About the www.Alaskool.org project and its developers
"Alaskans have stories to tell and traditions to honor. Those two goals intersect at a pair of Web sites from the University of Alaska Anchorage. LitSite Alaska was formally introduced on Oct. 11. The Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project has been up and running, quietly, for more than two years." -- From Off the Page, on the web

Off the page, on the web

 UAA extends teaching mission into cyberspace
 By Donna Freedman Daily News Reporter
(Published November 9, 2000)

Alaskans have stories to tell and traditions to honor. Those two goals intersect at a pair of Web sites from the University of Alaska Anchorage. LitSite Alaska was formally introduced on Oct. 11. The Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project has been up and running, quietly, for more than two years.

Although the sites have different approaches, both provide a way for Alaskans to connect with one another and to appreciate the state's ancient and active cultures. Both promote literacy and a sense of place. That sense of place is the most striking aspect of LitSite Alaska, which tells the stories of ordinary Alaskans who do extraordinary things. For example, it introduces Sophie Prosser, who 62 years ago went on a hunger strike until her parents agreed to send her to high school. But the site also finds the extraordinary in the everyday. A mom reads 300 books a month to her children. Elementary-school students craft Alaska Native-style masks and write their own legends to go with them. Two volunteers known as "the Shopping Cart Ladies" read the food ads for a public radio station for the blind.

"These are Alaskan stories. These are Alaskan values of community, of family, education and cultural values, filtered through Alaskan eyes," says Ron Spatz, a professor of creative writing at UAA.

No technological wizard -- he didn't get voice mail until a couple of years ago -- Spatz found out more about the Internet when he collaborated on a technology project. The project's focus was that information technology was important to all educational disciplines.

That led him to a question: How could this technology be used to bring people together?

An Internet site, he thought, could link communities from Barrow to Ketchikan and celebrate the "cultural richness of Alaska." It would encourage reading and writing. It could promote understanding between urban and rural communities.

The common thread? Narrative, which Spatz defines as "the way we see things, the way we explain things."

"The narrative impulse is so important to who we are, to how we define our culture," he says.

Startup funds came from a $13,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. For content, Spatz recruited parents, teachers, children and professional writers to contribute essays, lesson plans, profiles and advice.

They write about things like raising kids to be readers, what writing means to them and how storytelling enriched their understanding of their cultures.

A "Workbooks" section offers advice on writing and reading, including practical suggestions for elementary and high-school teachers. "Kids Pick 'Em" lets elementary-school students recommend books to their peers.

University chancellor Lee Gorsuch says the site is a logical extension of the university's mission, "to inspire learning."

"That doesn't mean just for those who are students. It means everybody in the entire state," Gorsuch says.

LitSite board member Carol Comeau is pleased by the fact that both children and adults contribute to the site and that different education choices -- public, private and home schools -- are represented.

"It validates lifelong learning and literacy. It validates all kinds of families and their interactions with literacy," says Comeau, acting superintendent for the Anchorage School District.

Conversely, a disappointing educational experience led to the Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project.

"It's a way of answering questions that I had in high school: Why aren't we included in Alaska history, beyond welcoming the newcomers?" says Paul Ongtooguk, senior research associate at UAA's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Not only did he not learn Alaska Native history, Ongtooguk was never encouraged to seek higher education. Counselors advised him to enter the military or train for a truck-driving job. He went to college anyway and by 1981 was a teacher.

Some Native lesson plans existed by then. However, they focused mostly on arts like carving and basket making. Alaska Native history and traditions, and the changing political climate, were largely ignored.

Ongtooguk modified the curriculum significantly; the result is still being taught in some areas. At about the same time, a Chevak teacher named John Pingayak was working on a Cup'ik curriculum. In both cases, the trouble was distribution.

"There was good material around, but teachers weren't always able to find it," says ISER director Bill McDiarmid, who taught with Pingayak years ago.

Back then, the two men thought about creating "an archive in a library." They realized that teachers would have to know the archive existed to take advantage of it, but high turnover in rural schools pretty much ensured that these lesson plans would never be widely distributed. "What the Internet did was present an opportunity to make (the curriculum) much more available to a much wider audience than we had ever imagined before," McDiarmid says.

He and the other two men crafted a two-part plan: establish an ever-growing repository of Alaska Native history, culture and language, and create a Web site on which to make it accessible to the world.

A grant from the U.S. Department of Education got the site up and running. Elders, teachers and community members contributed content on subjects such as reindeer herding, Jim Crow laws, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, respect for nature, historic places and the culture of various Native groups. Out-of-print books are available in their entirety. "We've tried to emphasize books by Alaska Native authors," Ongtooguk says.

The most fully represented language is Inupiaq. The site has audio text of elders speaking the language, an entire Inupiaq dictionary and a phrase book. (Among other things, it tells how to ask someone for a date: "Patchisaieiaqpich anaqapaak?")

"We'd like to build up the language section," McDiarmid says.

It already includes material on Yup'ik language arts and a Tlingit "sound game"; Haida, Aleut and more Tlingit are in the works.

Although the site hasn't been widely publicized, it's getting up to 30,000 hits a month, according to Ongtooguk. Not all are from teachers. Ongtooguk often hears from people who are "excited about seeing photographs of relatives, photographs of home, essays that describe experiences that were similar to their own."

"It's very satisfying," Ongtooguk says. "We were hoping it would help people."

Reporter Donna Freedman can be reached at dfreedman@adn.com.

LitSite Alaska can be found at http://litsite.uaa.alaska.edu. The Alaska Native Curriculum and Teacher Development Project is at www.Alaskool.org. Communities without Internet access can request a CD-ROM of each site; call 786-4361 for LitSite and 786-7710 for Alaskool.

This article is protected by copyright and posted on Alaskool with permission through a special arrangement with the Anchorage Daily News. This online verison is intended for educational or personal use only.