Life (and stories) in an Alaskan Eskimo village

In the early 1980’s, the Quill in Alaska project was a great adventure in learning about stories, writing, computers, classrooms, Alaska village life, bush travel, and much more. Although the temperatures were often -20˚F or below, stories from that time are burned deep in my brain. I learned that stories relate our lives, but that they also shape our lives, and create endless stories to follow.

One involved a kind of networking that shows the value of being there, even in our time of electronic communications. As I recall, on a cold, snowy day in March, I had boarded a De Havilland Beaver, similar to the one shown above, to fly from Chevak to Bethel, at the head of Kuskokwim Bay. I may have been the only passenger for that short nonstop flight.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot announced that we’d be making an unscheduled stop to pick up passengers in Scammon Bay, a village on a point jutting out into the Bering Sea. The propellers had scarcely stopped spinning when a young couple boarded. We started talking. I shared some stories about my travels to small villages around Alaska and they told me why they were flying to Bethel. They had just married, and were on their honeymoon to the big city (pop. 3000).

I asked them whether they knew of Aylette Jenness. She’s a writer of children’s books, photographer, and anthropologist, and more, a good personal friend. In the 1960’s Aylette had lived in Alaska in their very village for a year and a half. Based on her experiences there, she wrote a wonderful book, Dwellers of the Tundra: Life in an Alaskan Eskimo Village, with beautiful photos by Jonathan Jenness.

They were too young to have met Aylette, but they knew of her, and they cherished the book she wrote about their village. The young man asked me whether I remembered a photo of a woman in the book holding a young child. I said yes, it was one of my favorites in the book. He then stunned me by saying: “That woman is my mother, and that baby is me.”

We talked the rest of the flight. When I returned to Cambridge, the first thing I had to do was to tell Aylette that story, about how the characters in her book had a continuing life and were now old enough to get married and fly to Bethel. She was fascinated and immediately said: “I have to go back!”

She soon returned to their village, one generation, and more than 20 years later. Being the writer and photographer she is, wrote a second book: In Two Worlds: A Yu’pik Eskimo Family (1989).

This time, the book was co-authored, with Alice Rivers, a Scammon Bay resident, shown on the left here with Aylette on the right. The change in authorship reflects both changes in the way we write about others and Aylette’s own deepening connection with the people there.

The title reflects changes, too. It uses the name Scammon Bay residents themselves use, Yu’pik, not just a broad category, like Eskimo, and everyone is more conscious of living in multiple worlds. The people and Scammon Bay are now identified by name. The books make vivid for me my time in Alaska, even though my stay in Scammon Bay itself was probably just 15 minutes.

And the photos are now by Aylette. They’re sharper than in the first book, less dreamy and more reflective of the many facets of life in modern, yet still traditional, Alaskan villages—the two worlds.

It’s now been another generation, and time for more stories and another Scammon Bay book. In the Introduction to In Two Worlds, Alice and Aylette ask: “maybe one of Alice’s daughters will write that one. Mattie? Sarah? How about it?”

I don’t think the books are still in print, but you can easily find good quality used copies online.

Coming attractions!

Patrick W. Berry’s course website Writing Technologies is designed to “explore historical and theoretical accounts of how writing technologies have shaped and continue to shape what and how we compose” and to write “using a variety of new and sometimes old technologies in order to explore the affordances and limitations of each.” It’s wonderful to see how the medium of the course illustrates the very principles it’s teaching.

In addition to excellent standard course resources, there’s a blog, with many interesting posts. One, of special interest to me, is “The Disappearance of Technology”: The Movie. Patrick writes:

After reading Chip Bruce and Maureen Hogan’s “The Disappearance of Technology: Toward an Ecological Model of Literacy,” our class created movie posters using Photoshop that attempted to capture a central theme of the reading.

The result of this effort is available here:

The idea to do the posters and the subsequent realizations are excellent (be sure to try the slideshow option). I was impressed by the variety of responses and the creative use of photos, colors, graphics, fonts, and other visual elements. The posters show how re-mediating an idea can both bring out the meaning and add new meaning as well, with different posters bringing out different aspects of our relations with new technologies.


Since 2002 ReadWriteThink has provided literacy educators with access to a large and growing collection of free educational materials. There are hundreds of lesson plans, calendar resources, printouts, and interactive tools.

