When the coronavirus forced learning to move from the classroom to the internet, North Star teacher Kathy Simpler didn’t miss a step. Sitting in front of her laptop, she taught her students to paint flowers in honor of Mother’s Day.
Simpler, who has been a teacher for 25 years, is part of the Munartet Project, which supports teaching through the arts and culture in Kodiak. Munartet is an Alutiiq word that means “artists.”
Simpler has used art in her teaching throughout career. Now, she has the opportunity to mentor beginning teachers as they take their first steps in what can be a challenging profession.
“The project reaffirms my philosophy that arts integration is important,” she said. “Art is not comfortable for most people. Most people don’t look at themselves as an artist, but art in any form is open to anybody.”
The project, now in its fourth year, is supported by a grant and led through a partnership between the Kodiak Island Borough School District, the Alutiiq Museum, the Kodiak Arts Council, Kodiak College, and the Alaska State Council on the Arts.
“The premise of the grant is supporting early career teachers and an approach to teaching that is in and through the arts of Kodiak,” said JoAnne Knight, KIBSD arts and culture coordinator. “The question is, how do we keep teachers in the career of teaching past the typical five to seven years?”
Knight said there are many reasons that teachers don’t stay in the field long-term. The compensation doesn’t always match the hard work that teachers invest.
“So we’re looking at teacher preparation programs, and we are looking at support with money and with mentorship. We are also looking at a different approach to teaching so that it’s more enjoyable,” Knight said. “Everybody is a learner. Not just the students, but the teachers are also lifelong learners.”
Every year, the program reaches between 80 and 100 educators and hundreds of students in the district through its various programs. The teacher cohort, which includes mentor teachers and early career teachers, numbers 25. The project also reaches a number of pre-service teachers through the Kodiak College teacher preparation program, and a class of high school students who are considering teaching as a career.
Program stakeholders hope that it will inject more arts into the daily lives of students and teachers, while also encouraging more locals to consider a career in teaching at the Kodiak school district.
“Kodiak is a special and unique place and when we have individuals who understand the context in which they are living, they are more likely to stay,” said Kitty Deal, associate professor of education at Kodiak College.
“In rural Alaska, because we don’t always grow enough teachers to fill our classrooms locally, we tend to hire from outside. So people may read about being a teacher in Kodiak, and come up for the adventure, but they don’t stay here for the long term.”
Deal helps prepare new teachers through the college’s joint program with the University of Alaska Southeast. Through the Munartet Project, she is able to provide financial assistance to local students as they navigate their path toward becoming teachers, by providing tuition waivers and support during students’ internship semester, when they first get acquainted with the classroom.
“The fact that we can offer tuition support is really beneficial,” Deal said. “What we’re looking for is people who are already in Kodiak, who want to be in Kodiak and serve the community.”
Between one and five students graduate from the teacher preparation program at Kodiak College every year. In 2019, three students graduated from the program. All three are currently working for the Kodiak Island Borough School District.
For those considering a career in teaching, Deal said the coronavirus should provide additional incentive to enter the profession.
“If you look at a job that has historically been sustained — this is a professional that is needed,” Deal said. “It weathers recessions, it weathers COVID-19. We still need to serve the children in our community. Now is a great time. This is just evidence for you that it’s needed.”
Simpler’s role is to help guide and support these new teachers once they join the cohort.
“If I can be the person that inspires someone to try something new in their classroom, I am excited to try that,” Simpler said. “As a mentor, it’s my role to keep encouraging the new teachers to just keep trying and not to give up. You can feel like a failure really fast, and I don’t want anybody to feel that way.”
“As a new teacher, you want to try to do everything — everything you learned from your mentor teacher and college. Once you get in there, you realize very quickly that’s not what happens,” she said. “The most important thing to me is that I know I can’t do it all, so I have to take the little bits and try them when I can.”
This year, Simpler has incorporated teaching through tableaus, a technique that she learned through a training offered by the Washington, DC-based John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Instead of writing a summary of a story, students can present a tableau — French for frozen picture — of what happened in a certain section of a story.
“One student might be a character, a piece in the background, another might be a prop, a chair,” Simpler said. “They have to show me they have to understand.”
By teaching through arts, students can gain important skills such as speaking on a stage or working with their hands, while mastering core subjects such as math, reading and social studies.
“When you’re involving art, it’s hands on, it’s experiential. You’re not sitting passively in a chair receiving the lesson,” she said. “It’s powerful and meaningful for the students, so they learn better.”
Other art methods she used included reenacting a fairytale using shadow puppets. While studying geometry, students created arpilleras — pictures sewn onto burlap — sewing quadrilaterals onto fabric.
The resulting artwork was left on the wall when the students left for spring break, never returning to the classroom to retrieve it.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced a district-wide school shutdown and learning transitioned to an online format, Simpler didn’t give up on incorporating art into her teaching. She made rainbows with her students, encouraging them to paint them on rocks or arrange colorful Post-its on a window.
“It’s a little challenging because you have to show it up on a screen,” she said.
Since transitioning to online learning, she has turned to micro-lessons. It takes more planning and preparation to ensure all materials are ready and available.
“It has to be so short,” she said. “You’re really working with live TV. When you watch someone, everything is right there, ready to go.”
To teach her students about matter, she conducted a live experiment with oil, water and paint to show they don’t mix.
“I had everything right there, next to the computer,” she said. “If we were in a classroom, it would have taken much longer, and we’d have more time for discussion. You miss out on those classroom discussions.”
Simpler, who has lived in Kodiak since 1996, sees the value of integrating both art and local culture in the curriculum. The Munartet Project allows her to do that as part of a cohort, with support and validation from the district.
“The ongoing support of the program is invaluable. You have this network of people that are wrapped around you that are just encouraging you to keep going and keep trying,” she said.
The Munartet Project offers teachers arts classes on Saturdays. The Kodiak Arts Council sponsors artists to come to Kodiak throughout the year to interact with teachers and students. Throughout these experiences, many teachers are thinking, “How can we take this back to our classroom?” Simpler said.
“Even though I’ve been teaching 25 years, I am still willing to take that risk and try something new, because I know it will improve my teaching and benefit my kids,” she said. “You’re constantly learning in this profession. Our kids are different every year and you have to grow and improve what you’re doing to keep up with them. You can’t always rely on what worked 10 years ago.”
In her time as a teacher, she has seen a shift in classroom learning. Every student used to have an assigned chair and a desk. Now, she has transitioned to flexible seating, which allows for different learning environments in the classroom. Some students thrive at a desk, while others thrive while sitting on a carpet, Simpler said.
“The physical space has changed over the years,” she said. “To do that, you have to have a supportive administration, to trust that the teachers are still teaching, even though the environment may look different.”
Now, with learning taking place from students’ homes, it is requiring teachers to adapt yet again. Simpler said that arts will play an important role in facilitating learning through this abrupt change.
“It’s the arts that’s going to pull people through this. Providing as many opportunities to do that with our students is going to benefit them in the long run,” she said.