"This program is an incredible thing for me," explains Marie Acemah as she prepares to lead an orientation with ten educators from Southcentral Alaska. This group will participate in the Alaska Humanities Forum's Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion (ECCI) this year, joining more than 400 alumni of this longstanding program.
Over the next six months, Acemah will lead these participants on a journey of cultural self-exploration so that ultimately they can better serve the diverse groups of students in their classrooms, communicate across cultural differences, and incorporate Alaska Native Ways of Knowing and Learning into their teaching and work.
“In order to really reach their multicultural students and their Alaska Native students in particular, educators have to start to realize their own cultural frameworks, and how they impact how they communicate and relate with their students,” says Acemah, owner of See Stories Consulting. “There are countless ways we project our culture on the world around us. That’s natural, but the more we can become aware of it, the more we can meet others where they are.” This is particularly important for teachers, school psychologists, school nurses, and family service coordinators, all of whom make up this year’s group.
Acemah, who is in her second year of teaching the ECCI course, grew up in Anchorage but left after high school to explore. After spending time in Greece, Washington, D.C., rural Ohio, and Uganda, among other places, Acemah returned to Alaska in 2010, first living in Kodiak for six years before settling in Anchorage in 2016. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Classics and a master’s degree in International Educational Development, and now runs a digital storytelling business based in Anchorage.
Acemah feels a deep connection to the course and its participants, largely from her own personal experiences. “My cultural background is often very similar to the teachers in the class,” she says, “and I know what it’s like… to suddenly question yourself and your attitudes and your beliefs while you’re surrounded by completely new perspectives.” ECCI participants explore their own cultural lenses through readings, reflective writings and group discussions before the highlight of the course: a one-week summer immersion experience at a rural Alaska Native culture camp. This year, participant pairs will attend one of five camps located around the state: Allakaket, Chalkyitsik, Sand Point, Afognak, or Metlakatla.
After they come home from camp, the educators reflect, discuss, and digest what they have seen, heard, and felt. This is part of Acemah’s first goal for program participants: inner transformation. “They’re going to a culture camp that is almost always completely out of their range of experience. It challenges them and stretches them and inspires them and really forces them to be very introspective,” she says. Acemah guides them through this process with a second, overarching question in mind – How will they translate what they have learned into action? She pushes them to come up with practical applications of their learning that will lead to better serving of their Alaska Native students. “You have to have that deep transformation, but you also have to extend it to your life, to help your students,” she says. To this end, the educators revise lesson plans, rewrite documents, and discuss classroom management techniques that incorporate their new perspectives. Students who aren’t highly verbal, for example, or who don’t make eye contact as often as the teacher might expect, are newly considered as possibly coming from different cultural backgrounds rather than simply disengaged.
In addition to learning practical tools, this year’s educators will also explore a new course component: storytelling. Participants will write and perform a seven-minute story for the group about a moment or experience from their week at camp. Acemah is particularly excited about this new challenge, explaining that “storytelling gets you out of your head and into your heart.” She herself experienced this when she prepared a model story to share at orientation, along with one of the Forum’s education and youth program coordinators.
“This program is one of the mostly highly collaborative team efforts I get to take part in,” she says. “It’s an incredible thing for me. There’s an amazing staff and consultant team that make this program a success.”
Photo: Instructor Marie Acemah (standing) works with ECCI participants, including teacher Brenda Noe (foreground) from Mat-Su.
Learn more about ECCI.