Schoenbar Middle School students wrapped the school year with a project designed to commemorate the World War II Aleut relocation camp that once operated at Ward Lake.
To understand the history of relocation camps in Southeast Alaska — including the Ketchikan area — more than 200 seventh- and eighth-graders across three English classes at Schoenbar read the book "Aleutian Sparrow" by Karen Hesse, a historical fiction novel written in verse about the Ward Lake camp that was opened in the early 1940s for the relocation of Aleut individuals.
According to archives from the National Park Service, Aleut individuals were evacuated from the Aleutian Islands chain as U.S. and Japanese militaries continued to clash during WWII, following the attack on Dutch Harbor and other sites in the Aleutian Chain in summer 1942.
"Aleutian Sparrow" follows an Aleut child named Vera as she is relocated to the Ward Lake camp about seven months after the events of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Island chain in 1942.
The book not only was part of the "One School, One Book" program — in which students all across one school read and study the same book — but also tied into a two month-long unit about history, poetry and literary elements that culminated in a commemorative art gallery of large illustrations made by the students, which were displayed across a row of lockers upstairs in the English hallway of Schoenbar.
Schoenbar English teachers Beth Sandefur and Taylor McKenna talked to the Daily News about the project in Sandefur's empty English classroom on Monday.
McKenna explained that the teachers chose the book for its local connection, with a plot revolving around a location that the students were familiar with, and the first edition of "Aleutian Sparrow" even being illustrated by Ketchikan's Evon Zerbetz.
"What we wanted was something ... that kind of linked into local history, Ketchikan history, and the fact that we had an internment camp at Ward Lake for the Aleuts," McKenna said, noting that many students were not aware of the camp before starting the book this year.
Sandefur explained that the students actually were meant to study "Aleutian Sparrow" last school year, before the project was derailed by COVID-19 shutdowns.
"We decided to do it last year, we had just started it, and then we went on spring break and never came back, so we couldn't finish it," Sandefur recalled. "So we had a long time to mull it over and think about, 'OK, do we start it?"
The teachers decided to pick back up with "Aleutian Sparrow," largely because the students had demonstrated that the book had piqued their interests.
"And we just felt like with sometimes being on the 50% schedule, attendance being up and down at different times based on the community COVID level, this was a really high interest book for the kids, because they all know Ward Lake. And they've all seen the campground. And so showing them pictures of 'this is what used to be there' ... really hooked them in," Sandefur continued. "So if they were staying home for a week, and needed to access everything on Canvas, we felt like they were more likely to do that because it was something that they really were interested in."
The students also learned about WWII while reading the book — and for some, it was the first time at taking a dive into the history of those events. Sandefur noted that the seventh-graders had not yet taken U.S. history at Schoenbar, while the eighth-graders had not yet made it to that chapter.
She said that many students confused Dutch Harbor and Pearl Harbor at the beginning of the unit.
"And so it was interesting, we've both been at this quite a while ... my students 20 years ago had relatives who had fought in WWII and you don't really see that anymore," Sandefur said. "And so some of that knowledge that you think is cultural knowledge — we all know that happened — we're starting to get kids who don't have that background information. So that was fun and interesting for them to dive into WWII."
After the students read and analyzed the book, it was time for the final project. McKenna and Sandefur worked with Schoenbar art teacher Eric Sivertsen to develop an art-based assignment that emphasized commemoration of the Ward Lake camp.
The teachers originally had developed an idea of designing plaques that could be installed at Ward Lake, but due to COVID-19 safety precautions, that concept was ruled out.
Still, "we wanted them to really create something to use multi-brain learning," Sandefur commented. "And so Taylor (McKenna) actually was like, 'What if we did a stamp?' And I was like, 'Oh my gosh, there are so many examples of commemorative stamps.'"
And so, using large pieces of paper designed to look like postage stamps as their foundation, the students were given the option of three different facts about the Ward Lake camp that they were tasked with finding a supporting quote from "Aleutian Sparrow," and illustrating a correlating landscape.
"The book has so many landscapes," McKenna said. "It's written entirely in poetry, so the author just does a phenomenal job creating with words these intense, beautiful, sad landscapes. Some from the Aleutian Islands and Wrangell and Ketchikan and cities and villages. So we encouraged the students to pick a particular landscape that was described in the book to kind of recreate."
To do this, the students had three choices of medium — oil pastel, permanent marker, or construction paper.
"We wanted them to have some choice to express themselves and their interpretation and understanding of what we had read, and one of the goals of the assignment was for them to create mood," said Sandefur.
McKenna and Sandefur both said that they expected most of their students to choose oil pastels to bring their scenes to life, but were surprised to see that the classes were evenly split across all three options.
"The kids who are more detail-focused chose Sharpie (permanent marker), because you can be very detailed with Sharpie," Sandefur explained. "And the kids who want to be a little more free form used the oil pastels, because you can smudge them and cover things up and layer. And then kids who are very sort of mathematical, geometric, they liked the construction paper because they could make the shapes and kind of figure out how this fit together."
She continued, "So it really lent itself well to differentiating between our kinds of learners and figuring out what their sort of natural aptitudes were."
The students depicted a variety of scenes, many choosing the familiar Ward Lake campground area.
But Sandefur and McKenna were surprised to see that a number of students chose to depict the burning of the Aleut village Atka, which was done to prevent Japanese forces from using the resources found in the village, according to Sandefur.
"It's kind of a minor part of the book but it clearly resonated with the kids that, 'Oh my gosh, all their stuff got burned down,'" Sandefur said. "Because quite a few of them chose that fact and created their landscape of the burning village."
"So after the characters in the book have endured all that they've endured and they finally return home, their villages and their houses have been ransacked," McKenna added. "You finally get to go home, and this is what's left of home? I think that resonated with the students, as well."
While the art project helped to bring the meaning of the book to life, students also had the chance to discover another local connection to the relocation camps of WWII in their own school.
Sandefur explained that Eric Sivertsen's great-grandmother was relocated to the Wrangell Institute — which, according to the National Park Service, served as a territorial boarding school but later as a temporary location for Aleuts before they were relocated to an evacuation or internment camp – in the early 1940s, and that Sivertsen's grandmother was able to share her knowledge with the class.
"We Zoomed with her, and she spoke to all of our classes, and shared what she knew of her mother's experience at the Wrangell Institute," said Sandefur. "So it was really neat for the kids to see that that is still a part of our community."
It demonstrated to the students that what they were learning about wasn't just an assignment, it was living history, Sandefur said.
"And their art teacher right here in Schoenbar has a connection with the Aleuts," McKenna noted.
The teachers also brought the book to life through pictures from the National Park Service.
"It was a very satisfying moment in the classroom for share those pictures with the students," McKenna said.
When the stamps were finished, they were hung across rows of lockers in the English wing at Schoenbar.
McKenna said that if COVID-19 had not been a factor, the teachers would have wanted to work with the local art gallery or Ketchikan Indian Community to do a big installation.
The students also voted on their peers' creations, with a top five selection being decided upon.
Minh-Thu Vo won best of show, Jessica Vong came in second place, Trisha Capps was voted in third place, Abbie Javed was voted in fourth place and Vienna Pahang came in fifth.