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E. W. Merrill's photograph of the 1899 "Potlatch," entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

E. W. Merrill’s photograph of the 1899 “Potlatch,” entered as evidence in Davis v. Sitka School Board.

In May, 1906, eighteen residents of Sitka, Alaska testified in a federal school integration case called Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board.

In 1905, Congress had passed the Nelson Act, authorizing funds for public schools in Alaska for white children and children of “mixed blood who lead a civilized life.” Before the Nelson Act, federal funds went to educate Alaskan children “without regard to race,” though in segregated schools. Alaska at the time was not even a Territory, but a federally-managed District.

Cassia Patton, a 45-year-old teacher, was the secretary to her brother-in-law, Alaska Governor John G. Brady. She instigated the confrontation by encouraging certain Native families living in the Village – the Native part of town – to send their children to the “white” school, after the Native school closed at the beginning of 1906.

When some of those children actually attended the public school that January, it struck a nerve. School board members W. P. Mills and Mrs. Stowell told the teacher to turn those children away. Mrs. Stowell sent letters to the parents telling them to stop sending their children to school.

Rudolph Walton was Tlingit, the tribe whose ancestral lands include Sitka. He was the step-father of two of the children, Dora and Tillie Davis, and requested a writ of mandamus from the court in Juneau to compel the school board to admit the children. He was represented by the third member of the school board, William Kelly, who had quit the school board in disgust. Kelly also happened to be a member of the Alaska bar.

The testimony was sent to Juneau, and the case filed later that month. Federal District Judge Royal Arch Gunnison, a young appointee of President Roosevelt, did not decide the case until almost two years later, in January, 1908. This was probably because the Native school had reopened, but also because the testimony was overwhelmingly against allowing the school to be integrated. His smug racism is expressed everywhere in his decision:

The Indian in his native state has everywhere been found to be savage, an uncivilized being, when measured by the white man’s standard. The government has always regarded him as of a benighted race, in a state of pupilage, a ward of the nation, needing care, control, protection, and education.“ Education, of course, in separate schools.

Judge Gunnison decided that any association with other Natives, with any Native custom or food, or residence in the Native part of town, means that a child “of mixed blood” is not “leading a civilized life,” and thus not entitled to education in the public school. Separating Native people from whites by law means they can never be “civilized,” which seems, unfortunately, to be the point of the entire exercise.

So far it looks pretty typical for this era, when eugenics and other ideas of racial ranking were widespread. But in Sitka, nearly the entire town was “mixed race.” The fault lines and the effort it took in order to define certain people as “Natives,” in order to deny them rights, reveal the motivations behind racism in this turn-of-the-century Alaska town.

Race

Defendants in the case were school board members W. P. Mills, who was Sitka’s leading merchant and businesman, and Mrs. Stowell, wife of the chief clerk of the Sitka Surveyor office. They both come across as unpleasant people. It was probably not a coincidence that Mills’ mother and wife were both members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, as was Mrs. Stowell’s daughter (Mrs. Stowell herself had been born in Scotland). H. A. Robinson, publisher of the Sitka Cablegram newspaper, who was also a former employee of Mills, represents the defense on the second day.

William A. Kelly, representing plaintiff Rudolph Walton, was the superintendent of the Presbyterian Sitka Industrial and Training School, a boarding school for Natives. Other supporters were Governor John Brady’s wife Elizabeth, as well as her sister, Cassia Patton. All these people on the plaintiff side were linked through their association with the Presbyterian mission school, which John Brady had helped start in 1878, before leaving mission work and becoming a merchant (and eventually Governor). Rudolph Walton and his first wife, Daisy, had been educated at the mission school. Walton was one of the first students, and helped construct the first buildings, as a teen, in 1882.

In the testimony, the defendants are not on trial – the children’s parents are. The “white” fathers are attacked for their association with Natives, but also for the kind of work they did, its frequency, and the appearance of their homes, even though their work and habits were far from unusual.

One of the fathers “was usually called a ‘Squaw Man,’ he is married to a Native,” demands W. P. Mills, of one witness, who answers, “Yes sir.” Bernard Hirst, a storekeeper, handled remittances from another of the children’s fathers, and is questioned about the man’s “indulging in strong drink” in the past, as well as the amount of support he pays for his child.

The third of the “white” fathers is said by a witness to be living a civilized life, but his wife and children were not. “His wife is a halfbreed Indian squaw and he cannot make her anything else.”

(Another unsettling thing in reading this testimony is that everyone, whether or not they are sympathetic to school integration, uses terms like “halfbreed” or “mixed breed” in referring to their fellow Sitkans.)

And here is the twist: all three of these witnesses were themselves “of mixed blood” or married to women who were. Even more striking, it turns out that all but one of the 29 children enrolled at the public “white” school are “of mixed blood.” They include Native orphans living at the Russian orphanage, and the child of a Chinese father and Native mother. Most of these children, though, are part Native because a parent is “Russian.” All the children at the “white” school are just as Native as the children the school board wishes to exclude.

The “Russians” were the descendants of Russian fathers and Alaska Native women, and were called “Creoles” by the Russian authorities. In the American era, they called themselves Russians, but had to defend their status between the incoming “whites,” and the “Indians,” or “natives.” In the 1900 Census, their race is even listed as Russian, a category distinct from White or Indian.

Everyone acknowledges that Russians and their children are “of mixed blood,” but at one point Robinson, for the defense, asks Kelly, representing the plaintiffs, “Do you consider Russians white people.” Kelly replied: “I consider Russians white.”

In Sitka in 1906, race can’t be defined simply by one’s ethnic heritage, which makes this case interesting. How to define “Natives” in such a way that they can be excluded from the “white” school, where the “white” students are as “Native” as the “Natives?” Which begs the question: why bother? Why was this so important?

In 1906 Sitka’s population of about 1200 included around 800 residents classed as “Indian,” most of them living in the Village or “ranche” part of town, to the northwest of the old Russian stockade line. Other Native people, graduates of the Presbyterian mission school, lived at the Cottages, a model Native community on the mission grounds, east of town. Nearly half of the 400 or so remaining residents were Russian. Other residents were from Europe, and several were from China. U.S.-born European-Americans were a small minority, with a handful of those – primarily white federal employees – comprising Sitka’s elite.

H. A. Robinson, representing the defense on the second day, was married to a Russian woman, and his children were among those “of mixed blood” attending the public school.

Another example of the complexity of race is the family of English-born storekeeper Bernard Hirst, a witness in the case. He had married a Tlingit woman, whose sisters lived at the Cottages, the Presbyterian Native community. His family lived downtown, and his sons attended the public or white schools, while their first cousins went to Native schools.

Adding to the complexity is that the Russians in white Sitka and the Natives or “Indians” living in the Village worshiped together, and married one another, in the Russian Orthodox Church; many of the “Indians” were as European as the Russians. It was not easy to make distinctions, especially without offending church officials.

In 1906, Americans like Mills and Judge Gunnison certainly believed in the superiority of the white race, but racial purity was less than useful in defining who was or was not Native in Sitka in 1906. So, the testimony revolves around proving the “civilization” of the families.

Civilization

W. P. Mills tries to define eating Native foods as a sign of a lack of civilization. He demands of Cassia Patton, in regard to the deceased father of the Davis girls, “did he eat seal oil?”

She says she doesn’t know but that “I suppose he ate fish eggs, I have done that myself, in fact I think a great many people would be benefited by eating them.” I must admit, I love Cassia Patton.

Her sister, Mrs. Brady, also has a sympathetic attitude toward the plaintiffs. She says that she finds Mrs. Walton (the former Mrs. Davis) “to be of very nice appearance and manner and very much of a lady.” Mrs. Brady offers many “signs of civilization” by Walton and his family.

