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Lessons Learned at Culture Camp

Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion (ECCI) is an experiential program to help public school educators in urban Alaska better serve their Alaska Native students, communicate across cultural differences, and incorporate Alaska Native ways of knowing and learning into their classrooms. Over the course of the summer, participants of ECCI undertook an extensive curriculum, which was enhanced by a week-long immersion experience at a rural Alaska Native culture camp.


Last month, educators gathered together at The Alaska Humanities Forum to celebrate and reflect on their completion of the ECCI program. The entire group had not been together since May during the program orientation, and the room was full of excited chatter as people reconnected and began recounting their experiences from the summer. The night was filled with stories, memories and a lot of discussion about how they planned to bring the lessons they learned at camp into the classroom. Ellen Piekarski was one of the people who shared a story that night. This week, I sat down with her to chat about the impact ECCI had on her teaching.


Ellen participated in ECCI during the summer of 2018, during which time she spent a week at the DIG Afognak culture camp, which is located in the Kodiak archipelago. She spent much of the past year reflecting on how the experience changed the way she approaches the classroom. “The story I initially planned to share a year ago is completely different from the story I told the other night,'' she recalled. “Initially, I wanted my story to be about all the things that I did at camp; like making drums together, going on zip lines, and hiking around the island. But one year later, the experience I find myself sharing most often is being in language class and feeling mortified.”


At the gathering in September, Ellen told the group about how her excitement in getting to attend Alutiiq language classes gradually turned into dread as she realized that the other students in the class, most of whom were children who have been learning the language for years, were miles ahead of her. As the week wore on, Ellen found herself making excuses to skip language class and avoid the embarrassment of not understanding. Despite the support and encouragement from her teachers and her fellow students, she couldn’t bring herself to go back into the classroom. “It was on the last day of the camp that I had my ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “The way I was avoiding going back to the language class is exactly the same behavior I see in my students when they’re struggling in class”.


Ellen teaches high school math and is no stranger to the look of dread in a student's eyes as they try to take in the seemingly incomprehensible language of algebraic formulas and theorems. However, it was her experience with the language class that allowed her to understand what it feels like when the tables are turned. Since attending culture camp, Ellen finds she is able to relate to her students in a completely new way; “I let myself become more comfortable with my vulnerabilities” she said. When she meets wary students who have labeled themselves as “bad at math”, she can share her story trying to learn Alutiiq, and let them know that at least in some small way, she gets where they’re coming from.


Ellen at DIG Afognak in 2018

Her experience at Afognak has impacted her teaching in other ways as well. “So much of culture camp was about building community relationships,” Ellen reflected. “Since attending camp, I’ve started making time in my classroom to build community and let students get to know each other. It’s important to hear how everyone is doing and to know who they are outside of math class. Now, when someone doesn’t show up to class -- the other students will check in on them and want to make sure they’re okay.”

Speaking on what she would share with educators who are new to Alaska, Ellen stressed how transformative opening herself to different cultural values has been to her teaching. “Teaching is so culturally specific. A lot of the things you learn in college in the Lower 48 just don’t apply to communities here. Educators need to take the time to observe the way camps are and see how these techniques can help them. Adapting to different cultures doesn’t mean you have to become a totally different person. But you do have to compromise.”


Personally, Ellen said it is difficult to imagine what her classroom would look like without the ECCI experience. “I don’t know if I would recognize myself teaching two years ago!” she shared, “I’ve learned the value of teaching the whole person, not just the subject. I don’t just care whether or not my students know their multiplication tables. I care what kind of citizens they’re growing up to be”.


Ellen has been teaching high school math in Anchorage since moving to Alaska from Texas in 2017. Currently, she teaches at Benny Benson Secondary School. Thank you to Ellen and all the other participants of ECCI for sharing their stories, and to the culture camps that partnered with the program for summer 2019: Nuum Na Walt (Metlakatla), DIG Afognak, LaVonne’s Fish Camp (Kotzebue), Nuniaq Camp (Old Harbor), Haa Tóo Yéi Yatee (Hoonah), OVK Culture Camp (Kake), Qagan Tayagungin Tribe Culture Camp (Sand Point), Hydaburg Annual Culture Camp, Akhiok Kids Camp, and McGrath Culture Camp.


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