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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Education, Research, and Development

Working in Western Alaska as an educator and technologist I have learned a lot about educational issues in the Bush and across Alaska in general over the past 8 years. One thing is constant: the complaints that the system is broken and that there are unique difficulties in every school and student population.

We all realize that there are things that need to be fixed. We all agree on the existence of half a dozen issues at least. Legislators, Governors, Mayors, and administrators come and go, all well meaning, but nothing changes.

When was the last major educational upheaval in the Bush? When was the last time we tried something truly, fundamentally different? Molly Hootch, RUS grants and VTC deployments statewide bridging geographical gaps in the late 90's?

I personally have had my educational philosophy altered irrevocably by the one-to-one initiative of the early 2000's. My ideal classroom will never be the same again. My students had voices in the learning and experienced being the teacher to their peers as much as I did. Multimedia projects offered ever-present opportunities to succeed. With culture, language, and place-based standards infused with the content I presented from text and online resources, the students formed their own opinions. The joy of exploratory learning and satisfaction of self discovery made every theme, date, and name "sticky" (as Seth Godin would put it).

Leveraging academic concepts in organic solutions is what problem solving in the real world boils down to. Complex issues, like Bush education (or American education in a broader sense), require complex solutions. There is no blanket to cover all. There is no silver bullet to win every battle. 
The cure for polio was not a happenstance. Interstate highways are not America's oldest roads. Trails were blazed and it cost blood, sweat, and tears. Risk and reward built American industry and created the one great Superpower.

What experiments are we trying to affect learning outcomes in early childhood education? 
How many risks are we taking "flipping" classrooms and districts nation-wide? 

Defense budgets through the 80's and 2000's were nothing short of disgusting to the average American. R&D projects led to (relatively) positive outcomes for our troops, though. Predator drones, laser guidance systems, body armor...

Energy independence in the US is a noted priority of both parties. Though rarely agreed upon in form and function, this goal is funded by billions annually. We now supplement power in the village of Alakanuk through wind energy. Solar cells in the siding of the new schools offset a percentage of the heating costs during winter, however small...

What cutting-edge educational RESEARCH is being done in Bush Alaska? 
How many dollars are we spending on DEVELOPING Alaska's future... our children? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Art Therapy

Living in the Bush can be a struggle sometimes. Working in a town with no restaurants, movie theaters, or source of entertainment outside ball games at the school, life can be a bit drab. We have game nights, dinner parties, movie nights, and fiddle dances every now and again, but most of the winter is spent inside avoiding the bitter cold. This year, my 5th or 6th Bush winter, I thought I would try something new. 
While last in Anchorage I purchased a few paints, brushes, pastels, sketch books, charcoals, and canvases. This passed week instead of TV or video games friends and I practiced a little art therapy! 

Some of us beaded others drew. I sketched a bit and then tried my hand at acrylics on canvas for the first time.  I was inspired by the 1869 painting by painter William Rimmer called “Evening” or The Fall of Day”,  featuring a picture of the Greek god Apollo. Of course, the colorful version is more likely recognizable on the Swan Song album by Led Zepplin

I also tried out pastels for the first time, drawing up a scene from Kauai, Hawaii. I camped on the beach for a week in October and hoped to capture a bit of the majesty that is dawn on the Pacific.  

The following are the works my wonderfully talented friends created! I won't identify them without permission, but I will show off their work... 

I can only get better, as you can tell, so expect more pictures soon. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Straight Talk, not Small Talk

Lately people have been asking me "how is your year going?" or "how do you like the new job?" and the response is always the same. It's almost like the question "how are you?" or "how was your day?" Is the answer ever anything but "good" or "very well, thank you"? The truth is my days, just like the rest of my life, are up-and-down. 

My question then is: do I, they, or anyone actually care?

I have found myself pondering my resolution for the school year lately. I told myself that this year I would talk less and say more. I want to be a man of my word. I want to be a man of straight talk and concise/meaningful answers. I want my no's to be no's and my yes's to be yes's. I don't intend to be rude, short, or terse with anyone in this regard, only forthright and direct. Honesty, truth, and trustworthiness will be my goals.

All this is to set the stage for what I believe to be my current struggle in life. I love to ask myself questions, reflect on my choices, challenge myself daily, and create standards worth meeting. Recently I took a trip to Kauai. This was undoubtedly the most significant of vacations/experiences in my life. I came back refreshed and re-centered. I tried to re-create this trip recently by traveling to Las Vegas last week. You might think that's a funny place to be alone but the truth is we can sometimes hide in large groups. Becoming nameless and faceless allowed me to be invisible temporarily. Reading, lounging by the pool, walking the streets at night, seeing Cirque productions: these were all refreshing experiences, especially alone. The trouble is I still don't know myself. I failed in a number of ways to recreate Kauai. I didn't read what I wanted to, nor as much as I wanted to. 

I know what I want to be. I know how to get there. I just don't know who will do it with me. Who will challenge me? Who will be my support? Who will bring me down? Who will lift me up? 
I have met several wonderful people lately. My mind soars at the possibilities! I have many concerned and supportive friends. My family will continue to encourage and love me unconditionally. 
Will this be enough though? I think not. I will need strength and guidance from above. I will need grace and mercy for what I do. I will need wisdom and insight and sound judgment to discern His will for my life. I will need Straight Talk, not Small Talk. Please feel free, after reading this, to give me some Straight Talk. Challenge me.

