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Yup'ik RavenOur Language Our Souls:

The Yup'ik bilingual curriculum of the
Lower Kuskokwim School District: A continuing success story.

Edited by Delena Norris-Tull, University of Alaska Fairbanks,
School of Education, Fairbanks, Alaska
copyright 1999

Chapter 5
Analysis of the Yup'ik Immersion Program In Bethel
by Agatha Panigkaq John-Shields
Bethel, Alaska
Copyright 1998

"We take away valuable knowledge and culture from our children when we do not communicate with them to teach our children our Yup'ik language and way of life," states Frank Andrews, Sr., an elder from Kwigillingok. (1998 LKSD Bilingual Summer Institute)

After three years of the Yup'ik immersion program in Bethel, we, the immersion teachers (Loddie Ayaprun Jones, one of Bethel's first Yup'ik immersion teachers, Carrie Inuqaar Dahl, one of the present Yup'ik immersion teachers and a parent, and myself, Agatha Panigkaq Shields, a Yup'ik immersion teacher and a parent), are looking towards the future for ways to improve the program through our vast experiences and knowledge. The foci for future planning are as follows: first, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the program, next, assess the benefits for the community and people involved, third, predict the consequences if the immersion program was ever discontinued, and last, provide recommendations for the program as a whole.


Strengths of the Program

Since its beginning, many changes have occurred to better achieve the goal (stated in the program mission statement, Parent Handbook, page 1) of "promoting an understanding between two cultures," Yup'ik and Western. The Yup'ik language and culture has been strengthened in the region as a result of these types of programs. Through the use of the language in the classroom, our culture is being revived with the help of the people involved, through networking between the teachers, parents, students, and the community. There is a sense of belonging and feeling of family through mutual respect and understanding. Through networking, the Native students as well as the non-Native students benefit from learning about the Yup'ik language and culture. The program also is helping preserve the language and culture for the students to come. Like families, we as a community have to network to raise the children as though we were all their parents, as envisioned by Samuel Shields (interview 1998).

Parental involvement in the immersion program has grown. Parents who began by asking questions about the program now ask questions about how they can help to improve the program. Parents are more vocal in the Advisory School Board (ASB) and parent meetings. Some know that their commitment to the program is vital. Through a sense of belonging, Bruce Perry, a parent, mentioned (interview 1998) that he is proud to see his child learning about a unique indigenous culture and language, a language that their grandparents speak predominantly and a culture that they still live.

As the students are learning to speak and understand the Yup'ik language and culture, we need to be aware of the importance of speaking consistently in Yup'ik. What I am noticing, as a parent and a teacher, is the effort involved in teaching and reviving our language. I struggle to keep my language alive by not switching back and forth between Yup'ik and English. If parents and children work together, we can all be successful in acquiring the Yup'ik language.

Parents play a big role in success. The steering committee, composed of parents, has a goal to be a link between parents, the ASB, and school administration. (Mikelnguut Elitnaurviat School, Parent Handbook, page 10). This time is also used to make plans for events such as potluck, parent night, performances, etc. The meetings today mainly provide information on short term goals and events that occur within the program.

The foremost important cultural aspect of the program is having Elders around the students. This is the time Elders speak, observe, communicate, teach, advise, tell stories and much more, with the students. Loddie Jones (interview 1998) invites Elders from the senior center to come to the schools to be around the students. Throughout the school year students are invited to perform during special occasions and conferences in the community as part of the Elders' entertainment. Elders from other villages are temporarily employed by Kilbuck School as cultural specialists to teach dancing and arts and crafts to all students in the school. This way more cultural aspects of the Yup'ik life are incorporated into the curriculum from these valuable sources, the Elders. Not only do students feel proud, the Elders feel proud to see the preservation of their language and culture and their ability to use their own language with younger children. Martina John (interview 1998), an elder who has been a cultural specialist, said she is always very glad to use her Native language as a tool to teach and advise her grandchildren in the immersion program. The Elders' ability to use their language with the children is a vital avenue to communicate and guide our children's path for their future.

From the immersion teachers' overall discussion, we are all in agreement about the importance of team teaching. As teachers we are privileged to keep and use our Native language to teach as well as learn with our students about our rich culture in our classrooms. Learning with our students, we become closely bonded and committed to the program. Mrs. Jones' strength in teaching comes from remembering her mother's words of how sad it is to be unable to converse with her own grandchildren in Yup'ik (Jones presentation 1998). For me, my willingness to teach comes from the importance of my parents to be able to communicate and help me teach my students as well as my three daughters through our culture.

