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Tlingit classes draw outside interest

Posted: Monday, February 04, 2008

It's Friday morning at Harborview Elementary and the kids in Ms. Eddy's class are sitting together on the floor learning a song.

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Cultural Classroom: Kindergarten And First-Grade Students Sing A Tlingit Song About Getting Dressed To Go Outside In The Winter During The Tlingit Culture, Language And Literacy Program Friday At Harborview Elementary School.
Cultural Classroom: Kindergarten And First-Grade Students Sing A Tlingit Song About Getting Dressed To Go Outside In The Winter During The Tlingit Culture, Language And Literacy Program Friday At Harborview Elementary School.

As they sing, the kindergarten and first-grade students are slightly swaying, fidgeting or playing with each other's hair. They seem physically incapable of not moving, like little active volcanoes simmering with potential energy.

An announcement from the office interrupts the lesson, saying recess will be outside, despite cold temperatures.

"Yes!" shout a couple of students, before they start singing again.

The song is about putting on winter clothes and playing outside, and the language the class is singing in is Tlingit.

These students are part of the Juneau School District's Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program, where students are taught partly in Tlingit and many of their lesson plans highlight Tlingit culture and history.

Now in its eighth year, the program is attracting outside attention from other communities with large Native populations eager to find a model of how to incorporate culturally relevant lessons that engage Native students.

Earlier this year, a delegation of education officials from Canada's Yukon Territory came to observe Juneau's program and speak with those running it.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said other school districts in Alaska also are interested in the program.

The program is drawing interest because it works, said teacher Kitty Eddy. She said it stresses academic achievement just like traditional classes, but its emphasis on learning the Tlingit language and culture provides a place where Native students feel accepted and are encouraged to do well in school.

"This is a place where they fit in," Eddy said. "They need to know that they can go and be doctors and lawyers."

Selina Everson helps with language instruction and is called "grandma" by the students. She said she's seen a sense of pride grow in many Native students as they learn more about their culture.

"They stand up straight," she said.

Cowan said the district is committed to keeping the program strong and growing as a way to combat the "achievement gap between the Native students and the other students in the district."

She said achievement tests for the Native culture and language students had been "up and down" but its real test would be too see how many of its students would graduate from high school, where Native student drop-out rates have typically been high.

But, Cowan added, the higher level of parental involvement and student attendance rates in the program show it is giving kids a greater chance to succeed.

"There's an excitement about learning, an excitement about being in school, an excitement about being part of the program in those classrooms," Cowan said.

The program started out as only one combined kindergarten and first-grade class, and has been expanded to three classes from kindergarten through fifth grade. A Tlingit language teacher was added this year to provide more intensive language training.

The program is open to any child in the district. Eddy said some of its strongest supporters have been parents of non-Native students.

She said every child can benefit from learning about different cultures.

"It works towards understanding," Eddy said.

Harborview's principal David Stoltenburg said having the program at his school benefited all of his students.

"It makes our own school environment a richer place," he said.

Zoe Cooper, a 7-year-old student in Eddy's class, said she liked teaching Tlingit to her friends and relatives outside of school.

"They think it's cool," she said.

• Contact reporter Alan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com



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