I am not yet the man I wish to be. I am working progress. I am willing to learn and change. I am His. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Beach Bums and Introspection

Going off of a hunch I had that I didn't need a resort to have a blast in Hawaii I booked my flights and came down prepared to wing it for a week. The results were nothing short of amazing! 
Day one I arrived in Lihu'e and made my way to Costco. Picking up lunch meat, bread, and a few other staples I popped into a fast food restaurant for utensils, then the drug store for $30 worth of smaller items. A nearby Starbucks got me wifi to find my campsite and off I went.
Anini Park Campsite

The day was hot and beautiful. The tent went up quickly and I realized how silly I looked with a six person tent on the beach. I'm a big guy, though, so I guess it works. With the screens all open and my front porch facing the ocean, I knew immediately I had made a good choice. A few beers and a sandwich later, I was in the cool Pacific and happier than the fish that surrounded me. 
Anini Park, first night.

That night it rained pretty hard and the wind howled. Waking up enough to close the screens, I fell fast asleep to the sound of the rain on my nylon roof. When the sun rose I joined it and lie there in bliss. There are some that may entertain notions of stalking the flocks of wild chickens and roosters with a 12 gauge, but I find their morning welcome peaceful. The campsite is literally covered with these birds. The scratch and peck constantly, which I assume means fewer insects to bother me... 

The second day was a hit and miss kind of day. My dedication to work and more so to ASTE forced me to drive in to town and score some wifi. Scouting out a Starbucks ahead of time I then focused on the day at hand. The Canyons in the center of the island were appealing so I set out to meet them before lunch. Listening to the local island radio I heard a flash flood watch was in effect but I pressed on. Thankfully someone knew what I was up to and answered the question I wanted to ask: the park trail was closed due to high water. Turning back around I figured the Kapa'a beach was as good as any and spent the next four hours listening to the ocean and reading.
Kapa'a, waiting for ASTE Board Meeting

Heading home after my ASTE board meeting, sponsored by Starbucks, I stopped for a sandwich on the beach and departed when the rain began. What seemed like a passing shower turned out to be much more. I had just enough time to get to my campsite, open a beer, and settle in for the evening before all hell broke loose. The wind ripped up and lost three stakes, blew my tent sideways, and forced me to lie on the side of the shelter the storm's main thrust was focused on. I clumsily rolled to the right side of the tent to hold the floor flat. Not to under exaggerate this storm, I had to literally hold it to the ground by grasping the outside poles through the tent's nylon in both hands for fear they would uproot the remaining stakes and send me rolling down the campsite. All the while I got wetter and wetter as the wind simply forced water through nylon or rained vertically up and under the lid of my tent.

Waking up early on the third day I broke camp and headed a few miles down the highway to Haena beach to meet my dive master. The beach was empty and quiet at 7:30. The scene was picturesque, pristine compared to the night before. I dove twice for about 45 minutes each and saw eels, sharks, and countless fish. One shark must have been at least 10 feet long! 

The afternoon wound down as I made camp, hung my sleeping bag and wet gear out to dry and cracked a few cold ones. Trying to cover my interest in sketchy homeless, bums, and general safety, I socialized with a few neighbors. They told me that they had been camping for a few weeks and that the local beach bums were harmless. I ending up staying up with these pleasant fellows the next night and chatted late into the night about Hawaiian sovereignty, the American Dream, and how to survive off the grid. The lives they lead were not ones I envied, but there were attractive points I discovered. Surfing all day, foraging/begging for food and beer, and sleeping in the wild was tempting to a certain part of me...
Haena Campsite, Honalae Bay

Thursday was time to head to the airport so when I woke, without an alarm I might add (perhaps my favorite detail of the trip), I began packing soon after breakfast. I managed to buy way too much food, so I ended up with extra chips, peanut butter, and water. I had the pleasure of saying goodbye to the acquaintances I made in the last week and left them a mahalo of food for keeping an eye on my camp. Much aloha overall as this was certainly a trip to remember. 

In case you are wondering, the total cost was about $1500. The flight to Anchorage was 10000  miles ($12 booking fee), to Lihu'e was $1100, the car was $140, and gas was $38. Food was about $250 including a mixed plate from a food truck, boxes of macadamia nuts for friends, and beer! 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Personal Relationships & Reflections Part 2

I wrote a few months back about how hard it was going to be to be the boss in certain circumstances.

I have found out now that I had absolutely no idea how hard it would be! I wasn't even close. Refocusing my efforts and re-centering my spirit and mind is now the priority as I jot down the following ideas. I am going to take things day by day and make sure every step of the way that I am right where I should be. "Where should I be," you might ask? Matthew chapter 5 of course! 


22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. 
  • I should be serving life in prison for all the feelings I have had in the last month or so... Still working on this one.  


23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
  • This is such a great reminder of how I am not turning to the one place that gives me peace! When I do, am I clearing my head of any and all distractions? Am I leaving it all behind when I worship, pray, or fellowship? 