Since every teacher has a unique specialty and knowledge, team teaching is a must for the immersion teacher family. Like a family, when they get a chance to meet the teachers share teaching strategies that are successful with immersion students. The teachers meet more frequently with others that are close to their classrooms. The materials created and translated by one are shared with another. Because we lack commercially available materials in our Yup'ik language, it is crucial that we practice the Yup'ik value of sharing and working together daily as we produce new materials.

Teaching materials are constantly translated and created, but there are never enough. Since the beginning of the program, teachers have had the privilege to get together with experienced language teachers during some part of the summer to create materials for the district. Materials now available in the Yup'ik language from the summer institute and networking are: Saxon math, thematic units with lessons plans, supplemental seasonal packets, a newsletter containing teaching ideas and worksheets, the balanced literacy program guides, thematic packets, and fun reading books that students enjoy. Overall, the materials are slowly made, but we are still growing stronger as more networking happens.


Weaknesses that have not been overcome

Although there are strengths within the program overall, separate sites for grades K-1 and grade 2 weakens the connection and continuation in the program. This is a problem mainly for the second graders. Carrie Dahl (interview 1998), the second grade teacher, struggled this year with lack of materials and support because second grade was on its first year at a separate site. This caused an imbalance in the program which created many problems.

Dahl finds that a lack of regular communication with the K-1 teachers, other than by e-mail or phone, has created problems. Work time is constantly filled with planning, creating instruction, and translating. Immersion teachers lack time to meet during work hours. No time for teachers leads to no time to sit down to analyze the program overall for future goals.

Competing for resources and sometimes facing opposition from English language programs affects the acceptance of our immersion program by other teachers and administrators. Lacking knowledge of how the program works, some are skeptical of the value of the Yup'ik immersion program. Without the support of others within the school district, it is hard to work together. As teachers and parents in the program, we need to strengthen our leadership role and to voice the value of the program and make known the support we need to stay as one program.

We, the teachers and parents, observe that the following factors work to weaken the program overall. Lack of materials for the core curriculum is always going to put us at a disadvantage when compared to the English language program. We never have enough translated books and assessments for our indigenous language program. Any book written in Yup'ik is considered a big accomplishment, but we still need a better understanding of the students' needs to accurately fit the teaching levels within the curriculum.

Presently, the parents of the up-coming third graders are disappointed that there are not enough Yup'ik teachers available for recruiting. Although the Parent Handbook states that a new teacher for the next grade level should be recruited at the beginning of the previous school year, as of June 1998 there is still no certified teacher placed in grade three for this fall. The process of obtaining new teachers is slower than we expected. As a parent, Bruce Perry stated he is disappointed in the lack of support and enthusiasm from the administration and the leadership level. Especially with the program being in its fourth year, program leaders should have planned better for placing a new teacher for the upcoming grades (Perry interview 1998). There needs to be better planning a year ahead to give the teachers time to prepare.

The parent steering committee has grown, but the visual progress of the program has been slower than was expected. The people involved lack knowledge of the department structure as we, the parents, are starting to understand. There has not been a clear definition of who is in charge of the program and this is weakening networking. Everything in the program is slowed down, making it difficult to reach our goals (Perry, Shields, Dahl, Jones interviews 1998). For example, the Yup'ik library and resource center that is vital for our children to use for more educational purposes is still not there.

There is no set funding for the immersion program. Without reliable funding, there is always uncertainty about the future of the program. This uncertainty adds to the skepticism in the community. Skeptics even include Yup'ik people who are afraid that learning in our Yup'ik language will slow the children's progress in school. We, as a community, need to network with everyone to help people better understand the program. A parent who manages a company suggested that not only should we include people involved in the school, we also need to network with businesses and parents not involved in the program to help them better understand the immersion program (Shields interview 1998).


Benefits to the Community, Family, and Students

As a parent and a teacher I have always felt a sense of belonging and of family within the Yup'ik immersion program. Not only does the program help strengthen the local language and culture, students and teachers remain basically the same from one year to the next, which lends to the feeling of being one family. Not only the people involved benefit, but people who become knowledgeable about the program benefit. There is a better understanding about the culture, more acceptance, more self-pride and self-esteem, and bonding between everyone.

