Sunday, January 16, 2011

The beginning

I need to begin telling the 'whole' story, but I keep putting it off because I don't know where to start. When in doubt, begin at the beginning.

I did my student teaching this past fall in Big Bay, as most of those likely to see this already know. Early in the semester, Carrie got an email from our old friend Arica, who had taught in the Bush for a year before moving to Marquette. It was a forwarded message from her old administrator, who obviously thought the world of her, asking if she knew anyone who might be interested in a tutoring position starting in January. Carrie and I talked it over and agreed it was at least worth looking into, and when we had more information--dates, location, pay, conditions--we agreed it was a good idea.

Not an easy decision, as it meant me being away for three solid months, but ultimately the benefits outweighed the costs. Personally, it would be a marvelous opportunity for growth, discovery, and adventure, as well as a chance to help kids who really needed it. Professionally, it would be invaluable, both in terms of experience and practice, and in terms of subsequent resume building. And the kicker, for the sake of our young and growing family: it would pay off nearly my entire student loan in one fell swoop.

So we decided to go for it, and a few short months later I was in Anchorage taking pictures of a moose at a range of about two yards; welcome to Alaska! I have lived in the UP for several years and have only ever seen tracks, but one day in Anchorage (when I was supposed to be grocery shopping) and I had a real close encounter.

I am now the new 'intervention' teacher at Ignatius Beans Memorial School in Mountain Village, Alaska, a town of less than a thousand on the mighty Yukon River in southwestern Alaska. Google maps will not tell you how far away I am or how to get here because there are no roads that lead here. If you want to go to a nearby village, you take a snowmobile, and if you want to go further than that, you fly. The tundra is spacious and beautiful, but also a little monotonous.

'Intervention' means I'm a tutor. I am working exclusively in reading and math, and mainly with students who are likely to fall short of 'proficient' on their state tests in one or both subjects without some extra help. In the last two weeks I have learned all about Alaska's official education standards (Grade Level Expectations) and how they are reflected in standardized tests. I despise standardized tests. But they do give me lots of information about what my students need to learn and practice. So from within the Belly of the Beast I work to help the individuals being processed there. Broadly speaking, this is exactly what I want to do with my life. Spread the love.

Some things I've encountered have meshed well with what I imagined a little school in the Bush might be like. My classroom has no windows and can be stiflingly hot, so I asked around to see if a fan might be had; another teacher loaned me a nice big one, but it has no shield on the front, so I had to put up on a filing cabinet out of reach. Many of my students are indeed quite poor, and live in very small houses with very large families. On the other hand, the school itself is startlingly well provided for. I have a fancy new printer/copier and five brand new Dell computers with 19" flat screens and wireless keyboard and mouse--pretty fancy! The building is quite new as well, half of it built only two years ago, with triple-pane windows whose handles turn ninety degrees to swing open from the side, or 180 degrees to open from the bottom.

I didn't know what to expect from the people, either native or newcomer, but I have been pleasantly surprised on all fronts. The teachers, by and large, are caring and idealistic. The principal is passionately devoted to his students' success, both in school and in life. And the students! Well, they are active, certainly, but also sweet, receptive, willing to work hard and to learn. They've made me feel right at home. I love them already.

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