Kotzebue elementary school works to better incorporate Iñupiaq culture in classrooms

June Nelson Elementary and Kotzebue Middle-High School (Photo courtesy of Northwest Arctic Borough School District)

June Nelson Elementary School is working to help their students connect more with Iñupiaq language and culture. In previous years, the curriculum included two, 20-minute sessions of Iñupiaq each week. According to school principal Faith Jurs, there have been increases across all grades.

The teaching staff at the pre-K through 5th grade school of about 340 students felt Iñupiaq content was lacking across the board, Jurs said.

“We did a survey of all of our staff, and we identified that one of our weaknesses was that we weren’t incorporating enough Iñupiaq language and culture into our classrooms,” Jurs said. “It was a bigger problem than we realized, and a really fun project to work on.”

Jurs says all grade levels will see a boost in Iñupiaq content under the new curriculum.

“Increases were made all across the school but the pre-K program especially infused a lot of language and culture,” Jurs said.

One of the educators leading the charge is preschool teacher Cassia Teuscher. With help from her fellow preschool teacher Briahna Griffths and their Iñupiaq instructional aid Becca Wesley, Teuscher adapted the existing teaching material into a bilingual program.

“Learning two different languages is always good for any kid,” Teuscher said. “Especially brain development and stuff like that, and especially learning about their culture. They also seem to take a lot more interest in what we teach if I gear it towards what they know.”

Teuscher says the team created their own books and worksheets and also adapted Iñuit books to the Iñupiaq alphabet.

“By taking the curriculum that we had and changing it to where it is geared towards them and then giving it that spin towards their culture and also developing words that they would hopefully take and use, day to day now, in their own language, is pretty cool,” Teuscher said.

Jurs said there have been a variety of activities to suit all age groups.

“We’re doing different things at different grade levels,” Jurs said. “At the lower elementary, K-2, our Iñupiaq teacher has taught Eskimo dancing and Native Youth Olympics. Our kids in K-4 went ice fishing with Raymond Woods, the district coordinator of Iñupiaq programs.”

Jurs said the program uses many teaching tools, including cultural stories, dance, art projects and learning about local plants and animals.

“Kind of a culminating thing that we did school-wide was a big project with the migratory birds that come here,” Jurs said. “Park Service helped us. We learned information about the different birds and then we learned the Iñupiaq names for those birds. And then each grade did a different art project and those were all displayed in our display cases in the front of the building. Really, really cool. Hazel Woods coordinated that for us. It turned out great.”

Teuscher says that under the new curriculum, every day feels like Iñupiaq day for the students at June Nelson Elementary School.

Jurs also discussed literacy and science-based summer programs that are available to students in Kotzebue.

“One of the programs is going to study different countries around the world. Another one is doing STEAM projects – science, technology, [engineering], art, and math. And the other is working on getting kids caught up on some basic skills. If they’re interested in having their child go to summer school, it’s not too late to sign up,” Jurs said.

For students in need of additional flexibility in their learning style and schedule, Jurs said there are further options.

“Parents can sign up for ‘21st Century.’ We have kind of a limited enrollment because we don’t have that many teachers here right now,” Jurs said. “If a student is in ‘Migrant Education,’ that means they go hunting or berry picking, they need to register to be a migrant student and then they can go to the migrant summer school. Then the other one is called ‘Extended School Year.’ That program is for students that have an individual education program.”

These summer programs are available for all age groups and they run through the end of May.

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