Learning Math Tlingit-style

Immersion program uses salmon to learn culture, arithmetic

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Harborview Elementary School teacher Shgen George has been teaching math to her second- and third-grade class this fall in an unusual way - with fish.

George, one of the school's Tlingit Culture Language and Literacy Program teachers, has been using salmon this fall to engage her students in the classroom by mixing aspects of the culture with the district's curriculum. She said it has proven to be both important and effective.

"It's amazing. When we talk about this as our culture and how this is important to us you can see them sit up straighter and get that spark in their eyes," George said. "They feel like it is them and they care about it so they want to learn."

The district's curriculum has all third-graders studying area, volume, multiplication using repeated addition, and finding medians. George's students took a more hands-on approach, jarring salmon to learn about volume and counting the number of fish scales on squares of fish skin to learn about area.

George said these and other similar activities help the students better grasp the curriculum.

"They have stories to share and they connect to it and it doesn't seem like some abstract thing to study area when we have the salmon right here and they are already connected to it," she said.

Third-grader Cora Bontrager, 9, said she enjoys learning more about her culture.

"We were studying the salmon and measuring it and weighing it," she said. "I learned about their life cycle and that they spawn and die."

Now in its sixth year, the culture program at Harborview has grown from one kindergarten and first-grade split-class to having three classrooms dedicated full-time to integrating Tlingit culture into the contemporary learning environment. There is also a fourth- and fifth-grade split-class.

Painted paper salmon hang from the ceiling in George's classroom along with cutouts of Alaska's five different types of salmon strung up together displaying the species name in Tlingit. Ray Wilson, a Kiksadi elder, was visiting George's classroom Wednesday afternoon to discuss traditional fishing techniques with the aid of a cod spreader that he recently received at a potlatch in Kake.

"I wanted to bring this to show you how smart your ancestors were," he told the children, who were huddled around and engaged by the spreader's craftsmanship.

Wilson said he hopes to be a good role model for the children so they will take pride in their culture. By giving them a cultural connection within the school he said he hopes Native children will become more successful students in the modern classroom.

"To me the big thing is trying to build self-esteem in our Native children so that they can endure whatever they have to," Wilson said. "There are a lot of things going on in the schools that aren't very pleasant, so we want them to endure anything that may come along."

Sharon Parks, a cultural specialist and para-educator with the school district who helps in the program's three classrooms, agrees with Wilson.

"I think that this program is important because it's showing these children they have something to be proud of," Parks said. "I think that if a child has pride in who they are, has pride in where they come from, and pride in what they are doing it can really help make them successful."

Wilson said he hopes the program will translate to higher graduation rates among Native students - a continuing issue for the school district.

"We're trying to find ways to keep our children in school," he said. "Hopefully this is one of the ways that will help them to stay in school and go on to college where they can compete in the work force."

George said she hopes this program will help Native families be more proactive with education.

"There's a high percentage of families who have bad experiences with schools," she said. "It's important getting the families, not just the kids, but families to have positive experiences in school and with schools and be excited about learning."

"I most hope that when (students) leave here they will be proud of their heritage," Parks said.

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