Grand Prairie—Teachers and administrators from the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD) in Alaska visited Grand Prairie ISD to observe the district’s dual-language classrooms to help them preserve an indigenous Alaskan language.
“Today and for the past three days, we have given [LKSD] the opportunity to see model exemplary classrooms in pre-K through grade five, where we are simultaneously building languages, both Spanish and English,” Dr. Celina McEntire, dual language facilitator for elementary programs at GPISD, said. “Our approach to dual language and the reason we have this partnership is to use a literacy approach to build language through content. We’re simultaneously building those two languages, so that’s what makes our program unique here in Grand Prairie ISD.”
GPISD is a flagship district for the Gomez & Gomez model for dual language, which has been an effective academic and linguistic model of teaching for over 20 years.
“If the student is able to solidify the foundational principles of their first language, then they’re able to acquire that second language over a three to five year period,” McEntire said. “Within our district, our students start with pre-K and they go all the way to grade five. That way they are building the foundational piece of their L1, or their first language, with the additional layer of that second language.
“In grades pre-K through grade one, we ensure that the RLA or reading language arts piece, is taught in their first language. Whether we have Spanish dominant students learning English, or English dominant students learning Spanish, they are receiving their literacy instruction in their first language. When we begin grade two to grade five, we move to a 50-50 model approach where they are receiving their reading and language arts instruction in both languages.”
Christina Robbins is the director of elementary for LKSD.
“LKSD and GPISD began their partnership in 2010,” Robbins said. “At the time, the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Bethel, Alaska and the surrounding villages that make up our district were looking for a model of instruction that would support an indigenous language. The Yugtun language of the Yup’ik people that live there was fading, incoming kindergarteners were coming in with less and less of the language, and we knew our language model was not meeting the needs of our students.
“We went out, did some research, and ended up finding GPISD. That’s how the partnership occurred between the two. We were at the same time both researching the Gomez and Gomez Dual Language enrichment model, and feeling like while our districts are very different, they were really meeting the needs of our students individually. The fact the partnership has continued over the last 12 years has been a huge gift.”
However, as Robbins explained, incorporating the Yugtun language into the curriculum has been something of an uphill battle.
“When first contact was made with Alaska, there was a history of schooling not being something I think Americans would be proud to know about,” Robbins said. “Children were taken out of their communities and put into boarding schools, where they were physically punished for speaking their native language. We’re going from that to [telling these students] what we really want to do is have you as an individual, who has so much to offer the world, to be able to continue to live in your culture and do the things you were raised with and connect to your family and your ancestors, while at the same time also be able to perform, if you choose to do so, in a world beyond the community you were raised in. It’s with a heavy load the Lower Kuskokwim School Board bought into and has helped preserve the Yugtun language over these last several years.”
In addition to the historical and cultural challenges, the Yugtun language itself presents its own set of obstacles.
“We made a partnership with TCI, and we have been able to take their textbooks, their science and social studies textbooks, localize them, and translate them,” Robbins said. “Not translate them word for word, but in a way that is appropriate to the Yugtun language. Now, there are some things that don’t match up when it comes to English and Yugtun. For example, there’s no future tense in Yugtun, and there are no pronouns in Yugtun, so [when translating] you sometimes end up with, ‘Wait, how does that even work?’ Whereas in the Spanish language you have cognates, and they’re much more similar to English. You really have a totally different situation when it comes to tenses and things like that with the Yugtun language.
“As Dr. Selena points out, the model classrooms we’re observing, we also are able to look at and say we can do some of this, even with knowing the language is in a different place than Spanish is. We have to write all of our curriculum; there are no online programs, there are no textbooks. We literally write our own textbooks that we localize, that takes time. It takes energy; it takes passion and interest. We have that. But being able to come here refreshes us. What we’re doing here is to get re-energized, re-passionate and to have the leaders we’ve brought here really continue on now when they get back to their sites.”
“I think it’s fantastic,” Audra Lopez, an instructional coach with LKSD, said. “The kids are so engaged. You see such wonderful things when you walk in the classroom, lots of collaboration, lots of discussion, beautiful language. It’s really inspiring. It’s nice to see just how far the program can go.
“I’m an instructional coach, so my primary role is working with teachers, and we do focus on our [Dual Language & English Learner Education] DLE teachers. This is my second visit to Grand Prairie, and the first time, I feel like I focused so much on environment.
“This time, my focus has been on instruction and techniques that I’ve seen the teachers use that are very good for [English language learners] ELL students. Even though our students don’t speak Spanish, it doesn’t matter. The same techniques would work for them. I’ve been watching how the teachers interact with the kids and the strategies they use, and those are things I want to bring back for our teachers.”