As teachers, we have noticed several changes in the community. There is more interest in learning about the culture, racism has lessened between the different cultures, and there is less frustration among the people who are involved in the school. There is less skepticism within the community and school as a whole. As the program has gained acceptance by the community, the students have been invited to perform and to air language use on the radio. This exposes the community to the rich Yup'ik language and culture the students are acquiring. All in all, Yup'ik is more greatly appreciated and accepted within the community.


Consequences if the Immersion Program is discontinued

We feel it would be a great disservice to the community and children of the region if the program were ever to be discontinued. All the benefits and strengths I have mentioned will be destroyed. The struggle to revive the dying Yup'ik language would be lost. The effort to preserve the language would be minimized. Not only will the people lose their language, self-pride would diminish again. Children would lose the opportunity to learn ways of life from our Elders who can only speak Yup'ik, as Frank Andrew stated. All of this would lead to further racism towards and ignorance in the community of the Native people who are privileged to be part of the Yup'ik culture. The Elders, parents, and students will lose the ability and gift to communicate.

The ability to communicate with the Elders to learn about the unique culture will be minimized again. The feeling of importance the Elders feel today will diminish along with their pride, as several summer institute participants have mentioned (Bilingual Summer Institute 1998).

The sense of ownership in the program and the sense of family will be gone. Students who have become comfortable with and appreciative of their heritage will question their identity in the community. The privilege of learning and relearning about the Yup'ik culture will be lost. Students will be lead only towards learning one culture; the Western culture. We would not meet the Alaska World Language Standards (Parent Handbook, page 13). Parents and teachers who are Yup'ik or have children who are Yup'ik, will lose the sense of identity and belonging that involvement with this program has given them. All the effort and money that has been put into creating Yup'ik materials will be wasted as the materials would have minimum use in the schools. Overall, the program goals would not be met.


Recommendations for program improvement

From the trials and errors we, teachers and parents, have experienced, we have come up with some recommendations for a better program. Most of the weaknesses in the Yup'ik immersion program in Bethel can be minimized by getting one school and one principal. If we could get one source of funding, the program could reach more of its goals because the administration and leadership can be pinpointed. One school is needed for consistency and better networking. Teachers, students, parents, and the community could improve the program faster by working together closely. Issues about how to share ideas, utilize Elders, make decisions, recruit teachers, and hold teacher meetings could be solved by having one central program site.

We could place the library and resource center within the program building. Vital networking between teachers would be easier. Leadership roles would be better understood, and expectations would be clearer. Once the program is placed in one site, people involved would become better recognized by the community and community leaders, as Samuel Shields, a parent, suggested (interview 1998). Once these individuals are better recognized, we will be able to better build a stronger Yup'ik immersion program.

There is always going to be a need of more materials in the Yup'ik language. We constantly need materials made, just as we as a community need to work together to keep our program growing for the better.

"We take away valuable knowledge and culture from our children when we do not communicate with them to teach our children our Yup'ik language and way of life."


Table of Contents

  • Introduction to the Kuskokwim Delta - Delena Norris-Tull
  • Introduction to the Yup'ik Language and Culture Programs of the Lower Kuskokwim School District - Delena Norris-Tull & Beverly Williams
  • Chapter 1: The Yup'ik First Language Program: Lower Kuskokwim School District - Mary Lou Beaver & Evon Azean, Sr.
  • Chapter 2: The Balanced Literacy Program in Yup'ik - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 3: Creating Yup'ik Books, Translating, & Orthography - Pamela Yancey & Sophie Shield
  • Chapter 4: Ayaprun Immersion School - Loddie Ayaprun Jones
  • Chapter 5: Analysis of the Yup'ik Immersion Program In Bethel - Agatha Panigkaq John-Shields
  • Chapter 6: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description and Analytical View of the 4-6 Yup'ik Thematic Unit - Dora E. Strunk
  • Chapter 7: K-3 Thematic Units and the Alaska Cultural Standards - Nita Yurrliq Rearden
  • Chapter 8: Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description of the 5th-12th Yup'ik Curriculum and its Revision - Rosalie Lincoln
  • Chapter 9: Yup'ik Discipline Practices Inerquutet and Alerquutet To Implement Into Yup'ik Schools - Theresa Arevgaq John
  • Chapter 10: Recommendations for Yup'ik Curriculum at Lower Kuskokwim School District - Sally Casey

email the editor, D. Norris-Tull


Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


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Last modified August 18, 2006