Educators throughout Alaska and beyond come together to help Alaska Native students through culturally responsive education
Attendees and presenters came from across Alaska and even as far as New Zealand to attend SHI’s second annual Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) Conference held August 1-3 in Juneau. As part of SHI’s mission to promote cross-cultural understanding, the CRE conference was created to provide teachers and administrators with an understanding of issues affecting Alaska Native students and how culturally responsive education can help support all students’ success. With more educators knowledgeable in CRE, Alaska Native cultures can be brought to the classroom, and studies have shown Native students do better academically when their world view is recognized in school.
The conference included four keynote speakers and 56 breakout sessions, and the topics varied greatly. In total, 250 educators and presenters attended the conference, which began with opening remarks by SHI’s Education Director Kevin Shipley; Joe Nelson, a vice chancellor at the University of Alaska Southeast; Albert Kookesh, representing the Office of the Governor; and SHI President Rosita Worl. US Senator Lisa Murkowski also welcomed attendees by video.
Dr. Randall Lindsey, an emeritus professor at California State University, Los Angeles, presented the first keynote of the conference. His interactive presentation asked educators to examine themselves and prompted them to discuss topics such as their first impressions of each other and their equity journeys with their students.
At the end of his keynote, Lindsey was moved when speaking about the future and voiced his hope that the world be full of culturally-responsive educators for his grandchildren and others.
Joshua Jackson hosted a breakout session about creating culturally-immersive classrooms. Jackson is a teacher at Harborview Elementary School who teaches in the Tlingit Culture, Language, and Literacy (TCLL) program, which celebrates Tlingit language and culture.
Some of his tips and tricks included speaking the kids’ language, singing a song worth singing (“I hope you dance”), and teaching self-love. When talking about self-love, Jackson quoted the late Dr. Walter Soboleff.
“When our children know who they are, they don’t hurt themselves.”
The first day concluded with second keynote speaker Father Michael Oleksa, Ph.D., who spoke about miscommunication between different cultures. His iceberg theory of interpersonal communication outlined six aspects of communication that cause people from different cultures to miscommunicate.
Oleksa told a story about meeting a Tlingit Elder in Sitka for dinner one night. The Elder told him three stories, talking around a point without stating it explicitly. This communication style completely differed from what he was used to but gave him the message just as clearly.
Listening to this Elder’s stories showed Oleksa just how different communication is between cultures. As a former teacher in Kodiak, he directly saw miscommunication between teachers and Alaska Native students and the harm that caused to the students’ ability to learn. He also saw how essential it is for educators to learn another culture’s “code” to teach students from other cultures effectively.
On the second day of the conference, national education consultant Zaretta Hammond presented her keynote speech on more nuanced teaching in diverse classrooms. Hammond outlined the important differences between “multicultural,” “social justice,” and “culturally responsive” education. Being multicultural does not mean one is being culturally responsive, according to Hammond.
Culturally responsive education, Hammond said, means including collectivism in teaching. Hammond asserted that educators need to decolonize and indigenize education because the education system in the United States was built upon structures of racialization and under-developing students of color.
“And if white parents push back,” Hammond said, “then someone needs to educate them. And this is not about Native people educating white parents. We have to have a cadre of white educators who are fluent with cultural proficiency.”
Aotearoa New Zealand educator Carrie Vanderzwaag flew to Alaska to attend the conference and share her experience being a teacher at a bicultural, rural Aotearoa school. Her breakout emphasized the need to be a responsive teacher, differentiate between students, and have flexibility in the classroom to fit the needs of students.
Rosita Worl hosted her own breakout session on the topic of Tlingit property law and cultural appropriation. She also highlighted SHI’s goal of promoting cross-cultural understanding and how it applies to teaching Northwest Coast art.
“This goal implies an ideal of symmetrical power between the Native and non-Native society in which an Indigenous society acknowledges a right to teach non-Natives about Native culture and Northwest Coast art,” Worl said.
The concluding day of the conference started with returning keynote speaker Dr. Christopher Blodgett, a faculty member at Washington State University. His talk explained how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) negatively impact a child’s learning and distort a child’s connections to other people. At the end of his presentation he explained his model of informing educators about ACEs and trauma in schools.
Blodgett emphasized it is a community effort to talk about trauma and build resiliency within children and the community as a whole.
“That issue of how a community decides to open a conversation about trauma is a really big deal,” said Blodgett. “And we don’t get to say what that’s going to be. But my advice always is, whether it’s formal or informal, to go to the Elders and ask permission. Explain what it is that you’re doing. Go and do this with humility.”
Blodgett also stressed the importance of culture in this process, which can be a positive force to show children who they are and that they are worth it. He stated that culture is central to a human’s success and can even be a filter for adversity that helps children deal with trauma and ACEs.
The smell of cedar filled the room for Haida and Tlingit elder Della Cheney’s breakout session about weaving. First, she introduced herself in Haida, then Tlingit
Cheney told her story of becoming a weaver through her mother. Audience members such as Lisa Worl, who was remembering her own grandmother, were moved almost to tears by Cheney’s story and sharing. Cheney displayed pictures of her mother on a table by the classroom door, bringing her mother into the classroom with her that day.
Cheney described the process of obtaining the materials and the laborious task of making many, many baskets and still producing “kindergarten work” compared to her mother when she started. After the breakout, people approached Cheney and hugged her with smiles on their faces.
Tlingit presenter Norma Shorty, an adjunct lecturer at the University of Alaska Southeast and University of Regina, facilitated brainstorming sessions with educators on bringing Elders into the classroom in her breakout “How to Work with Elders in the Area of Education and Culture.” Ideas ranged from telling stories in the classroom to bringing an Elder to teach a song to teaching a song with permission from a clan.
Multicultural Alaska Native dance group Yées Ḵu.Oo closed out the conference with a performance. They sang Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Aleut songs, inviting attendees to join them in dancing during the Tsimshian Happy Song, written by Nancy Barnes and Kimberly Clark. For their last song, the group invited SHI interns to dance with them to the Haida Exit Song.
Thank you to all attendees and presenters for attending our second annual Culturally Responsive Education Conference. We hope all interested educators and presenters attend similar events in the future to help the success of Alaska Native students throughout the state and create an environment of respect for Alaska Native cultures in the classroom.
Written by Sealaska intern Lyndsey Brollini. Photos by Lyndsey and Nobu Koch.