Back to Appendix I




The purpose of this project was to explore the characteristics of "successful," as opposed to "unsuccessful," boarding home parents. This task raised a difficult question: How should success be defined? Especially in a cross-cultural educational situation, the definition of success may depend upon the values of the observer. Should acculturative change, for example, be considered a mark of success or should it not? The evaluational perspective that we decided to use, therefore, was not that of an outside observer, but rather that of the rural student and the boarding home parent. A relationship was considered successful when both the boarding home student and the boarding home parent evaluated it positively and wanted it to continue.

However, using this criterion of mutual satisfaction as an index of a successful relationship had one important drawback. According to some popular stereotypes, students might be placed with parents who had taken them for the money and then allowed them to run wild and get into trouble. Since the student might enjoy such freedom, he might evaluate the relationship positively and the parent might also be satisfied since he received payment without work. For this reason, a second criterion of success was added — that the student had not gotten into serious trouble (such as excessive drinking, promiscuity, police contacts) while at the boarding home.

Selection of Parent Groups

Given such criteria of success, how could the sample of successful and unsuccessful boarding home parents be chosen? While one obvious possibility was to ask parents and students to evaluate the relationship through a questionnaire or interview, this method did not seem suitable. Native students, especially Eskimos, are reluctant to criticize their boarding home parents directly. In addition, such parent and student opinions should probably be solicited later in the year after a relationship had been established. However, by that time, many unsuccessful parents would have already been eliminated because the student had transferred or dropped-out.

For these reasons, the primary method used to obtain a sample of unsuccessful parents was to examine the boarding home parents when a student dropped out or transferred. Although students might transfer or drop out for many other reasons, one frequent cause was unsuccessful boarding home parents. If the boarding home student were satisfied in a different boarding home, the new boarding home parents were classed as successful. A larger group of successful parents was obtained by selecting those parents whom students had rated as "very good" on their reapplication forms at the end of the year. When a student dropped out or rated his parents highly, however, the cause could be an exceptionally difficult or an exceptionally adaptive student. The transfer situation was most useful to identify successful and unsuccessful boarding homes because it provided a very rough, but heuristically valuable, approximation to the ideal of a controlled experiment, where the responses of the same student to different types of boarding home parents could be compared.

Collection of Information

Since the Fairbanks Boarding Home Program is reasonably similar to programs in the other urban areas that enroll a majority of boarding home students, and since the researchers could observe more intensely in their home community, Fairbanks was selected as the primary study site. A few parents and students in Anchorage were also interviewed to increase the generality of results. The researchers attempted to interview as soon as possible the boarding home parents from whose home a student had transferred or dropped out. The new boarding home parents and the student were interviewed about-a month later to allow time for a new relationship to develop. A total of 30 boarding home families and 28 students were interviewed. Interviews were conducted during the first three months of the program as the bulk of the transfers and drop-outs occur during this initial period.

The semi-structured parent and student interviews concerned such topics as each party's explanation of the reason for the transfer or drop-out, the problems that occurred in the boarding home, parental rules and chores, problems that the student had in the school and community, and the relationship between the boarding home parent and the natural parent (see Appendix III). Efforts were made to obtain precise, detailed descriptions of the interactions that occurred between the boarding home parent and the student. Many parents became so involved in the interview that they not only repeated words, but also dramatized voice tone, gestures, and facial expression in describing critical incidents with their students. These spontaneous dramas provided valuable clues in explaining subtle characteristics of the relationship. The parent who talked to a student in a harsh, self-righteous tone of voice while shaking a threatening finger was apt to evoke a different reaction than the parent who made a similar point in quiet, chuckling tones. Most parents were eager to discuss students' problems as they were often puzzled and troubled by the students' reactions.

Interviewing the students, in contrast, was extremely difficult because of the silent withdrawal that is the characteristic defense and passive resistance tactic of Indians and Eskimos to an anxiety-producing situation (Wax & Thomas, 1961; Briggs, 1970). No matter how much we attempted to convince the student that he would remain anonymous and that the purpose of the interview was only to attempt to find out how to improve the Boarding Home Program, some students responded to interview questions with nothing more than the classic pattern of tense silence broken with a mumbled "don't know" or monosyllable. More surprising, students often asserted that former boarding home parents were "nice," even when they had asked for a transfer because they were unhappy in the home. Only gradually did it become apparent that students' protestations that boarding home parents were nice resulted only in part from factors such as fear of reprisal from powerful white persons or from Eskimo norms of not speaking badly of others. Students asserted parents were nice in part because they intensely desired to be liked by white people. Students saw parents' being nice to them as a sign that the parents liked and approved of them. Thus, admitting that parents were not nice was to them an admission of personal failure.

