Tell Me a Story

The Educator Cross-Cultural Immersion program might be the hardest three credits an educator can earn. The program includes intense self-reflection about the culture(s) educators bring into their schools, a one-week immersion at a culture camp in rural Alaska and, as of 2018, a storytelling component.

The idea behind the storytelling requirement was that the program did a good job of connecting participants to cultural responsiveness in an academic way – “head learning” – but needed a component to help participants connect to the material more personally. “As we integrated storytelling into the curriculum, I watched the class transform from an experience of the mind to a transformation of the heart,” said instructor Marie Acemah, who has taught the course since 2016. “Often participants will call me at a loss for what to share in their story, and it's usually the one thing they think they shouldn't share that they end up talking about. One woman was upset about the way dogs were treated at her culture camp, and came face to face with her judgments and preconceived notions about animals, and the way she navigated this internally became the heart of her story.”

For the storytelling assignment, each participant created a 7-minute story based on an experience from culture camp, worked with a local story coach to develop their idea, and then shared the story on the first night of the course September Debrief meeting. Friends, family members, and friends of the program were invited that evening to come and listen.

Iñupiaq Elder Jim LaBelle, Sr., who spoke with participants at the May Orientation meeting, came to listen at the debrief with his wife, Susan. After listening to the stories in their group, the LaBelles then shared a few of their own – including the hoops Jim first had to jump through decades ago when, as a young man, he desperately wanted to make a good impression on his wife’s Port Graham family. “Susan and I enjoyed being there to listen in on those wonderful experiences,” said LaBelle. “The overwhelming impression I got [from the stories] was the beginning of cultural awareness from the storytellers. That is meaningful!” Participant and storyteller Jessica Stern, who teaches at the Intervention Center at Bartlett High School in Anchorage, emphasized the connection she felt at the event. “The sharing-out of stories was a delight that brought about laughter, tears, community, and synergy,” she said.

Story topics ranged from the emotional process of carefully getting to know a community that has suffered tragedy to refusing to get “burned out” of a maqii steam bath overlooking the Kuskokwim River. “While you can hide in an essay format, you cannot hide in a story,” said Acemah. “As the instructor, hearing stories from participants helps me to get a more authentic sense of their experience at culture camp.”

Because the ECCI program partnered with 12 culture camps in 2018, participants’ stories varied widely. "It was fascinating to hear so many unique experiences from across the state and see what each educator took out of the experience,” said story coach Brianna Gibbs, a co-founder of Galley Tables Storytelling in Kodiak. “Almost all the stories reflected on what was learned, but did so in such deep and personal ways. It takes a lot to share a personal story in front of a live audience, let alone one about traveling to a remote community as an outsider. The teachers blew me away with their raw honesty and beautiful reflections."

Despite the stress of sharing their stories with an audience, participants consistently cited the experience as their favorite part of the debrief. And by inviting friends and family to listen, Acemah said, “suddenly it wasn’t just an academic course, but a transformative experience that rippled out into the community.”

Some participants choose to share their stories at larger events, such as Anchorage’s Russian Jack Elementary School teacher Clara Baldwin, who told her story about her week at DIG Afognak Language and Music Camp to an audience of nearly 2,000 people at an Arctic Entries show on Dec. 4. Baldwin is deaf, and her story was the organization’s first story told in American Sign Language. The show’s theme was “In the Same Boat,” and in her story, Baldwin identified similarities between deaf culture and Alutiiq culture. She had the audience cheering alongside her as she recalled being invited to learn drumming and get to know the camp Elders.

“The storytelling component of ECCI is a powerful part of the experience,” said Stern. “It’s a challenging and daunting task, and because of this, all the more powerful and satisfying, sort of like the mental equivalent of climbing Mt. Marathon in Seward. Crafting a story from a complex social experience became a life gift, giving us the ability to digest our experiences and lift them up into an offering to the ECCI community.”

Where to hear ECCI stories: Stories that have been shared at public storytelling events are available online.

Clara Baldwin (Anchorage), DIG Afognak Language and Music Camp: Clara’s story will air on Alaska Public Radio KSKA on January 15 at 7 PM. The recording can also be found on the Arctic Entries website,

Heather Ridgway (Juneau), Napaimute Spirit Camp: Heather shared her story at November 2018’s Mudrooms show. Listen here:

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