25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
  • This one is tough! I am, by definition, working in  a position and for an institution that does NOTHING quickly. I am in the eye of the bureaucratic storm... I have a few penny's left though, I suppose. 

Promises & Worthless Speech

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
  • My hope this year, a goal, if you will, has been to "talk less and say more."
  • How much worthless chatter comes out of my mouth on a daily basis? 
  • How many stupid texts do I write? 
  • How many empty promises do I make? 
  • Ouch. That's all I can say.  

I think I will save the "love your neighbor" part for another night, I am feeling pretty terrible already! This will be be my daily routine, if I can remember... This chapter, these few versus, will be my guide. In the Bush having a strategy for psychological wellness is the only way to make it out with your sanity. 

Re-centered. Refocused. Ready for the week. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Educational Winter Pursuits: Book Club Anyone?

I have been thinking about the time I spend on non-productive and non-education-related activities in the last few weeks. With football season starting up and winter closing in, I plan to be inside more and more in the coming months. 

Thinking about the hours of darkness looming ahead, I wonder if a book club may be in order. If you are interested, please comment below or contact me otherwise. I would like to read Three Cups of Tea first, a recommendation from a respected colleague. 
Here is the link if you choose to join me. I will blog as I read and share thoughts on this blog's "comments" section. 

Three Cups of Tea

If you don't want to read Three Cups of Tea with me, take a look at the following titles, some of my favorites: 
The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship, and the Hunt (Outdoor Lives) Steve Kahn 

Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley (Mar 2, 2010)

 A Place Beyond: Finding Home in Arctic Alaska by Nick Jans (Jun 1, 2003)
There are many more titles by this author and all are entertaining and informative as well as pertinent to the cultures and geography of LYSD…. 

The Kids from Nowhere by George Guthridge (Oct 15, 2006)
Counting Coup: A True Story of Basketball and Honor on the Little Big Horn by Larry Colton (Oct 1, 2001)

 Julie of the Wolves (rack) by Jean Craighead George and John Schoenherr (Paperback - Sep 16, 2003)

 Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: Secret History of the Far North by Lael Morgan (Aug 1, 1999)

 Gold Rush Women by Claire Rudolf Murphy and Jane G Haigh (Jun 1, 2003)

 Fools Crow by James Welch and Thomas McGuane (Oct 25, 2011)

 Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, The Premier Edition by John G. Neihardt (Oct 16, 2008)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dreams, Goals, or Plans: Why Should I Care?

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

A friend posted this recently and I read it thinking, “Am I wishing I could be ___ or am I planning it?”

Companies, politicians, religions, and nations all interact with us hoping to get the reactions they find beneficial. We buy their clothes, worship their deities, vote for their party, and fight in their armies. So what effects us the most? Would you rather buy, follow, or vote your shared belief in something or based on org charts and graphs? 

Think about this. Life, leadership, inspiration, and marketing can be boiled down to three topics:

What you do.
How you do what you do.
Why you do what you do.

The Golden Circle describes the central question we all share: Why do we do what we do? 

To answer this question you have to ask yourself about your career, your hobbies, and your personal life. It applies to everything in our lives.

Everyone knows what you do. We all work. Some of us know how we do it. We show up early or stay late because we want to be the hardest worker in the office. We learn more skills or focus on tasks to be more efficient. Few of us really consider why we do it, though. It’s not just making money. That, as Simon Sinek says, is just a result of what we do. Why you do what you do is much more difficult to answer.

“Why do you get out of bed in the morning and why should anyone care?”

What makes a good teacher a great teacher? I think it is because of the why. Great educators communicate their “why’s.” When I taught I offered to make dreams come true. With education, opportunity, and ambition, any one of my students could be anything in the world. They could be president. They could be a business person. They could be a teacher.

The “why” was hard to nail down, though. You could tell students in the average Alaskan village about teaching in simple terms. Be a teacher: you will make decent money, receive great benefits, have summers off, and get to stay in your village. Sounds good right?

I never pushed students to be educators though. I simply told them how important they are, how special their ideas and experiences were. I told them they were part of unique people group whose culture and history were unlike any others the world over. I told them I loved them because they were human beings, created in the image of God with a purpose and value beyond Earthly language. If they wanted to share this philosophy and their lifestyles with others a powerful way to do so was to teach. Oh and by the way, you get summers off, decent pay, and great benefits.

This is bigger than one classroom though. It is about communities and people working together. It’s about shared dreams and the betterment of society. Dr. King’s speech said, “I have a Dream” not “I have a plan.” School districts, then, should have leaders of a similar mindset. We need dreamers who can communicate visions and missions passionately and with authority. Plans and programs are a dime a dozen.

I have been thinking a lot about my "why's" these days. It's tough sometimes to answer these questions. It challenges me. It makes me grow. I decided on a few things:
  1. I will make God a priority. 
  2. I will not work just for the money.
  3. I will not put work ahead of family. 
  4. I will not sacrifice my happiness to achieve more in my career. 
  5. I will be a role model for young people. 
  6. People will come first.  

What is your goal? What is your dream? What is your “why”?  

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Communication and Culture


Every time we come into contact with another human being, we run the risk of saying or implying something we don’t mean.

Even using numerous words and complex sentences, we can still change the meanings of what we say with inflection and sarcasm.

