Big Hearts in the Valley

Culturally Responsive Teaching

In the music room at Glacier Valley Elementary Schools, we have made efforts to have both a place-based and multicultural approach to education.

My host teacher, an energetic and experience music educator, has for many years brought a wide variety of songs from around the world to teach her students. There is a song to teach students the continents of our world, and it acts as a ritual to help the students learn where their newest musical experience is coming from. She has also collected a vast variety of instruments, including hand drums, keyboard percussion, hand-bells, shakers, guiros, violins, guitars, ukuleles, and clever plastic tubes called boom whackers.

We have collaboratively incorporated language arts – breaking down the sounds and syllables of words from a diversity of cultures while learning their meaning. I learned a few activities from Ed Littlefield, a fantastic love-filled musician from Sitka, AK, who has developed curriculum and activities based on Tlingit oral tradition. He taught me a few words in Tlingit, enough that I felt comfortable leading partner activities where we said gunalcheesh and hande I jin when we find and interact with partners. In these activities, students reinforce their learning, or brainstorm ways to hold each other up. In collaboration with Cultural Specialist Hans Chester, I have helped my class learn gaaw a wa, and gaaw a ya to connect us to drums, time, and our hearts while we make music. We have focused on the Southeast Tribal Value of “Hold Each Other Up” in many of our lessons and we have developed it into the norms of our music classroom. We have explored how practice this value musically and socially. I hope activities like these continue to connect us to the living, ancient, and wonderful Tlingit culture.

At the suggestion of fellow MAT Meghan J, we incorporated a brief history lesson into our guitar unit for 4th & 5th grade students. This has given us a chance to teach students about the long, global history of the guitar – learning the origins of the word chordophone, guitar, and the meaning of flamenco.

These examples of guitar heritage give our small classes a global connection to the instrument, and have created valuable opportunities for students to really connect with the instrument. Students of diverse backgrounds have recognized Persian classical musics their grandparents played, or recognized the similarity of the Sanskrit word Chatar to the Sitar of Indian origin.

Global explorations have given us the chance to talk about the culture of music outside of the Western Classical tradition (which, in my opinion, dominates our expectations for the way we teach, experience, and perform most musics in the world today). We have discussed the communal nature of music in Romani culture where children are as important of performers as grandparents. We got to discuss how music, in some societies, is part of every day life and is a joyful celebration to be experienced anywhere, anytime, with anybody.

I hope these extensions are empowering to the students, giving them a stronger desire and connection to the skills they are developing in the music classroom.

The Heart is the Loom

Threads are Tied

When I think of teachers who have strongly effected me, I get to think back to many of my various music teachers. There is something about the expressive nature of music that naturally brings mentor-ship into the classroom. It is a hard subject to quantify academically – in my opinion, it is harder to judge skill than in other arts because individuals rarely perform on their own.

If there’s one thing I remember about my favorite musicians to learn from, its that they ask the best questions – big questions. These are the kind of questions that get you thinking about the nature of music, the role of the musician, and who you are – and who your family is.

I had the privilege of having the same band director in middle school and high school. We developed a strong relationship because of it – we regularly saw each other during, through, and after school. He was a motivator – he often asked me questions that got me to try harder. “Why aren’t you trying out for Section Leader?” or “Why Aren’t you applying to college?”. I’ll admit it – I was rather disenfranchised with school by the time I was in 11th and 12th grade. I wanted to move on, and I was pushing away from things like marching band and wanting to go to college for music. His questions stuck with me after I graduated high school – why wasn’t I doing more?

Little did I know that question the irked me, and challenged the low-hanging-fruit-picker I had chosen to be, would motivate me to do more. I applied to university, and went into music. It wasn’t easy, but along the way I started meeting musicians and artists that had more questions for me. What is the right note? What did Shostakovich’s work mean? What is silence? What is music?

Somehow, nearly a decade later, those caring, motivating, and self-challenging questions have led me to a career I never expected.


