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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Experiential Learning as a Link to Native American History

Children construct a traditional canoe like those used by indigenous peoples as part of their exploration of the past.
Ken Ellis
Former Executive Producer, video , Edutopia
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VIDEO: Students Carve Cultural Connections -- and a Canoe

Running Time: 8 min.

On a bright Seattle Sunday, Sáádúúts Peele, a master carver originally from Hydaburg, Alaska, surveys his work party. "Ready? One . . . two . . . three. Woooooo . . . woooooo!" Summoning the collective energy that brought them together to create something magical, the students, teachers, and parents of Seattle's Alternative School 1 lift their 800-pound canoe and slowly march it to a launch site at Golden Gardens, on Puget Sound.

It is an impressive work: a hand-carved, hand-painted 40-foot-long voyaging canoe, just like the Haida vessels that plied the seas of the Pacific Northwest hundreds of years ago.

AS-1's seventh graders have done much of the canoe carving, spending two school-day mornings each month as part of their Native American culture history curriculum. They have also joined after-school and weekend work parties that include other AS-1 students, parents, and community members.

A nonprofit organization, Carving Culture Connections (CCC), founded by Peele, secured a 6-ton cedar log from Alaska and monitored every step of the three-year-long process of transforming it into a traditional voyaging canoe.

Credit: Dan Lamont

"I never doubted the kids," says Peele as he watches the older students shave the log with sharp carving tools. "The teaching is about them having confidence, so I let them use all the tools -- the sledgehammer and wedges."

"The biggest challenge for the children was to live on Indian time," says CCC director Melissa Koch, "to allow for the time it takes to live through a process. They learned that if you keep working every day in a disciplined fashion, as community, you can create something absolutely wonderful."

The canoe was carved at the Center for Wooden Boats, where Seattle residents of all ages come to build, paddle, and sail everything from small model boats to ocean-going yachts.

"It's really exciting to be able to say yes to kids," says center Executive Director Betsy Davis. "'Yes, you can go out in the boat.' 'Yes, you can steer the boat.' 'Yes, you can hold this sharp tool and cut wood with it on a canoe or on a pond boat.' And when they collaborate and get something accomplished, there's just a great shine in their smile."

Former AS-1 student Charlotte launches her "pond" boat.

Credit: Edutopia

Former AS-1 principal Ron Snyder initially connected the school to the center through a pond-boat project, where students applied the technique of lofting to create small models of sailing yachts. "Lofting involves scale and proportion, measurement, transferring your measurements, and knowing how to use the tools to transform the wood into an object in exact proportions to a blueprint," says Snyder.

Whether the subject is math or history, he believes the best way to teach it is through hands-on experience. "Experience-based education sticks," Snyder adds. "You really find out not about some twisted figment of history, but about yourself and your relationship to your history."

As the canoe neared completion, the AS-1 students decided to give it to Peele's Native American tribe -- and deliver it to them in Hydaburg. To help prepare students for the trip, Snyder gave them a crash course in traditional paddling. "It's important, as warriors, to look good," he told the seventh graders, listening with paddles and lifejackets at the ready. "And you'll present yourselves as warriors, as a proud people."

During the practice paddle that followed Snyder's talk, he noticed that though the group's technique could be improved, its spirit was impeccable. "They really got how sharp they looked and how powerful they were," he says. "There was a tremendous aura of pride in that canoe."

The living-history lesson culminated in April 2004, when the canoe was shipped to Hydaburg, ceremoniously carried into the village, and paddled ashore by the students of AS-1. For Peele, it was the fulfillment of a vision that had come to him in a dream. "It made my heart cry with joy to see the cultural connection when my people were standing on the beach waiting to receive the canoe," he says. "It touched everybody on both sides of the connection."

For AS-1 parent Susan Hoyt, the project was the best kind of learning experience. "I just loved the idea that kids could study Northwest native canoe culture not just from textbooks and lectures, but also from meeting people, getting into the culture, producing a canoe," says Hoyt. "It's really an integrative form of learning: the mathematical stuff you need to work on the canoe, the woodworking training, and learning how to work cooperatively in a group. It just seemed like an opportunity that I as a parent didn't want to pass up."