‘Slippage’ is the term used for the meanings sometimes “lost in translation”
Figure 1 below introduces the idea of the The Iceberg Principle. This simple concept outlines that which humans share in typical conversation and interaction as being above the surface of the figurative water. The lens through which we see the world, or culture, lies beneath. 

FIGURE 1 (original image)

Food for thought: How do doctor's and lawyer's deal with slippage?

Think of all the jargon, or industry specific language, thrown around by lawyers. Consider the innocents imprisoned and guilty freed due to loopholes in the law. I often consider the doctors who, with considerable knowledge of anatomy and body systems save millions of lives every year. The ability to convey the importance of medical procedures, healthy lifestyle, or legal representation is the key to their success. Teaching in the bush is a similar scenario. 

Teaching & Slippage

In every relationship there is communication and in every communication there is slippage. We cannot possibly express our thoughts in the manner in which they appear within our imagination with 100% accuracy, regardless of the language we speak. The most educated man or woman, speaking with the richest vocabulary will at times find themselves at a loss to explain thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Couple that with the simple fact that we all have a different schema, varied levels of English language vocabulary, and dramatically different definitions for many words and we find ourselves misunderstood often even among friends. 

In every instance of slippage someone will suffer. Those requesting something will be disappointed, those demanding services will be angered, and those seeking affirmation will be upset. In some cases those in authority will punish, harm, or react negatively do to slippage.

Police with suspects. Officer arrests an innocent foreigner due to a lack of English language skills when questioned in the events surrounding a nearby crime. 
Judge with accused. The judge, asking incriminating questions receives an unknowingly affirmative answer from the foreigner mentioned above and sentences them to jail time. 
Employee with Employer. Manager asks employee to work on Holy Day and employee lacks ability to express why they cannot be at work that day. The manager may fire a high quality employee over simple misunderstanding. 

Teachers with students will be the focus of this discussion, of course, so I will delve a bit deeper in the cultural nuances of Yup'ik cultures and the bush in general. The bottom line is that schools, teachers, and all individuals associated there with are perceived to be in power. School districts are generally the largest employers of bush communities.

The superintendents employ sometimes hundreds of local persons. Principals of the school hire and fire more people in the village than the store, the tribal office, and the city combined. Being the largest, safest, and often the most aesthetically pleasing building in the community, there are often wakes, gatherings, and events happening there daily. Who will be asked for permission to use this facility? Teachers grade students and support staff disciplines the local children. There is a clear balance of power. 

Who will suffer then in cases of slippage? 

Village Slippage 

FIGURE 2 (Created by Samuel Bourgeois)

I have learned so much over the years from Yup'ik elders living in Togiak, Mountain Village, and the 80 or so villages and towns I have visited in Alaska. I will do my best to share the idiosyncrasies I have observed  in terms of being an immediate benefit to a newcomer to bush Alaska. Organized using Figure 2 above, the following topics will detail some interesting observations I have made over the years. 

I grew up in the South where guests are treated like family and your reputation hinges on generosity and kindness. Certain customs such as letter writing, invitations, and thank you cards are lost on me but alive and well today. As I transitioned into the culture of the bush I became acutely aware of the lack of pomposity and pretentiousness of the Yup'ik people. Much of the expected behaviors to be wary of are unique to the community in which you might visit. If an elder dies, fishing and hunting might cease for a day or even a week. Birthdays sometimes involve a feast and party thrown by the family in which all who attend enjoy and leave a few dollars for the honoree. I typically leave $20 for good friends and their children, and less depending on how close I am to the birthday boy or girl.

As a man who enjoys hunting and fishing I generally jump at the opportunity to get out and see the world with local men and women. My first year in the bush I met a local man working as a custodian in the school. Every night he would come to my class and announce, "Yeah, I think I'll go check out... (fill in the location up river or down the coast)" and I would reply something innocuous, like, "good for you." I thought it was small talk, gloating, encouragement to buy a boat, or some other silly thing. As it turns out, that was his way of inviting me to join him! My advice to new teachers in the bush, then is to put yourself out there, so to speak. Ask to join local people in their harvest and outdoor fun. Offer to supply gas or food on the trip. Don't be shy. If someone does offer you join them, never say no. You may never be asked again.

As far as your students go, there are a few things I have noticed and made myself more comfortable with over the years which at one time offended my "delicate sensibilities." Students out in the village may burp at lunch, pass gas in the classroom, or spit far more often than you are accustomed to. It may offend you as it did me initially, but you must simply let it go. Taking personal offense when they do it, though you express your distain, will only point out a weakness in your personal character to be exploited by a child seeking attention.

Adults in the village often speak there mind. Taking this as a personal offense is not recommended either. Gruff, crass, or rude as you might think it, understanding it as being an expression of their feelings and ideas you must interpret it at face value. Basically, go with the flow and don't get up in arms over perceived insults.

This one is a tough one. My opinions expressed here are based on child psychology, knowledge of domestic violence or abuse statistics, and general observations. As a teacher we are all told to use the PET Method (Proximity; Eye Contact; Touch) to manage a student in the classroom. Disruptive students require teachers to walk near them when they talk, look them in the eye when they are not following directions, and touch an arm or shoulder when all else fails. In the Yup'ik culture this may not be effective, however. Effectively a stranger, new teachers must be aware of the differences in Yup'ik customs which are often at odds with traditional teaching styles. Appropriate distance and touch are subjects best left to experiential and personal judgement.

