For Ed Littlefield, working with students isn’t just about making a lasting art project — it’s all about combining music, art, theater skills and language to learn something new.
Littlefield has been working on behalf of the Sealaska Heritage Institute to visit schools around Alaska as part of two, three-year “Amplifying our Stories” grants from SHI. Littlefield is in his second year of the second grant. This month, his work brought him to Fawn Mountain Elementary School.
“It’s kind of like a cultural literacy and arts program, based on the performing arts,” Littlefield explained to the Daily News, adding that it wasn’t quite an artist “residency,” although he has done in-school residencies in the past.
His work with SHI has taken him to schools all around Southeast Alaska, most often to work with students in elementary or middle school.
In addition to SHI, Littlefield has also worked for the Alaska Arts Education Consortium and the Sitka Fine Arts Camp organization. He estimates that he has completed over 20 residencies through various organizations. When he isn’t traveling around Southeast Alaska, he lives in Seattle, where he finds work as a freelance musician.
Prior to working with Fawn Mountain students earlier this month, the last time that Littlefield visited Ketchikan was in April, when he spent three weeks as a resident artist at Schoenbar Middle School.
“At Schoenbar, I had over 150 students and I had 13 different classes,” Littlefield said. “It was an epic experience, to say the least.”
At Schoenbar, Littlefield worked on different aspects of his project with different groups, including the school band and choir, as well as visual arts and English classes.
As he does with many of his students — including those he later worked with at Fawn Mountain — Littlefield used traditional Tlingit stories centered around the trickster character Raven as a base for his curriculum.
“With the band classes, we took these Raven stories and worked on the literacy aspects of the story – adjectives, verbs, quotations and characters — and then created a soundscape with their instruments to help tell the story,” Littlefield explained.
He worked separately from the band with the Schoenbar choir.
“The choirs that I worked with took a traditional Tlingit song called ‘The Hook Song’ by Clara Peratrovich and we learned the song, and then we kind of whittled it down … to create new lyrics and new arrangements of the same melody, but with our own lyrics that the choir did,” Littlefield said.
In addition to music, Littlefield also brought artwork into the mix.
“We took those Raven stories and we visually told the story using pencils, colored pencils, markers … they kind of showed the direction on a big piece of white paper.”
Language was also a big part of the project at Schoenbar.
“In the English classes, we did a more traditional reader’s theater-type thing, still with the same project of working on literacy skills,” he explained. “But then we told the story with motions and sound effects.”
Littlefield makes changes to his curriculum — keeping the core material the same — when he works with younger students, like the fourth- and fifth-graders at Fawn Mountain.
In all, Littlefield worked with around 90 students at Fawn Mountain.
Beginning on Jan. 6 and ending this past week, he spent close to an hour every school day teaching the students language and literacy skills through art.
“Throughout the whole three weeks, we worked on Tlingit pronunciation of words, learning some words that the students and the teachers can learn in the schools throughout the year,” Littlefield explained.
During the initial week of his work at Fawn Mountain, Littlefield focused on storytelling. He led the students through writing and illustrating a song based on Peratrovich’s ‘Hook Song.’
The following two weeks of work were focused on sound and music, using the same Raven stories that Littlefield shares with students around the state.
“We spent the next two weeks working on that, creating sound effects — essentially a soundscape — for the Raven stories,” he said.
Before the end of the program, Littlefield also organized an "elder day” for the students.
“Bringing elders in to share their way of learning and knowledge and history is very important,” Littlefield said.
“I think part of this residency is to build those connections between Native culture and schooling,” he added.
The program ended on Jan. 23 with a “Voices of the Land” assembly during which the fourth- and fifth-graders performed the three Tlingit songs they had learned.. The audience consisted mainly of friends and family.
The four total participating classes — two fourth-grade and two fifth-grade groups — also learned their own Native story to turn into a play for the showcase.
“The kids really seemed pleased about the product and the process,” Littlefield said of the program’s end.
On Wednesday, almost a week after Littlefield had returned to Seattle, the fourth- and fifth-grades once again led an assembly in which they performed their songs for the entire school — this time without the guidance of Littlefield.
A big element that influenced what Littlefield taught to the Fawn Mountain students was “play space learning.”
Littlefield described the style of learning as “using the local ways of knowing to teach concepts.”
“Using a Raven story to teach about literacy or science or math is play space learning,” Littlefield explained. “Instead of a cow (in a story), we use a bear. Or instead of a snake, maybe we use ermine or something, something that’s in the environment that we’re around.”
Littlefield didn’t always use play space learning in his curriculum — it was a tactic developed after years of experience working with young students.
“My first one (residency) was kind of uninteresting. I didn’t involve any Raven stories, but I did a lot more writing, and reading and writing of texts,” Littlefield said. “And, you know, I wanted to use a lot more play space learning, so I found these Raven stories … and they were perfect vehicles to work on, you know, the literacy aspects — how people describe things, metaphor, simile.”
“So I chose that the next times and over the course of maybe two or three of those (residencies), a couple years ago, I kind of developed a nice little rhythm to the project, where it was a good mix of singing and dancing and reading and writing and performing,” Littlefield finished.
Littlefield reflected that he most enjoys seeing the impact that his work has on the kids.
“Just working with the kids is the most important thing, and being able to share Tlingit culture. … This area’s got a long history of Native people living here, and so to connect and tie into that really engages the Native students, but it also gives knowledge about where we are in this area to the non-Native students who might not know about that,” Littlefield said.
However, he also finds the connections that he makes with the students to be a hard part of his job — he often can’t make it back to the schools he visits to check up on their progress.
“(The hardest part) is probably just not knowing how much the students were impacted by those three weeks,” Littlefield said.
“I think they enjoyed the residency,” he added.
“They absolutely adored him,” Fawn Mountain fourth-grade teacher Brooke Hunt told the Daily News about her class.
Hunt said that Littlefield taught her students a vocabulary of 13 Tlingit words, as well as hand motions to go with the words and songs. He also incorporated breathing exercises into the lessons.
At the “Voices of the Land” showcase, Hunt’s class performed a play based on the story “How Raven Made the Aleutians.”
“I think they enjoyed how active it was,” Hunt said.