Them rutabagas ain't edumicatin' theirselves.
Them rutabagas ain’t edumicatin’ theirselves. Credit: Peter Fraser Dig on For Victory

Being Flexible

If there’s anything I’ve learned from undertaking projects, its time management is your friend and the project will almost always end up different than you expected. This is true from my experience composing music and programming software – by the end, you rarely recognize the final product in relation to the notes you started with. This is true of project based learning, too. Our initial outset for an iBook was intimidating – and its clear from our work-flow – the place we ended was different than expected.

I feel this is necessary – and its something I understand as a musician and educator. The idea you have at the beginning is rarely the idea you end up with. Being flexible is incredibly important. As an educator, you need to be able to step back and reconsider your lesson plans and workflow, often in the middle of a class. It takes a deep understanding of your subject matter and your students. You kinda have to be ready for everything.

We had the benefit of being teams. We weren’t an educator lost to make the changes on our own, but rather had the Super Cadre and some awesome instructors to help us achieve the best project possible.


I feel there’s been varying opinions on what we really learned about Alaska and its rich history – but I have to say I feel I learned a lot. I doubt I’d pass a test, but I feel I really internalized much of what I researched deep in my being.

Honestly, another approach and I wouldn’t have been as interested – I was researching into the night until the last minute digging deeper into the story of the West Coast. Only sleep could conquer my insatiable desire to learn more. I read so many things I knew were impractical for our iBook intro or my lesson just because I was interested. I read things about other regions because I wanted to know more.

An assigned series of primary sources and readings would have been less interesting to me – I was initially afraid of the self guided research, but I found so much that intrigued me I ended up with far more than I could use in a practical way. Even if my research was limited by being an outsider, I feel my desire to provide an honest narrative of Alaska and its history helped me feel confident in my contribution.

Conflict and Beer

The conflicted nature of a project is it needs to be well defined at its outset, but also willing to eschew any of its standards along the way to succeed. I think this is what made our iBook stressful but successful (that would be a good motto for a personal trainer!). Just imagine how you would feel about our final product if we hadn’t had the last day where we edited with essential questions and balance in mind…

It feels scary if we didn’t have that amazing day – and there has to be time for students to reflect on their progress, too. If they just finish a big thing and have no chance for reflection, it makes the final product less impressive.

That means its time to step back, relax, and take advantage of finishing a project like an adult.

A Few Words About Words

Culture and Power

680 has been a deep and interesting experience. Looking back on the three weeks, there have been many valuable lessons on the interplay of culture and power in relation to teaching. I think perhaps the most revealing was the final day of class when we group edited sections of the Alaska iBook we had written. It was a chance for us to work as a team to analyze, discuss, and question the way things were worded and presented in the section of the book our peers had written. There were some great conversations about how a word, even when used correctly can be re-read to shift the narrative of written text. Because of their context these words easily twist the intended meaning.

In my group, I felt there was a concerted effort to be positive about these readings. We had no desire to meticulously pick apart the writings for every misinterpretation possible. Rather, we collaborated to arrive at a clear, effective, and fair text. It was really awesome to come together with the group that had written the section, and discuss our findings. I felt we had a good synergy passing on our edits. We got to discuss how language, page design, tense, and nouns shifted the narrative. It was revealing, and caused some moans and laughs (both powered by stress!), but it led to a more robust body of literature.

Receiving our edits was a powerful experience – it was a place of vulnerability. I was not afraid, but more of disappointed that I had missed things that could be so easily misconstrued or non-representative of the whole truth. Our editors showed so much courage in helping us find a way to balance our writing.

Over that hour we came together and made the space for a better text to exist. This is something I’m grateful for, because our group had reached a wall where we couldn’t find the way to balance our writing and present something we were really proud to have written. It was a sinking frustration that pushed us to produce a new section of the book which gave the writing a far more dour tone that we had ever desired. In our desire to correct the balance in the narrative, we had dug a deeper hole.

