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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 6
Yup'ik Language and Culture: A Description and Analytical View of the 4-6 Yup'ik Thematic Unit
By Dora E. Strunk Quinhagak, Alaska Copyright 1998

This paper will describe and analyze the Yup'ik Thematic Units (mainly looking at the weather and the survival skills unit) for grades 4-6 at the Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat (Quinhagak School) at Quinhagak, Alaska. The thematic units are challenging and enjoyable because the themes were derived from our culture. This paper will describe the community and students the program serves. It will look at the goals and objectives of the program, how long the program has been implemented. It will also describe the innovative instructional strategies used in the program. Examples of successes will also be included. Finally, I will attempt to include several problems with the program and my ideas for improving it.

Goals and Objectives of the Thematic Units

The thematic units don't have documented goals, but the units meet the mission statement of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, "to ensure bilingual, culturally appropriate and effective education for all students, thereby providing them with the opportunity to be responsible, productive citizens" (Waite, 1996/97, p.5). Under the LKSD mission statement the Student Learning Goals are listed. One of them states that students will value culture, environment, and others. The development of the thematic units certainly meets the student learning goals. At the Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat our AOTE (Alaska Onward to Excellence) goal states that students will communicate effectively in Yup'ik. When Elders come to school and give a presentation, students learn new vocabulary. Students are conversing in Yup'ik.

Description of the Thematic Units

The thematic units for grades 4-6 were developed during the 1996 Bilingual Summer Institute at Bethel, Alaska. Yup'ik certified teachers, associate teachers, teacher aides, Elders, and the bilingual/curriculum staff were involved in the development of the units.

The thematic units are divided into seasons which include Uksuaryartuq (pre-fall), Uksuaq (fall), Uksuq (winter), Iqukvaq (towards the end of winter), Up'nerkaq (spring), and Kiak (spring). Under each season are the units that connect to the season. There are activities students are supposed to do in grades 4-12. For this proposal, I will concentrate on the weather unit along with the survival skills unit. In these units students will study about Mecungnat, which translated in weather terms means anything that causes you to get wet. Students will observe and recognize weather conditions in the area. (Yup'ik Thematic Unit #7).

Description of the Community and Students the Program Serves

The village of Quinhagak is located approximately 400 miles due west of Anchorage, and 85 miles from Bethel, the hub of the region. The population of Quinhagak is around 500. The village is located at the mouth of the Kuskokwim Bay on the Arolik River. The village is populated with predominantly Yup'ik Eskimos. People depend on subsistence and commercial fishing.

Kuinerrarmiut Elitnaurviat has approximately 125 students, most of whom are Yup'ik Eskimos. The school serves kindergarten through twelfth grade. Since the Native language, Yup'ik, is the student's first language, our school utilizes the Yup'ik First Language program. Students are taught in their first language from kindergarten through fourth grade, but ESL (English as a Second Language) is introduced in first grade for a designated amount of time, as specified in the school's bilingual plan of service. Teachers in kindergarten through fourth grade are all Yup'ik Eskimos from the village. The site administrator is also a Native from the village.

Each elementary classroom teacher uses the thematic units and uses the same themes the whole school year. It is pleasant to see student's work displayed on the bulletin boards that portray student learning.

Description of the Innovative Instructional Strategies Used in the Program

I will concentrate on the weather unit, which corresponds with the survival unit. Before we started the program, students in grades third through fifth were divided into four groups. The two certified classroom teachers planned with the teacher assistants every week. The certified teacher was responsible for planning for the teacher assistant's group although the assistant could prepare the materials that were already selected.

We decided it was important to invite Elders to introduce the thematic units. We also asked them to teach an activity during the week. Students thoroughly enjoyed the sessions with the Elders.

Since we felt that science experiments were lacking in the units we translated student activity sheets from various science booklets. The activities in weather and survival skills unit included the following: made a homemade barometer, made frost using ice, learned the different names of different weather patterns and wind directions in Yup'ik, learned how to interpret the sky by using the senses, learned the names of the cloud formations, and performed science experiments after translating the activities from various weather activity books.

We also had guest speakers come and talk about times they were stranded on the tundra. One fellow talked about his experience surviving the outdoors during winter. This was a huge learning opportunity because the speaker stressed the importance of knowing how to use the traditional survival skills of Native people.

Parents were also invited to come and help their children with their Native arts and crafts. Students have a sense of pride when their parents are involved with their education. Parents are urged to attend when there is a guest speaker.

Two and a half years ago, the tribal council assumed responsibility for the Johnson O'Malley funds. JOM funds are used to provide Elders to assist in the schools. Whenever an elder comes to school, classroom teachers are responsible to report the length of time to the tribal organization, which then compensates the Elders for their time. Also, the home/school coordinator transports the elder to and from school. This alleviates any transportation problem the elder might encounter. We try to remember to videotape and tape-record the elder's presentations. Also, the materials that will be used for arts and crafts are purchased using bilingual funds.

