Bringing math and Tlingit art together

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2003

"Spruce roots to split!" says Native weaver Teri Rofkar as she hands out what look like packages of string cheese to students in the Math in Tlingit Art course Thursday at the University of Alaska Southeast.

Actually, they are packages of string cheese. The students, who are classroom teachers, will practice splitting the firm tubes of cheese lengthwise, learning that the rounded outer portions match the part of the roots that would go on the outside of a basket, the "weft," and the straight-edged inner slices would serve as the upright "warp."

Rofkar, from Sitka, said her grandma liked to say that when you weave a basket made of spruce roots, you put them back the way you found them - round on the outside, straight on the inside.

"I was thinking of the little kids, and what could I say," Rofkar said, explaining why she chose the cheese-root comparison. "I like to use all my senses when I learn. I learn best that way."

The class' organizers - the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative, the Southeast Alaska Tribal College and the Southeast Native Educators Association - hope the nine teachers enrolled will learn how to combine Tlingit art and math lessons in a way that appeals to children's senses.

But first, they have to learn how to weave baskets made of yarn and plastic cups, or yarn and pipe cleaners, or even cedar bark. And they have to learn a computer graphics program that students will use to draw traditional designs or their own.

In Thursday's class, Rofkar drew a design called "bear tracks" on the blackboard. The design was made up of rows of alternating dark and light shapes in which one side was angled sharply. They didn't look like bear paws. It was a lesson in abstract thinking and in math.

"Bears don't move fast but, by golly, they displace some material," Rofkar said.

There are places on Admiralty Island where brown bears have walked for so many thousands of years that rock has been worn away into tracks.

The design shows the movement and the weight as bears move along, Rofkar said. "Abstract thinking - it's the essence of the form," she told the teachers.

"When you're going to do this, how are you going to plan this out? How many rows? Where will you place your angles? I'll give you a hint: There's a relationship between the angles and how many rows. There's your crazy math problem for the day," she said.

The idea of the course is to learn how to show children that Tlingit art incorporates mathematics such as geometry and numbers, and to make math more meaningful by relating it to real life.

"So combining the technology and the math and the weaving is what the class is focusing on," said Lori Hoover, who teachers a combined second- and third-grade class at Riverbend Elementary in Juneau.

Teachers from Angoon, Tenakee Springs and Klukwan also attended. They will earn three graduate credits from UAS.

The tribal college was founded in 1991 and is not yet accredited. It serves more as an educational center now, said Andy Hope, a board member and the Southeast coordinator for the Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative. The course was funded by the National Science Foundation and the school districts of Juneau, Sitka and Chatham, he said. Students paid just $75 and will receive copies of the computer graphics software.

After spending four days in classes at UAS, students are expected to review scholarly articles and Web sites on mathematics, and implement a Tlingit art and math project in their classrooms. The course ends in December.

"A lot of Native kids feel that math has nothing to do with their life, or their life in the future," said Claudette Engblom-Bradley, an associate professor of education at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is the course instructor.

A classroom unit that combines Tlingit art and math will help them make that connection and will hold their attention, she said. Engblom-Bradley has helped develop culturally based math programs for Natives in the Lower 48 and Western Alaska.

Native students who are otherwise restless in class "tend to have a higher retention" in Native-oriented math classes, she said. "They want to do it. They stay on task easier. They share it with their family members."

Certainly, Angoon teacher Kris Dorsey was quietly absorbed while she wove a basket from wet strips of cedar bark. Janice Criswell, a Juneau weaver, told her how to take bark from trees.

"You never pull too much, and you go straight up. If you go around, you'll kill the tree," Criswell said. Start low for leverage, stand on the uphill side of the tree and walk backward up the hill as you peel off the bark. "You never take too much, because you don't want to harm the tree."

Dorsey carefully plaited eight strips of darker bark, then began weaving through them a thinner strip of lighter-toned bark. The soft, wet bark made no sound as her fingers worked it. It felt rich, like sheared beaver fur, she said.

"I love this color. This is just beautiful," Dorsey said.

Like the other students, Dorsey toured the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, including its storerooms, to view Native baskets.

"It's just amazing, the (woven) hats, the work that went into them," she said. "You think, how did they have the time to put up their fish and everything else."

In the afternoon, the students worked on the computer program LOGO on laptops provided by the Professional Education Center at UAS. LOGO draws lines and shapes based on written instructions. A small turtle serves as the cursor.

"The first thing we want to do is slide the turtle to 'left 20,' " Professor Engblom-Bradley told the students.

"Is that the turtle's left or your left?" Dorsey joked.

In programming the shapes, children will learn, for example, that "a square is actually nothing more than four lines going forward and turning right," said Tlingit linguist Richard Dauenhauer, who sat in on the class.

Some educators believe students are more willing to work harder if a classroom experience includes an aesthetic component, Engblom-Bradley said.

"As it becomes more of a pleasure, you increase the students' willingness to work harder," she said. "Many mathematicians feel math is a beautiful experience, but not too many people are able to feel that about math."

Eric Fry can be reached at

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