This was important. Really important. It helped me realize through my own writing and the writing of my peers how we perceive, present, and understand culture with words. Written language is one of the easiest and most common ways to share and consume information – but the value of the words used can dramatically change the meaning when read by other eyes. Those words are able to establish control and power, or they are able to support all voices fairly. It cannot be both at once. We had to learn how to shift our writing to the latter. I am still amazed that what I had written was misleading of the living dynamic culture I had studied, because it had come from predominantly Alaska Native sources and documents. My writing had accidentally treated them as past, disappearing, and fragmented when they are a resilient, proud, and growing culture.

I believe this is what I’m taking away from 680 and 600 – a different lens. There is so much that can be done to shift the way we talk about cultures. We can approach every subject taught in schools with critical thinking and creative engagement of our minds, and the sense of ownership we achieve is much greater for that dedication. It is not the easiest path, but it is the most beautiful. We have to draw the bias and power out of the materials we teach, and discuss those ideas. Otherwise, true change will never happen.

Words from the Word Wall

People connect in the deepest ways when they tell stories. I experienced the joy of stories in the classroom when I taught at a youth orchestra in Edmonton, AB, one year ago. We had a rough start in my class – some of the students were misbehaving regularly, and some of the students were ostracized for being different. It was a diverse classroom – every student had roots from a different ethnicity.

I made sure that every day we had circle time. We started our day together, everyone equal. One of our rules was everyone got their chance to speak, and everyone got their chance to share. It wasn’t always easy, but it helped so much. The students got the chance to develop their own rules, speak about their feelings, and work through things together. For young students just learning how to express themselves, this environment was important. They learned so much about telling their story and getting the chance to have their input! It really built our team.

I also learned through collaborative work with Katie Kroko the value of collecting stories to gain a deep understanding of culture. We visited Nebraska two summers in a row – 2014, and 2015 – for an artistic residency. We spent almost three months there between the two residencies. We arrived at our first residency fearful that Nebraska would be strange, unfamiliar, and uninviting. Our presumptions were wrong. We were openly embraced by the local communities and swiftly developed valuable friendships. We were asking people to express themselves in their own words – some people warmed up to this idea, and others didn’t. When our interviewees did, we often got moving raw emotion. Those are some of the most amazing musical experiences shared with anyone. I feel we often neglect the musical nature of speech and story, and we focus too much on the Western Classical ideals of harmony and rhythm. Tell your story. Its a beautiful one.

Dynamic, not Static

Moving, flowing, changing...
Moving, flowing, changing…

When we let ourselves, we can achieve a different way of acting and thinking. This is true in creative practice, but also in the classroom. When everything is a series of yes or no questions and menial tasks, it is hard to really express yourself or think deeply. By offering students group, pair, and discussion activities we can generate opportunities to promote critical thinking and excite discussion. I feel this connects to the idea of stories – stories are interesting because everyone has their own way of telling a story.

I remember when Joe sat down with us after our visit to the Culture Camp and told us his version of a story about Porcupines, and how a hunter learned their stomachs contained healing properties. Surely it wasn’t the voice of an elder telling the story, but there was still a dynamic magic. His story engaged us visually and aurally, for a few minutes time was suspended and we were all able to enter deep thought. So, too, was the reading of “Secret of the Dance” such an un-static state. It drew us visually, aurally, and mentally into thinking. We were predicting, remembering, and active in the now.

We cannot expect to keep trying the same thing over and over again and get different results. That’s commonly attributed to madness. If a student fails, we don’t push them harder down the same road. We step back, and ask ourselves “What does this student need?” or “What can I change about my lessons, my classroom, my approach?” – always hoping that there’s a way. When we make walls and barriers, students are sure to fail. To be static, unchanging, and unwilling to connect is to structure a classroom and a social norm that breaks humans.

I want to provide a variety of ways to learn in my classroom – I love moving, singing, reading, listening, and making art to engage my students.


