Skip to content

Conversation #6: Across Cultures

Download Conversation #6

Ray Barnhardt

Native ways of knowing have been documented now over the last dozen years or so in ways that teachers can recognize and acknowledge in their teaching and utilize as strengths in the classroom.... So when you're teaching science, you use the traditional knowledge, that people have developed over millennia to survive in a very harsh environment, to demonstrate that science is something that's practiced every day in the community. And you can find situations in the community where you can demonstrate the subject matter that would otherwise be taught from a textbook, and that's called for in the state science standards, but starting with something that's there in the community that students can relate to. And that has been one of the few if not the only approach that has made a significant difference for native students, to capitalize on their strengths, rather than punish them for their differences.

A conversation with Dr. Ray Barnhardt of University of Alaska Fairbanks on teaching and learning across cultures.

Links referenced in this episode:


Conversation #6

H: Hello, today we are talking to Dr. Ray Barnhardt. He is a professor of Cross Cultural Studies and the director of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He has a PhD in Anthropology and has published on the issue of teaching across cultures, which we will be talking about today. Hello, Dr. Barnhardt, and thank you for speaking with us.

B: Good morning.

H: And good afternoon here. I thought I would start by asking you to tell us a little bit about your own background and your own students who led you to the interest in teaching across cultures.

B: Well, depending on how one sees things, all teaching I suppose can be classified as teach across cultures, because they all bring different constellations of experiences. I started teaching when I completed my undergraduate degree in mathematics. I got a high school teaching credential. So I taught high school math in Baltimore, Maryland, for a few years in an inner city school. I encountered students whose backgrounds were certainly different than my own. I had to figure out how I would approach things as a teacher, to make algebra and geometry and so on relevant to the student. And at this time — it was back in the 1960's — at that time there was not a lot of attention being given to the cultural background of students and issues associated with that. So I went on to graduate school to better understand the issues involved, and what am I going to do about it. Which was what led me to anthropology and linking and utilizing anthropology as a framework for what goes on in schools and communities as far as education is concerned. So when I completed my graduate work at the University of Oregon, I then took a position here at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1970 and began working on the first effort to prepare Alaska natives as teachers. There were a total of six Alaskan natives in the entire state at the time, so our task was to bring what amounted to the first generation of native teachers into the system. We have been working on variations on that theme ever since, trying to sort out what that means, for a native person to assume a teaching position, and the kind of pedagogical practices that can be utilized by native and non-native teachers, and make education meaningful and relevant to the students. So pretty much that’s what I’m still doing in different arenas within the state and nationally.

H: Now when you said there were only six Alaska native teachers. Is this for secondary schools or college? Can you expand that a little?

B: K-12.

H: So that was all the native teachers, and the rest were...?

B: Imported from elsewhere, and we still import them. Approximately eighty percent of teachers who teach in Alaska, come from outside of Alaska. It’s a high turnover rate which is an ongoing problem.

H: I’m sorry I missed that last?

B: We have a high turnover rate of teachers, particularly in the rural state. An average of thirty something percent turnover rate. So the challenge of preparing teachers to be able to understand the cultural background of the students they're working with is an ongoing task. The article “Teaching Learning Across Cultures” was intended to address some of the elements associated with that task.

H: Yes, it seems like maybe you’ve got a double whammy if you're teaching native students and you’re also teaching non-native teachers to work with native students. So you deal with it from both angles?

B: Exactly, yes, it’s a different process between the two, and it works best if one could bring the two groups together in a common endeavor. Each can learn from the other, that’s one of the elements that we’ve tried to incorporate into our teacher education program.

H: We'll link to your article on our website, on our podcast website. One thing that I was struck with was you start with the importance of first impressions, and I was wondering if you can expand on that above the article. You talk about the successful first impression, but there also pitfalls we can make with our first impressions.

B: Yes certainly, the impressions work both ways. The teachers come into a village setting — I’m referring primarily to village schools in Fairbanks or Anchorage areas that look pretty much like schools anywhere, elsewhere in the rural areas it's quite different. When teachers get off the plane, which is the only way to get to most of the communities, people in the community sized them up, based on experiences with other teachers. There have been a lot of teachers who have come and gone from these communities, so community members have their own impression of what kind of person comes into the community and sort out what type of person it is. Rather if it’s someone who could work with them and become part of the community, or someone who can stand apart and remain only socially with school.

