You Couldn’t Tell Who the Back Row Students Were

by Jennifer McClung

A layer of fog hovered over the still water, and golden birch leaves littered the path. Moving quietly through light rain, my class and I made our way around Goose Lake. It was fall in Alaska and my first time leading a group of students in this kind of exercise. I listened to the sound of my gymnast student’s crutch hitting the paved trail, took in the wet rain jackets and colorful umbrellas of the others as we followed each other down the path. I enjoyed breathing the fresh outdoor air and also noted the nervous excitement tingling in my cheeks and stomach. 

What brought me to this moment?

I remember sitting at my desk by the window and pulling out my students’ introductions at the semester start. My first assignment has always been an introduction. Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? What’s your family like? Do you work? What languages do you speak? I had seen all kinds of introductions in my years teaching English in Taiwan and Canada, but I was still getting used to the population I taught in my developmental writing classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Some students in these classes spoke languages other than English, others dealt with learning disabilities or had gaps in their education. Everyone, for one reason or another, needed extra support before they would be ready for college level work.

As I made my way through the stack of papers, I had to keep stopping to Google the places my students called home. Soldotna and Bethel, I knew. Dillingham, I’d heard of. Naknek too. But St. Michael, Holy Cross, Klawok, St. Paul? For each of these places, I had to zoom out the map of Alaska to get perspective on the tiny red dot indicating home. Holy Cross, location: Yukon River, interior Alaska. Population: 227. Klawok: west coast of Prince of Wales Island, about as far south as you can go in Alaska. Population: 755. St. Paul: one of the Pribilof Islands, north of the Aleutian chain in the Bering Sea. Population: 479. A one-way ticket to St. Paul from Anchorage runs $574.

I shuffled the papers back onto the desk, sipped my jasmine tea, and leaned back in the chair, shaking my head in wonder. It was exciting to discover I had students from all of these exotic places (exotic to me, at least). 

But suddenly, I felt out of my depth. I know that students engage better when they can read and write and talk about stories and issues that matter to them. Instinctively, I knew these students were unique, that their needs and contributions would be too– and I knew I didn’t know enough. I had read a few books and met a handful of Alaska Native people at my church, but my knowledge of rural Alaska just skimmed the surface. I needed to go deep if I wanted to connect.

So I sought out a resource: one of my colleagues, Don Rearden. Don isn’t Native, but he was raised in Bethel, a town of 6,080 people located in Southwest Alaska, only accessible by boat or plane. I knew Don still had strong ties to the bush and a reputation of connecting well with students from rural Alaska. So I knocked on his door and was offered a seat in his office. I scanned the room, which was decorated with a photo of a wolf, Raven artwork, pictures of Alaska Native and natural scenes, and a mammoth bone. I’m in the right place, I thought.

Don dove right in, helping me get into my students’ shoes: “These students have to deal with crazy amounts of culture shock. Think about it. For some of them, their Psych 101 class has as many people as their entire village.” He also pointed out how strange it would be for them not to know and be known by the people around them. They were used to sharing life with people who had known them from birth. He encouraged me to get to know the students and call them by name in class, which I would do anyway. I love that part of teaching. He even said he would reach out to a student by text if he noticed their seat was empty. “Sometimes they get shy and don’t make it all the way to class,” he explained (Rearden).

Since that conversation, I have learned that as a group, Alaska Native students often struggle to complete college degrees. In fact, nationally, compared to other ethnic groups, Alaska Native and American Indian students have the lowest graduation rate as first-time, full-time students at four-year universities. Alaska Native and American Indians graduate at a rate of 39%, compared to Asians’ 74%, White students’ 64%, Hispanics’ 54% and Black students’ 40% (NCES). At the University of Alaska Anchorage, the percentage is even lower: 13% of first-time, full-time Alaska Native/American Indian students graduated in 2021 (Alaska Native Success). Due to a host of factors, no doubt including the culture shock Don described, Alaska Native students weren’t thriving at the university.

