Learning in Two Languages

First graders in Napaskiak.

Early in our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days, we learned about efforts to re-introduce indigenous languages through school programs.  At the Lower Kuskokwim School District, they have a different challenge: figuring out the best way to teach reading and writing to kids who are already living in two languages.  LKSD is the heart of Yup’ik country. One quarter of the certified teachers are Yup’ik, the greatest percentage of indigenous educators of any district in Alaska. The district is rolling out a new method for teaching its bilingual students called the dual language model.

SOPHIE EVAN: LKSD’s mission statement says in part, that their students will be bilingual and successful in both Yup’ik and American English languages and cultures. The LKSD Yup’ik language specialists map out the curriculum in Yup’ik mirroring the English teaching and evaluation materials. Veronica Winkelman, or Atan’, is one of three full time specialists.

[Veronica Winkelman/Atan’] “It’s not the curriculum it’s the delivery method.”

Atan’ says the dual language model has to be demonstrated and practiced by the adults in the school equally.

[Atan’] “We’re asking English speaking teachers to take Yugtun classes and to learn Yugtun phrases.”

The high school students from Chefornak have recorded Yup’ik phrases and posted them onto LKSD’s website for the English speaking teachers, directions like, “please line up,” “take your paper out,” or “it’s time for lunch”.

[Sound of Yup’ik phrase from LKSD’s website]

The teaching model’s main component is to have the students work in pairs on their activity or practice worksheets. Working together is said to encourage active learning for all students. Student comprehension is then checked three separate times. Yup’ik Language Specialist, Atan’…

[Atan’] “So when you go into a dual language classroom you will see kids with their pair.”

[Natural sound of two girls working together.]

Rita Joekay a first year kindergarten teacher in Napaskiak.

[Joekay speaking in Yup’ik explaining, how she uses the dualanguage model with narration over.]

Joekay says teachers use the language of the student as the primary language of instruction, so for example when students are speaking English as they enter kindergarten the main language of instruction will be English for reading and writing. The same applies to the Yup’ik speaking students.

The first test of the method is for students to be able to write a full page for Yup’ik learners, and a half a page for English learners in each respective language.  Again, Atan’…

[Atan’] “Not only do you want the kids to know what you’ve taught them but you want them to be able to apply their learning in a different format, so it’s like deeper learning and deeper practice.”

Napaskiak School Principal Talbert Bentley say they’ve been using the dual language delivery method since last year.

[Talbert Bentley] “Our teachers have really bought into it, and they’re really going gang busters implementing it.”

In the dual language learning model, students continue to learn reading, writing, science and social studies in both language into the sixth grade.

Russian Orthodox Priest Father Nicholai also serves as Napaskiak’s chairman of the local advisory school board.

[Father Nicholai speaking in Yup’ik; narration over translating into English] “This is what we tell our students, our world is changing, and we need to learn the western ways, our parents were forced to learn the English language and it is important to know English in today’s world, we also continue to teach the Yup’ik ways of survival in our own language as the two are connected.”

He says the end goal is to prepare students, like his own, to be grounded in the Yup’ik culture and to succeed in the Western world as well.

This reporting series is a production of the Content Producers Guild and is made possible through funding from the Association of Alaska School Boards’ Initiative for Community Engagement program. For more photos and information please visit KidsTheseDays.org.

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Sophie Evan is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.