November 21, 2014: The View from My Companionway Hatch

View from my boat over Lake Union.
Downtown Seattle over Lake Union. The view from my companionway hatch as I sit progamming.

June 29, 2013: When You Ask a Student a Question

Included in a post from a blog that I follow:

[A mentor advised me that] when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own stake in the answer. What he meant, roughly, was that when you ask a student a personal question, you need to be aware of your own reasons: are you asking because talking will help the student, or for the emotional buzz of reinforcing your relationship with the student, or to validate your own self-image as “the teacher who cares.” It’s easy, he warned, to think of yourself as asking for the student’s benefit, when really it’s about you, which is problematic: as an authority figure, you’re in a position to demand a response, even when you shouldn’t.

May 11, 2013: The Good We Can Do

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher;
“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

What profit has a man from all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
One generation passes away, and another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.

—Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

I don’t want to try to enact the myth of the hero teacher.

Tribal education in Southwest Alaska has many systemic problems. Alcohol abuse, fetal alcohol syndrome, English language acquisition, traumatic head injury, and cultural clashes. The first six months of a teacher’s tenure here are wasted working in familiar ways against unfamiliar problems, rebuffing the students’ mischievious gestures of friendliness as disobedience.

Above all of these is the fact that there is no life here for teachers from the outside. Though as an outsider you cannot own land or settle here, a rare few teachers will find reason to stay here as many as five years. The rest will leave after two or three, leaving place for a new teacher to come and struggle with the students against their situation and misunderstandings.

What does it mean to do good for these students? Giving them tools to take advantage of modern opportunities can only be considered a good. And yet many teachers will also lay pressure on students to conform to the demands of western civilization, pressure as subtle as singling out the college-bound for praise. When students find that they cannot meet these demands, that they were given only expectations but not ability or motivation, severe psychological distress can result. Feelings of inadequacy can perpetuate the cycle of alcohol abuse and annual suicide. Teachers with long tenures here might bury as many kids as they send to college.

Whatever I do here as an individual will be lost. I will leave in short time and my name and works will be forgotten. The best thing I can do for my students is to support them in their own goals, emotionally and academically. And I can hope to support the teacher that takes my place with systems that will help guide them towards a quicker understanding of the students that they are working with.

The best I can work towards, day by day, is to be happy and help those around me be happy too.


April 26, 2013: A Well-Ordered God

When I was born,
I had installed a clockwork mind:
the very best and most efficient,
at pursuing clockwork ends.

But I have watched time grow long,
and space grow long with it too,
cracking gaps,
letting levers loosen from cogs,
and clockwork fall in heaps.

So come with me now
to where the summer sun never sleeps,
only rests,
to damn the world of time,
and rules,
and regain ignorance of our creators.

April 13, 2013: In Loco Parentis

I don't need a photo release to show you this, because I'm his dad.
I don’t need a photo release to show you this, because I’m his dad.

In loco parentis got a little more literal with the shop teacher out of town. His son became mine, and I used my parental power to whisk him away to Kongiganak, where I was to chaperon a Native Youth Olympics meet.

I’ve had a hard enough time these last few weeks, surrounded by too many people and in beds not my own. We spent this weekend at the Kong school, and my sanity creaks under the weight of being unable to escape the herds: sleeping on a hard classroom floor with our team of boys, being followed and following everywhere. And yet it is in a way the most privacy some of these kids get; if I had to sleep seven to a bedroom in a 500 square-foot house, I might find my only retreat in humming myself a tune. And I would rarely be able to find the attention for homework.

In loco parentis is Latin for in the place of the parent and describes the broad authority of schools and teachers over students. Teachers here don’t perform the most important parental roles: we do not teach a child what it means to be loved or nurtured, we do not transmit the bulk of culture or provide a safety net of lasting support. And yet, I have fewer students in most of my classes than most local parents have children in their homes. I have more time to focus individual attention on my students than their parents do.

On Friday night a few local students brought out drums. Yup’ik song and dance is a tradition hanging by a thread, but you can get a fair impression of it from these videos by Anchorage-based band Pamyua.

Pamyua Bubblegum:

Pamyua Ocean Prayer:

Modern Yup’ik song and dance are usually performed in a school basketball court, because these are the largest meeting spaces available in most communities. Here’s an example of the tradition as I found it Friday night:

And here’s a sample of my own poor recording:

The repetitive, choral verses and the beat of the drums put me into a meditative state which I could imagine floating over the whole audience. And I wonder if the musical style could be performed in English, with words drawn from the western mythos, and what effect it would have on an audience in a small space. I’ll try to find better examples of music similar to what I heard.

A few pictures:

A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.
A local picked us up from the airstrip in a sled attached to a snow-go, like this, for the mile-ride into school.

Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
Puppy guarding a snow-go, Kongiganak in the distance.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The view from our host-classroom window, Friday morning.
The Alaskan High Kick
The Alaskan high kick. The athlete grabs an ankle with one hand, supports himself on the other, and kicks up with his free foot. The best competitors can enter a momentary one-handed stand with their free leg pointing straight up.

To see a perfectly executed and photographed kick, click here. The picture is from another teacher’s blog post.