The father of Rudolph Walton’s step-children, Fred Davis, who was also Tlingit, was dead, but that does not prevent both prosecution and defense from making him a central figure in the testimony. William Kelly, representing the plaintiff side, tries to establish the “civilization” of the parents by showing that they are educated, and live in their own separate homes, and not in clan houses, with their clan relatives. He elicits from one witness that the Davis family had a carpet on the floor and nice things, and that Fred and Mary Davis had been educated. But other witnesses testify that Davis took part in traditional Tlingit “potlatches” in 1899 and in 1904.

The Tlingit potlatch, or koo.eek, is at the center of Tlingit culture and society. Clans invite their opposite clans (all Tlingit clans are one of two moieties), honor and feast them and distribute property, as a way of establishing and reinforcing social and political relationships, as well as ancient traditions of reciporcity. Highly symbolic objects, regalia, dance, and elevated speech are key. American and British authorities understood the importance of the potlatch and worked tirelessly to eradicate the practice.

Photographer E. W. Merrill was called as a witness, because his photograph, of Fred Davis taking part in an 1899 potlatch, is an exhibit for the defense.

Merrill is known today for his great skill and artistry, and for his respectful and realistic portraits of Native people and art. We would expect him to be sympathetic to the Native culture. We would be wrong.

Perhaps Merrill had some personal reason to keep Village children from school, or maybe he had some reason to fear for his own social status, due to his “association” with the Natives; but, he is probably just displaying the prejudices shared by most people at the time.

Merrill distances himself from the Village, saying that he goes there “because my business leads me there.” He says that Fred Davis took part in the 1899 as well as the 1904 potlatch.

When Kelly questions him as to the nature of the dances, and whether they involved “immorality,” Merrill responds that “I should judge there must have been from the arrests made at the time.”

Then, Kelly asks him if he’s familiar with the “masquerades” or holiday balls by the “Russians and whites,” and Merrill says he has never attended one, and knows nothing of them. This is hard to believe, judging from the later testimony by the marshal, that makes it sound like they were hard to miss. He refuses to acknowledge that dressing up in a “masquerade” might be just as much a sign of uncivilization as dressing up for a Native dance.

Rudolph Walton, the stepfather of the Davis girls, had attended the Sitka mission school, and was a jeweler and carver and businessman, built and owned his own business and home, and was an elder in the Presbyterian church.

Merrill is asked, “do you consider him a peaceful and industrious man.” Merrill’s response: “As far as Indians are concerned yes.”

Don’t you consider that Walton’s being educated at the Training School would entitle him to be classed with civilized people.”

Merrill responds, “It depends upon one’s view regarding a civilized person.”

Economics

Sitka in 1906 had lost the seat of government to Juneau, where the gold mines were booming. Commercial fishing had not yet become an economic force. Most of the buildings along the dirt main street, including the federal offices where the testimony was taken, were old Russian log buildings a half century or more old, picturesque but decaying. Mills and the other white merchants, such as witness Bernard Hirst and U. S. Commissioner Edward deGroff, made their living supplying the small local mines and other local ventures, by buying furs, and by dealing in Native handicrafts for the steamship tourist trade.

Walton’s small store would have been a direct competitor of Mills, if he purchased furs, and Walton was a seal hunter himself. Walton also produced and sold artwork directly to the tourists, which might have had something to do with W. P. Mills’ hostility in the case. It could be that Walton’s actual “civilization” – which surpassed that of a majority of “white” Sitkans – may have been a reason Mills and the others felt the need to put him down, by refusing to let his children attend school with theirs.

William Kelly, representing Walton, questions him about his education, business and taxes, and how his step children attended the public school before he was notified they would not be allowed to attend any more.

Then Mills takes his turn at Walton, and demands, “somebody suggested that you take them to the white school,” to which Walton replies “No sir, I thought of it myself, I try to do something without advising me.”

Mills asks Walton whether the children’s mother speaks English. He says she does, but Mills repeatedly contradicts him, insisting that she does not, even after Walton says that of course she would not speak to Mills.

Mills questions Walton about the amount of business he does at his store, then mocks him for having an expensive cash register when he has no clerk.

Mills: “How much did you pay for your cash register.”

Walton: “$385.00 laid down here. I have fine things. I don’t see what that has to do with the school.” Which provokes laughter in the room.

Mills: “Perhaps not, I do; you will let me judge.”

When Walton is called again, H. A. Robinson, representing the defense, insinuates that Walton could not have written his complaint that went to Juneau. “Who dictated the letter, who told you what to say.”

Walton: “Nobody told me what to say, I know, I have words.”

Sitka’s Commissioner, merchant Edward deGroff, who is the referee for the testimony, never raises any objection to this treatment of Walton, and we’ll never know whether it is because he is sympathetic to the defense, or because he does not know better.

Traditions

Rudolph Walton, whose Tlingit name was Kawootk’, Fred Davis, and Fred Bean (likely Augustus Bean), who was called as a witness, were all important in Sitka Tlingit society, as well as members of the Presbyterian church. It could be that their stature in Tlingit society was another thorn in Mills’ side, because he was dependent on Native handicraft and furs for his business.

Rudolph Walton was one of the first students at the mission school, one of several boys from prominent lineages. It could be that at the time a mission education looked like an advantage to a young leader; Tlingit people were soon to learn that affiliating with the Presbyterians came at the cost of giving up Native culture and tradition and status. Walton built a home at the Cottages, the model Native community on the mission grounds. His English name was given by the family who sponsored him at the school, after a prominent Presbyterian educator in Philadelphia. This epitomizes the dramatic drop in status, from a master of property and leader-in-training, to a person with so little status he is renamed by his missionary sponsors. And these are the “pro-Native” people.

But not long before this 1906 trial, Walton left his home at the Cottages and built his store and home to the edge of the Village. His wife had died, and he married his second wife, the former Mrs. Davis, in 1905 in a traditional way that the Presbyterians did not approve. Like his first wife, she was of the Kaagwaantaan clan, of an appropriate lineage for a person of Walton’s lineage, and 14 years younger than he was.

Rudolph Walton probably had to give up some of the perogatives of his birth, when he joined the Presbyterian church, but he was still an important member of his Kik.sadi clan. In 1901, Walton had taken part in a traditional Tlingit peace ceremony, to resolve a serious dispute between two clans, one of them his own. This act helped quell conflict, which you would think the Presbyterians would appreciate, but instead he was nearly kicked out of the church for it.

The 1904 “Last Potlatch” had been sanctioned by Governor Brady, as the “last” potlatch, because he recognized that Tlingit clans in Sitka had incurred obligations they had to to discharge. Instead, the “last” potlatch was a reminder of the strength the Tlingit clan system retained, even after decades of repression. It would have been obvious to the entire town, white and Native alike, in the richly dressed guests in their large canoes, the elaborate welcoming ceremony, the strong and finely crafted symbolic regalia and precious objects, the large commissioned carvings, the days of feasting and dancing and oratory, that this was something more impressive and bigger than any ceremony the white town could put on. Merrill’s photos of the event preserve the visual display of wealth. The merchants would have been well aware of the expenditures for food and drink and gifts for the guests. I’m guessing that this display of power and wealth contributed to the urge to restrain Native people into a lower social category. It was probably frightening, as well as fascinating, to many whites.

Walton had not publicly participated, but did create two carvings, commissioned by one of the hosts.

Walton says that the poles are for ornament; that yes he has a totem pole of his own – for sale in his store. Kelly breaks in to ask whether he had an order for a totem from a man in San Francisco, in an attempt to frame Walton’s participation as purely commercial. But it’s likely they all knew it was more than that, and that Walton, Davis, and witness Fred Bean were key participants in Tlingit society.

