Nanwalek School transforms teaching with technology

Nanwalek School. (Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBi)
Nanwalek School. (Photo by Shady Grove Oliver/KBBi)

For students and teachers in the village of Nanwalek, this academic year will likely be very different from years past. They are the recipients of a technology grant from Apple that could change the face of education in the village entirely.

Sally Ash is sitting in her large classroom at Nanwalek School. She grew up in Nanwalek and is now a Sug’stun language teacher.

“I think it gives them a background of who they are, where they come from, and the knowledge that’s sitting right here where they’re living. It enriches their life as they get older too, how to live and get along in the world but do it the right way,” says Ash.

She says it’s intertwined with values and culture.

“There [are] a lot of studies being done that [say] if you know more than one language, it makes you smarter. And not only if a speaker wants to go outside of Nanwalek or somewhere else and become a rocket scientist, they could. Or, if they want to stay home and they just want to stay home and be a subsistence [person] or help out with the fish here or things like that, they could. They have a choice so they’re not stuck with one thing,” says Ash.

Like all of the teachers in the school, for years, she’s made due with aging instructional materials like her yellowing, dog eared dictionary, and too few copies of important textbooks. But now, one wall of her classroom is filled with a Smart Board, an interactive piece of technology that takes the place of the traditional chalkboard.

“I was so scared when we first got it. I was like, how is it going to benefit in my class? How am I going to use it?”

But school Principal Nancy Kleine says Apple isn’t leaving anything to chance.

She was contacted by Apple last year to apply for the special grant program. Apple started the program to bring technology into schools in low income areas in response to President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative.

Nanwalek was the only school selected in the state of Alaska, and one of only 114 in the country. As a result, it’s receiving an iPad for each one of its 80 students and every teacher and aide. In addition, all teachers are getting MacBooks. There are now Apple TVs in every instructional area, an iMac for the front desk, storage carts for the student’s pads and charging stations for every classroom.

“They’ve given us 17 days of professional development,” says Kleine. “They’ve given us three years of support. They’ve had team after team come out to test the infrastructure and work with us to develop a strategic plan so it really will be successful for our instruction.”

They’ve also provided funding for teachers to purchase apps specific to their classes and subject areas. Kleine says that’s the key- it’s about more than just technology. It’s about changing the whole learning environment at all levels.

“We really have a lot of hope for this. With the students and the parents and the community being partners, I think we’re truly going to be able to transform teaching at Nanwalek School,” says Kleine.

Sally Ash already has big plans for her students and their new gadgets this year, both in the classroom and in the village as a whole, starting with the old books.

“The pages are really torn, well used books that we want to put on the board so the kids will be able to see. And, we’ll be able to record the elders. And, we can take our iPad out and take pictures of things, identify them and write the name, and that sounds exciting to me too,” says Ash.

She also wants to set up regional speaking sessions with other schools in the Prince William Sound area using a video program.

“It really makes me happy,” says Ash. “I get really emotional because it’s one of my passions is that the kids- I want them to learn Sug’stun. And to hear them, is just a joy to my ears and my heart. Thank you very much, Quyana.”

And like Sally Ash, Kleine says she thinks this grant could have lasting benefits for the entire community far into the future.

“I just think this is an opportunity for these kids to grow and one of the things I’m really hoping that it does is that they will want to come to school and be engaged and be partners in this learning and attendance will grow,” says Kleine. “We are just totally launched for one of the most fabulous years you can possibly imagine.”

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