Fellow AS-1 parent and Seattle photographer Dan Lamont captured the entire project in stunning photograph and helped guide the volunteer effort.

AS-1's carving connection continues today, with three more logs in various stages of becoming canoes at the Center for Wooden Boats. For Peele, the success of the canoe project underscores the value of hands-on learning.

"We're cutting too many things out of the children's lives -- working with their hands, mind, and spirit," he says. "We can't keep them on the side and expect them to learn. They have to have hands on, be part of it. We could tell this story, but if they practice this story and do it hands on, it's a living story, and that's why they want to be part of it."

But Can They Pass The Test?

Though there is little doubt that their living-history lesson will stay with these students for a lifetime, it doesn't mean they can ace a paper-and-pencil test on the subject. In fact, AS-1 standardized-test scores are comparatively low -- partially because the majority of students opt out of taking Washington's state exams and consequently receive a grade of zero. Believing that the tests don't properly gauge the value of time spent on projects such as the canoe effort, AS-1 is part of a growing movement in the state to develop alternative forms of assessment.

VIDEO: The Forum

Running Time: 3 min.

Formed as an alternative school in 1972, AS-1 has often bucked convention. One of its first principles was: "We will listen to our children, and we will adapt our systems to them." That tradition continues today with the Forum, an elective class in which students from every grade come together to speak their minds and help each other resolve their differences.

Like the Canoe Project, the Forum teaches invaluable lessons in cooperation and self-respect. "People learn to listen to each other," says Forum teacher Debra DiDomenico. "They learn that there's another avenue besides hitting or screaming or yelling, or going to get someone. The children learn that they can become empowered and that they can take care of their own stuff." For many at AS-1, that is the ultimate test.

Ken Ellis is executive producer of Edutopia video.

Comments (6) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a wonderful learning experience. I truly believe that when students are engaged in meaningful learning which provides multi-sensory learning styles students make the connection and the learning sticks. This experience not only teaches children about culture it is also building self-esteem and teamwork which all students need to feel successful.

Lisa (Miami, FL)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read about this experience and I think there should be more accessible schools like this. Hands on experiences are the ones that stick because it becomes more easy to connect. I believe we would benefit more as a society if we teach children to have a more active and involve spirit on issues that will benefit us, as a society. I truly respect the Forum elective class. It teaches acceptance and tolerance of different ethnic and cultural groups living in this wonderful country of United Nations.

Lisa (Miami, FL)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I support your thoughts because as a teacher of pre-school children; I've seen how they are empowered when given the opportunity to exercise their ideas, feelings and thoughts.

Janelle, Yaphank NY's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great way for kids to experience history and learn new skills in the process! As a teacher of young children, a lot of what we do is hands-on learning. The more senses involved the better! I think that whatever the age of the learner, the more connections that can be made from the activity to "real life", the greater the benefit. Not only did these kids learn of their areas' history and new skills for themselves, I can only imagine the personal growth that occurred: increased self esteem, confidence, cooperation with others, and the list could go on. Thank you for sharing this experience through the article and video.

Pam (Northern Saskatchewan, Canada)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel the only way to teach life skills is through hands on learning. Students who are involved in hands on activities learn academics, socialization, and organization. The students feel they are valued members of society and in turn appreciate learning. I believe hands on collaborative learning is a powerful way to create life long learners and leaders within our communities. It brought tears of joy to see the students in the video create their own rhythm as they paddled and present their canoe to the Haida people. Thanks for the inspiration.

Noraly's picture

Recently published data from the government signifies that U.S. learners aren't terribly good at studying American history. High school seniors were discovered in a recently introduced Department of Education examination of school performance to be less proficient in U.S. history than their counterparts in the 4th graders. Here is the proof: Most American students not proficient in American history

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