Blueberry festival gives students wild experience

Posted: Thursday, September 09, 2010

Nearly all of Gastineau Elementary's students, parents and staff were seen wearing their rubber boots trekking near Eaglecrest Wednesday for Kanaat'á koo eex, a blueberry celebration.

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Sarah Day / Juneau Empire
Sarah Day / Juneau Empire

Many students left with the purple-tinted evidence of blueberries smeared across their smiling faces.

Students have been preparing for this event by reading blueberry-themed books in class, listening to Tlingit elders talk about their experiences with harvesting blueberries, counting and sorting the fruit and identifying different kinds of blueberries.

A group of students in Kris Dorsey's class started picking berries in the forest - highbush blueberries. Other groups dispersed in that area and excited hollers of "jackpot!" were heard throughout. One of Dorsey's groups ventured out into an opening and started picking lowbush blueberries. Gretchen Harrington, a parent leading a small group of four from Dorsey's class, asked them if they noticed a difference in the taste between high- and lowbush blueberries. The fruit from the low bush was generally sweeter.

Harrington felt the field trip was worthwhile.

"It gives the kids confidence in the woods," she said. "They're learning to go through the woods, the brush, to pick the berries. ... It's important for kids in Juneau to be comfortable in the woods."

Minta Schwartz, Harrington's daughter, showed her group the difference between crowberry plants and blueberry plants.

After the students picked a bunch of berries, they worked on journals. In them, they pasted small parts of plants focusing on the different colors nature has. They also colored an outline of a blueberry with blueberry juice. They also took note of the weather, drew something they saw and another thing they heard.

Annie Stokes, special education specialist, said she was thrilled with how the day went.

"This is place-based education at its best," she said, adding the children were learning about culture and nature, and having a hands-on experience.

Stokes said students will do different things with the berries, including counting, sorting and cooking.

She was impressed with a conversation she overheard from one little boy to another Wednesday.

"A little boy said, 'How come your blueberries are bigger than mine?'" Stokes recalled. "'I picked a bush that was in the sun. The sun made the blueberries bigger. I also looked for plants without a lot of bug bites. They're healthier.'"

She hopes the idea will spread to other schools in the district.

Kingeistí, or David Katzeek, welcomed more than 200 students, staff and parents to the Gaanaxteidí and Yanyeidí land. He said elders would teach children how to respect plants and each other.

Kingeistí was happy with the event, and was often smiling and enjoying the participants' response afterward.

"This is so great," he said. "I'm thinking, this is what we used to do when we were kids. The pod leaders would thank you for listening, for paying attention."

He said family pods would go out and focus on, for example, blueberries. They decided they needed to get as much as they could.

"The most important thing was to work together to gather the berries," he said. "It's a way to demonstrate what you can achieve by working together."

Woocheen, Kingeistí said. It has two meanings. One, working together. The other is more complex - mind, body, soul and spirit, it has to be one to learn, he said.

"It's a real powerful aspect of the Tlingit educational system," he said.

Wednesday's blueberry festival was a successful endeavor, Kingeistí said.

"In my personal opinion, this is real education," he said, adding they learn about the area, berries and resources others don't have.

"I'm looking at this as a third party," he said. "There's a real positive spirit. It's a real community."

There will be a community breakfast at Gastineau from 9 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. Saturday, featuring blueberry pancakes and blueberry muffins.

• Contact Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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