BSSD’s Inupiaq dictionary

On Wednesday, I boarded a plane in order to head to Unalakleet, site of Bering Strait School District’s headquarters in order to participate in a bilingual training session with a student and our site’s bilingual teacher. Joining us were representatives from 8 of the other schools in the district.

Before I go into detail about the topic at the heart of this post, the native language dictionary that is being created, I want to point out something that I have found since living in the village. (And something that was pointed out to me earlier today during a conversation with my mom.) My students are all bilingual. Except that isn’t really true. My students should all be bilingual. In reality, they have a slightly better grasp on their native language than I do on my old high school french, which is a shame.

This is a recognized problem and one of the big reasons for having a bilingual program in our schools. As teachers, we try to integrate local culture into our lessons, but that isn’t really enough to preserve the way of life. The ability to speak the Inupiaq or Yupik languages that are native to the region is disappearing.

With that in mind, the Inupiaq dictionary project was started and has since expanded to include a Yupik dictionary. The big idea of the project is to get students to go out into the community, identify the native words for different things, take pictures if they can and upload it all, along with a voice recording of the word being pronounced.

Preserving culture, teaching technology skills, life skills and writing skills all while having students contribute authentic work to a valuable resource. That’s what I call motivating and educational.

“No, man. Alaska, Alaska.”

I wrote this for BSSD’s StraitTalk Blog but also wanted to post it here.

Six months ago, if you’d ask me what I’d be doing at the beginning of August, I would not have had an answer for you. Certainly I would not have imagined the truth. Well, that is not quite the truth… I have always dreamed of at least visiting Alaska, but if I had said I would be living here, it would have been with a jocular smile on my face. It would have been the type of smile that said, “Just kidding; I’ll probably be living in the rat race like everyone else, trying to eek out a living and pay off student loans.”

Now though, well, here I am, smiling at the memory of stepping into the Detroit airport at 5:30am on the 29th of July to board the first of four flights that would take me to my new home. Quickly covering the distance between Detroit and Las Vegas (an area I had spent 45 days earlier in the summer exploring), a short layover put me on the plane to Anchorage. Two-hundred and fifty pages later, the clouds broke and the awe-inspiring sight of the Chugach Mountains became visible through my window. Thankfully, I was met at the airport by a group of Bering Strait School District (BSSD) veterans and new teachers who were participating in this year’s Welcome Wagon event, designed to help new BSSD teachers make the transition through Anchorage and prepare for their new life away on America’s last frontier.

Two days, a cancelled flight and a side trip to Whittier later, I found myself on my third flight, bound for Unalakleet, knowing that I would be in my new home before nightfall (I beat sunset by a good six hours, arriving in Shaktoolik around 6pm.) A short layover, a trip to meet a fantastic group of people at the District Office, and a serendipitous run-in later, I boarded the smallest plane I’ve ever been on for a 15 minute flight along the shore of Norton Sound.

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, I was back on the ground, being greeted by the few teachers at my site who hadn’t been on the plane with me. You know what though? It’s felt like home since my feet hit the dirt and still, almost three weeks later, it still does. And you know what? I’m having a wonderful time in “Alaska, Alaska.”