Witness Fred Bean says that he was allowed to remain a member of the Presbyterian church in spite of taking part in the 1904 potlatch, though the church “did not like it.”

At this time, the Russian Orthodox church and the Presbyterian were in competition with each other for Native members. Both were also engaged in the struggle against traditional spirituality and the clan system, which created a dilemma for both churches, in that being too strict about traditions put them at a disadvantage. Thus the Presbyterians allowed participation in both church, and in tradition, but “did not like it.” This balance was the source of conflict and dispute within both churches.

Old Quarrels

The most striking thing, to me, is how long-standing grudges by merchant W. P. Mills against Governor Brady and the mission crowd, and “old quarrels” regarding the school played such a large part in this case. Petty disagreements play more of a part than the fact that they are deciding the future lives of innocent children.

Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson had originally sent John Brady to Sitka in 1878, and raised funds for the mission school. The site for the school, a large, prime piece of property with waterfront and river access, was claimed by John Brady and donated for the school, in spite of there not being a strictly legal way to do this. Sheldon Jackson helped steer Alaska’s Organic Act through Congress in 1884, which included a provision giving “established missions” up to 640 acres, which legitimized the claim. That land grab was extremely unpopular in Sitka; one of the Russian families had loaned money for a brewery to be built there, with the property as collateral. Sheldon Jackson was appointed Alaska’s General Agent for Education, a post he held from 1885 to 1908, and continued to lobby from his office in Washington, D. C.

Probably helped by Sheldon Jackson’s influence, Brady was appointed Governor in 1897, and reappointed twice more, but he was not popular in Alaska. Most of the white population believed that Natives and their interests were a hindrance to exploitation of Alaska’s resources. He was not popular with many Native people, either, because of the Presbyterian attitude toward Native culture and society, and because he had “homesteaded” a second large tract, of Tlingit land behind the Village. Then, just a few weeks before this testimony was taken, barely into his third term as Governor, he was forced to resign because of his naive promotion of a development scam.

His quarrel with W. P. Mills, who came to Sitka in 1887, was partly political, because of his advocacy of Native education, but also as a competitor as a merchant and sawmill owner, and the two had a legal dispute in 1901 over water rights. W. P. Mills was a much better businessman, but couldn’t do anything about the missionaries’ political influence. Maybe this was his opportunity to settle an old grudge, at a moment when his opponent was down. It could be, too, that Mills, who did not get the chance to finish college, had a chip on his shoulder when it came to the more-educated mission crowd and the various government employees, who comprised the rest of Sitka’s elite.

Brady’s sister-in-law Cassia Patton, who had encouraged the Native children to attend the public school, first came to Sitka in 1889. She taught school, then owned the Alaskan newspaper (funded by Brady), and worked as Governor Brady’s secretary.

Kelly had also been a Sitkan for decades – he had first arrived in 1885, when he ran the mission school as a federal employee.

In 1906 Sitka’s economy was contracting, with government offices, steamship stops, population and business migrating to Juneau. And yet, Mills funded his former employee H. A. Robinson in starting an anti-Brady (anti-mission) newspaper, the Sitka Cablegram, in early 1905: each side in the conflict had their own newspaper.

Most of the defense and plaintiffs, including Mills, Mrs. Stowell, the Bradys, Kelly, and the Native men Walton and Davis were members of the Presbyterian church. In 1906 there were two Presbyterian churches: the white church was next to the parade grounds (now the Sitka Pioneer Home) and the Native church was at the mission.

W. P. Mills and Governor Brady both had school-age children, who for some reason are not on the list of students attending the public school.

Most of the petty quarrels behind the school board decision come out when Kelly questions the school teacher and Mrs. Stowell, the school board member who had sent notice to the parents that they could not send their children to school any more. She claims she does not know Rudolph Walton and that she does not know that he was educated at the mission school, and refuses to state her objection to the Davis children going to school.

Kelly, who had been a member of the school board before resigning over this case, asks: “Was there any enmity back of ruling these children out of school.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I beg pardon.”

Kelly: “I asked whether there was any enmity in deciding that these children could not attend the public school.
Mrs. Stowell: “No sir.”

She then says that she does not know whether there are any “half or mixed breeds” attending the school.

Kelly: Did you not tell us on the School Board that some of the halfbreeds were attending from (the Russian Orphanage).

Mrs. Stowell: “I think not, I don’t know that they are.”

Kelly: “You consider Rudolph Walton and William Allard civilized men.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know enough about that.”

Kelly: “You don’t, you don’t know much about that.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly asks, ”Do you know these Walton children.”

Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Kelly: “Then you were hardly acting as a school director in these matters.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I was acting entirely on my own judgment.”

Kelly: “Then you do not know why you ruled these children out.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I refuse to answer.”

Kelly: “Was the bans put upon children of any other families besides those in the native village.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about Mr. George’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “Not that I know of.”

Kelly: “Some little trouble about the Governor’s family.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I don’t know.”

Kelly: “Oh! You don’t.”
Mrs. Stowell: “No.”

Again you would think that Commissioner deGroff would have intervened, to remind Mrs. Stowell that she should answer truthfully, but again, he does not.

Kelly then asks how children were promoted; it seems that Kelly had wanted students to take a test to move up in school, but he was outvoted by the other two on the school board, who let the teacher decide who should advance. We are left to wonder whether someone – perhaps W. P. Mills, or his former employee, H. A. Robinson – might have preferred to have his chidren promoted at the teacher’s judgment, rather than on the basis of an exam.

Kelly: “Do you consider any of the natives civilized.”

Mrs. Stowell: “I decline to answer.”

Kelly: “We will excuse the witness as being utterly useless for our purpose. We rest our side of the case.”

Miss McCaleb, the school’s teacher, affirms that the Davis girls were well-behaved and nicely dressed, and that Peter Allard and Lizzie Allard were “fairly good scholars.” She also affirms that the School Board told her that no children from the Village were allowed to attend the school, but says, “Not that I know of” as to whether there was any “feeling or enmity back of the native children coming.”

Kelly: “Was there not some feeling about Miss Patton. You went to Mrs. Stowell and talked this matter over with her.”

Miss McCaleb: “No sir.”

Kelly: “You felt some little resentment in this matter, you thought Miss Patton was sending these children. You need not answer this question if you do not wish to.”

No answer.

In spite of this court case, all of the non-Native principals socialized and did business together. A photograph from around this time shows Mrs. W. P. Mills, the wife of the defendant, seated next to Cassia Patton, at a picnic. Next to Mrs. Mills is R. W. DeArmond, the father of Alaska historian Robert DeArmond, who had come to Sitka to work for the Department of Agriculture in 1903. At the time of this testimony, he shared a house with Merrill, and was elected to the School Board himself in 1907. His position on the case can be inferred from Bob DeArmond’s column on Rudolph Walton:

Walton attempted to enter his two step-children as well as several others he claimed to have adopted, in the white school where the teachers refused to accept them.

(The) three-member school board . . . split on the question. The loser was William A. Kelly, superintendent of the Sitka Industrial Training School, and he resigned from the school board. Walton’s effort was supported by the Presbyterian Church, . . . Kelly, a member of the bar, took the matter to court and lost. That ended Walton’s effort but did not erase a great deal of bitterness.” The implication I get here is that the bitterness was caused by Walton’s effort, not by the injustice of barring his children from going to school.

The majority of Sitkans believe it is wrong for Native children to go to school with “white” children.

There was no practical reason to exclude Village children from the school. Only four of the six children had even attended the public school before being told not to come any more. The teacher and others testify that the three girls who did are well-behaved. In 1906, there does not seem to be any threat of hordes of Native children overwhelming the schools, as most parents do not seem to have been eager for their children to go to school. The grandmother of one of the girls was opposed to her attending. And it turns out that these children were even included in the enumeration made to get the school, and, the school board had received funding for them, so it was not a money issue.

