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.

The Quill greenhouse project in Hartford

Tending the plants Tending plants in the greenhouse Writing at the one Apple II computer Writing at the one Apple II computer

The images here are from 25-year-old 35 mm slides, so they’re not very clear, but the story is still relevant.

In 1982-84 I did some work with the Mary Hooker elementary school in Hartford, CT. We had developed a computer program called Quill, which allowed children to write and send email. Our test classroom at the school was taught by Jim Aldridge, who learned a week before classes started that he was to teach 6th, not 3rd, grade, was to work with the local garden club on a greenhouse project, and was to be a test site for Quill.

Jim’s class had 35 students, all from Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African-American backgrounds. There was a high level of transiency. Some students spent large portions of the winter in Puerto Rico; others simply didn’t come to school. The school was under-resourced and had policies such as requiring students to specify in advance how many sheets of toilet paper they needed for a bathroom trip, since students weren’t trusted with full paper rolls.

As a fairly new teacher, Jim was naturally a bit concerned. We worked out a way to use the Quill Planner feature for students to do lab reports on the plants in the greenhouse. This at least made the innovations more manageable. As things settled down, we found that the greenhouse became a focal point for learning. Several students who were on the verge of dropping out stayed in the class so they could work with the greenhouse and the computer. Some of this work is described in Electronic Quills: A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers for Writing in Classrooms (B. C. Bruce & A. Rubin; pub: Erlbaum, 1993).

It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come with similar projects today, such as Urban Agriculture in the Context of Social Ecology at the Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Chicago, which exemplifies the idea of the school as social center.

Seed packets and Planner notes
Seed packets and Planner notes

Quill, revisited

Quill iLab As an experiment to test iLabs version 3, and also to satisfy a long-standing impulse of mine to resurrect Quill, I created a Quill iLab (click on the image to see more).

This iLab combines information that used to be on basic html pages regarding the book, Electronic Quills: A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers to Teach Writing, and new interactive features, which emulate what Quill did on Apple II computers many years ago. The example texts are taken directly from the book, and represent examples actually written by students during the Quill project.

I was pleased to see that iLabs could do much of what Quill did, and in a much easier way than writing in Pascal on the Apple, with its 64KB memory. I was also reminded that we had some good ideas for promoting writing and collaboration, even with that primitive equipment.

Check it out and let me know what you think. If you’d like to be authorized as a member so you can see how entering texts work, just let me know.

Electronic Quills: A situated evaluation of using computers for writing in classrooms

Quill bookQuill was a suite of software tools designed to foster an environment for literacy in classrooms. We wrote it in Pascal for the Apple II computer. The software, teacher’s guide, and workshops were used widely, including in village schools in Alaska, which I visited three times during the project in 1983-84. Carol Barnhardt played a major role in setting up that Alaska project and in helping us understand the history and context of schooling in Alaska.
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Quill teacher’s guide

Quill is a set of microcomputer programs that use the computer’s capabilities to help teachers teach writing. Students from third grade through high school have been successful with Quill, including gifted and talented, special education, and English as a second language students.

The Quill programs are tools for teachers and students. Teachers can use Quill to provide challenging, meaningful writing activities for students. Students can use the programs to practice various types of writing and produce finished products they can share with classmates and teachers. These are motivating, adaptable writing activities that supplement and enrich existing language arts curricula, and can be integrated into all content areas.