Stories of Inspiration & Innovation
Early in my career as an educator, I left a teaching job in my hometown high school in Indiana for an adventure in a Yup’ik Eskimo village school in the bush of Alaska. My aim was altruistic. I imagined myself making a difference in the world by teaching in such a remote place. The district provided a two hour in-service before I was flown 500 miles west of Anchorage on a bush plane. In the first snowy weeks in that village, I was asked a question that has been with me ever since.
I was seated next to a teenage boy named Apaq. We were looking at the screen of an Apple IIE, trying to get to an English lesson I had assigned. As I struggled with the floppy disk, I could feel Apaq simply staring at me. Nothing in the in-service or my prior experience had prepared me to provide a culturally appropriate response to the stare of a young Eskimo, so I just blurted out, “Apaq, what are you staring at?”
He leaned in even closer and asked, “What you see when you look out?”
“What?” I said. “I see the computer, the classroom, the snow outside (in August!). What do you mean, what do I see?”
Then, to my dismay, he leaned in closer still. Now nearly nose to nose he asked me, quietly, “It all blue?”
Apaq had never been that close to a blue-eyed person before. I laughed and assured him that when I looked out and he looked out, we saw exactly the same world. But – oh – was I wrong. Of course, it wasn’t the color of our eyes that determined that difference in our views, but rather our cultures, histories, language and more.
When I presented lessons deductively, with bulletin boards that matched my learning outcomes and lovely little note-taking guides that would have gotten gold stars in my Hoosier hometown, Apaq and his classmates said, “You make no sense.” When I approached instruction in an animated way, they said, “So embarrassing.” And when, schooled in the Socratic method, I asked questions to generate classroom dialogue, they commented, “So nosy.” And then a student-confidant shared the translation of the nickname Apaq and others were calling me – the ugliest of the ugly – a perception not shared by my mother who thought I was a cutie pie. Given the standard of beauty in Yup’ik culture, descriptions of my colored eyes, big hair, and beaver teeth gave credence to the nickname.
If I was ever going to teach anything to Apaq and his peers, I had to first learn to see – or at least glimpse - through his lens. I had to ask, “What do you see when you look out?” and then, listen and listen deeply to the answer, accepting the perspective of the other as not right, not wrong – but real.
And it is that question that I have asked again and again, throughout my career as an educator. It is that question that is asked each day by the UMR community, scholars and practitioners who are driven to discover the perspective of the learner so that we can teach ever more effectively. It is the pursuit of answers to this very question that reveals exactly what is going well in higher education. At a recent national gathering of education leaders, author Tara Westover reminded us that “the ability to hear and integrate many ideas, many histories and many points of view is at the heart of what it means to be ‘educated’.” Such deep listening is modeled in the lives of educators who believe, Learning Matters.
Westover, T. (2019, March). American Council on Education. 101st Annual Meeting. Keynote presentation.