Saturday, May 1, 2010

"You Speak Funny"

Post number three from the Bush. Oh, and I should point out that these posts get very little editing. I just write down my thoughts as they come out of my head. Iknow -scary thought.

First of all, here is a picture of my lovely hosts, Emily and Ronnie and their gorgeous new baby Ryder, who is 8 months old and has the cutest smile imaginable.

Today was my first day in the schools - the elementary school in Aniak. I spent an hour with each of the classes from kindergarten through to 5th and 6th grade (because there aren't many students, some of the grades are taught together).

It was wonderful to see so many old friends again and meet some new ones. I met Cheryl who is a wonderful lady and is the district's librarian, and who is going to accompany me to Kalskag, Sleetmute and Stony River. A lot of the students remembered me and I got hugs (maybe because they knew I had sweets and cookies and pencils.

This year, the district has a special library grant and the staff have worked really hard to improve literacy. In order to do so, the librarian, Carol (who is so keen and enthusiastic and really inspires the students), had devised a special competition where students who read more than 10 books in the last month, and passed a special quiz on each book, achieving over 80%, would get their names put into a hat and would win a prize. Between them the students read over 300 books. One student read more than 20 and another 11 read over 10 each. I was given the honour of drawing the names out today.

But first, it was classes. First of all, I had the second graders (age 7ish). We did an exercise called 'Box of Impossibilities'. First of all, we discussed all the things that wouldn't fit in a box (house, school, the sun, a star, rainbows) and then they all picked cards on which I had written characters (vampire, clown, teacher, baby, dog etc) and they had that character in their story, which had to be about a box of impossibilities. I had some great stories written for me - very imaginative and often very funny. One student's character card was 'grandmother'. He had a second grandmother jump out of the box and frighten the first grandmother. The student who picked a clown had a whole circus inside his box of impossibilities, complete with elephants and more clowns.

With the 3rd and 4th graders (age 8 and 9), we rewrote Cinderella. I had written an alternative Cinderella story set in the village (snowboot instead of glass slipper, and the ugly sisters had been to Anchorage to get botox and plastic surgery). Again, the students came up with some wonderful stories. We had male Cinderellas, Fairy God-babies and Fairy God-dogs, we had mean and nasty Cinderellas (in one case the Fairy Godmother gave her an attitude change rather than a makeover) and nice and kind stepsisters, we had Cinderella going to a Halloween Ball, we had her travelling in a carriage made out of an apple and an onion, we had mice turned into moose and cats turned into wolves. It was a lot of fun.

With the 5th and 6th graders I gave them each a character card (recycling the ones I used with the 2nd graders) but I added a setting card (tower, ocean, cave, castle, bridge, mountain) and a dilemma (someone loses something, someone is kidnapped, someone is being bullied, someone is followed). So we had a pirate who lost his treasure up a mountain, a king of an underwater kingdom who told a whale a lie. These students have great imaginations.

With the Kindergarten class I read them a story and they drew pictures of things that were happening in the story (it was one of this class who told me I talked funny :o) ), and with the 1st graders I gave them a magic stone which helped them to make up characters. As there were only four of them, we also did one of my favourite things with the youngest students which was to get them to draw an imaginary door and go through to a special planet. They then told me what they could see, hear and smell on the planet and they could bring one thing back. Last year, we ended up with lots of food items being brought back, this year it was a tiny blue tyrannosaurus rex, a lion, a pizza, and a large, unspecified dinosaur that had problems fitting through the door.

There's a lot of differences in the skill of the children. In one class, almost half the class has some level of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Many students are two or three grades below where they should be. Lots have missed 50 or 60 days of school. Sometimes they come to school having only had a few hours sleep because they've been up until 1am or 2am because their parents have been drinking. The teachers here are amazing. They are very special people and do so much to bring the students up to the level they should be at. They care so much about what they do and about the students. Like all the other schools here, Aniak Elementary is a bright and happy place to be. The kindergarten class were all keen to take me to see the sunflowers they are growing, the childrens' stories and pictures line the walls, and I was surrounded by happy smiling faces, all wanting to ask me questions. Despite their problems all the students are bright, funny, sweet, inquisitive and friendly. They do my heart good.

And, finally, a couple of photos of Aniak itself. This is the library - it's tiny - how wonderful though, I love it. Next to the library is a honey bucket (a very modern one though, compared to some).

And this is where I might have ended up had Emily and Ronnie not been so lovely and let me stay with them. This is a hotel. No, really it is. I know it looks like the set of a Stephen King movie, but it's a hotel. I wanted to go inside. Apparently the owner has 40 cats. Let's look at a close-up shall we? I wish I knew what was in the windows...or maybe I don't - it may be all that is left of past guests. Is that a shadowy hooded figure in the downstairs window? Standing behind what looks remarkably like the stand holding a sub-machine gun? I may just have to creep up and try the door one day while I am here.