Yet the Alaska Native students in my class had every right to an education that worked for them at this open-access, public university. The University of Alaska ought to serve First Alaskans, for goodness’ sake. I had taught English to people from other cultures for 15 years. I knew what it meant to reach out across cultural barriers, and it was time to put my cross-cultural skills to work. I wanted to connect with and empower my Alaska Native students, and I would do that by embracing a more Indigenous approach to teaching and incorporating relevant curriculum into my Basic Writing class.

A couple of weeks into the term, I discovered and attended a (well-timed!) series of workshops titled “Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning” put on by Libby Roderick and Ilarion Merculieff, a white UAA professor and an Alaska Native elder and scholar. Roderick and Merculieff acknowledged the diversity of Alaska’s Native peoples, but said that despite tribal distinctions, there were values and practices shared by all. Things like learning at an earth-based pace: slowly, steadily, and seasonally; also attending to relationships, since in Indigenous groups, teaching and learning happen in the context of small, tight-knit communities. In these communities, people learn, think, and work as a group, in contrast to the Western approach, which emphasizes individual accomplishment. Merculieff and Roderick also discussed the value of storytelling to communicate ideas, learning from elders, and keeping things light through the use of humor (Stop Talking 17).

Merculieff and Roderick exemplified the values they taught. They spoke in an unhurried way and told stories to illustrate the points on their slides. They never spoke over one another or anyone else. There was a deference between them and towards everyone in the room. Our conversation as a group included meaningful pauses, another feature of the Alaska Native approach. The two went into depth about the Native style of discourse. They explained that the traditional way to communicate was to honor the person who spoke just before you, thanking them for their contribution and highlighting their position in the tribe, even if you go on to respectfully disagree. “Make sure you listen to Mary. She is a culture-bearer and always first to contribute her family’s share of the harvest,” Merculieff, the elder, said as an example. “Just imagine,” he said, “if U.S. politicians spoke that way” (“Indigenous Ways”). They talked about listening without agenda as others speak, something that is a challenge, if ever a thought, in Western academia. More often than not, we academics are forming our response, rather than listening with mind and heart (Stop Talking 17). We are trained to think on our feet and be the first to speak.

I was inspired and humbled. Some of what I heard was freeing. After teaching in Taiwan and absorbing that culture’s emphasis on the group over the individual, it was a relief to see something other than American individualism held up as a model. I am also a person who needs silence and appreciates pauses in conversation. I recalled a committee meeting I had been part of in which a colleague proposed a major change to our courses. I had felt embarrassed to say, “I’m not sure what I think. I will have to percolate on that.” Maybe some of these Alaska Native ways of teaching and learning are about being human. 

I came away from the workshops with new perspective and determination. I would intentionally hold onto practices I had developed as an English teacher: teaching in a relational way, modeling and encouraging attentive listening, and building community through group work. I also added to my curriculum: a reflection on a silent walk and a three-week unit on excerpts from Nick Jans’ The Last Light Breaking, the story of his life in Ambler, Alaska.

The silent walk was inspired by Don. He told me he does whatever he can to get his students outside, and I decided to add the element of silence. The assignment felt risky, especially because after one of the sunniest Septembers on record, it rained the day we did it. But even though privately I groaned when I saw the forecast, publicly, I promised the class Golden Donuts at the end and warned them to wear rain jackets. To my surprise, nearly everyone came. About 18 of us met at Goose Lake park on campus and walked, phones tucked away, not speaking, for 30 minutes around the lake. “Your job is to observe,” I told them. “Observe the external world, particularly nature; observe internally too. Notice what you think about and how you feel.” This was good practice for writers as well as getting us outside, I reasoned. 

Besides doing a little bit of shushing, I was able to take it all in, the still lake, the mountains in the distance. Golden birch leaves against dark green firs. I watched as my tall, Black student from Anchorage led the way, holding her clear plastic umbrella high. I watched the Hmong and Thai students happily link arms and huddle together to stay dry. I watched some of the young Native students get soaked in sweatshirts only, no coat, but also looking more relaxed and… visible… than they ever did in class. As one student commented later, “You couldn’t tell who the back row students were.” 