The arbitrary definition of “civilization,” which came down to living in the Village and “consorting” with other Natives, creates, rather than follows, any real differences amongst Sitkans.

Judge Gunnison wrote:“Civilization, though of course the term must be considered relative, includes, I apprehend, more than a prosperous business, a trade, a house, white man’s clothes and membership in a church. The burden of establishing that the plaintiffs live the civilized life is upon them, and I fail to find in the testimony evidence of a condition that inclines me to the opinion that the Davis children have that requisite.”

Thus Judge Gunnison weasels out of even bothering to define “civilization.” The only hard criteria they can come up with are living among and “consorting with” other Natives, which, of course, is a result of, and reinforced by, the racial bias on display in this testimony. By preventing Native children from “consorting with” white children at school, they are making it even less possible for them to meet their arbitrary criteria.

Bob DeArmond tells in his column on Rudolph Walton that he operated his store in two locations downtown, and owned property and put up buildings, on Lincoln Street, before building his shop in the Village. Was there pressure from Mills or others to give those up? From the effort Mills and others make to exclude Walton’s children from school, it seems very likely he would have exerted his influence to exclude him from Sitka’s main street commercial life, as well.

At the start of the testimony, W. P. Mills asks Walton: “You did not care whether they went to white school or not.”

Walton replies: “As long as they have good schooling, that is all I want.”

The following year federal funding was restored, and Sitka’s Native school reopened. The two schools were not integrated until 1949.

Dora and Tillie Walton went to Sheldon Jackson School, and were members of the first high school class, graduating in 1921. Tillie died in 1922.

Cassia Patton had been Governor Brady’s secretary, and went back to teaching after his resignation. In 1912 she and missionary Douglas Craig McTavish married in Calgary, Alberta, when she was 51 and he was 50, and went on to found the first school in Fort McMurray, Alberta. They successfully used the Canadian legal system to conduct a tax sale of property owned by speculators, who would not pay their taxes to support the school. In 2011 the Ecole McTavish opened in Fort McMurray, named in their honor. (The school fortunately survived the wildfires in the spring of 2016).

Like today, on the surface Sitka appeared integrated and race relations seem to be good, but in pursuing this cause, W. P. Mills exposed strong anti-Native feeling. What is surprising is not the vehement racism of Mills, but that this seems to be the view of most of the people of the town.

From this testimony, we begin to understand that society was permeated with the conviction that Native culture was not only inferior, but had to be suppressed, ranging from the explicit statements of Mills and Judge Gunnison, to the more passive acceptance by Merrill and so many others in this record, that Native children and “whites” must be separated.

From the time of U.S. Occupation of Alaska in 1867, Americans systematically excluded Native people from economic, political, or social integration. This case is an example of defining Native people just to deny them rights enjoyed by others.

There was also a horrific death rate among Native people in this period: Rudolph Walton lost his first wife, and eleven of his children as infants or young children, and thiswas not at all unusual for Native families at the time. The European-American death rate had been this high, but had come down dramatically since the 1870s. The trauma of losing so many family members, on top of being treated as naturally inferior despite one’s personal qualities and achievements, has had an impact on Native society to this day.

We are not so distant from those Sitkans from a century ago, which after all is only a few generations – these are our great-grandparents. Could the way we define Natives today be a continuation of these arbitrary criteria – and how much of what we accept as intrincally “Native” has actually been created by that artificial definition, and over a century of discrimination based on it?

Can we learn from this case and the way we see race was defined explicitly to create differences, and to justify discrimination? What would happen – if we don’t assume that Native culture is inferior to European-American culture? What if we consider the possibility that Native culture and language are compatible with, and even beneficial to, public education?

Selected sources:

Davis et al. v. Sitka School Board, 3 Alaska 481 (District Court, District of Alaska, First Division, 1908). Case file photographed by author at Alaska State Archives, Juneau Alaska, October 28, 2015.

Twelfth Census of the United States, Census of Alaska, Southern District, Sitka, Alaska 1900, accessed at family search.org.

Thirteenth Census of the United States, Population – Alaska, 1st District, Sitka, Alaska 1910, accessed at findmypast.com.

Bob DeArmond, “From Sitka’s Past” series of newspaper columns in the Daily Stka Sentinel, 1985-1992, and “Around and About Alaska,” 1992-2002.

Ted C. Hinckley, Alaskan John G. Brady, Missionary, Businessman, Judge, and Governor, 1878-1918 (Miami, Ohio: Miami University, 1982)

Virtual Museums Canada, Community Memories, Heritage Park, Fort McMurray, Alberta: Fort McMurray’s School Stories, “Cassia McTavish (nee Patton) – McMurray’s First Teacher” http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=773&sl=7836&pos=1 Accessed July 1, 2016.

Joyce Walton Shales, “Rudolph Walton: One Tlingit Man’s Journey Through Stormy Seas, Sitka, Alaska, 1867-1951” (Ph. D. diss., The University of British Columbia, 1998)

Sergei Kan, Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity through Two Centuries (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999)

Willis Osbakken, interview, Raven Radio, Sitka Alaska, November 2012, available at http://www.kcaw.org/2013/06/17/historic-sitka-in-stories/

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I will soon be adding an article, explaining what this case was about, that denied the right of children to attend school if they lived in the Native area of Sitka. Davis Case Testimony

This file contains the testimony taken at Sitka in 1906, as to whether or not the plaintiffs – children of “mixed blood,” were or were not “civilized.”

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In case you are wondering, as many are, what the heck is this Common Core stuff anyway, here are some links to blogs with a crash course in their history, and what is not right with them.

A lot of the confusion is due to the Common Core State Standards organization itself, which has inaccurate information on their website. Much confusion is due to really bad curriculum labeled as Common Core – which is simply bad curriculum and doesn’t have much if anything to do with the new standards. But there is now a new kind of bad curriculum, which mindlessly follows the Standards, clause by clause, as if you can teach grammar one day and comprehension the next.

Recently too there has been confusing criticism, coming from the Tea Party and far-right political groups, of the Common Core State Standards, and the Obama administration’s education program, not only for federal overreach (which is, indeed, one of the biggest problems with the current federal education policy), but also for what used to be called Secular Humanism in curriculum. Their issue is that public schools teach kids that our country is not perfect, that the world was not created 6000 years ago, and that Muslims and gay people are ok. This has nothing to do with the Common Core State Standards.

There is also confusion from radio and magazine pieces labeling good classroom practice as Common Core, when in fact it has nothing to do with it.

Here’s an article about the NPR (National Public Radio) problem with covering Common Core: http://www.current.org/2014/09/gates-funding-spurs-doubts-over-pubmedias-impartiality-in-education-reporting/

I had wondered, about some articles I heard on NPR that made no sense – where what teachers were doing, and said they liked about the Common Core, are not actually in the Standards. You should definitely take a look at the Standards themselves.

I heard a story recently about how Bill Gates was having similar problems with his work in Africa, where they are starting to learn that you don’t swoop in from above and fix things. You need to talk to people on the ground, find out what the problem is, work with others.

This is a good story, about the Gates involvement: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-bill-gates-pulled-off-the-swift-common-core-revolution/2014/06/07/a830e32e-ec34-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html

But here is what I think is the best summary I have seen of the problems with the Common Core State Standards: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/09/17/four-common-core-flimflams/

Even though Alaska did not adopt the Common Core State Standards, we actually did. Look at the Alaska State Standards and the Common Core side by side. That was one interesting thing Alaska State Rep. Reinbold had in her recent slide show was the certification from our Commissioner of Education to federal DOE, certifying that the Alaska Standards are “virtually identical” to Common Core – which they had to be to get a waiver from No Child Left Behind.