Connecting knowledge to the world around us.
Connecting knowledge to the world around us.

I have found the idea of Place Based Education to be one of my favorite ideas from this course. I already felt a strong connection to dynamic learning methods it brings into the classroom. Yet, the idea of educating about a place is new to me. Too often have I taken courses or taught with an educational lens focused so far way from the world around me that I can’t even conceive of what I am not learning. When Scott Christian had us write down facts about our ‘home’ a few weeks ago, I was flabbergasted as I realized I knew nothing about the place I grew up – a place I called home for 20 years – a place I still have a hard time not calling home. How can public education miss something so important?

Place obviously has value – the places I have connected with and learned about through field recording, interviews, and researching on-line are the ones I remember best. I feel like those places are a part of my identity and my intelligence. The places I didn’t bond with through learning and discovery don’t hold that same weight or importance.

I desire to bring this idea into the classroom – connecting students to the community. I feel it solves a challenge I have wondered about with multicultural education. How do you connect with a truly multicultural classroom? One or two cultures in the classroom is hard enough, but what about an area where every student has a different background? It would be impossible to know enough about each student to bring their own heritage into the classroom. Yet, I feel placed based education provides a way. By connecting students to their community, you can help nourish connections where the class develops its own ideas about the place they live, and also interact with the people and stories from that community. It is something to explore – I love Scott’s idea about interviewing community members, and I feel there are other great projects that can connect students to the place they live.

Looking Forward

I really want to find ways to engage my music classrooms with culture. I’d be glad to invite Elder’s to teach songs or visit to share stories. I also really love the idea of using picture books. I love reading, and I love making character voices, so its perfect for the upcoming work I’ll do in primary classrooms. I’m itching to do some place-baced learning, and as many of you know I’d love to do a listening log, recording project, or something of the likes. We often forget our ears for our eyes and words. All power to the cochlea!

Thanks Angie and Peter for awesome classes. I wish they were continuing next week.

Lesson Plan: Finding Folklore

Lesson Overview

Finding Folklore is a technology focused music lesson. The goal is to connect students with their local community by conducting an interview. The interviews will be digital recordings of audio, or written accounts. These documents will then be posted on-line to be shared with the world. It is an intense project where the students will pick their interviewees, collect the interviews, document them accordingly, and then preserve them on-line. The project will be concluded with student reflections and (hopefully) a chance to share the recordings with the local community.

This lesson correlates with an interactive iBook (see PDF version below) for the students to learn about the Yup’ik, and their efforts to preserve their language and culture through radio, video, and audio. This will help students obtain an understanding of the value of oral history while providing them an example of that process. This iBook also outlines the possible projects the students will partake.

Curriculum Standards

I feel my lesson best fits the Cultural Curriculum Standard C, focusing on number 6:

“Makes appropriate use of modern tools and technology to help document and transmit traditional cultural knowledge.”

I feel this way because I am inviting students to use technology to collect local oral history and then share it on-line. This creates a new strain of place based history, while also teaching students communication skills, recording and note taking skills, and technology skills to share their creations on-line.

Lesson Materials and Supplementary Documents

The Lesson Plan

This is the primary material for the process of teaching this lesson. It contains an overview of rubrics, expectations, lesson pacing, and more. Enjoy!

Israelsen – Finding Folklore Lesson Plan

Finding Folklore iBook as a PDF


These are early drafts of documents for the students to interact with to generate interviewees, questions, and more. These will help guide the students through the long term project and provide adequate ways to grade and monitor student involvement and understanding.

Who I Would Like to Interview

Getting Ready for Interviews

Brainstorming Questions

Projects for Finding Folklore

Links to Material in the iBook

The iBook utilizes a series of on-line resources to help students learn – for those that can’t use iBooks, these links proved the information linked in the lesson so that it can be taught effectively. The PDF of the iBook (see above) roughly shows how these materials are presented!