Often when new teachers get close to village students, the child will freeze up and become very shy, quite, and even fearful. Forcing the matter can even cause a child with a history of outbursts to lash out. Touching students, without understanding their family history can also be detrimental. With instances of sexual abuse many times higher than the national average and rape more common in rural Alaska than anywhere in our country, though underreported, teachers must be mindful of the power of touch. In some villages "one in every 30 men are registered sex offenders."(AK Dispatch)

Conversely, villages are full of love and affection. Hugging small children may be a thing of the past in the inner city where lawsuits and liability prevent such, but not in the bush. Genuine love is expressed freely and giving your students a great squeeze now and again is perfectly acceptable when they initiate. I simply wish to open the eyes of those unfamiliar with village life so that they are better prepared for this grand adventure. 

I recall in my college years being forced to give oral presentations and graded well on my "teacher voice." Loud and booming, I projected my authority throughout the classroom and enraptured my audience with a volume uncomfortable to those in the front row. I would encourage you to leave that "teacher voice" on the playground. Yelling in the Yup'ik culture is rare. Elders are powerful and command respect based on their content not volume. Teaching in the traditional sense was personal and intimate. Mothers to children and grandparents to young people spoke softly and required active listeners to absorb the full value of what they had to share. Unknowingly, I offended countless community members in my first years in the bush... all because of my volume. 

Yup'ik culture is rich in song, dance, and story. Church services include numerous "specials" in which locals will sing their favorite songs to the crowd. Men dance, drum, and bellow the ancient and modern tunes known as Yuuraq. Students will be more engaged by your iTunes collection than where you are from and cherish their iPods as much as their friends. Evidence shows students learn through melody and rhythm as well, so I encourage you to use music in your classroom when possible. 
Many a Yup'ik story involves song, too. I would venture to guess that stories, much like poetry, are deeply rooted in musicality of voice and spoken word. 

Little is of more import that the tempo in which you speak. I have never been to New York City, but I have met those from there. Their tempo, of pace of speech (and life in general) are alarmingly fast to those of us who live in the village. What's the rush I say?

Big city folks and, for the most part, Americans in general speak rapidly compared to the people of Western Alaska. A coworker, originally from Houston, years ago illustrated this difference very well for me. I remember it was their first time in front of my students. They got up in front of the class and began rattling off career paths and skills for decision making. Talking for what seemed like hours, they paused only to breathe and ask, "any questions?" every few minutes. I had a class of wide-eyed seventh graders staring at them like they were on fire the whole time. Upon leaving, the first student raised there hand and said, "Where is ____ from?" and "What the heck was ____ talking about?" My class had not heard a single word and were awestruck at the speed this person could let loose meaningless vocabulary.

The point is: slow down. I am not implying that Yup'ik students are slow learners. Quite the opposite, actually. You may find them learning on their own or in groups what you could not adequately convey or teach. What I am saying is that the quality of your words matters much more than the quantity. Use vocabulary your students undertand and they will learn easily and quickly. Speak at the pace to which they are accustomed and you may never need to repeat yourself. Engage them and they will perform highly, even beyond your expectations! 


I have not yet scratched the surface of communication and will likely never master teaching in bush Alaska, but I hope I have helped shed light on the subject for you. Basically my hope is to better prepare future teachers so that they may overcome certain difficulties in time to get through to their students before the first year passes them by. Many a time I have seen well-meaning teachers turn down a second year in the bush simply because the felt slighted, resentful, or indignant because of perceived events and their bearing on personal and professional relationships.

The topics I briefly reviewed here account for but a few things you will see commonly in rural Alaskan communities. By all means you will find more, like the shoulder shrug for "I don't know" and the eyebrow raise for "yes." Minor details change from place to place. In some villages a child will never look you in the eye while being scolded, in others they will. In the end I hope you recognize that there is indeed a great deal of slippage in our communication with students and parents. How you deal with those are what will define you as a person and as a teacher in the bush. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Schools vs Education

Where does education happen?  What is school? 

Modern definitions help less than traditional practices in clarifying the difference between the two. 

Online colleges are the new norm and classrooms no longer require four walls. Richard Louv does a wonderful job explaining that traditional cultures and learning by doing are as educational as any modern notion of "best practices."

The fact is they are not the same and they don’t need each other.

EDUCATION= useful, meaningful, relevant 

Food for thought - Aboriginal cultures observe the animal world:

Animals show their young by example, through practice, why not do the same thing?

Rural cultures have all the necessary components to be classified as education

The key here for teachers is that Natives were not and never will be a “blank slate.” They have knowledge different from that of western libraries, and foreign to most outsiders. What they lack in balancing equations, they make up for in balanced hunting, fishing, and subsistance harvesting. Traditional medicine is often as effective as prescriptions  though the periodic table was unknown to the  people of the far north. 