Students respect the Elders when they come to school to give a lecture or to teach. It is encouraging to see students sitting quietly for a half-hour. Elders have a wealth of information that needs to be passed along to the next generation.

Examples of Successes in the Classroom

The thematic units bring out a lot of our Yup'ik culture to our students. The students are learning about the history of our people also. We ask the Elders to talk about their early reflections of what they did when they were young. I feel if we don't invite the Elders to our school, many of the students won't learn about their history. Sometimes the ESL teacher taught using the same themes, but using western cultural examples. For example, when the Yup'ik teachers were teaching about the survival skills, the ESL teacher taught about snow machine survival skills. The school becomes a setting for the western and Yup'ik cultures to mesh.

I had a student who didn't do very well when it came time to do seat work. He had a short attention span and got very bored. He just did the assignment because he was told. He didn't have a lot of motivation. During thematic time he was a different student. He listened well to the Elders and was able to sit quietly and be attentive. He was eager to work on his assignments that were mainly hands-on. He was motivated to learn.

Another example of a success story was when students were eager to take notes when an elder gave a presentation. Students who didn't enjoy writing in their journals had more fun writing stories they were hearing from the elder. Most of what they were hearing was new to them and was interesting because they were hearing and imagining how life was many years ago in their village.

Pauline Small, the third and fourth grade teacher, had this to share about student success. Whenever teachers use materials that students can relate to, she can tell students are learning. They are using their senses in predicting weather. They learn they cannot control the weather. They learn the Native way of predicting, i.e. looking at the sky to see what the weather will be like the next day. There is less seatwork and more hands-on activities. Students strive to do their best, even those who were called slow students.

In my class, students are eager to get their seatwork completed so they can finish their arts and crafts that they started during thematic time. It gives them the extra determination to finish what is also important in school.

Finally, another success that I see in the program is four teachers collaborating. The goal was that students would learn and have enjoyment at the same time. It was important to plan together so if one teacher were gone, everyone would know what the substitute teacher was supposed to do.

Examples of Problems with the Program

As with any program there are problems that need to be addressed. For example, it was difficult for us to separate the weather and the survival skill theme. In our culture if people are planning an outing, it is important to plan for unexpected occurrences, such as bad weather developing while out in the wilderness. There was also a set time because students had to take other required classes.

Pauline Small and I felt that some activities were written down without much thought and felt that the developers didn't have much time to do a thorough job. Therefore, we had to develop our own activities related to the theme. We also felt that there weren't many science activities so we searched for activity booklets with science experiments and translated them into Yup'ik.

Rosalie Lincoln, a participant who was involved in the revision process in the 1997/98 Bilingual Institute, mentioned that there was a short amount of time during the institute to complete the thematic units. The institute was over before any revisions were made.

Ideas for Improving the Thematic Units

Each year's Summer Institute attempts to improve upon the previous year's work. The units always need to be improved. After attending the 1998 Bilingual Institute, Pauline Small and I had an idea that it would be good to have sample boxes to use for each theme. After going on a nature walk with Mary Gregory, we saw the importance of preserving plants so we could use them any time of the year. The containers of plants could be labeled as to where they were found, what year they were picked, what they're used for, and what vitamins and minerals each plant has.

Another necessary improvement is to videotape and audio record the Elders when they present in or out of class. It is important to label the tapes so another teacher could use them. I feel it is also necessary to transcribe the information. Putting the information in a database of what is available in the school would be helpful to the teachers so they can use them and retrieve the contents when needed.

Finally, it is important to involve Elders during the planning process. When the teachers prepared for the lessons, we learned that we could have included additional information, which we found out after the Elders came to talk. Some of the information would be useful for students to know.


I'd like to stress again that I am grateful to the Lower Kuskokwim School District's Bilingual department for continually supporting the teaching of Yup'ik language and culture. I am learning more about my language and culture with the students by using the thematic units. It has made teaching fun, rewarding, and meaningful.


Lincoln, Rosalie. Interviewed June 16, 1998. Bilingual Institute 1998. Bethel, Alaska.

Small, Pauline. Interviewed June 15, 1998. Bilingual Institute 1998. Bethel, Alaska.

Waite, Willard. (1996-1997). Celebrating Our Kids: 1996-1997 LKSD Annual Report Card, 5.

Yup'ik Thematic Units/ 4-12 Yup'ik Maintenance: Grades 4-6 Summer Institute (1996). Bethel, AK: Lower Kuskokwim School District, #7.


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


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Last modified August 18, 2006