When class met the next time, we debriefed the walk. One student admitted that she has always loved the rain. Another said the trees, dotted with raindrops, reminded her of Christmas trees covered in tinsel. Another student, a gymnast, had hurt her ankle but insisted on doing the walk with us on crutches. She commented that she was more aware of her pain because of the silence. Thoughtful pauses followed each person’s comments. One of my students from rural Alaska, a tall young guy with thick hair who rarely spoke, said the walk made him think of walking the beach near his home. 

Which was exactly what I had hoped for.

The unit on Nick Jans’ book was more of a learning experience. Some chapters I selected went over extremely well, for instance, the one on the central place of basketball in village life. It was exciting to see how animated the students from rural Alaska were discussing basketball, and it was a great learning moment for the rest of us. That topic also produced good writing. I still recall one student’s assignment about how basketball connected people in his hometown of Bethel, complete with professional-looking photographs of Native kids playing ball together. Another chapter got people talking about non-verbal communication. Jans’ book chronicles the years he spent living in the Inupiaq village of Ambler, and he describes how early on, he totally missed what a little girl tried to communicate with him by widening her eyes. My rural students delighted in this and confirmed that in their families and communities back home, raised eyebrows spoke volumes.

One chapter from Jans’ book details the history of education in Alaska, including the story of residential schools and the loss of Native language and culture, which is only now slowly being turned around. I knew it would be a hard topic, but I thought it was important. I just didn’t set it up very well and quickly discovered that sensitive issues require a thoughtful approach.

I knew something was wrong when only white students raised their hands and talked about their responses to the chapter in our discussion. I was perplexed by the reticence of my Alaska Native students, but unsure how to help. I ended up calling on a Tlingit student and asking him a specific question about drumming since I knew he was involved with drumming and dancing back home. But as soon as I’d done it, I could see it was the wrong move. He answered politely, but I sensed I had made him uncomfortable, putting him on the spot. 

I left that class kicking myself. The Alaska Native students in my class were kind and respectful, and, like people from their cultural background, avoided openly expressing anger. I had just asked them for their response to Alaska’s history of residential schools and language loss. What were they supposed to say? 

I was out of my depth again, and this time I reached out to a friend. Curtis is Inupiaq from Unalakleet, but has lived in Anchorage for years. Maybe he could be my bridge. I caught Curtis on the phone as he was leaving a meeting of the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), an annual event gathering Indigenous people from all over the state. He listened to what had happened and gave me advice. He encouraged me to walk things back and try again with the group and introduced me to a set of Dialogue Agreements created by the First Alaskans Institute as a model of ground rules for difficult conversations. He also pointed me to an excellent, personal article about the loss of Native languages written by his cousin, Laureli Ivanoff. 

And so I tried again. I assigned Laureli’s article as reading and opened class with an apology. “I didn’t handle our last discussion very well, and I’m sorry for putting people on the spot. We’re going to do things differently today.” I put up a slide with eight ground rules for discussion, taken from the First Alaskans Institute. “In every chair, a leader,” read the first one, explaining, “Each person engaging in this conversation has a unique and valuable experience that is their truth.” The ground rules went on: “speak with care for others, value each other’s time, listen deeply.” Make this a “safe space for meaningful conversation, value humor, be present and engaged,” and “take care of yourself, take care of others” (First Alaskans).

The students started in small groups. Hopeful and anxious, I watched them lean into their groups and listened to the hum of their conversations. Then we pulled our chairs with half desks attached into one large group, Talking Circle style, and students shared their thoughts. Many expressed grief over Laureli’s not being able to speak Inupiaq to her grandmother. Ivanoff had taken Inupiaq classes in an effort to connect with the women in her family, especially her grandmother, but in a sad twist, she discovered she was learning a different dialect. Her article had opened with her feeling left out when her grandmother, mom, and aunties talked in Inupiaq, and at the end, she was still on the outside. It was a painful story, and my students, Native, white, and immigrants to the U.S., got it. 