The site has become one of the most used web resources for educators and students, and has just released a much-improved design. The content is now browsable by type, grade, learning objective, theme, and allotted time. Out-of-school resources for parents and afterschool providers have been consolidated into an easily accessible section.

ReadWriteThink is a partnership between the National Council of Teachers of English, the International Reading Association, and Verizon Thinkfinity. Bringing these organizations together has been an important contribution of the project in its own right.

Inquiry Based Learning interview

Michael Hallissy recently interviewed me from Dublin, Ireland for a podcast on Inquiry Based Learning. I can’t bear to listen to my recorded self, so I’m not sure why you would, but in case you’re a masochist, the link above should be just what you need. Extra credit if you can spot the two factual mistakes we made, one by Michael and one by me.

New literacies and frogs

I visited the University of Connecticut in Storrs yesterday. It was a brief stop, but enough to be once again impressed with the excellent work of the New Literacies Research Team, led by Don Leu. They use new media, not simply to enhance or modernize in a superficial way, but to return classroom literacy to its roots in real communication. Nearly every project I heard about emphaizes reading and writing with a purpose and communication with real audiences.

For example, one project links a fourth-grade class studying the continents with a first-grade class in another state doing the same. The fourth-graders made online slide presentations to help teach the younger students, but quickly learned that their language was too advanced. They then recorded audio explanations to help explain things better.

On the way to UConn, I passed through nearby Willimantic, which is famous for its legend,“The Battle of Frog Pond”. This great battle occurred in 1754 around the time of the French and Indian War. It started with a huge racket in the middle of the night. The terrified villagers seized their muskets and prepared for the attack. In some accounts, they fired wildly across the town common. But no attack materialized. Instead, when morning arrived, they found hundreds of dead bullfrogs. A nearby pond had dried up causing the bullfrogs to fight for the remaining water.

Later, American Thread Company established a mill in the town, which grew to be one of the largest producers of thread in the world. Willimantic became known as “Thread City,” and today boasts four statues on its bridge across the Willimantic River, each with a huge thimble and a giant, now silent, bullfrog.

The possibility of making sense

earthquake-imgConnecting learning and life sometimes sounds like a useful accessory for the real business of learning in the classroom. But relevance to life is what makes learning possible.

Emerson (1983, p. 1088) reminds us that we need a reason to learn:

We learn geology the morning after the earthquake, on ghastly diagrams of cloven mountains, up-heaved plains, and the dry bed of the sea.

Frank Smith (2004, p. 182) adds that we need materials or activities out of which we can make sense:

It isn’t nonsense that stimulates children to learn but the possibility of making sense; that’s why children grow up speaking language and not imitating the noise of the air conditioner.

All too often, we struggle to motivate, monitor, and assess learning because students aren’t learning, or worse, the classroom feels lifeless. But that struggle is futile if we don’t face the real problem, that learning needs to make sense, to have an intrinsic purpose for the learner. Paraphrasing Wittgenstein (1958, II, iv, 232), the existence of a repertoire of teaching methods “makes us think we have the means of solving the problems which trouble us.” But the real problem in many formal learning situations is that there is no reason to learn, and “problem and method pass one another by.”

See more about purpose in learning in my post on Education for what is real.


Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1983). Essays and lectures. Des Moines, IA: The Library of America.

Smith, Frank (2004). Understanding reading: A psycholinguistic analysis of reading and learning to read (6th Ed.).  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1958). Philosophical investigations, third edition (trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Macmillan.

Governor’s Home Town Award for UC Books To Prisoners!

UC Books To Prisoners – a project of the UCIMC (B2P) is based in Urbana, Illinois. B2P mails books to Illinois inmates at no cost to them and operates lending libraries in the two local county jails.

guv_mansionB2P has just been awarded a Governor’s Home Town Award (for volunteerism).  The award makes B2P eligible for the Governor’s Cup, a traveling silver trophy signifying the project deemed most representative of the spirit of Illinois volunteerism. The award will be presented at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield on October 29. At that time, we’ll learn what level of award B2P has received.

Books to Prisoners has also received a Social Justice grant from the Illinois Disciples Foundation, with a press conference on October 1, and an honorable mention from the McKinley Foundation Social Justice Awards.