Historic Evidence

Food for thought... My ancestors voluntarily left, fled, or were expelled from their homelands at some point. They found hope in America, thrived, assimilated, and prospered under a new paradigm. On the other hand, American history paints a different picture for Native Americans. Consider the following comparisons: 

WANT to assimilate. 
Schools are a BLESSING (they help you get ahead).
Assimilation does not EXTINGUISH your culture.
Ex: France is still there, people still speak French, no one stops being French when you leave...

Natives were CONQUERED. (Think of the Indian Wars)
Schools are a vehicle of OPPRESSION. (Carlisle School for Boys)
Assimilating means EXTINCTION.
If they are gone, there is no one to carry on...
Ex: Eyak language of Alaska, the culture of the Atakapa in Louisiana, and the traditions of the Plains Indians. 

The Big Lie

The danger of not grasping this is in the creation of a farse far too common in the bush:

Native people DEPEND on teachers.

Though a total lie, this fundamental belief can permeate the psyche of those oppressed by it. Dangerous and false as it may be, I have seen it rooted far too deeply in friends, students, and community members. 

The Big Lie says:
"Outsiders have everything necessary for success in life."

Outsiders brought guns, Jesus Christ, alcohol, governance, sugar, the Bible, calculous, written languages, and urban values among other things. What the bush would be like without snowmachines, outboards, and high powered rifles I cannot say. What I can speak to is the detriment of alcohol, drugs, and immoral movies or television on the youth of the average Alaskan village. Fine is the line we walk when considering the pro's and con's of all of these influences. 

Effects on Communities

I can only guess what a community and it's residents might have felt at the time of contact, later with the first schools, and finally with their children, grand children, and great grandchildren growing up in America. I have a guess, though. This supposition is based on the speculative thoughts of a 32 year old Louisiana born teacher with less than a decade of bush experience, but one I root in my personal interactions with others and based on careful observation and deep friendships. Forgive me if I am wrong and do not be angry at perceived insult; this is only my theoretical perspective. Here is the timeline I have read, observed, interpolated, and organized in my own experiences: 

There was a great deal of frustration over the disruption in subsistence lifestyles and customs brought about by attendance of the first schools. Students are missing out on gathering, stories, language, customs, hunting, and general education by their family and community.

Anxiety over removal from traditional lives was likely common due to the lack of quality schools in the vicinity and (often) negativity associated with both attendance and avoidance of the school house. Boarding schools were commonly attended far from home. 

Anger at the system would have been common. 

Bitterness over being caught between the so-called "white" world and the traditional lifestyle is often obvious. Many a conversation has begun with, "I wish we could go back to..."

Guilt about the demise of one's culture might precipitate. Students have expressed disappointment in their lack of linguistic skills and cultural knowledge. Parents have expressed shame in not teaching these values and wish they could do and learn more themselves. 

Grief and hopeless in one's current situation troubles many a friend and acquaintance because of a misguided belief that there is no way to undo the past or improve their lifestyle. 

Second and third generations repeat the cycle and escalate each to new levels, making matters worse and worse. Those that leave the village for the city are challenged by numerous difficulties, both perceived and actual. Lacking city survival skills some experience failure and a return to rural life. 

Returning to villages from boarding schools, colleges, and independent city life, students and adults often find themselves unprepared for the subsistence lifestyle due to a prolonged absence. Without nets, motors, and permits, fishing is difficult. Without land, a fish camp cannot be built. A hunter without transportation, a rifle, and practice will find success difficult. The examples are too numerous to list here. 

In their shoes I would feel as though I had wasted years of my life learning useless information from both cultures. I would be troubled to say the least.

I would struggle. 

"Fortunately for the state, the world, and for Natives, the heart of being Alaska Native could not be erased. In many places the elders - and some very wise parents - ignored the lies about Alaska Natives being primitive or savage.

Buying into the Big Lie leads to antisocial behaviors and self-destruction. Abuse and domestic violence rises to levels many times higher than in urban areas. Suicide eats away at a community from within. Alcoholism and drug abuse destroy families and scars entire generations.

These are all symptoms of a larger problem. Leadership and autonomy are necessary for self-reliance, but depend on education. The education of the elders and traditional values must be made equal to that of it's western counterpart, however. Finding value in oneself, one's culture, and in one's history is the first step. Without inner strength and locally-grown support systems, help is sought from the outside. 

**Enter more Outsiders**

“Experts” come to the aide of the village. Suicide prevention programs, councilors, and ministers, all well intentioned, rush to be of some assistance. Money is often invested in large sums. 

It is my humble opinion, though, that only a community can restore itself. Only from within can healing occur. Only from within can progress, change, and growth occur. This is why I love teaching in the bush. This is why I love my job. I seek only to be a part of the solution, never to "fix" anything myself. I serve my community with humility, openness, and respect. I empower others and uplift. Tearing down or pointing fingers at those who would hinder, harm, or obstruct me will solve nothing. Though I have made more mistakes than I care to admit, I learn everyday from them and have an open mind to the wonderful people who employ, honor, and welcome me along the Delta. I encourage you to be yourself, humble and as a part of the solution, not just an "Expert." Otherwise you may find yourself as part of the problem. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bush Teaching 101: Yup'ik Worldviews


I have worked as a teacher, a consultant, a professional development specialist, a Technology Coordinator, and now a Director of Technology. In each of these roles I have had occasion to talk to and mentor educators coming to the bush for the first time. As a teacher I organized cultural introduction sessions for new staff at my school, presented at new teacher orientation, and taught informal "classes" to colleagues throughout the years. As a consultant and trainer I presented to other school districts on similar topics. Now with Lower Yukon, I approach the second new hire orientation as a full time employee and the third in general.
Each of these events bring me cause to reflect on my content, my research, my ideas, and my delivery. It occurred to me recently, while considering the next few topics to discuss on this blog, to share these contents freely and seek input. I am unsure of how many installments I will share here, but seeing as to how I learn something new every day, I likely will never complete it.