One more article, a speech by Diane Ravitch, who rocks. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/01/18/everything-you-need-to-know-about-common-core-ravitch/

And, my Common Core essay.

Sitka’s district leadership is gung ho on Common Core/Alaska State Standards, as are I bet most administrators around the country. As far as teachers, you’ll find a range of opinions, from being profoundly insulted, to eager for guidance. A big problem is that the Standards are very poorly written and hard to interpret, which causes stress when teachers are being judged by how well they get the kids to pass the tests based on them.

The premise of the Common Core is seductive, to administrators, politicians, and even some teachers – the notion that all you need is a list, you teach everything on the list, you’re good to go. Unfortunately, learning doesn’t work that way. Teaching is truly an art.

I got to see the Houghton Mifflin program for middle school (Sitka schools are looking at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new “Common Core Aligned” textbooks), and it is really bad, and reduces English to test practice, mindless. The entirety of the workbook for the year consists of “close reading,” which as in the Common Core, means taking a short, mediocre piece of writing, and finding particular sentences and words in it. Far from requiring analysis or critical thinking, it requires no thinking at all.

But as for the tests, one teacher told me she saw sample questions and it made her cry, knowing her lower-ability kids would not be able to do it. Bad as the standards are, the real crime is that they were written as a template for practicing for new, harder tests.

The CCSS are really poorly written, hard to interpret, and students (schools, and teachers) will be judged on the tests based on them, so there’s more confusion and fear than anything. Well, that is probably why one English teacher is actually WANTING a curriculum that will hit all the Standards, as a safety net. That’s my sense, also with the District.

Tonight I heard that some teachers are saying they won’t be teaching anything not in the standards. This is really short changing their students.

So it’s a big, old, entrenched problem – the federal requirements for testing (driving the frenzy for curriculum that will prepare students for the tests) are top-down and have nothing to do with improving schools. Our schools are pretty good, and potentially could be even better. Common Core and all the testing is so expensive, not transparent, and so obviously stupid, that this paradoxically might mark a change in the tide, and we can get back to pursuing excellence in education, by doing things we know work – instead of spending millions on things that do not, and in fact diminish the quality of our schools.

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What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards are lists of what students should be able to do, in each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade, in English and Math. They are endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, but privately funded and developed. Released in 2010, they have been adopted by 48 states.

While consistent standards is a good idea, the Common Core State Standards are not very well done, in English or in Math. The authors were not experts in education, wrote them in only six months, the standards were never field tested, and there is no mechanism for fixing various problems with them. But, they are no worse than most previous standards.

The problem is that they are part of “standards-based reform,” an approach to education based on high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, 14 of the 24 Common Core authors are from standardized testing organizations.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, in force since 2002, made federal funding contingent on raising test scores every year, for a 100% pass rate in 2014.

In order to get a waiver (and federal funding), 40 states, including Alaska, had to sign on to the Common Core State Standards; more teacher evaluations; more charter schools; and new, harder tests, that must be taken electronically.

According to our district superintendent, the Sitka School District is looking at spending 1.6 million dollars for these mandates in the waiver: new curriculum, hiring extra personnel for teacher evaluation, and equipment for the online testing. The state of Alaska paid $25 million dollars last summer, for the new tests.

The waiver requires that by 2017 half of a teacher’s evaulation be based on students’ test scores, even though the teacher’s influence on student test scores – from 1 to 14% – is so small it can’t be separated from other factors. Why would we create such an incentive for teachers to focus on test scores, and to avoid low-performing students?

A study by the Carnegie Corporation predicts that the new, harder, Common Core tests will double the high school drop out rate. And, the new tests have to be taken on line, which has resulted in expense and logistical problems.

We already know that high-stakes standardized testing does not improve education, and there is no reason to think that harder tests, new standards, or teacher evaluation will do anything, either.

So why are we doing what doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, standards-based reform has been the American approach to education for 30 years. It is based on an obsolete model of learning: that education is the passive transfer of information, so the teacher just has to know the material, nothing more.

But a good teacher is not an information delivery system – she is more like a coach. Think about the great teachers you have had. Even if it’s the state capitals, or biology, it takes a good teacher to help kids get it. A good teacher has a fairly sophisticated set of leadership, psychology, and people skills, in addition to a mastery of her subject.

Standards-based reform does not expect – or allow – teachers to develop these skills. It is an attempt to fix education from the top down, without addressing the way learning actually works. That is why standards-based reform, educational technology, and MOOCs, among other initiatives, have been failures.

So why is it being promoted at every level of public education? Some is because teachers, as a class, have never had much status in America. Some of it is a sincere belief that this approach could work: Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and promoting Common Core State Standards, in the stated belief that the market can fix education: with common standards, industry can compete to create the best products.

Indeed, standards-based reform is very good for business: the K-12 ed tech market was $8.4 billion in 2014, up from 7.9 billion just the year before. Charter school companies, consultants, and hardware suppliers also make healthy profits.

Since we are up against an entrenched paradigm, and substantial commercial interests, what can we do at the local level? We can ask for evidence that what we spend will improve education. Testing does not improve education. Small class size in early elementary, on the other hand, is proven to result in higher graduation rates.We can encourage our district to involve the teacher workforce in designing improvements.

As education scholar Dr. Yang Zhao said in his talk, there are models everywhere, around the world, around the country, here in Sitka, for programs that work. We can just copy what works, whether it’s integrating art, or the way a particular teacher gets kids excited about algebra.

What if it’s the law, as it is, to spend our money on more teacher evaluations, new tests, new, unproven curriculum? Well, last I checked, this is a democracy. We can stand with our districts to press the legislature, the state board of education, and our Congress to roll back the focus on testing.

The Common Core State Standards could serve, for now, as a minimum, with modifications for their documented deficiencies. There is no reason to get new curriculum that is “aligned.” For one thing, the new standards are not that different from the old ones. But the main reason is that the Common Core State Standards were written expressly as a template for standardized tests, and the last thing we should be doing is desigining curriculum around tests. That is the heart of the problem with standards-based reform.

If you just have to test, first figure out why. If it’s to make sure a school is good, you certainly don’t have to test every kid, every year. Standardized tests provide no information a teacher can’t get (and doesn’t already have) using such tools as the “quiz” and “class assignments.”

Instead we can build on existing curriculum, and improve it based on sound teaching practice – integrating the arts, field trips, inquiry, and science – none of which is in the Common Core.

We need standards, and evaluation, that are based on what we really believe students should be able to do, not going by what some small D.C. testing group decided.

We can focus on teaching as the highly skilled craft it can and should be. Not preparing kids for taking a test, but preparing them for life and citizenship, through an education rich in content, that fosters a love of learning.

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Boy

Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl

Click here for this post as a pdf.

November 21 2014 Literature Circle 7th grade, session # 5 Rebecca_poulson@hotmail.com 747-3448

Next week is Thanksgiving holiday, so next time we get together will be December 5th.

So over the next two weeks, read the rest of the book, and write your own mini memoir, to share on December 5th.

Next book will be Call of the Wild, so we can do it in time for Battle of the Books.

Last Friday, only a few of you had bothered to get the book and read it!
As Cora said, haven’t you ever worked with middle schoolers before?

But here’s the deal – you need to make a commitment, that if you are going to do this literature circle, you have to commit to reading and writing.

If you truly don’t have time to read and write, it probably does not make a lot of sense for you to do the literature circle.

So IF you do want to continue, our next get together is December 5th, and you need to:

1. Type up and get me your Huckleberry Finn essay (easy!) by email, or if you can’t do that, let me know and we’ll figure out some other way.

