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High school history course brings community and art into the classroom

A puppetry scene from "ALAXSXA | ALASKA”. The production's creators turned the play's content into the high school Alaska studies curriculum known as "Passages Alaska."
Courtesy of Ping Chong and Company
A puppetry scene from "ALAXSXA | ALASKA”. The production's creators turned the play's content into the high school Alaska studies curriculum known as "Passages Alaska."

Note: This story was updated on Feb. 20, 2024 to clarify that the details of expanding "Passages Alaska" is unclear, not that accessing the curriculum is unclear for schools.

The creators of the 2017 theater production “ALAXSXA | ALASKA” helped develop “Passages Alaska” — a new curriculum that aims to indigenize how Alaskan history is taught in schools.

The Ping Chong and Company play combines the experiences of creator and co-director Ryan Conarro living in Alaska as a young person from outside the state with that of Gary Upay'aq Beaver, who is Central Yup’ik from Kasigluk near Bethel.

Ping Chong and Company education director Christina Bixland said the production sparked a lot of community interest in turning the stories into curriculum, particularly in Bethel.

“It kind of brought up a lot of curiosity and interest from community members and educators saying, ‘Wow, this would be kind of a great foundation for an Alaska studies course,’” she said.

Conarro worked with arts educators and curriculum specialists to do just that. The team worked to develop “Passages Alaska.” It not just taught historical events, but also allowed students to explore the concepts through art projects. From storytelling and conducting interviews to creating political cartoons, the curriculum would encourage students to connect what they learned from the classroom to their own community.

They did a test run of the course with three classes in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in 2021. After refining it in 2022, they created a curriculum that is now available across the state.

In addition to teaching social studies standards, the course also incorporates arts and cultural understanding standards. Jennifer Romer worked on the project as a curriculum writer whose main role was to incorporate state standards into the curriculum. She said in addition to the challenges of following the standards, lots of work needed to go into preparing teachers for the class.

“In all of my trainings that I've done for educators, I've found that they don't feel like they have the background knowledge to teach the subject matter,” she said.

The team tackled this from multiple angles.

One was making sure the coursework taught the teachers correct pronunciation and made teaching the art content approachable.

Their other strategy was designing the curriculum in a way that encouraged students to bring stories and aspects of their culture into the classroom. That’s so their teachers could learn cultural competency alongside them.

Asia Freeman is the artistic director for the Bunnell Street Arts Center in Homer. The center co-commissioned the initial play and brought the performance to Homer. Afterwards, she helped to develop the arts curriculum for the class. Freeman said the class was designed to allow teachers to teach and learn from the students.

“In this curriculum, teachers get to engage in the exercise with students, and it's much more of a equitable way of learning and sharing,” she said.

Nita Rearden lives in Homer but worked as a language and cultural training specialist in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. She says their goal was to bring the student and community culture into the course.

“I was delighted that the students' background knowledge, and our elders’ background knowledge, or even the people who live from who are Alaskans to be involved in, in the history of their, their history,” she said.

Conarro, who has been involved with the project from its inception as a play, says this course gives people from different backgrounds the chance to connect and learn from each other.

“The project for all of us in Alaska to, to do our best to kind of lean into trying to understand each other from all the various perspectives that we have,” he said, “and so that, you know, brought up challenges sometimes, and I'm really happy that we moved through them because I think that's the work that we want to be doing.”

The course is now available for schools to purchase the rights to use. Project members are working with the University of Alaska Anchorage to expand the curriculum. However, the expansion's details remain unclear.

Jamie Diep is a reporter/host for KBBI from Portland, Oregon. They joined KBBI right after getting a degree in music and Anthropology from the University of Oregon. They’ve built a strong passion for public radio through their work with OPB in Portland and the Here I Stand Project in Taipei, Taiwan.Jamie covers everything related to Homer and the Kenai Peninsula, and they’re particularly interested in education and environmental reporting. You can reach them at to send story ideas.