So to establish a long term relationship in a community you have to get involved in the life of the community. Not in a directive way, where you’re telling people what to do, but participating and showing respect of the things that make up life in that community. What I indicated in the article and we need to encourage teachers to do is go to the new community they haven’t been to before. Go there as far in advance as possible. Preferably months or so in advance and just get to know people and provide an opportunity for them to get to know you as a person, rather than as a teacher, so they can get to know you on personal terms. Which then carry over to their professional relationship with you so, there are a lot of tips on how to do that and what it means. A typical experience of non-native teachers going to a native community — the teacher is probably learning more themselves about the community they're working with and the students they're working with than the students are learning from them, so the getting acquainted process takes place the first year or two.

And if we have a thirty some percent turnover rate on the average, you’re looking at new teachers every three years in a school, and if it takes them two years to get up to speed, you’re only getting one year of productive work out of them. So what we’ve been doing is developing orientation programs to accelerate the getting acquainted process. Taking teachers out to fish camps, traditional settings where people are doing their customary activities and helping teachers understand how they can draw upon the expertise and knowledge in the community, as a way to liven up the curriculum. It’s a long-term process when you do that right. The average teacher ends up staying a couple years longer, five years instead of three years, and you get that much beneficial return from the effort.

H: So it actually helps with retention a little bit longer at the same time. I wonder if you could speak a little about what you were just speaking about, but apply it to another population besides Alaska. Like you mentioned about teaching in inner city schools, I’m thinking about Hispanic-serving institutions or historically black institutions. When you’re not going into a rural community where you’re getting there a month in advance might help. In an urban one where it's harder maybe to... What would be your advice for someone in that situation?

B: The kind of teaching strategies that emerge from this sort of approach — and most of them applicable in any school environment — are strategies that utilize experiential learning to a high degree. On project based learning, cultural based learning, place based learning, and those strategies are — you do them differently in an urban multicultural school context, but the strategies are nevertheless applicable and can have beneficial effects in any school context and any cultural context. As long as you're adapting to the cultural context that students are coming from. And in an urban area that’s going to be multiple cultural contexts. So you get involved in looking at variations and helping students understand differences in perspectives, history, talent, knowledge and so on. That can be drawn upon to liven up the curriculum. We’ve done this in variety of ways, in rural schools in Alaska, as well as the urban schools here. The results have been consistent in both contexts, of course you’re going to do it different in a heterogeneous setting than a homogeneous cultural setting. To capitalize on the insights and successful strategies that teachers and community members have developed over the years, we worked with elders and native educators and others throughout the state for a period of two years back in the late 1990s to develop Alaska’s standards for culturally responsive schools, a set of standards and guidelines for teachers and school boards, administrators and everybody else, regarding the kind of practices and strategies that they can utilize to incorporate a cultural lens in what goes on in school. Those standards have been adopted by the state board of education along with the state content standards in the various subject areas. Schools incorporate these into their curriculum development effort and human service programs and so on, so that in addition to the content standards that drive curriculum in schools, the cultural standards provide a how to achieve the goal that the content standards spell out by utilizing the cultural and physical environment that you’re working in. So we’ve tried to tie these pieces together in ways that make it easy, or as easy as possible, it’s not easy, but easier for teachers to utilize that cultural context as a resource in their work.

H: Well before we start talking about some tips for teaching across cultures, I want to ask a question about the first impression issue. When you’re talking about a multicultural classroom and multicultural students in a more diverse setting, how do you manage impressions then? What are your tips for managing first impressions then?

B: Well, again, students are coming from a community context and probably multiple community contexts within the given community and are approaching school, the whole purpose of school, in different ways. So the critical thing for teachers is to teach in ways that accommodate and even celebrate that diversity rather than trying to standardize things to the point where the most important aspects of students' lives, that is, their identity, who they are and where they fit into the world, gets ignored. The strategies that seem to work are the ones that tap into and build upon and strengthen students' identities. So to do that you have to demonstrate, as a teacher, respect for that diversity in the community, different forms of identity and so on, in your own behavior if you’re going to expect it from the students. So the kind of impressions you give to students when they come into the classroom on day one set up relationships that will carry over into everything you do for the remainder of the year. Students are in effect teaching the teachers as much as the teachers are teaching the students if you take that approach. That means making yourself available in a way that students can feel comfortable and that your accessible to help them deal with whatever their needs are.

H: What about the notion of color blindness? I could see a faculty member saying, "I teach content not culture, so I don’t need to know someone else’s culture because, I’m blind to culture, it has nothing to do with my scientific content" or whatever. What is your response to this idea of colorblindness?

