District sets Tlingit curriculum

Plan provides resources to teach Native language, culture to Southeast students

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2007

Sealaska Heritage Institute and the Juneau School District have co-produced what they say is the first broad-scale Tlingit language and culture curriculum that meets state academic and cultural standards.

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The curriculum, composed of 18 units, has been distributed to every public school district in Southeast Alaska with the intent of providing more tools to teach the Native language at a time when the number of fluent speakers is dwindling, said Yarrow Vaara, Tlingit language specialist for the institute.

"It's designed to put resources in the hands of teachers who aren't necessarily cultural experts or language teachers so they can learn along with their students," she said.

The curriculum provides contemporary technology to help engage the students, Vaara said. Along with binders of text covering the 18 units, audio components and interactive vocabulary games have been developed to help grab the attention of the 21st-century Native student.

"This curriculum has a particular language focus that is unique that is also addressing the academic standards," she said. "We're merging technology with the different focuses too."

The curriculum is the result of a three-year project funded by two grants from the U.S. Department of Education. The lessons were field-tested by several Juneau teachers in 2005 and 2006 prior to being sent to other school districts.

Vaara said the district's Tlingit immersion program spawned the project.

Web links

The Tlingit curriculum is available at www.sealaskaheritage.org

"We quickly realized that in order for that to be a successful program, they needed the resources and materials to use in the classroom," she said. "Just because someone can speak Tlingit doesn't mean they can teach it."

The curriculum is designed for beginning speakers and targeted at kindergarten to second grade, but can be used as a tool to teach any age. Vaara said the students she teaches appear to be learning the language more quickly and are benefiting from the resources.

"I think there are many more younger students that are showing an interest and are getting a basic language exposure," Vaara said. "As they continue to grow and are more exposed, they will certainly increase their chance of learning the language."

Some of the students are becoming teachers themselves, she said.

"We actually have the students going home and teaching their parents, which is kind of a unique situation too," Vaara said.

It is a particularly crucial time for the younger generations to take stock in the language because many of the fluent speakers are passing away, Vaara said.

"People are saying we have about a 10-year window ... of people who speak Tlingit as their first language," she said.

Fluent Tlingit elders John Marks and June Pegues recorded audio components of the curriculum, with songs performed by Nancy Douglas and George Holly.

"I think it will increase the number of fluent speakers," Vaara said.

Although each school district in Southeast Alaska has been provided with the curriculum, it is up to each district how it will utilize the resources.

"It's designed to be very flexible," Vaara said. "It can be done seasonal or thematically."

The curriculum has a heavy focus on the environment of Southeast Alaska and includes units of study on salmon, sea mammals, berries, plants, totem poles, herring and more. There is also a unit on Native civil rights leader Elizabeth Peratrovich and others focusing on Tlingit stories, such as "How Raven Stole the Sun."

The institute eventually will have a curriculum for beginning and advanced language learners, she said.

The new curriculum is a step in the right direction to help expand the language around the region, Vaara said.

"I don't think it's going to be all of everything that people want, but it's a good starting point," she said.

A parallel curriculum focusing on the Haida language will be coming out in the next several months, Vaara said.

• Eric Morrison can be reached at 523-2269 or by e-mail at eric.morrison@juneauempire.com.

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