Atqasuk Fiona Worcester Rural Practicum Trip, UAS MAT Program April 17th – April 23rd, 2011
Right as spring was starting up in my hometown of Anchorage, Larisa Manewal (of Sitka) and I left for Atqasuk, a landlocked village located far above the Arctic Circle, about 70 miles south of Barrow. The weather was improving as we arrived, rising into the twenties from thirty below the previous week, with the sun setting around 11 pm.
Community Culture Demographics and History
Atqasuk is a Inupiat village of 240-250 people, made up of about 40 buildings.
The town is located on the Meade River, a traditional Inupiat fishing site, and has an inactive coal mine from the 1930s and 1940s.
Atqasuk is a dry village, meaning that the purchase, possession, and drinking of alcohol is illegal in the town.
Many older members of the community speak Inupiaq almost exclusively.
The non-Native residents consist of employees of the school and the lone village safety officer, who is based out of Wasilla.
The village is powered almost entirely by diesel feul.
Ethel Ethel is the person to know at Meade River School. Born and raised in Barrow, (which she now says is “too big”) she has worked as the front office guru since 1994. She has every phone number in the community memorized and knows everyone’s parents! Every household in the community has a trucker-style radio called a VHF (variable high frequency) through which they communicate with one another. Ethel broadcasts every announcement in both English and Inupiaq, or translates for less-witting announcers. Ethel and Me In my time in Atqasuk, I really enjoyed hearing Ethel’s stories and insights. In this picture, she is holding a mandarin orange that Larisa and I brought as a present from Anchorage.
Community Culture Distinguishing Characteristics
The school, Meade River School, which serves about 75 students, is the primary employer, along with local utilities.
Many families are highly transient, moving between Atqasuk and other communities in the North Slope Borough, and even to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The villagers are all shareholders in the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), the richest of the Native corporations created under ANCSA which pays its 11,000 shareholders dividends twice per year. The amount depends on oil production, but was over $6,000 per person this year.
There is no official town store (though one family runs a small store out of their living room). With the bi-yearly payments from dividend checks, families migrate to Barrow, Anchorage, or Fairbanks to shop in bulk (dividends went out just before we arrived, and, as a result, many students were absent).
“Can we visit?” In our week-long stay, we were graced in ourvisiting teacher lodging by young visitors three times (though they would have come over more if we had allowed it). They instantly made themselves at home, plopping or hopping on our beds and requesting food. In fact, we had to beware of “pukkuq”: In Inupiaq, “the act of rooting around in someone else’s stuff looking for items of interest”.
Community Culture Language traditions
Many students speak Inupiaq at home with their older relatives, and, though the language has been in decline, there has been a recent revival in educating young Inupiaq in the language.
Every student takes an Inupiaq class using a new Rosetta-stone like curriculum designed at Iḷisaġvik College, a community college in Barrow dedicated to preserving and strengthening Inupiaq culture.
Inupiaq is the lone class with a Inupiaq instructor, a woman named Daisy who everyone calls “Ana”, (pronounced “Aah-nah”) which means “great aunt” in Inupiaq.
Ana (Daisy) administers a major test to a 4th-grader. When students address her, they often speak entirely in Inupiaq, which seems to be their habit with older members of the community.
Inupiaq Alphabet ^ As written by Daisy. We sang the song together, too! < New Technology Students learn Inupiaq on iMacs with the latest technology: An interactive immersion program developed in Barrow.
Community Culture Subsistence Traditions
The diet varies by family, but traditional foods such as caribou (“tuttu”) are typically eaten a few times a week.
Ptarmigan, geese, swans, and ducks are eaten in the spring, summer, and fall.
In the summer, the subsistence diet is mainly fish, caribou, and leaves that can be eaten or boiled into tea. The villagers also collect a medicinal leaf good for arthritis and other ailments. Summer berries include salmonberries and cranberries.
In the fall, people put out nets to fish in the river. Whitefish, greeling, and burbot are shared during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The beginning of winter is the only time to ice fish before the ice gets too thick. Families continue to hunt tuttu throughout the winter.
The older students were constantly mentoring and assisting the younger kids. I believe this happens less often in Anchorage, but when it does, I never get the opportunity to see it. It was inspiring to see some kids who struggled in class being so effective with the youngsters.
School Culture The school is valued by most of the community. Scholarships to college are available through the city fund. I also witnessed teachers assisting students in applying for grants for summertime educational opportunities. Thanks to ASCR, the schools in the community are very well-funded; all secondary students have their own MacBooks. The teachers receive some of the highest salaries in the state. Many classrooms are equipped with Smartboards, and wireless internet is available throughout the school. Many of the teachers are new. Four of the school’s 10 teachers and the principal were new that year, and two of these were new that month. Of the “veteran” teachers, one teacher had been in Atqasuk for 10 years, and the rest had been teaching there for 3 or 4 years.