B: Well, all you have to do is look at the distribution of student performance. If you’re taking that approach all students are performing at a comparable level indeed they're coming in on equal plane. Then apparently that’s working. But that’s not what the data says. Alaskan native students continue to be at the very lowest level in terms of academic performance of students not only in Alaska, but throughout the country. So if that’s the position you’re going to take as a teacher, you need to be able to demonstrate that you're still able to reach all students in ways that they're all able to perform at a comparable level, but that not what’s happening. So the approach that we’ve developed over the years that appears to make a difference is to not only acknowledge, but to capitalize on as a strength the diversity of student experiences in the classroom and utilize that as a foundation for all teaching, not just as another subject to add to the curriculum, but what we refer to as — we have courses and curriculum resources and so on that utilize what we call “native ways of knowing.” Native ways of knowing have been documented over the last dozen years or so in ways that teachers can recognize and acknowledge in their teaching and utilize as strengths in the classroom, different ways of knowing. So when you're teaching science you use the traditional science that people developed over millennia to survive the very harsh environment to demonstrate that science is something that's practiced every day in the community. And you can find situations in the community where you can demonstrate the subject matter that would otherwise be taught from a textbook, that’s called for in the state science standards, but you're starting with something that’s there in community, that students can relate to. That has been one of the few if not the only approach that has made a difference, a significant difference, or made students capitalize on their strengths rather than punish them for their differences.

H: I wonder if you can share a couple more of your specific tips or advice for faculty who are teaching across cultures and find themselves in that position.

B: Well let me put it into the context of a charter school that we started here four years ago. Effie Cochran Charter school, it’s based, it’s a seventh- twelfth school and it’s based on the curriculum and teaching practices is based on Alaskan native cultural, traditions, and knowledge. The whole curriculum is grounded in that Baskin cultural practices and cultural traditions as reflected in the communities here in the interior of Alaska in the Baskin area. So we have elders in the school on a regular basis. We have a fish camp, traditional authentic fish camp that the family who lives there, the elder of the name Howard Luke. This is his home, where he grew up a community existed before Fairbanks was founded, by the gold miners. We incorporate that camp as though it’s another classroom for the school for activities. Students say there building a snow shelter for people hunting in the winter time. They can go over to the camp and build a snow shelter. the way snow shelters were built many years ago, learn the traditional skills that go along with building a snow shelter, and all the terminology associated with different kinds of snow. Which is far greater than anything we have in English? Then link that to scientific principles that are embedded in that snow shelter. Learn how you keep warm. How do you glaze the inside with a heat to put on ice, and create an icy layer that creates a very warm and comfortable place to be able to stay warm and survive in a winter storm or whatever. In the shelter students have caribou hide, hide of a caribou that’s been hunted and saved the hide, caribou hide have considerable greater insulating affect in quality, than other hides as moose hides for example. So one of the challenges for the students is to figure out what is it about caribou hide that led the ancestors to incorporate them as an insulating blanket that you can put down on the snow and be quite comfortable. So when student s get back to school and get out there microscope and take a look at the hair on the caribou hide. They find out unlike moose hide hair it hollow. It’s hollow and creates and insulating layer that the air in the hollow hair. They can then develop an experiment for science fair projects were they can demonstrate the difference of the hide.
H: Oh that’s fascinating. Wow!
B: So you can use the cultural knowledge from the community to teach all subject matter, as a launching pad to teach all subjects. Not just adding it on to teach just a little bit of history, literature, basket making or something like that.
H: Well thank you so much for sharing your great work. You’re doing that’s so fascinating and I appreciate having a glimpse into that culture. On a personal note you have been there for a long time. So do you feel kind of native?
B: No, I wouldn’t pretend to do that but, I learned to appreciate things that aren’t always obvious on the surface. Working with people long enough you see patterns and elements of cultural traditions that, that one doesn’t see on a past through, basis. So it’s been very fortunate to been able to work with allot of elders and native educators. They’ve certainly taught me allot more than what I’ve taught them.
H: Did you have any idea when you started out on your career path this would end up being such a specialty in your work?
B: No, No, it just kind of happened, based on opportunities that came up along the way.
H: Well thanks again for talking to us. Do you have any last words of advice or wisdom you would like to share?
B: No, I think you’ve got what sounds like a good project there and I would be interested in following up on what you’re doing.
H: Ok well thank you, thank you very much
B: Ok, bye
H: Bye

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.