I was quite sad to leave the school this afternoon. I know I'm going to other schools but the number of students who said to me "Will you be back in our school?" was amazing. I wish I could spend a week in each school. But I will come back.

As I sit at Emily's dining room table and type this post, the snow is gradually disappearing from the mountains on the other side of the river. A lot of people live right on the river, which is the lifeblood of the community. It makes for a gorgeous view but, more importantly, it's where a lot of their food comes from and is, apart from by plane, the only way to travel between villages - either by boat in summer, or snowmachine in winter. A couple of the students couldn't come into school today as they live on the opposite side of the river and the river is starting to melt so it's not safe to snowmachine across, but it's also not possible yet to come across by boat. Several people have said to me that when I go to the upriver schools I might be lucky enough to be here for breakup. I hope I am, it sounds spectacular.

This evening they had a "Meet the Author" (that's me by the way) event at the library. Adults and children from the community came and we sat around and chatted and they asked me questions about writing and Scotland. And we had cake. This banner was made by some of the High School students. It's really clever. The first O is full of flowers, the second is a fire, and the second N is a fish. It's really lovely and I wish I could have taken it home with me..

Half way across the river (which is about half a mile wide) there is an island. After dinner, Ronnie said "There's a moose on the island." I rushed to the window. I could see nothing but the reed-y things which cover the island.

"A moose?"

"Cow," said Ronnie.

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way Ronnie, fair enough, but where's the moose?"

"No, it's a female moose."

"I can't even see the bloody moose, let alone what sex it is."

So Ronnie took pity on me and passed me a pair of binoculars. And there was the moose. My first moose in the wild, it was really exciting. Apparently, you can only hunt moose between 1st and 20th September (unfortunately, at that time, they've stopped eating and are only drinking (sounds like Glasgow, only without the kebab on the way home) and they are all rolling in their own pee, (it's something to do with sex - it happens in Glasgow all the time - do men think that women will be attracted to them after they fall over in the urinals) so the meat can sometimes be a little weird tasting), and you're only allowed to catch one a year (moose, not Glaswegian male).

Talking of food, I'm going to add another thing to the - admittedly short - list of Things I Do Not Wish To Try. Along with Stinkheads (trust me, you don't want to know), I have now added beaver feet. Mind you, I have to say that if someone actually offered me a Stinkhead or a beaver foot, I would have to try it, just because I would never forgive myself if I didn't. I'm just hoping they are never on offer.


Margot Kinberg said...

Donna - What a lovely post! And I admire what you've been doing with those students. I've been in teacher education for a long time, and I've learned to really admire and respect those who are skilled at helping students explore and discover. You're doing a fantastic thing.

Michael Malone said...

yeah, keep 'em coming, Donna. Fascinating stuff.

Uriah Robinson said...

Donna you are doing a great job. What happy smiling faces, but the alcohol problem is a tragedy.

bookwitch said...

Have encountered elks in my Swedish garden. They get drunk on fermented apples.

Bobbie said...

Hi Donna! What a simply astonishing post-made me laugh, made me cry, inspired me so much. Your post touched my heart, and my funny bone. That is a very high compliment! Awww, Ryder is way cute. And his parents are too...and how nice they let you say with them, instead of the Lodge! :-) I just loved the games you played, which of course also involved making them imagine and work their minds--a real teacher! And I'd love to have played those games myself. :-) Your photos are wonderful, show such bright classrooms, and it's not an easy place or people to teach--as you say, special people who care so much about their job and the I am very impressed. And your words-bright, funny, sweet and inquisitive despite all the problems--and they are BIG problems...does your heart good. Mine too. The Welcome Sign--wonderful! And you saw a cow moose? I bet after realizing he didn't mean you, and you saw it...another wonderful memory. No comment on the menu item, or the comparison with Glaswegian males. And of course you didn't mean Watermelon Man. ;-) He's not Glaswegian...right? ;-) WONDERFUL POST!!! You've made my day. Bless you and keep 'em coming! Enjoy your trip!

Donna said...

Margot - thank you, I am doing a FUN thing :o)

Michael - oh, I WILL

Norm - I know - it's very sad.

Bookwitch - why are you fermenting apples?

Bobbie - thank you for your lovely comment! I'm very glad they let me stay too - they are very welcoming and Ronnie won't let me do the dishes!

Rachel Ward said...

Hi Donna, I found your blog via the Bookwitch and I'm so glad I did. This is absolutely fascinating! I'm not a little jealous as I've wanted to go to Alaska for years. I'm loving this blog and looking forward to more posts.

Donna said...

Rachel - thank you so much for your comment. You should visit - it's a truly beautiful place, and the people make it very special. Glad you are enjoying the blog!

Alaska Author said...

Donna, what time are you getting into Anchorage on Saturday? We want to take you rum-running. I'll meet you at the airport, if you like, to take you into downtown to your hotel? Then rum-running?