Through art, Haines students begin to heal after losing beloved kindergarten teacher in landslide

Students at the Haines school fold paper cranes for healing after the loss of Jenae Larson, their kindergarten teacher. January 11, 2021. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Haines children returned to the classroom this week following the winter break. It’s the final semester of a year marked by challenge and loss, but families and teachers are moving forward.

The Haines School District has been through a tumultuous year. The pandemic isolated students socially and the December storms left some without a home. And its beloved kindergarten teacher, Jenae Larson, was lost in a landslide.

In the art room, K-12 art teacher Giselle Miller is fostering a place of healing through her lesson plan. She’s introducing origami, the Japanese art of folding paper.

“This week, we’re going to be working on this project making paper cranes. And everyone in the school is working on it,” Miller explained to a group of middle schoolers.

“We’re folding paper cranes and going to be hanging them for Janae outside the kindergarten room and inside and kind of for the kindergarteners as well. But it’s not only to kind of honor her in that way in that space, but also to bring some beauty and some light to that space for the kindergarteners. Does that make sense?” she said.

Paper cranes are a Japanese tradition. It signifies protection and healing. Students as young as five and up to their late teens are helping.

“Grief, anger. You know, sadness, confusion, all those things. I want the art room to be a safe space where students can feel like they can express those things and bring those things up, and then go from there,” Miller said.

The district managed to sustain in-person learning through most of the pandemic. But the devastating storm and landslides this December tested an already strained community.

“I would say this has been probably the toughest challenge of my life to date,” said principal Lily Boron.

Boron taught at the Haines Borough School for 21 years before taking on the administrative role in March.

“We have families that have lost their homes, you know, families that don’t know where they’re going to be living or just the fear of what, what if this happens again? And we don’t have the resources within our school to be able to address all that. I mean, we all need support,” she said.

For Boron, the loss is acutely personal — she taught Larson all four years of high school. Her kids grew up in the Larson family daycare. Yet she’s helped the school move forward with help from counselors.

“It’s tough,” she said. “Because we will not forget Jenae, we will not forget that she was our kindergarten teacher and how very proud we were of this year. She did an incredible job. And she’s our very own Jenae. But we know that life goes on for our students and we know how incredibly important it is that they have a place to come and learn and be joyful. And that’s our role here.”

Kira Phillips smiles as the kindergarten class tumbles down the hall. She’s one of a team of counselors from Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital who arrived at the school within days of the storm. It was her job to guide teachers, staff and parents through a conversation about loss with the school’s youngest students.

“It’s okay to show emotion. It’s, you know, you don’t want to overwhelm … I’m not going to have a complete meltdown. I think us modeling the appropriate emotions and using the appropriate words are super important for kids, because they’re looking at us for everything.” Phillips said.

The counselors left over the holidays, but now they’re back on campus for the next two weeks to help as needed.

“There’s not enough words, to express how much I love what I do, and how much I care. I really love being here, and with these kids and these teachers. I’ve worked in quite a few different school settings with different communities and what you have here is a very special, unique anomaly doesn’t happen everywhere,” Phillips said.

Phillips says the origami project ticks all her boxes for healing exercise. Art connects the mind and body, and doing it together shows students that they’re not alone.

Back in the art room, students are still folding cranes. They’ll be at it all week. It’s mostly quiet — origami is pretty complicated and takes a certain amount of focus. But there’s the soft rustle of folding as their fingers turn paper into wings.

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