Monday, 21 November 2016

The Kids from Nowhere

The Bering Sea could seem, for us Westerners, the end of the world. Take a look at this map:

The standard world maps are focused on Europe and, therefore, the Bering Sea, which separates the far western Alaska, and the easternmost part of Russia, is shown divided in two, giving the false impression of being two "cul-de-sac" instead of one single sea. On its banks, the population is very sparse, both in American and Asian sides. And, in addition, maritime traffic is reduced because, further north the Bering sea, the ice doesn't allow to navigate during many months per year. In summary, it can't be considered the center of the world, indeed.

But if we change the point of view, you can realize that the reality is quite different. Here is a map of the Earth but centered at the North Pole:

The whole Arctic, from Scandinavia, Greenland and the Arctic shores of Russia, Alaska and Canada are part of the same great culture. Ethnic groups like Yupik, Aleut or the Inyupiats have inhabited the shores of the Bering Sea historically unaware if they were living in America or in Asia. Even in the most tense moments of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, these ethnic groups kept contact and exchange between both sides of the border. The Arctic is therefore the center of his world.

Within the limits of the Bering Sea, there are a group of islands, some of which are American and some other Russian. As I said before, they are populated mainly by people of the same ethnic group or ethnic groups: they are all Inuit (despectively called Eskimos), and speak as mother tongue one of the several Eskimo-Aleut family languages spread in the region, and as a second language either English or Russian, depending on which side of the border the island is located.

Some names will fool you; although Karagin and Komandorskiye are logically russian, and St. Lawrence, St. Matthew and Nunivak are American as all the Aleutian islands, the Pribilof group, however, although the name sounds like a brand of vodka, are American. In the red circle on the map there are two small islands: the Diomede. The Big Diomede is Russian and Little Diomede is American and sooner or later will have their own post on this blog.

But today I wanted to tell you about St. Lawrence Island and, especially, about its exceptional school.

The discovery of St. Lawrence Island was during St. Lawrence day of 1728. A few days earlier, during St. Matthew day, it was discovered the neighboring island of.... Saint Matthew (of course!). The discoverers were two ships from a Russian expedition that had also discovered the Bering Sea and were commanded by a
Russian-Danish captain called Vitus Bering. Despite having a great talent as a navigator, Captain Bering couldn't be honored for having a great creativity when naming his discoveries!

The island, however, was already inhabited; as I said at the beginning, Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleuts, all kind of Inuits lived in the Chukchi and Bering Seas area since long time ago. In fact, it seems that all Native Americans have some ancestor who has been in Saint Lawrence: It is considered that this island is the last vestige of the land that connected Asia and America during ancient times when sea level was lower. This piece of land was used for the first time about 15,000 years ago, when Siberian tribes crossed the Bering Strait to colonize America. Until then, there was no human presence in all America.

In the nineteenth century, Saint Lawrence passed from Russian to American hands in  one of the worst deals ever seen (all Alaska was sold in exchange of some tons of furs and a small amount of money). But, as Russians did, the Americans continued also to ignore Saint Lawrence. The entire population of the island, mainly composed of ethnic Yupiks and Siberian Yupiks was concentrated in two settlements: Savoonga and Sivuqaq. The 4,000 inhabitants lived on fishing and hunting whales and walruses.In 1887, the Reformed Episcopal Church of America decided to Christianize the "poor savages" and decided to build a wooden church in Sivuqaq. A boat landed tools, wood and a carpenter and with the aid of the Sivuqaq people, the building was constructed. Once work finished, the carpenter embarked again and departed; and the church door keys were left in the hands of the Yupik chief. As the poor Carpenter did not speak Yupik, he wasn't able to explain the use of that wooden building, the first the inhabitants of Saint Lawrence had ever seen. So nobody at Sivuqaq knew what was the purpose of that strange building, and it was left empty. Over the next three years, Episcopalians were looking for missionaries to occupy that vacancy, but found no candidates.  
Nobody wanted to go to the remote and icy St. Lawrence Island.

At the end, the church was sold to the competitors, the Presbyterians. These, rather than just a reverend, they looked for someone who also could become a teacher. And finally, they found him: in 1894 a couple of Iowa reached Sivuqaq; the Gambells were to become the teachers of the old church, now reconverted into a school. Four years later, Gambells had to come back to the mainland, accompanied by his daughter, who was already born in Saint Lawrence, in order to treat a mother's illness. Unfortunately, during the trip back to Saint Lawrence, the boat sank and the Gambell family died. Since that day, Sivuqaq village changed its name to Gambell, in honor of the first teachers of the school.

Currently, schools in Saint Lawrence are what in the United States are called K-12 schools, ie for children and boys up to 17-18 years. There is one in Gambell and another one in Savoonga and are part of the Bering Strait School District. I imagine this must be, probably, one of the world's largest school districts: 200.000km2 for only 1,500 students!