School Bus ^ No one’s house is further than a quarter mile from the school, but it turns out that the bus (which is new) helps with attendance more than anything. Notice the playground behind it. The Pool > A 2 lane, half-length pool. With a basketball hoop. Of course.
School Culture At nighttime, the school again becomes the center of activity with “rec time”. There are times set for small children, older kids, and adults (older people can always go to younger rec times but not vice versa, unless an adult volunteers to supervise). Basketball is the most popular sport, and when in the gym, kids of all ages are shooting baskets with all manner of balls. The kids get treats constantly at the school: Easter goodies and and bags for the school-organized Easter egg hunt, snacks, candy, and ice cream sundaes are just a few of the treats I saw while there. The school also serves as a hub for activities such as the Native Youth Olympics, basketball camps, and activities facilitated through Challenge Alaska, a group that works with communities in the North Slope Borough to help create more dedicated, community-minded students and connect them with trips and educational opportunities.
Rec Time! I have never seen more ruggedly active kids in my life! Without helmets, knee pads, or, indeed much supervision, kids of all ages were doing back flips, playing basketball, and rollerskating around. Everyone seemed acutely aware of where everyone else was, and collisions were minimal. When they did happen, however, it usually occurred with laughter or a little grimacing - there were no tears. These kids are tough!
Rec Time from a 4th-grader’s perspective. I set one of the girls loose with my camera, and she captured some of my favorite photos. Chris, (below) secondary social studies teacher, is mobbed by enthusiastic kids. These kids were much more physical than Anchorage students, even with me, an outsider! They all wanted a piggy back ride or to play tag.
Al Sokodis of Challenge Alaska runs a basketball clinic. This was the clinic for the older kids, (ages 12 to19) held during their rec time.
PedagogyTeacher Makeup There are 11 teachers at Meade River School including a SPED specialist and a reading specialist. Ten are Caucasian, and one, Ana, is Inupiaq. The teaching pedagogy varies drastically between teachers. According to the principal, the students seem to have the best rapport with the two male teachers that have a stronger sense of structure in the classroom. Both of these teachers have been with the school for about three years. The school has very few teachers with any real longevity in the village. The secondary English teacher has been here for 10 years, followed by three years for a few others, with most arriving within the last year, two within the last month. The principal has been here for just under a year, but has committed to a few more.
Teacher Profile Mr. T Mr. T runs a tight ship, in which students are expected to take much personal responsibility. He writes his own curriculum, catered specifically to the educational and social development of these particular students, harnessing the power of structure and routine to teach a strong base of knowledge. However, in his class, the students “work hard and play hard”. Mr. T has created a complex token economy in which every behavior, from how a student verbalizes their answer, to whetherhe is detail-oriented in his assignments, to whether his is having a good attitude, can gain or lose them “tallies and chips”. Mr. T playfully uses one of his students as if she were a “teacher puppet” to instruct her amused classmates. Mr. T is very strict with his students, and has very high expectations for their work and their behavior; the students, in turn, shape up under his direction.
<Students hard at work in Mr. T’s class. Mr. T has worked almost exclusively with small classes of students in villages or on Indian Reservations in the Lower 48. His highly-effective teaching style is specifically catered to environments where the teacher has a lot of control over the classroom environment and schedule, and can exert a significant presence in the school in general. It would be more difficult to implement in a large public high school in Anchorage. Pay Day Wednesdays and Fridays are “pay days” in which students can exchange their time-carded tallies for poker chips. These chips can be used to purchase fun class activities such as swimming or movie-watching, or treats, such as chocolate cream pie or sodas. Students who choose not to participate in activities watch. This intensive token economy teaches students about the power of saving and the value of hard work.
<Students play marbles during a well-earned break. Below, refereed by Mr. T., students play an intense game of “Fist Polo”,arough-and-tumble soccer-like game in which students must hit the ball with a closed fist only in order to score goals on the wall. Again, students were incredibly adept at avoiding one another, and never complained after falling, colliding, or getting smacked accidentally by a flailing fist.