What does it mean to be Yup'ik?

‘In the beginning there was a balance between the spirit world, the sky, the Earth, and the world below. The animals traveled freely between all. Then came the First Humans. Yup’ik mythology tells us that we washed up pitifully on beach one day. Raven watched us curiously; we had no fur to keep warm, no claws to hunt with or defend ourselves, no fangs to bite with, etc. We would die soon if left on our own, so Raven gathered with the other animals to discuss our fate. Raven explained the situation and the animals decided to take pity on Humans. They agreed to GIVE themselves to us as a sacrifice, a gift. They did so with the expressed requirement that Humans would forever honor and respect them for their lives.’

With this story we see the perception of animals as our friends, our equals, and in many ways our superiors. They most certainly have advantages we don’t, and without them we would surely parish. This origin story always interests me. It is humble, respectful. It is full of humility and reflective of our place and role in nature. 

Differences in Perspectives

Now contrast this worldview with that of Western/Judeo-Christian culture. Our legends and myths tell us the animals are wild, set against us, and should be beaten, trained, and dominated. 
  • Hercules and the lion
  • Jonah and the whale
  • Eve and the serpent
  • Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf 
  • Genisis 1:28 - God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
Animals are either domestic or wild. Think of some of our worst fears. ("When animals attack" or "Cujo") Western culture even uses the word itself as a negative cannotation: 'Mike Tyson bit Evander Hollyfield's ear off, he's an animal in the ring!'

Yup'ik Tradition
Animals represent model families, teachers, and our sustainers. Wolf packs teach us to be a caring, nurturing family. Ravens are monogamous. Salmon model work ethics. The moose and whale offer themselves to us as a sacrifice to nourish us. 

We should all be aware of certain differences between our own perceptions and those of others. Because we all have individual and unique experiences, we all have a different way of looking at things.

In honor of LYSD and Scammon Bay:


If you want to look at a "textbook definition" of Yup'ik, think of it this way: Native Americans from the coastal regions of Siberia and Alaska occupying the region south of Nome to South Central Alaska. This in my language, of course, and not official. In lay terms, which are considered uncouth, or not P.C., you could call them one of the ethnicities making up the "Eskimo" people. Again, I would not use this language or terminology, but to help describe Yup'ik in crass terms refer to the chart below. 
You may wish to refer to the map pictured above here


In terms of identity, we all define ourselves differently and uniquely.  I am a Cajun. I do not live in South Louisiana, I do not fish, shrimp, hunt alligators, or raise farm animals. I don't speak French outside common phrases or expressions and I am not a practicing Catholic. These are all of the things one might attribute to being Cajun and though I do not fit this "textbook definition" I remain firm in my identity. Just food for thought, though. 

Yup'ik language tells us who they are. 
  • Yuk (people) and -iaq (genuine/authentic) combine to form Yup'ik.
  • We; self; “The People”; “The Real Humans
  • ‘Self’ is not autonomous, you are a part of something greater, one with the community

Besides the plurality of the people as a whole, naming can also be interesting to outsiders:
  • Not gender specific
  • Passed on from people to people reflecting the spirit within – the ‘Yua
  • It tells a history in itself
  • You might actually be spoken to as if you were the individual, even referred to as an elder at a young age (which can be quite comical, yet profoundly meaningful).

How we relate to each other in Yup'ik traditions is unique as well. We are not just people. Spirits reside in animals, humans, and our world itself. Communicating respect between the world around us is of the utmost importance. Yup’ik masks reflect these principles through art. An animal mask generally has one eye representing a fetus or human. Insinuates connection to the spirit within all things.

Prehistory: Contrasting Yup'ik and Western Worldviews

  • Human’s had free access to spirit world and all of the realms above and below
  • Humans were supposed to pass this information on to the next generation, but we could not maintain this knowledge indefinitely, and paradise faded
  • Now when we look to the past, we see a downward change in our world. The focus is to pass on everything we can to preserve what little is left of this knowledge for the next generation.
  • the First People were the most enlightened
  • Stories and history is passed down and the perfect ways of doing things have slowly been lost in each subsequent generation (imagine a 10,000 year old "pass the message along" game)