Our Yup’ik Language on YouTube by the LKSD Media Film Group.

John Active tells a Scary Story on YouTube from the Alaska Dispatch News.

Mike’s Mouse and Gram Story on Soundcloud from the Iguigig School District.

Evelyn’s Pronunciation of Mike’s Mouse and Gram Story on Soundcloud from the Iguigig School District.

John Active on Broadcasting.

KYUK AM 640 of Yup’ik Language Radio Broadcasts.

Teaching from the Curriculum Standards

The Letter C

My group’s Multicultural Curriculum Standard was…

C !!!

To quote, Curriculum Standard C states: “A culturally-responsive curriculum uses the local language and cultural knowledge as a foundation for the rest of the curriculum.”

Photograph: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Photograph: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lesson Snippet 1: Talk about a Local Music Festival

I thought introducing students to an upcoming music festival/event would be a good way to incorporate Standard C into the music classroom. I could look ahead at the schedule for performing arts in the community, and seek out an opportunity like Folk Fest to preview some of the performers in the classroom. The students and I could watch videos of performances, and answer some questions about the music – what instruments, where does this music come from, what are the lyrics about, etc. It would also be a way to educate kids about upcoming events in the community so they could go out and see/hear some live performances.

This idea connects really well with something like Celebration, where I could invite an elder/culture bearer to come into the classroom and teach the students about the music of the Tlin’git. It would also be a great opportunity to learn about their instruments, traits of their songs and dances, and delve deeper into how the music was used for education and spirituality simultaneously.

Lesson Snippet 2:

I am still working on the idea of using smart phones and other technology as a way to promote students recording interviews with family, friends, and other people in the community. I think its an awesome way to connect them to people, and teach them some important conversation skills. Its also a great way for them to engage oral tradition and learn how easy it is to help record and document society for further generations.

Learning from Picture Books

Orca’s Song


I read Orca’s Song by Anne Cameron. Finding literature – especially picture books – to read in a music classroom is difficult. They can be hard to tie into the lesson material, especially in a strings focused class (like I am used to teaching). Yet there are really valuable stories to read in class as a music educator, because one of the biggest challenges with a music class is working together in a creative space. Students can often be more vulnerable or uncertain when they have the freedom to move around and express themselves with something abstract like music.

I like Orca’s Song as a book to help in the musical classroom – one, because I felt it could tie into a musical lesson, and two because it had some important themes that could build the sense of teamwork, community, and working together I strive for in my classroom.

Orca’s Song is about an Orca who becomes fascinated with an Osprey. The osprey in turn, becomes fascinated with the orca. The two try harder and harder to be close to each other. Eventually, the orca brings the osprey a fish and its true love. The osprey teaches the orca to sing, and the orca teaches the osprey to fish. They fall in love and have a baby. Their orca can jump higher than any other fish in the sea, almost as if it could fly.

Rubric and Multicultural Value

Cameron was born in British Columbia, but from what I can tell is not a Native writer. I feel her work portrays native values well, and it appears from her background and other works she aspires to be sensitive and accurate to the culture’s values and stories. I would give it a lot of 3s – it seems pretty solid to me!

Using it in the Classroom

This story works well for a class that needs help building its team – the orca and the osprey clearly come from totally different ways of life, but by meeting in the middle the come to truly care about each other, and both end up the better. By overcoming their differences, they learn from each other and live more exciting lives.

In addition to the valuable moral lesson, the text is also extremely rich with musical writing. This book could be mapped out by a class into a visual score, or sentences of what happened in the story – and then performed by the students as a sonic story. They could make the sounds of the orca, the osprey, and figure out how those sounds change after the two animals teach each other.

For elementary level students, it could easily be a movement and improvisation game where they assign sounds to each part of the story. High schoolers and middle schoolers could get deeper into the idea of picking the right sounds and developing a musical structure to help tell the story.

Cameron, Anne. Orca’s Song. Madeira Park, B.C. Harbour Publishing. 1987