2. Finish Boy (this is a short book, not only is it just 175 pages, most of those have pictures!)

3. And, write a short mini memoir from a childhood incident that stands out in your memory.

So the essay and memoir, by short, I mean a page of handwriting – which is a half page of typed writing, a few hundred words.
Easy! And fun!

Things to notice in Boy:

what you learn about the author’s personality from what he writes about and how

things are probably exaggerated and simplified

what he wants you to think about him – how he is portraying himself.

Things you notice, and things he points out, that are different from your life today: attitudes and lifestyle, technology, family life, expectations.

One thing that came up in our discussion Friday was the idea that a memoir is not literally true. It is a story. In order to make it more interesting and meaningful, the author leaves things out, puts things together that weren’t, and makes things more vivid than they would have been, seen objectively.

While it is possible the Matron had steam coming out of her nose, it is more likely he is putting that in to paint a picture of her fury, and the students’ fear.

Roald Dahl seems to use exaggeration of people’s physical qualities to express his relationship to them, whether it’s the goat legs of the candy shop owner or the fearsome bosom of the Matron, or the watery blue eyes of the Captain.

I get the impression he’s still angry, over the way children were treated in these schools, and by certain authority figures such as doctors, at the time.

Also, he was an outsider, in a few ways: while his family was wealthy, he was not from an aristocratic English family; he was Norwegian; and, he was very tall (6′ 6″ as an adult).

Your memoir

For the mini memoir, go ahead and make it more intense than it really was. Memoir is not strictly, literally true. You are telling a story, just as Roald Dahl was. Try imagining what it looked like, remember what it smelled like, any details that help tell the reader what that incident meant to you.

And don’t say nothing ever happened to you! I had just as boring a childhood as anyone, but I once got pushed up against the fence by the mean girl, played horses on the playground, got swatted by the PE teacher for not putting the wire basket in the locker room back in the shelf (and can vouch for that delay between the smack and the pain, that Dahl describes so well). I recall the first time I heard a grownup criticize another grown up, seeing dead kittens, figuring out how to write the word “purple” “prpl,” going to spend the night at my friend’s house but walking home because I was scared of her dad.

Think about a time you were treated unfairly – getting a really great Christmas present – or the disappointment when you didn’t – doing something for the first time – even little incidents that stick out and you don’t know why. Something that happened when you were vising relatives. Injuries, a time when you screwed up, or saved the day, in a game. Getting in trouble. Being embarrassed, or suddenly aware of how much a parent loves you. The first memory that pops into your head.

So hope to see you December 5th, stories in hand!

 

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daumen3I recently took part in a 48-hour playwriting “Bake Off” conducted by Island Institute and Rasmuson Foundation Artist -In-Residence Dipika Guha. The group brainstormed myths and fairy tales and chose the children’s story Little Suck-A-Thumb, written and illustrated by Heinrich Hoffman in 1845. The story was meant to be funny, and apparently it was, in Germany in 1845, but it is about a boy who is punished for sucking his thumbs by having them cut off by a tailor.

There were other elements we came up with to incorporate, such as a monologue, a fox, and a transformation.

Click here for the play as a pdf.

Digital Learning

Scene One

A city council meeting in a small town. Fluorescent lights buzz.

MAYOR: Next up – on our agenda – is – uh – our consultant here on the School Assessment project.

(slick, unhealthy looking gentleman in a turtleneck and blazer stands up and comes to take a mic)

SCISSORMAN: Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Todd Scissorman with Whacker Strategies. I’ll just start this interactive media presentation . . .

(he tries to get a projector to work but it won’t, and everyone ends up coming up and trying to make it work: Is it the internet connection? Are you running Windows? Oh, Mac? Maybe you can use my phone as a hot spot? Where is the sound – do you have this on a usb? Finally they give up.)

Ok well I’ll just talk then. Our firm has been very successful in coming up with 21st century strategies. As you know, your public school test scores and graduation rates are very bad. Well, this is the 21st century, and, folks, it’s not about pencils and paper any more. How are you going to get your students to meet the new, rigorous, standards of today and that’s coming down the line?

Incentives. If a child scores below average, we chop off a thumb. If that child does not improve, Whack!! (he makes a chop with his hand on the table, startling the group) he, or she, loses the other one.

We don’t have any research but anecdotal reports suggest that children are highly averse to losing a body part, and, faced with this consequence, will do anything they can to keep them.

And yes, we have heard concerns from parents that maiming children may interfere with their futures. I want to give you reassurance, however, that, statistically, children who can’t – or won’t – achieve a passing score on the first grade assessments, are very unlikely to amount to anything, anyway.

Which reminds me of a joke. Ever hear the one about the street drunk with no thumbs?

(another man hurriedly comes up to the microphone)

SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT: Hello, yes, as you know, I’m the leader of the new education leadership team here, as you know your test scores were so bad that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent us in as a sort of SWAT team.

Your former superintendent and administration team, and your school board are in a safe place, they are happy and have all they need.

Mr. Scissorman comes highly recommended. This approach is very promising. To give you a little history, in schools with high test scores, they achieve this by posting the children’s test scores on a wall, called a “Wall of Shame,” where all the other children can see how they did, which is an incentive for the kiddos to work harder and raise those scores.

Well, we’re taking that a step further. Already we have had a lot of success making testing stressful, to the point of tears and sleep problems. But this isn’t good enough! As you know, high test scores mean children are graduating college- and career-ready. We need to raise the stakes.

MAYOR: Thank you. Any questions from the Assembly?

ASSEMBLYMAN 1: Well, I’d like to know, how much will this cost.

SCISSORMAN: Actually, you probably already have the tools here in your district. We recommend, however, that you purchase the Apple iDigit device, and you will need teacher training with that in using this device. You do need one teacher device for each classroom to avoid cross contamination, as well as individual digit devices for each student.

ASSEMBLYMAN 2: if we do both thumbs at once, will that save costs?

ASSEMBLYMAN 3: This is ridiculous. It’s got to be about the kids! We cannot be worrying about costs.

MAYOR: Anyone from the audience?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: I’ve been listening to this –

MAYOR: State your name, please.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My name is Joe Blow and I’ve lived here for 42 years. So I’ve been listening to this debate, and I just wanna know, why don’t you start with a toe, for God’s sake?

ASSEMBLYMAN 4: So, what do we do when we chopped off both their thumbs.

SCISSORMAN: I think we can say that this produces a child who is empathetic, and resigned to their fate.

Scene 2

TED Talk

SCISSORMAN: We do have evidence, that, the more kids try, to work devices, when they have no thumbs, the more frustrated they get.

Now, some people try to do things the same old way, and hope for different results. Our approach is innovative, and we’re seeing results.

(takes off mask – he is transformed into BILL GATES. Applause.)

BILL GATES: By tying teacher performance in raising students’ test scores to retention of their digits, we have a powerful tool to transform teachers and learning in this country. Eventually, we will weed out the lowest performing teachers, because they won’t have any fingers left.

Now, when we make tests harder, how can we expect kids to be able to pass them, when we have no actual mechanism to improve teaching, and in fact, have taken away the teachers’ sense of control, creativity and self respect?

Well, people ask me this all the time: Bill, you don’t know anything about education! They ask me, Bill! How can a technocratic, top-down, high-stakes standardized testing-based system, that has no actual research behind it, and in fact has been detrimental to quality education – they ask me, Bill, how is it that creating a vast new market for private enterprise to market untested products to the government on a massive scale,

they ask me, Bill, how is any of that going to improve education?

And this is what I tell them: Are you kidding me? Why would it?

Scene 3

another Assembly meeting

A fox runs across the stage, with sounds of a fox hunt, bugles, hounds, horses etc. in the background. The Assemblymen follow it with their heads.

MAYOR: And now next up we have Persons to be Heard.