This withdrawal into silent impassivity and refusal to criticize the parent was characteristic primarily of the Indian and Eskimo students who had never before left more traditional villages. More experienced Boarding Home Program students had learned the norms governing the formal interview situation and had little difficulty in expressing their opinions. Indeed, their sophisticated response to the interview was one index of the competence these students had gained in coping with western cultural forms. The opinions of these older students mirrored to a surprising degree the opinions of the boarding home parents with whom they had developed positive relationships. The prevalence of such imitational learning underscores the potential of Boarding Home Program experience and emphasizes the importance of selecting desirable boarding home parents.

In order to improve rapport with boarding home students, the project employed four Native college students as interviewers. While much more successful than the white adult interviewers, the Native college students also found it difficult to talk to the more reticent students. Videotapes of interviews between Native college students and boarding home program students suggested some of the ways in which a western communication style conflicted with that of Indians and Eskimos and destroyed rapport. For example, the videotapes indicated that the Native college students avoided looking directly at the student when personal topics were mentioned and that they defined as personal many topics that the white adult interviewers had not realized were sensitive. By imitating the Native interviewers' behavior, white adult interviewers were able to improve their ability to establish rapport with Native students.

Not until the end of the project, however, did we begin to have some notion of what traditional Indian and Eskimo students considered an appropriate style of communication and of the extent to which the formal interview violated these norms. For example, a standard interview question was, "Were you happy at the boarding home parents' home where you were staying before?" This question violates a plethora of students' interactional norms. First, it is a blunt and, therefore, boorish question. According to Indian and Eskimo communication norms, the proper approach would be a hint that certain information might be desired (Wax & Thomas, 1961; Parker, 1962). Such an indirect approach is considered sophisticated, a mature method of inquiry; any fool could ask a direct obvious question. Second, the question is childish and hence insulting because it asks the obvious (Briggs, 1970). It should be evident to any human being with a modicum of intelligence that the student would not have asked for a transfer had he been happy. Third, it is a question that may lower the students' self-esteem because an affirmative answer may imply to a sensitive student that, since people are expected to be happy, it is he who has failed. Although we tried to change interview questions as we became aware of these problems, our own very different western interactional norms constantly led to blunders of which we were often unaware.

During the course of the project, we realized that students would discuss personal matters, such as problems they had with their boarding home parents, indirectly through writing when they would not speak about them directly to another person. Several Eskimo students, for example, chose to inform their boarding home parents that they were unhappy in their homes by writing them a letter.1 After detailing their complaints, the student casually left the note where the parent would be sure to find it, such as on the television set. Indeed, one student adopted the ingenious tactic of crumpling up his letter and placing it in the wastebasket with the parents' names prominently visible just before the trash was to be emptied. Other students would write out their reasons for wanting a transfer or speak them into a tape recorder when they would not tell the coordinator directly what the problem had been. Complaints about parents were also written in diaries in English classes.

These written messages became a valuable source of information concerning students' feelings about the home. In order to obtain more complete information through the indirect, written method that many students seemed to prefer, the re-application forms for the Boarding Home Program were revised to ask each student to rate his boarding home and to describe what he liked and what he did not like about the home.

In addition to the interviews and this reapplication information, participant observer methods were used. Problems were discussed with many boarding home parents informally at orientation, program meetings, and special events. Extensive discussions were also held with coordinators and the school counselor on the characteristics of different parents and the reasons for the drop-out and transfer of particular students.

In addition, students' natural parents were interviewed, although limited funding prevented extensive interviewing in remote villages. Parents in Minto, Allakaket, and Huslia were interviewed in order to obtain some idea of Athabascan parent-adolescent interaction patterns and natural parents' recommendations about the program. Athabascan villages were selected because little information was available about Athabascan interpersonal norms in contrast to the abundance of information about Eskimos (e.g. Briggs, 1970; Parker, 1992; Chance, 1966).

Our problems in developing research methods appropriate to Indian and Eskimo students have been described in some detail because these issues frequently confront others. Our experience suggests that the questionnaire, usually considered inferior to the interview in obtaining rich information about many topics, may be useful for traditional Indians and Eskimos as it avoids direct face-to-face contacts. Where the level of written skills makes the questionnaire unsuitable, use of a tape recorder, where the person can speak his thoughts without direct confrontation with a demanding white person, might be an alternative.

Appendix III


Footnotes, APPENDIX II

1See Briggs (1970) for a description of Eskimos' use of a letter to convey unpleasant information by avoiding face-to-face interaction. One Eskimo boarding home mother also used with success written notes to inform her students of unpleasant duties like chores.



[Alaskool Home]