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December 17, 2020

Kutztown to Alaska

The Kutztown University Liaison Project gives KU students a unique teaching opportunity.

photos of three KU students, inset above snowy Alaskan fields.

Kutztown University is celebrating the 10-year anniversary of its relationship with an unexpected place – the Lake Peninsula School District in the state of Alaska.

Dr. Kristen Bazley, an Associate Professor in KU’s College of Education, started the Kutztown University Liaison Project in 2010. The program pairs Kutztown students in undergraduate and graduate teacher-education classes with children in an Alaskan classroom to provide instructional assistance, both online and in person. The KU students hone their teaching skills while tutoring students in remote villages across the school district in Bush, Alaska, which serves 13 isolated villages along the Alaskan Peninsula.

“The Alaska Distance Tutoring Program has been one of the highlights of my career,” Bazley said. “It is extremely rewarding to work with our teacher candidates to enhance their skills through tutoring students in LPSD. I have been able to watch them over the past 10 years as they grow as educators, have a wealth of experience and knowledge in areas such as differentiation, accommodations and especially within the area of cultural diversity. These opportunities, through my partnership with LPSD, provide our teacher candidates a unique experience that they would never get anywhere else. These experiences have led to them gaining extensive hands-on experience on how to differentiate their instruction in multi-grade classrooms, as well as, where culture is a part of the everyday curriculum. This allows them to put into practice their skills from as early as their sophomore year in their educational endeavors at KU. Through research that I have conducted and published, both the tutoring program and student-teaching opportunities, teacher candidates have stated they are better prepared to handle any classroom, in any area they choose to teach in. It is also extremely rewarding year-after-year to watch as prior tutors get jobs in Alaska and begin their careers in education. After 10 years of volunteering to coordinate and run this program, it is still exciting every semester to work with these incredible students/tutors at KU and be able to offer them an experience of a lifetime.”

Looking forward to Alaska

Three current Kutztown University seniors, Alexis Pursell, Catasauqua, Amanda Remick, Kutztown, and Rachel Speranza, Etters, will be the next group to take part in the project. Pursell and Remick both have placements in Pre-K-4 major, while Speranza was placed in secondary English. The trio will be working at schools in Alaska for 10 weeks, starting the first week of January and returning in mid-March.

It’s an experience Pursell has been wanting to do since her first year on campus.

“I remember being a freshman and seeing a poster in Beekey (Education Center), talking about teaching in Alaska, and thought it would be such an amazing experience,” said Pursell. “I had Dr. Bazley as a professor my sophomore year and saw a bulletin-board outside her office. That same day, I emailed her saying that I was interested in tutoring and have been part of the program ever since.”

The overall program and location attracted Remick to apply.

“I love the cold, the mountains, and being outside, so the fact that the student-teaching is in Alaska really drew me in,” said Remick. “I also love to teach and help kids, so I liked the idea of tutoring students from another state and culture. After beginning the tutoring program, I attended an orientation where past student-teachers spoke about their experiences in Alaska, and I was blown away by all that they had learned. For one, Alaska's education system is drastically different from ours; students are separated by skill level rather than their age and grade. In addition, since the schools are so small, one class may have six students at several different levels, so you have to cater your instruction to their needs, and I love that. That is something that I want to be able to do in my future classroom.”

With nearly three years in the education program, Speranza will look to use her experiences in her own studies and teaching her own classes to make a difference while on the trip.

“There’s a large Native American population in the district we will be teaching in,” said Speranza. “Growing up, many people were not taught anything about Native American history past the 19th century. In our minds and in our culture, this has placed many First Nations people strictly in the past tense. For Native students living in the now, this can be confusing for their identity because so much of our identity is shaped by how people that look and talk like us are presented in mainstream media and platforms. I would love to teach lessons with contemporary Indigenous literature, documentaries, and podcasts. Even to students who have no indigenous lineage, it’s important for students to look at the Eurocentric culture through a critical lens.”

Lessons learned by alumni

There are over 60 KU alumni of the program, many of whom landed jobs because of their hard work and dedication while in Alaska. Leah Talley ’19 and Kelsey White ’14 both went through the program and were offered positions afterward. White taught for three years in Alaska and Talley is currently teaching there in her first, full school year.

“I absolutely loved the overall Alaska experience,” said Talley. “If I could sum it up into one statement, it changed my life. I am so blessed that I had the opportunity to come out to Alaska to do part of my student teaching placement, and I wouldn't change it for the world.

“My time as a student teacher in Port Alsworth led to many other opportunities in just a short amount of time. I was then offered a tutoring position with LPSD, so I moved back out to Alaska to my second village, Kokhanok. Then, I was offered my first job in Newhalen, a village across the Iliamna Lake from Kokhanok. I moved to Newhalen this past August and I am teaching grades 4-6, all subjects. I have 11 students total, and it is a great first year teaching experience. I am learning something new every day.”

For White, the program gave her a unique experience early in her career.

“This was an opportunity that I would never have dreamed of,” said White. “Becoming a teacher, I knew that it would be hard to find a job close home due to the competitive nature and needed experience of this field. it gave me an opportunity to practice and hone my teaching skills, especially differentiating in a unique setting that most would not get to experience. This led to traveling up to Alaska on a research trip with Dr. Bazley and four other tutors within the Lake and Peninsula School district. I was fortunate enough to travel twice through KU (which led to publications and presenting at conferences) and because of this I was offered a teaching position on the spot before I even graduated. I ended up teaching in Kokhanok for three years, and, hands down, was the best teaching experience I have ever had. It allowed me to be creative in my teaching style along with growing as an education teaching in a diverse community. I tell people that If it wasn't for KU, I would have never even thought about teaching in Alaska, let alone in a village with only 140 people."

For more information on the Kutztown University Liaison Project, visit https://kutztownuniversitydistanceinterventionis.weebly.com/

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