face in educating our youth, our children. The point of the class is to give teachers tools that they can use, and understanding that they can develop, that will allow them to be better prepared as teachers for the realities of teaching in rural Alaska.”

The class covers Indigenous knowledge (IK), the knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. When working in rural Alaska, teachers can have a difficult time integrating place-based indigenous knowledge into the classroom while still using the mandated curriculum provided by their school district. Teachers may also have a hard time relating to their students because they are new to the community and culture. There are limited resources to help teachers learn how to implement place-based education into the curriculum given, and this course helps to address some of these issues. 

Professor Bjorn Wolter, Ph.D. explains the need for a course such as this. “Personally, I think this class is important because it begins to move us from instructor-centered teaching towards student-centered teaching. It is important because we cannot assume that our students are the same as us the teachers—they have different experiences and perspectives, and to engage them, to motivate them, we need to make instruction about them and what is relevant to their lives. By including native and cultural knowledge, blended with place-based learning, we create a positive learning environment that students not only can feel connected to but also engaged by.”

Beth Ginondidoy Leonard, Ph.D. echoes Wolter’s sentiment about the need for a course such as this that educates people on Alaska Native cultures. “I think it’s important for people in Alaska to understand the history and cultures of Alaska Native peoples rather than assuming the lands were uninhabited by ‘civilized peoples’ prior to European contact…Alaska Native peoples have inhabited what is now known as ‘Alaska’ for thousands of years, and Indigenous/Alaska Native worldviews can contribute current challenges in a number of significant ways. Place and land-based educational models are being developed nationally and internationally, and these approaches are often seen as providing better educational opportunities for all students, not just Alaska Native students. Alaska Native histories and knowledge systems historically, have been erased or intentionally ignored within classroom education systems; as well, the contributions of Indigenous peoples to our lives today…”