(FOX HUNTER comes up and takes the microphone)

FOX HUNTER: Hi, as you know, fox hunting is a very important part of our economy and our culture and heritage. Well recently we’ve been hit pretty hard by the fewer cruise ship passengers, and then now, we are suffering due to your policy of high-stakes testing. We rely on the young and otherwise unemployable to clean the stables and groom the horses and feed the dogs, and this is having an impact on us, we are having a hard time finding people to do this work that have all their digits.

MAYOR: Thank you.

(FOX HUNTER sits down.)

MAYOR: Any other Persons to be Heard?

(INTERN comes up. She has on Xtratuf rubber boots and trendy clothes)

INTERN: Hello, my name is Emily Emily? And I’m an intern with Sitka Institute for Laudable Initiatives? I’m the Community Organizer Intern for the Community Community program, and the Sustainable Sock Puppet Project?

We grow our own organic soy beans in a community garden, that we then harvest and dry collaboratively, and weave them on Fair Trade looms from Bolivia, and make them into socks that we make into sock puppets.

Although, recently we have had some challenges, because soy beans it turns out do not grow very well in our climate, so – (she brings out a sock puppet and puts it on her hand, and delivers the rest of her piece as if it’s the sock puppet talking)

we are buying socks and craft foam at Ben Franklin. We believe that sock puppets because they only use the fingers can contribute to resiliency and self esteem in our digitally-challenged population, and contributes to the integration of these folks into the greater community.

MAYOR: Thank you. Anyone else?

SCISSORMAN: Hello, I think everyone knows me, I came originally on a contract to provide testing incentives in your schools. Well, now I’ve got on my other hat – I’m here representing the Transboundary River Mines with Unsafe Tailings Dams Inc. We have a new project, starting soon that’s a very exciting development opportunity that will supply jobs for workers without thumbs, “WOOTs” All of our equipment will be specially adapted for use by digitally challenged individuals.

MAYOR:Thank you, Mr. Scissorman, we are looking forward to hearing more about that as it develops.

Is there anyone else, under Persons to be Heard?

ARTIST: Hi! My name is Stardust Cedar Tree, I just moved here yesterday, and I love your community. It just feels so warm and welcoming. Already I’m signed up to help with the Sock Puppet project and I’m going out for drinks with Mr. Scissorman! I am so excited to be here. And one thing, that you will probably be hearing about, yes, I was forcibly put on the ferry in Homer by the Troopers but that was due to a misunderstanding, I was painting beautiful murals on things and I thought people would like it.

MAYOR: Thank you.

Scene 4:

ARTIST, alone on the stage. She is dressed with a scarf, brightly colored skirt, and Xtratuf rubber boots.

ARTIST: I’d never met anyone like him. Like – so – confident – living on this other plane, where, facts don’t matter.

He inspired me to go into teaching, where I could be part of the the implementation of these brave new reforms.

Boy! The classroom was not what I expected! But once we got the kids all medded up on Ritalin, we could actually get things done.

I think of it as an art, really – teaching to the test, seeing how far we can get those scores to come up, without actually teaching them anything.

And we did it! I’m the teacher of the year! And tonight, when I get my award, we’ll be demonstrating some of the new technology that let me – let us – accomplish this amazing achievement.

Scene 5

Assembly meeting again. Artist is standing in front of them.

Applause.

ARTIST: Thank you So Much for this award! Now, we’ve passed out the student devices, go ahead and strap them on, don’t worry, they’re deactivated.

And now, we’ll put a sample test question on the screen, and you can do your best to answer them.

Can everyone read that? OK now do your best –

ASSEMBLYMAN 1: OY! Ouch!

ARTIST: Oh, I guess Assemblyman Tim didn’t get that one!

Ok, now for question two –

ASSEMBLYMAN 2: Holy shit! My thumb! I thought these were deactivated!!

ARTIST: oh my god I thought they were –

All the ASSEMBLYMEN and MAYOR: Oh my god! Take them off!!!

(blood is spurting everywhere)

CHILD (without thumbs, pops up): Ha! We hacked it!

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minecraft ipad

“Technology” is the educational term for Information and Communication Technology or ICT.

Here are five myths about technology in education:

Myth number one: Educational technology is always a good investment by schools; we owe it to our kids to have a lot of technology in the classroom.

Reality: some technology is useful, and other technology is not worth the time and money.

There are proven benefits from technology: student access to computers lets them write and revise, and develop their writing ability; internet access opens up the world for research. But, only if the students actually make use of the technology for that purpose. Studies  show that even computers and internet access, in and of themselves, can lower academic achievement. Still, computers and internet access are versatile. Teachers are probably more productive when they have reliable computers, networks and software. Overall, these kinds of investments probably pay off.

But some technology does not. For example, Interactive White Boards (also known by brand names Smart Boards and Promethean).

An Interactive White Board is a large touchscreen display, with a short-throw digital projector mounted on an arm at the top. These cost from a few thousand dollars to over $6000, for a six-foot-wide screen, on a wheeled, motorized mount, so it can be moved around, and up and down so children can use the touchscreen.

These were initially marketed to business in the 1990s, then as that faded, to the educational market, where they were very popular.

These devices are limited: you cannot use the touchscreen feature via other devices or software. Teachers must either find lessons on line, or create their own, which is time consuming. A multimedia projector alone, at a cost of about $400, does 99% of what these do and doesn’t take any floorspace, or training.

They are complex machines, and support will probably disappear within a few years, as the market moves on to the next educational technology gadget (tablets): Promethean share prices plunged 75% in 2012.

There have been very few scientific studies of how effective Interactive White Boards are in education. A major government-funded study (by BECTA) in the UK found no statistically-significant improvement with the use of IWBs. When they broke out their results according to ability, sex, and subject matter, there were small gains for some groups (for example, “high-performing boys in math”), losses for a few others, and no gains for most.

Robert Marzano, a popular educational presenter, did a study that found similar results – that roughly a third of the students did better, a third worse, and a third about the same, when the teacher used IWBs in the classroom. And yet, he claimed that “The study results indicated that, in general, using interactive whiteboards was associated with a 16 percentile point gain in student achievement. This means that we can expect a student at the 50th percentile in a classroom without the technology to increase to the 66th percentile in a classroom using whiteboards.” Fortunately the research was later reviewed is typical of what you’ll find on line.

When meager educational benefit is weighed against the money and time they require, it’s clear that IWBs are not a good investment.

Myth number two: Technology in the classroom prepares students for the high-tech world after graduation; youth will not be able to cope in the high-tech workplace /world unless we teach it in school.

Reality: technology in the classroom has no relationship to preparing students to master technology after graduation.

First of all what are the skills our kids will need in a rapidly-changing, technology-driven society? Most of what they must learn has not changed at all: they need to understand geography, civics, history, math, and science, and how to read and write well. But now, on top of that, kids need critical thinking skills, creativity, and to learn how to work with others.

Students must also learn how to sort through the vast amounts of information and marketing they face every day, skills called Information Literacy and Media Literacy. And, math and science are even more important than they were in the past, now that more and more jobs are in programming and development of new technology.

How does educational technology fit these educational goals? Much educational technology simply replaces the typewriter, mimeograph, and filmstrip of yesterday. Internet access, reliable computers, printers, and multimedia digital projectors are the improved versions of technology we have relied on for decades.

Most of what we think of as educational technology are the more specialized teaching aids – document cameras, Interactive White Boards, “clickers” or electronic voting devices, wii’s, and iPads and other tablet devices, and educational software and “apps.”

Do these items help our students reach 21st century goals? When employers are asked what they are looking for, number one is a work ethic (a complaint since Babylonian times), communication skills and analytical thinking. In the high tech workplace, a December Forbes Magazine article lists critical thinking, problem solving, active listening, and math, as well as programming.

