Culture class — Immersion program has urban teachers learning rural way of life

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Debora Roberts, a teacher from Lake Hood Elementary in Anchorage, holds up a bentwood hat she made while visiting the Qunqaayux Culture Camp in Unalaska last year. She was there as part of an Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion program being offered by the Alaska Humanities Forum and currently seeking applicants from the Kenai-Soldotna area for 2014.

Photo courtesy of the Alaska Humanities Forum. Debora Roberts, a teacher from Lake Hood Elementary in Anchorage, holds up a bentwood hat she made while visiting the Qunqaayux Culture Camp in Unalaska last year. She was there as part of an Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion program being offered by the Alaska Humanities Forum and currently seeking applicants from the Kenai-Soldotna area for 2014.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

There it sat — as dark gray as a wool sock and not smelling much different. At least, not to Lisa Ferguson, who was facing cooked beaver tail for the first time. It was being served as an honor to she and her husband by the people of Nondalton. Not wanting to offend, she smiled and politely put piece after piece of the tail in her mouth.

“I remember chewing and chewing and chewing, looking at the trash can, thinking that I better get this down or it will be very disrespectful. It was the chewiest thing I’ve ever eaten,” she said.

She eventually made her way through the dish. And while the experience might sound unpleasant, it was one of many fond memories Ferguson, now a special education teacher at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School, remembers about her previous post.

Nondalton, located across Cook Inlet on the shore of Sixmile Lake, was in a far different and less urban setting than working in the Kenai-Soldotna area. The population is less than 200, with roughly 90 percent being Alaska Natives. There, Ferguson taught kindergarten through 12th grade from 2002 to 2005.

“It was an amazing experience. I have a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology, so this was a great way to combine that degree with my teaching degree. I learned the importance of being observant. I learned what it feels like to be a minority for the first time in my life,” she said.

Ferguson also learned that the title of teacher wasn’t just one worn from nine to five.

“Living in a village of only 200 people created a unique situation. Not only was I a teacher during my workday, I was a teacher 24-7 as a part of a very small community that I was actively involved in,” she said.

Like the beaver tail, not all experiences were easy to get used to. Village life is different than in urban areas. It moves at a different pace, and the values residents hold are not always the same as city or suburb dwellers.

“I learned that it was OK to be on ‘village time,’ and that not all meetings started as scheduled, especially when team members were delayed on Bush planes or parents were delayed on fishing or hunting trips,” she said.

“With such a remote village location, my students also did not have as many direct-related services available to them, such as speech, occupation therapy, etc. I provided those services with supervision from the related service providers. Being a K-12 teacher meant that I had to get creative in scheduling and grouping and stretching our resources, too. If I needed classroom materials or any items required from a store, that required advanced planning, as we had to order all supplies. And like groceries, they were bought in Anchorage every three months and had to be mailed.”

Despite the challenges, Ferguson said she enjoyed her time in Nondalton and that those experiences have helped her in her current teaching position, particularly in working with children from villages, remote areas or other cultures.

Wanting to ensure other teachers have the opportunity to explore and better understand Alaska Native culture, the Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion program is accepting applications now through Feb. 28. Managed by the Alaska Humanities Forum and funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Education, the ECCI program is designed for educators who are in highly diverse schools in urban centers so they can get a sense of what the pace of life in rural Alaska is really like, according to Laurie Evans-Dinneen, Associate Director for the Alaska Humanities Forum.

“Additionally, they gain understanding of the traditional and subsistence background of where their students are coming from when they transition in or are from very traditional Alaska Native families. The teachers attend regional or tribal culture camps, which focus on connecting youth and elders, so educators also get a good glimpse into traditional communication styles and learning styles, which often get overlooked when students transition into an urban classroom,” she said.

For their parts, the teachers selected must attend a two-day cultural training and two-day debriefing session. They participate in web-based online posting and discussions. They must submit a journal or reflective essay and develop a community presentation based on their experience. And they must enroll in a three-credit graduate-level course on communication and culture.

Participants have all expenses paid for two-day sessions, which includes round-trip airfare, meals and accommodations. They also receive three hours credit in a grade-level multicultural course through the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Alan Boraas, an anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College who also served six years on the board of the Alaska Humanities Forum, three of those years as chairman, said it is more likely that teachers who spend time in small rural communities will learn a great deal about education that they can apply to their overall classroom.

“Education in rural areas, not just formal education, but tribal and family-based education, tends to be cooperative, with students working together, based on learning through observation, and has a heavy dose of what might be called ‘outdoor education.’ I’ve heard of schools calling off regular school for a couple of weeks during moose season and students going to moose camp with their families. But the constraints of No Child Left Behind (federal education legislation) and its test-based equivalent involving teaching to the test prevents such an excellent curriculum of occurring in urban areas,” he said.

Boraas went on to explain that formal education in Alaska has not successfully addressed what he describes as, “education for what?”

“Our modern secondary system essentially prepares students to leave the state, go to college outside and become successful, or not, in the Lower 48. No one, except in rural Alaska, defines success as staying in the village. If teachers gain anything from this program it will be to further understand the dichotomy of ‘village’ education and ‘urban’ education, and that one is not better than the other. If the intent of the program is to help rural students become successful in an urban setting without the willful consent of the students and their family, then it will be just another forced assimilation program,” he said.

The immersion experience could also remove some of the stereotypical blinders that some educators hold about Native students.

“Characterizing Native students as shy, introverted and low achievers is essentialism. In fact, there is a wide variety of behaviors in rural Alaska just as there is in urban Alaska. Teachers may get some insight into this variety if they visit a village,” he said. “Villages work because the language is spoken and respected, subsistence is strong and elders provide moral leadership and are respected. These three things are missing when a rural student with their family moves to an urban area. None of these things can be replaced in an urban setting, so rural students have a difficult time.”

Steve Atwater, superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said he is familiar with the immersion program and that he is supportive of these types of educational exchanges.

“I feel that it is a good thing because, in general, the better informed you are about the whole, the better you will be at making decisions and forming opinions. So much of our opinions are based on others’ opinions that are not necessarily based on facts. This is why it is good to have a true sense — fact — of what something is like/about before taking a position,” he said.

Atwater spent more than 25 years in rural Alaska. Someone doesn’t really understand Alaska until they’ve spent time in rural Alaska, he said.

“So, in sum, yes, it is a good idea. The transfer of knowledge and the sharing of experiences makes for a more cohesive population,” he said. “At KPBSD we facilitate interaction with local tribal members. We also have the Kenaitze provide our new hires with training on cultural differences. We do not, however, offer the more extensive orientations that rural districts do.”

Ferguson said that she will never forget what she thinks of as a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience, and she would recommend cultural immersion programs to other educators.

“Absolutely. Yes, I would recommend visiting villages for other teachers,” she said. “It would be ideal if every Alaskan teacher could have this opportunity to experience the ‘real Alaska.’”

For more information on the ECCI program or to download an application, visit the Alaska Humanities Forum website at


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