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Children's program encourages learning of language

October 9th, 2015 | Heidi Ahsoak Print this article   Email this article  

Visit one room at Ilisagvik College and you will likely come out humming the alphabet in Iñupiaq. Catchy songs, stories and activities are all part of the program at the Language Nest, an effort by multiple North Slope entities to get children in the region speaking early in their Native language.

The Uqautchim Uglua "Language Nest" initiative began in 2012 with the support of the North Slope Borough, North Slope Borough School District, Arctic Slope Native Association, the community of the North Slope, as well as generous funding from our funders, the Kellogg Foundation through the American Indian College Fund, and Alaska Native Education Programming. The initiative had a three-fold purpose: (1) create an indigenous Early Education Program through Iḷisaġvik College so that residents of the North Slope could further their education in the field of Early Learning; (2) open an Early Learning Center with an immersion setting, so that our youngest learners have the opportunity to learn Iñupiaq, while at the same time provide a lab school for the Early Education Program; and (3) to replicate the Language Nest program in the outlying villages of the North Slope, using home-based settings known as "Remote" Language Nests.

Uqautchim Uglua Early Learning Center, better known as "the Nest," opened its doors to the first student cohort in the fall of 2012. The staff in the Nest, was comprised of individuals who were fully fluent in the Iñupiaq language. Our very own culture-based curriculum was in the early stages of development and implemented by the staff with help from the North Slope Borough School District.

As with so many other Early Learning Centers, Uqautchim Uglua encountered staff turnover, in part the result of retirement and relocations, thereby making it challenging to maintain a full immersion classroom setting. The decision was made to transition to a younger, less fluent lead teaching staff and move to a bi-lingual classroom setting. Naomi Aaġlu Ahsoak, daughter of Herman and Sylvia Ahsoak, took the position of lead teacher in the fall of 2014. Although not fluent, she had the skills to teach and also had the motivation to continue learning Iñupiaq by any means possible. The program continues to benefit from its partnership with the North Slope Borough School District, to include a language course taught for Iñupiaq language teachers, in which Uqautchim staff is participating.

A typical day at the Nest starts with a healthy breakfast provided by the district. After the students have finished eating, they move into the free play area where they have plenty of toys; free play time is an opportunity to develop motor skills as well as learn valuable social skills. The teacher talks to the students in Iñupiaq about the toys; "what color is it," "how many are there," "where did it go".?Story time is another activity that the students enjoy. Although there is not an abundance of children's books in Iñupiaq or about the Iñupiaq culture for that age group, we have been fortunate to have books translated into Iñupiaq and are currently in the process of creating additional books.

Jerica Aamodt, coordinator for Iñupiaq Studies for Iḷisaġvik College, has created and adapted several books that have been donated to the Nest. She has created "The Very Hungry Qupilġuq" which she adapted from the book "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" by Eric Carle, specifically for use in the classroom. Martha Stackhouse, before her retirement, worked tirelessly on translating books to be read to the students in the Nest. The Hope is that one day, people will be able to go online and order books in the Iñupiaq language for their homes.

During morning routine, the children are exposed to several songs in Iñupiaq such as the atchagat (Iñupiaq alphabet) and kisitchisit (numbers). These songs not only engag?students by singing in Iñupiaq, but they help them learn the pronunciation of letters and letter combinations. The songs are also quite catchy as well.

All of the arts and crafts projects are culturally relevant, and the language has been tied into the project in some way (ie. naming colors in Iñupiaq, talking about shapes, counting, etc.). For example, during fall whaling, a crew had harvested a whale, so staff and children created "whaling books" that depicted items the children encounter when watching a whale being butchered. Some of the items we talked about and included in our books were maktak (whale blubber and skin), umiaq (traditional seal skin boat), savik (knife), takuyaq (flag).

The teaching staff of Uqautchim Uglua does its best to keep everything that they do with the students as culturally relevant as possible as well as making sure the students are prepared to enter elementary school.

Twice a week, the Kiita Learning Community's Iñupiaq class comes over to the Nest to sing and read books with the children in Iñupiaq. This not only brings more language into the Nest but also gives the high school students people with which to practice using the language. Students enjoy having the older visitors in the classroom, and look forward to going on field trips with them in the future as well.

In addition to working with the children, parents are also encouraged to learn Iñupiaq and to continue to speak as much as they can to their child while at home. Word and term lists are sent home with the students to help the parents with commonly used Iñupiaq terms and phrases. The goal is to inspire more people to speak Iñupiaq and to engage fluent speakers in helping and supporting them.

For anyone interested in more information about Iḷisaġvik College's Uqautchim Uglua, the Early Childhood Initiative, please contact Coordinator Heidi Ahsoak at o? 852-8101.


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