When they get to the work force, will their experience using an iPad or IWB give them an advantage? Probably not. Will having learned to write well, to think, to use their heads to figure out what needs to be done, their ability in math and science, be of any use? Probably more likely – and educational technology devices are not needed for any of that.

Devices like iPads are actually harder to use than computers, for teaching vocational technology skills. It’s possible, but a struggle to do things that are easy on a computer, like creating a website or programming. Even web design is still done through code, and you’d be better off building computers and devices, doing your own programming, or troubleshooting a donated device. Ed tech devices like iPads offer no advantage.

As parents know, kids are uncanny in their ability to pick up new software and gadgets, I think we’ve all seen babies adept with iPhones. There is also the fact that any particular device or software we teach them in school will be obsolete well before they graduate.

Myth number three: Technology lets us reach students through multiple modalities; technology is interactive.

“Multiple modalities” is education jargon for the idea that we all learn differently, and some of us do better reading material, some of us by using our hands, some of us through seeing a picture.

Reality: a screen, even with sound, uses a fraction of our senses and abilities. Accessing anything via an electronic device means it is mediated, and not direct. Most children today have way too much screen time as it is, with the consequence that they don’t have the social skills, physical fitness, or ability to focus kids had just a generation ago.

How interactive is a touchscreen compared to handling bird feathers, measuring weights, negotiating with other children, going on a field trip, making music? Making anything? Going into the real world, and learning hands on how it works.

Myth number four: Children today are Digital Natives, and you have to adapt the classroom to their new learning style; technology is the paper and pencil of tomorrow; we can’t use yesterday’s tools to teach today’s skills.

Reality: Anyone who has seen a good teacher at work knows it’s not true, that kids can’t pay attention to anything that’s not digital. But even if it were – what do we do about it? Allow our kids to graduate from school, still unable to pay attention to anything that’s not spoon-fed to them digitally?

Learning might be the most rewarding thing we do, that sense of achievement,belonging, mastery, control, possibility. Children are hard-wired to learn. Yes, kids would rather play games on an iPad – but are they learning? We’re trading off short-term pleasure for lasting pleasure, in genuine learning.

Myth number five: Schools need iPads.

Reality: There is yet to be evidence iPads improve academic performance.

The advantages are hyped without letup: you can get textbooks for less cost. There is great educational software out there. They have a camera and Apple’s internet browser. It has a bright touchscreen. Kids love them.

There are enormous downsides to using ipads besides the very high cost ($500 dollars on up), including being locked in to the Apple browser and compatible websites (because it doesn’t support Flash, still used in many websites) and software. They have extremely limited connectivity. Things that are easy with computers, like hooking up to a projector or sharing files, are difficult with an iPad. And, they are fragile. You also have the built-in distraction of a device that’s built for entertainment – even adults have a hard time with their self-discipline. (In 2012 the idea of students bringing in their own phones and devices to school – “BYOT” was very trendy, but those students would have to have a lot more self control than I do.)

There are many wonderful educational apps (and of course many junky ones), but very few multimedia textbooks. The content just isn’t there yet. And when it is developed, it seems very unlikely the content publishers are going to be giving it away, and it will very likely cost as much or more than paper textbooks.

If you want digital textbooks, then look at the most effective platform, taking costs into account. Digital textbooks (ebooks) do exist, but as digital versions of textbooks, they are no more effective than the originals. So the only advantage is (slightly) lower cost, which has to be offset by the cost of the device. Another issue with any tablet or reader is compatibility.

As a computing device, you have imovie and a digital audio program (“sold separately”), but these kinds of programs are available, for free, for laptops. And the tablets have no keyboard ($70 for their small keyboard, which is not designed for serious typing, and can’t control the iPad), which takes away the biggest, and perhaps most effective use of computers in school – writing, revising and publishing, so you still need computers, as well.

Ultimately, iPads, like Interactive White Boards, are designed for consuming information, not for creating. Apple’s goal is to have the iPad be the portal for all of our entertainment – purchased through Apple-controlled websites.

The wild enthusiasm for iPads in education – how much is because they look good, and how much is because they add anything to education – especially when you compare them to things like laptops, which are much more versatile and useful?

But with any educational technology, when you look at educational technology blogs, forums, websites, you won’t see much debate over whether an IWB or tablet is a useful tool, or worth the money. The only posts I found criticizing IWBs exalted tablets. You will see a frenzy of posts about how teachers are working to figure out ways to use it in their classroom, and testimonials about how the kids love it. Given this enthusiasm by educational technology experts, it is little wonder that districts do not scrutinize these machines or ask to see evidence they work. Still, before spending millions of dollars on these devices, wouldn’t districts want evidence they work? Wouldn’t Apple benefit from a compelling study?

I was surprised to find there is no evidence they improve academic performance. One study in Auburn Maine was supposedly “finally proof” but it turned out that study had no statistically significant results – only “trends.” Most of what you’ll find are “case studies” reporting only that faculty felt kids were learning more, or that most students liked them.

Yes, kids adore iPads. But, are they learning? It’s possible there won’t ever be evidence they improve academic performance. A teacher has to plan out the year knowing what the students need to accomplish, and get them there, mastering material and skills sequentially, step by step. Programs like Khan Academy work well for some kids in math, because it is sequential and requires kids to work the problems, but don’t require an iPad.

There is a limited amount we can learn passively. We need to actively engage with content. (Think about the last educational tv program you watched, and how you felt like you were learning, and how much you retained afterward.) In theory, you could design a program or app that could do this – answer kids’ questions, get them thinking and writing. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Imagine a classroom using an app on Paul Revere’s ride. They watch animations, do puzzles and games, answer multiple choice questions. Now imagine using that same class time to see a video and graphics together; read about it; the teacher asks the kids questions, answers ones they have, and if she doesn’t have the answer, models how to find it; assigns them to research questions they have (like, why is Paul Revere so famous?), and write about it, and share their findings. Which group of kids will retain more about this period in history?

The weakness of ipads is that they are not good for engaging students with content, which is essential for learning. You could use them as part of a high quality educational program, but since they are expensive and don’t add anything, are they worth the cost? With any individual device, while the potential is there for “student-centered learning,” the reality is that you also have a lot of potential for student-centered surfing, messaging and games.

What is quality education? Small class sizes; everyone understands the goals; teachers are motivated and highly-trained: the teachers know the subject matter, are able to get the students interested in it, and move step by step, building on what the students have already mastered.

Any tool has to be chosen because it contributes to what the teacher can do. Unfortunately, often the tools seem to come first, with the teachers scrambling to figure out ways to use it.

Educational Technology is a vast and growing business. What is sad is that the marketers don’t even have to work hard, much less offer discounts, to get school districts to spend millions on expensive, unproven equipment.

“Flipped” classrooms (listening to the teacher’s lecture at home, and doing practice in school) will only widen the “digital divide” between more well-off students who have internet at home and those who don’t, who we know are already at risk for dropping out. Offering time during recess for these kids to catch up only adds to their burden.

Another issue is privacy: the free cloud-based services like Googledocs, and many free educational sites, require quite a bit of personal information in exchange. Maybe it’s worth the trade off, but it’s something we have to be aware of.

We want to graduate competent young people. Tech in the classroom can be as much a hindrance as a help; many students have way too much screen time, and way too much electronically-mediated communication in their lives already. They need knowledge and skills they aren’t getting on their own: how to communicate, create, think, solve problems.

In the end, technology is tools. Technology does have exciting potential, in being able to access lessons and information remotely, and kids can program, create movies, write and publish. We have to know what we want technology to do, and buy the gear to do that – but consider the entire school environment, make quality teaching the highest priority, and not give too much weight to gadgets.

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