In the end, reading an Alaska Native woman’s story of language loss touched the grief that a white author’s history couldn’t. The power of stories was evident. And Alaska Native ways of talking things over, listening deeply, and acknowledging the dignity of every speaker, allowed people from all backgrounds to voice their response, whether it was sadness, anger, or curiosity.

No wonder this class meant so much to me. In the process of reaching out to my Alaska Native students, I learned more about being human. Embracing an Alaska Native approach to teaching required me to show up as a whole person—mind, heart, and body engaged. I talked and listened. I literally and figuratively walked alongside my students, and allowed them to teach me about their culture and perspective even as I taught them about writing. This way of being together involved risk, vulnerability, and trust. However, because I took those risks, I connected more deeply with them than I ever had with a class.

Five years have passed since that eye-opening, heart-expanding experience. I have continued the practices I established that semester and added to them. One new practice is asking students a simple question, one-by-one, on a regular basis: How are you? I kick things off by answering that question first, and it requires me to bring an open heart to class. I allow students to know me, and many of them have given me that privilege in return. I have shared about the passing of my dad and a few years later, my mom. Some of my Alaska Native students have shared about losses and struggles too. Having an alcoholic mother who died too young. Dealing with homesickness or anxiety. Balancing their studies and the needs of family back home. 

At times, we learn difficult history together. We have read about the epidemics that wiped out entire villages in the early 20th century (Napoleon 10). For individual projects, some students have researched the history of residential schools or murdered and missing Indigenous women. Other times our class is a celebration, with narratives about a student’s first whale hunt or a formative relationship with an elder in their village. It is an honor each time a student, Native or not, brings an aspect of their real selves to class this way.

Sometimes I see Alaska Native students successfully navigate the transition to college, and sometimes the existing supports aren’t enough. About a year ago, I taught a Native student who struggled mightily with social anxiety. Amy* started the course a week late due to logistical issues moving to Anchorage from her remote village, but even once she joined, she often didn’t attend the required in-person sessions. Instead she stayed in touch with me by email, worked independently, and submitted her work online. I reached out. She articulated her struggles with being in a class of twenty strangers, and I gave her lots of grace. Come back to class, I urged. She did so, tentatively, and I paired her with students who I knew would be kind. She met other Native students and started attending consistently. She did strong work and seemed to be getting comfortable.

So it broke my heart when she stopped coming to class…. and responding to my emails. I’m not sure what ultimately prevented her from finishing the course, but as an Indigenous first generation student from rural Alaska, Amy faces challenges I know nothing about in my lived experience. As much as I desire to bridge the gap and make university accessible, things don’t always work out the way I’d hope. 

Maybe walking together in the rain is a fitting picture of the learning endeavor we undertake in my class. Light drizzle wetting our hair, feet padding the pavement, making our way around a fog-shrouded lake surrounded by firs. Each of us, teacher and students, unsure of the results, yet showing up to do the work: opening our hearts to each other, observing nature, learning history, telling stories, listening deeply. Navigating the weather and taking each new step. It is risky, but we grow stronger as we walk, and are more human in the end. 


*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s privacy.


Works Cited

“Alaska Native Success Initiative (ANSI) Data Report.” University of Alaska Anchorage, May 2021,, Accessed 6 July 2023.

Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, et al. “Indigenous Peoples in Higher Education.” Journal of 

American Indian Education, vol. 54, no. 1, 2015, pp. 154–186. JSTOR, Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.

First Alaskans Institute. “Dialogue Agreements.” Alaska Public Media. 9 April 2012,

Merculieff, Ilarion, and Libby Roderick. “Indigenous Ways of Teaching and Learning.” 

University of Alaska Anchorage, Sept. 2018, University of Alaska Anchorage. Presentation.

Merculieff, Ilarion, and Libby Roderick. Stop Talking: Indigenous Ways of Teaching and 

Learning and Difficult Dialogues in Higher Education. University of Alaska Anchorage, 2013.

Napoleon, Harold. Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being. Native Village of Paimiut, 1996.

Rearden, Don. Personal interview. August 2018.

“Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups.” IES National Center for 

Education Statistics, February 2019,, Accessed 11 July 2023.