But until the 80s, I don't think what Gambell had could be called "a school". The few students who were there, considered the school as a waste of time when, at home, were constantly required to assist in everyday tasks, all of them crucial in an environment as tough as the Arctic. In addition, the school was mostly in English, and for those children, English was not his native language. In Saint Lawrence Island, considering that almost all of the population was ethnic Yupik, they only spoke Yupik! So many of the teachers who had been destined to the island simply described her students as "un-educables."

In 1982, a new teacher landed in Gambell: George Guthridge. The scene he found was devastating. The school did not have a single computer and had virtually no books. Absenteeism was very high and the level of the students was very low; some of the 12 year old students had a reading level of a 6 year old child or were not able to write a complete sentence.

Guthridge applied a pedagogy system created by himself and, in addition, began to seek resources and materials for his school. He adapted
reading and writing classes and methods to a non-English speaking idiomatic and cultural environment. Team working, brainstorming and class participation became the new main method at the classroom. And in 1984 he launched the most incredible challenge to his students, and so, registered them at "Future Problem Solving" (FPSP) competition.

This school competition is considered one of the most prestigious and tough events for children under 18 years worldwide. At that time it was only an American competition and only the country's best schools were represented. Even, in some cases, some of the contestants were schools for gifted children (high IQ).

Prof. Guthridge achived to motivate his pupils so much that, in his own words: "boys were studying while carrying water, while removing fish scales, while hunting whales ...". They were able to overcome all kind of obstacles, including the boycott from two school district administrators, who tried to close the school for uneconomic; students did everything to be present at competition.

Most of the Gambell school students that were going to attend FPSP competition, had never traveled further than Nome, a small town with 3,700 inhabitants in mainland Alaska, and therefore had never seen a train or used automatic escalators, or been in a hotel. Some of them even felt scared when using an elevator!

And what was the result? Those 11 boys and girls between 12 and 17 years were able to win both competitions they were registered at; one for kids from 12 to 14 years old and another for 15 to 17 years old, so they were United States winners! During the competition, they worked on subjects as genetic engineering or nuclear waste. Some months ago, they even didn't know this subjects existed! They were able to beat the rest of schools, all coming from USA's continental States, becoming the first school of mostly Native Americans attending the competition ... and won twice!

Winner Team. Guthridge is on the right wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.

From that experience, a book was published, written by Guthridge himself, called "The Kids from Nowhere" that tells the conversion from kids evicted from the school system to bright students, all done without losing their Yupik culture.

And apart from this academic success, how's life in Gambell and Saint Lawrence? Well, frankly, it's still hard, but maybe a little less than before. The population of the island has stabilized at about 1,200 inhabitants, half of whom live in Gambell and the other half in Savoonga. The island has no trees, only green fields of arctic willow, a shrub that grows no more than 30cm and has adapted to the long winters of the Bering Sea. Nevertheless, life can be found everywhere in the Island: walruses, birds and whales are present in large quantities in St. Lawrence.

The island's economy is still very focused on hunting whales and walruses, although the sale of ivory carvings (taken from the tusks of walruses) is an important source of income. Recently, interest in nature started to bring tourists to St. Lawrence, and even a hotel with eight rooms was opened in Gambell. Oh, and for those who think that Gambell and St. Lawrence Island are insignificant in this huge world, let me tell you that Gambell is considered the world main city in one subject: it is the world capital ... of quads! Yes, those four wheeled motorbikes my wife always calls by mistake... "quackers!" No doubt they are the ideal way of transportation for the summer gravel roads and winter snow.

Logistics is always complex in a place as remote as St. Lawrence but this can have a curious effect. Gambell or Savoonga have virtually no shops; Then, how does Santa Claus brings gifts for the children of St. Lawrence? Here comes, then, "Operation Santa". Every Christmas, US National Guard organizes this operation, which requires moving Santa's Christmas gifts to Alaskan remote villages. Santa Claus and all his presents fly from village to village in a National Guard cargo plane so he can give his present to everybody:

And what happened to Professor George Guthridge?

After the experience in Gambell, where he stayed for a few more years, he decided to standardize his teaching method, and began to implement it in other remote schools of Alaska. The success has been overwhelming and, with pride, he explains that in recent years, universities like MIT, Stanford or Yale have received many Alaskan students educated with his method; among them there are lots of Yupik, Inyupiats, Aleut, Atabascans, etc ...

He has also become a successful novelist, publishing several sci-fi and fantasy literature books. A few years ago, he was named one of the 100 best teachers in the United States. During 90's he submitted back again to Future Problem Solving competition several students from another school in the Bering Sea, Elim school and..... won again, also establishing a new high score!

No comments:

Post a Comment