Alaskan students learn in close-knit, culturally aware classes

May 30, 2018

I sit down and look out the window at an entirely white landscape. Kids shuffle in wearing just T-shirts, while I’m shivering with three layers of shirts and long underwear under my jeans— the average high in March up here is just 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The clock hits 9 a.m., and the students begin reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, first in English, and then in Iñupiaq, an Alaskan Native language.

While many juniors visited colleges over spring break, I toured a different kind of school: the public school my aunt and uncle teach at in Kotzebue, Alaska. It’s 30 miles above the Arctic Circle and has a population of 3,245 people.

Kotzebue Middle High School has 321 sixth through 12th graders, overwhelmingly Alaska Native, specifically Iñupiaq. The elementary, middle and high school are all housed in the same building. Elementary classes have about 18 students, middle school classes have anywhere from 4 to 18 students and an average high school class has 15 students.

“One of the major benefits of living somewhere like Kotzebue is that you can give kids so much more individual attention because the classes are so small,” high school math teacher Signe Stanton said.

I shadowed both my uncle’s middle school classes and Kotzebue sophomore Madison Troyer in her classes through the week. Troyer’s English, biology, history and German classes all relied heavily on computer use through Canvas, the same platform myMCPS uses. Every Kotzebue student has their own MacBook Air, provided by the district, and every Kotzebue classroom has a SmartBoard in the front of the room which hooks up to the computer. However, it became apparent that while Kotzebue’s technology is equivalent to Whitman’s—and in some cases, even superior—the school itself and its culture is very different. Unlike Whitman, the rooms are smaller, and the furniture is mismatched.

The author spent spring break shadowing students and teachers at Kotzebue Middle High School in Kotzebue, Alaska. The school sits 30 miles above the Arctic Circle. Photo by Sydney Miller.

However, many teachers don’t stay in rural Alaska for very long, said Michael Johnson, the Alaska State Education Commissioner. As a result, schools in Kotzebue and the surrounding villages have a high teacher turnover rate. A number of the teachers I spoke with are first-year teachers in Kotzebue. The high school science teacher hadn’t even been there the whole year; he was hired at the end of the first semester when the previous teacher suddenly left, something students say is fairly common.

In many classes, teachers preferred to give students the opportunity to learn at their own pace instead of trying to keep everyone on the same page. These classes were typically the ones where the students were given less structured, Canvas-based assignments. However, teachers said the looser class structure can distract students. In science and history classes, students are often off task, playing computer games instead of doing their work, with little to no punishment from teachers, even though the students’ likelihood of completing their work at home is minimal.  

“We never have homework,” Troyer said. “We just have classwork, and if we don’t finish it in class, we just tell the teacher we need more class time for it.”

Not all teachers follow this method; the math and English teachers tend to take a more direct instructional approach. Both days I was in these classes, they taught the class in a more traditional way, with minimal work time.

“You have to find a way to engage them, or they’re not going to want to learn,” Stanton said. “And I think the best way to do that is to talk to them, interact with them and work through problems with them.”

But having less teacher oversight doesn’t mean that students aren’t learning, guidance counselor Scott Martin said. Martin believes the different attitudes about learning reflect the culture in the students’ homes rather than flaws in the teaching style.

“Other aspects of life, such as working and hunting, are more important to the culture up here,” Martin said. “In some cases, a kid’s parents will simply hunt and fish for a living. But there still are lots of kids who want to learn despite that, and I think that’s great.”

When I went ice fishing Thursday evening, I saw many families out on the frozen sea, either fishing or riding snow machines, a tribute to the strength of Iñupiaq culture.

Kotzebue High School is surrounded by snow in the morning before school. The average temperature in March in Kotzebue is 8 degrees, and the ground is completely covered in snow for the entire month. Photo by Sydney Miller.

That culture leads many Kotzebue students to stay close to home after high school; the Red Dog Mine, the largest zinc mine in the world, is 90 miles north of Kotzebue and attracts workers from Kotzebue and the surrounding villages. Many of Troyer’s classmates want to work in the mine after graduation, she said.

“No one I know wants to go to college,” Troyer said. “They all say they’re just going to jobs at the Red Dog. That’s their plan.”

This is reflected in the school’s statistics: even though the high school’s graduation rate is 86 percent, only about 25 percent of students go on to college.

Habitual absenteeism and a lack of motivation is chronic for many students. Teachers and students both said that at least one student out of about 15 would probably be absent from each of their classes on any given day.

“Being absent is a big thing here,” freshman Ayiana Browning said. “Kids just don’t want to go to school. They sleep in and don’t come, or they go home early because they’re just done.”  

Still, there are students who love school and learning, though there aren’t many advanced classes or clubs to encourage them. The most common way students expand their learning is through ACELLUS: a national curriculum of online classes meant to supplement lessons for kids who are being homeschooled. The classes, which are paid for by the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, are available if the school doesn’t offer a specific course, such as a foreign language, or to supplement an existing course and challenge a student.

Troyer took the history and algebra ACELLUS classes last year, and she’s currently enrolled in an online college-level German class from Brigham Young University. The district’s online classes aren’t widely advertised, so students need to take the initiative to access these opportunities themselves, Troyer explained.

“It’s been really useful to have my online German class because there aren’t any languages offered here,” she said. “But I realize that not everyone can have that. For the class I’m doing, I had to go out and find it on my own, and my parents have to pay for it.”

Students can also participate in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering program, where they can study STEM at the University of Alaska Anchorage over the summer.

Browning will be a part of the program for her third time this summer.

“It’s so fun and cool, but you do have to be comfortable with working hard and trying in STEM subjects,” she said. “They advertised it when we were eighth graders, and a lot of kids went, but a lot of the kids don’t come back. Last year when I went, it was just me and one other kid in my grade there.”

My time in Kotzebue was eye-opening. It was refreshing to spend a week in a place where people weren’t obsessing over their grades or numerous college applications, students had a heightened appreciation of their heritage and community with the option of weekly Iñupiaq culture classes, and classes were small enough to allow students to get one-on-one instruction. I could go outside at 5 p.m. on a Thursday and see a whole community of kids, elders and everyone in between on the ocean ice fishing and riding dog sleds. The Iñupiaq values and traditions are essential to life in Kotzebue, and they create a strong sense of community and belonging.

“I really love how my culture is so celebrated here,” Browning said. “We respect our elders and respect the Iñupiaq values, and to me, that’s just as important as having good teachers and doing your homework.”

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Sydney Miller, News Editor


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    Mary A Laeger-HagemeisterJun 3, 2018 at 11:27 am

    THanks Syd for sharing your experience – – what a privilege for you.