PedagogyGeneral Differences There is more room for individual personalities to shine through in classrooms of eight students, and their personalities sometimes expand to fill the space of 30 Anchorage students. I was expecting the students in Atqasuk to be reserved, like those in the Native immersion programs at West Anchorage High School, but, given any allowance, they are glib to the extreme. It is normal for kids to shout out answers – and desired, even. Sidetracking is very normal in many of these classrooms, though there are a few in which it was not tolerated. It depends on the teachers’ style; the students will get the lesson sidetracked if they can. Teachers regularly work with individual students during direct instruction, and, with the small number of students, this works out just fine. In these classes, teachers have to differentiate instruction further. It seems difficult for the brightest students to be highly challenged at times, but the kids take it in stride; it is normal for gifted kids to joke around with SPED kids, which seldom happens in Anchorage.
Teacher Profile Shannon Shannon exemplifies differentiation to the extreme, a practice of many primary teachers at Meade River School. Some of the time, “shout outs” are encouraged, but she asks individual students questions constantly to check for understanding and to allow students to self-correct. During a math lesson, she had each of her 3rd and 4th – grade students choose a question for her to do on the board off of the worksheet; the rest they were to do independently. She asked individual students to help with each step of the problems done on the board. Shannon moves around the room to assist her students individually. Shannon involves students as individuals in her classroom, with each of them contributing to the learning of the group. She also provides many hands-on learning experiences (see next slide).
^ Students plant seeds and create starts in Shannon’s class (Shannon at left). < Using the Smartboard to learn about exotic animals in Shannon’s class.
Teacher Profile Patti As a kindergarten teacher, Patti has seen her class size fluctuate from 16 students to 5 over the course of the year due to the transiency of the families with small children. The North Slope Borough School District has standardized curriculum for kindergarten, so that helps her to mitigate gaps in schooling for some of her students. Patti’s students are usually entirely illiterate at the start of the year, but in springtime, when I was there, the students were sounding out and reading simple picture books aloud. Patti uses games and flashcards to help students learn phonics and new words.
Teacher Profile Rob, reading specialist Rob (Patti’s husband) tests every child three times per year using the Aimsweb Test. He then designs intervention programs for students in the 20th- 50th percentile. The idea is to give early reading and math intervention to students who are able during elementary school to remediate gaps in learning before students reach middle school. (Above:A panorama of Rob and I helping students with their reading during lunch). Students who need Special Education Support Services either have a special class period or get “pulled out” to work with, Janie, the special education teacher (and wife of Chris). Otherwise, they are integrated in with other classes, with modified curriculum and assignments.
PedagogyReflections Overall, I was incredibly impressed by the quality of instruction in Atqasuk, especially the level of differentiation and individual attention paid to each student. I found the curriculum to be comparable with what I have experienced in Anchorage schools, if differently formatted. Many of the teachers, even the new ones, have experience working in rural settings and/or with Alaska Natives, which likely contributed to their effectiveness. It seems that Atqasuk is a very nice community in which to teach, with moderately high levels of parent support, a strong community, well-funded facilities, nice teacher housing, and high salaries; this may be the reason why, despite its highly isolated setting, they were able to attract such impressive teachers! As I have noted previously, the smaller class sizes and Inupiaq culture definitely change the dynamics of the classroom, and teachers at the school adjust accordingly. It also seems that students are more tolerant of each other, being effectively stuck with one another. The Inupiaq culture definitely contributes to a unique sense of humor practiced by the students, and the teachers have to adjust their teaching to stay in stride.
It was possible to see out to the tundra from any vantage point in town.
Our Art Class! Larissa and I had the opportunity to teach a middle school art class for our week-long visit. Our project was to create a textured watercolor mural of an underwater scene, with each student decorating a strip of the pre-penciled out picture. The skills we practiced included creating patterns, with both pencil and permanent marker, mixing and choosing colors based on what we had learned from color theory, and painting with watercolors, which included cross-fading and erasing.
The Mural Everyone’s strip turns out slightly differently; contributing to the creation of a lovely, patchwork scene.
Reflection Based on the negative stereotypes I have heard about rural education, I was surprised and happy to see how healthy and active the students in Atqasuk were and the high caliber of education and care they were receiving. The hospitality of the teachers, students, and community members was astounding – they were incredibly welcoming to “outsiders”. Perhaps their hearty “Paglagivsi” was due to the shockingly high transience of both the villagers and teachers– I always thought of people as being “stuck” in villages, but many of these students often moved, mostly within the state, and it was not uncommon for new teachers to move in. I was impressed by the student’s tolerance toward one another. More than once, I witnessed students “make up” with one another or with a teacher just minutes or hours after the altercation – I guess they know each other well, and accept, as family members do in larger towns, that they will have to live together. They make it work!
Before visiting Atqasuk I thought I would never be able to teach in a rural school. Now, I could perhaps see myself doing it – if only for a year in Atqasuk! Many of my negative stereotypes about rural school have evaporated in favor of fond memories.
If you have any questions, about my trip or otherwise, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org