  • Human's possess sin from an early age and require forgiveness from other sources
  • Our nature is base and sinful
  • Science claims we come from unintelligent apes and evolve into sentient humans
  • Modern technology and medicine make us more fit for our environment, help us live longer, and grant us happier lives
  • Humanity is improving and constantly getting better
  • There was nothing of value prior to history, a.k.a, human advancement
In modern terms think of the dichotomy of success in the modern city versus the bush. A successful provider, a nukullpiak, of the bush kills animals to feed, house, clothe, and trade for their family. They know where the best fishing holes are. They track animals with ease. They know the seasons and interpret the weather to prepare for the harshness of the Alaskan wilderness. In Anchorage this person may lack any real skills necessary to secure a decent job, pay bills, and generally "make it" in the city. Conversely, a teacher with a PhD, able to speak multiple languages, well read in philosophy, history, and science may never have even been camping. This individual would die in the bush without housing, plumbing, water, and groceries from the outside. Who is successful, then? 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Personal Relationships & Reflections

I will soon be taking over the position of Director of Technology in the Lower Yukon School District.  One of my greatest challenges in this position will be managing employees and interacting with the community. As I lay here in bed at 1:13 am I ponder role models and management strategies that could help me be the best I can be. I decided to get out the oldest leadership manual in print to help me clarify my thoughts. 

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment." Matt 5:21

I have been thinking lately about my anger toward certain individuals. Is this anger healthy? The author of the passage above says we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. What sets me apart from everyone else? What makes me "the boss." I believe it is because I take responsibility for my own actions and those of my employees.  I want to challenge myself to challenge them. I want to be a man of integrity and character.

How can I hold myself above reproach? I believe it is by finding a higher standard than your typical business and leadership benchmarks. This higher standard represents the Truth. I often forget exactly what it is that I stand for. Re-centering myself from time to time will most certainly be required as a transition into this leadership role I have been given. I consider this the first of many re-centering efforts.

Hiring new employees and organizing schedules and workflows recently has made me very aware of the power of trust in our everyday life. Am I trustworthy?  Am I loyal? Am I honest?  Am I articulate? 
Simply put am I making promises for things that I can deliver? I want my "yes" to mean "yes" and my "no" to mean "no." I want to be a man who says what he means and means what he says. I am not yet this man. 

I have a lot to work on in my personal life and a lot to learn in my professional one. Throughout it all I have to remember that there are greater goals and opportunities at stake than a simple promotion or "atta boy." I want people to come first in my life... not just in a rhetorical sense but in a very real and very meaningful sense. My expectations for myself and for them reflect a standard that none of us can ever meet, only aspire to and reach toward. 

"You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand and it gives light to all who are in the house." Matt 5:14

My community and my employment is my house and I want to know where and how my light is shining. I hope my friends, family, and colleagues will be the mirrors that I need to see my light. I want to be judged and struck, iron upon iron, to become better. Not for my sake, but for our sake. This will be reflection in the Truest sense of the word.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Last Week of School Antics

This time of year is always one in which we find ourselves stressed out and aching to cut loose. I have not had the time to hunt birds yet this year but I have dusted off the guns. 

Checking in computers and sorting through paperwork is tough this time of year. To make matters worse, it seems like there is never enough time to ask all the questions and get all the help you need before summer break. The next theing you know, everyone is gone for vacation and you are alone in the office. It is not without it's benefits  though. Time spent with good friends is so much more fun without the distractions of the normal routine. Teachers out on break are able to stay out late and have fun. There is no more tutoring, prom, graduation, or any of the other dozen or so items on their final week's agenda. 

We took advantage of the lull in responsibilities to make s'mores and shoot stuff around a bonfire this past weekend. Time to bond with new colleagues and old is always time well spent. 

What can I say, we like to have fun in Mountain Village. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Perception Isn't Everything, It's the Only Thing.

I was talking to a friend about metaphorical conversations, logical rhetoric, and absolute Truth today and thought I should share something witty  metaphorical, or just clever. I wonder often what the value of buzz words, edu-speak, and jargon in my professional life. I love to read books like Metaphors We Live By and Eats, Shoots & Leaves to better understand the language I use daily. In my opinion it's not what you say so much that matters as how you say it. The less you write, the clearer the message. The less you talk, the stronger the speech.

One of my favorite quotes is from Earl Long, the infamous governor of Louisiana: 
"Don't write anything you can phone. Don't phone anything you can talk. Don't talk anything you can whisper. Don't whisper anything you can smile. Don't smile anything you can nod. Don't not anything you can't wink."

In this digital age everything we say can be written down or recorded. We post things to Facebook, LinkedIn, and write on blogs such as this one. It makes me appreciate the value of my words even more. It makes me both more aware of the language I use and wary of how I use it. The permanence of writing has never been more astounding. The simplicity with which we share our voices has never been more alarming. Holding myself accountable for everything I write say and do has never been a higher priority.

As an up-and-coming professional and someone who would like to be a public servant or in larger leadership roles one day, I reflect often on how I express myself. I think it behooves us all to understand leadership better, especially in terms of identifying the styles we are more adept at. We each have our own talents and gifts. Warren Bennis summarizes leadership styles very well and I highly recommend you learn where your strengths and weaknesses are. I think I would summarize my leadership style in a metaphor: Under-promise. Over-deliver.

The fact is simple, however, that perception is all that really matters. Saying the right thing, at the right time... to the right person or at the right place... is how society moves and people work together. Using the appropriate vernacular, tone, and tempo means everything to your audience. Influence over their decisions or the altering of their behavior depends on your communication skills. So I guess, then, that perception isn't everything... it's the only thing.

Okay, I think that was witty enough. What do you think?