Web-based history curriculum helps teachers

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2005

Before Juneau-Douglas High School students leave Kurt Dzinich's Alaska history class, they should know who qualifies for subsistence under differing federal and state laws, and that most rural Alaskans aren't Native.

"It shocks a lot of people to know that the majority of people living in the Bush are not Native," Dzinich said last week.

Dzinich is among 25 teachers who are trying out a Web-based Alaska history and cultural studies curriculum developed for the Alaska Humanities Forum.

Over the years Dzinich has collected his own course materials. He also provides students with a college-level textbook and a shorter book about Native cultures.

The most recent high school text on the subject was published in the 1980s, said Marjorie Menzi of Juneau, who directed the humanities forum's curriculum project.

"I've scavenged stuff for years off the Internet and from former teachers," said Rob Steward, who teaches Alaska history at Klawock High School, where it has been a required one-year course.

"There's been some good books out there that have helped ... It's really been putting together what you can. There's been no developed curriculum," Steward said.

On Wednesday, Dzinich's students were making posters about subsistence by using handouts Dzinich had collected. They were to note who qualifies for it; what percentages of fish are taken by commercial, sport and subsistence users; explain federal and state management; and list what foods make up the rural harvest by percentage.

Tim Travis, a Marine who took Dzinich's course as a senior last year, said he thought he knew Alaska's history beforehand.

"I didn't know anything," he said.

Travis said he didn't previously know why the Russians came here and for how long, how they struggled with Native tribes, or why there are Native corporations today.

"All the information I learned about (the corporations) made it seem more fair," he said. "It made more sense afterwards."

Dzinich has taught Alaska history for several years at JDHS, where it is one of several one-semester electives offered by the social studies department. Starting next school year, the state's high school students must complete a semester-long Alaska history course or demonstrate proficiency in the subject.

The humanities forum has received three federal grants, earmarked by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, totaling $1.2 million, said Executive Director Ira Perman.

The grants paid to create the curriculum, develop a Web site and produce free computer CDs to hold the material, and train teachers. The funds will pay to update the curriculum, make CDs in bulk, and train teachers for four more years, Perman said.

The curriculum was developed in about a year after a group of academics, high school teachers, cultural specialists and others met for several months to decide what it should include.

The curriculum on the free Web site, www.akhistorycourse.org, is intended as a one-semester survey course for high school students. It's broken down into units on Alaska's cultures, geography, Russia's colony, America's territory, modern Alaska and governing Alaska.

It includes a chronological text, essays by academics, primary sources, links to other Web sites, suggested field trips, and a guide for teachers. It has visual features such as a video about Elizabeth Peratrovich.

Dzinich and Steward use the Web site to supplement what they already were doing. But with the new mandate, many teachers will face the subject for the first time.

"For somebody who comes in new to teaching Alaska history, man, would it be a great thing to start with," Steward said. "It's always tough to be thrown into something. Let's face it, there's no great textbook out there."

The curriculum's creators weren't sure how it would be used in the classroom. The pilot teachers are scheduled to meet Jan. 21 in Anchorage to talk about it.

At times, students troop to a computer lab and read from the Web site themselves, particularly from primary sources such as letters by Russian explorers, teachers said in interviews. But it's not likely that many classrooms have enough computers for daily use of the Web site, or that labs are always available.

In other cases, teachers print out material from the site, or use its information to shape their lectures or assignments.

"One of the pros of the course is that kids are intrinsically interested just because of the fact that it's on a computer," Steward said. "And of course the resources that are there with this Web site are phenomenal, and it's organized for them."

Putting the curriculum on the Web makes it easy to add to or correct, Perman said. The CDs are useful for parents or schools that don't have broadband access to the Internet.

Writing for a Web site wasn't troubling but challenging and interesting, said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Haycox, author of several college-level texts, wrote the units on Russian and modern history.

He is among the UA faculty who have pioneered distance courses, first by television with audio interaction with students, and then on the Web.

"I'm somewhat skeptical about a Web course because for all of the reputation of the Web as equivalent (to in-person classes), I don't find that it is," Haycox said. "... The whole idea of getting this up on the Web is so that the material is available."

In this case, though, the Web materials are likely to be mediated by a classroom teacher anyway. The exception is home-schooled children.

The course, if widely used, could standardize what is taught as Alaska history, Wilcox said. When the state considered mandating a course, officials heard concerns about local control.

But the curriculum's creators took the stance that they would provide as much material as they could and let teachers select from it.

Alaska's certified teachers are required to take college courses in Alaska history and cultures, so they should be capable of using the forum's curriculum, Haycox said.

It was difficult to write for high school students, with their widely differing reading abilities, and there wasn't much time, said Paul Ongtooguk, an assistant professor of education at UAA, who wrote the curriculum's section on cultures. He has taught at the middle school and high school levels.

His section on Alaska's cultures wasn't trying to cover all the history that could be done, he said.

"But what we can do is point out ways in which stories and traditions often get warped when they're picked out of context," he said.

In prior Alaska histories, Ongtooguk said, Natives are "in the welcome-the-boat mode." They are represented by icons such as totems, dance fans, moosehides and igloos. "And then we disappear while the real history goes on, which is pioneer history. Even the Russians get short-changed," he said.

Ongtooguk said he wanted to surprise readers with Native historical figures they didn't know about. He wanted readers to know that Native education existed before Sheldon Jackson, and that the Native claims settlement act was far from ideal.

The history course leads to the more profound question of what are the relationships between human beings, Haycox said.

"We aren't running around in a vacuum," he said.

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