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Educating Heather

By Lauren G. McClanahan

My teacher-ed students at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., come from multiple walks of life, are at different points in their educational and working careers, and have different goals for their futures as middle and high school teachers. However, one commonality that my students tend to share is their geography. Most hail from western Washington state?up and down the "I-5" corridor. Take the freeway north, and in 15 minutes, you're in Canada. A few hours south, and you've crossed into Oregon. On a daily basis, my students don't give much thought to climate change. No doubt, many claim to be "green" through-and-through. They recycle, use compact fluorescent bulbs, and buy local whenever possible. And these efforts are important; but as for the big changes?the catastrophic ones happening in our circumpolar regions?my students just don't see it. In contrast, the students of Kwigillingok, Alaska, see these changes every day and can document firsthand how their village is changing because of them.

Kwigillingok is a small Yup'ik fishing village in western Alaska that sits along the Bering Sea. With a population of about 400, the residents depend on a subsistence culture to survive, much as they have done for thousands of years. Fishing, hunting, and creating and selling crafts are as integral today as they have been for centuries. However, our warming earth is now threatening that culture.

I began working with the students of "Kwig" several years ago, when one of my former students was hired to teach in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. What started as a simple pen-pal relationship between her high school students and my college students slowly transformed into the project described here. And while the students have changed over the years, the questions that they were asking of one another became more focused, until we decided that the topic of climate change was the main issue that everyone wanted to discuss.

The biggest challenge faced by the residents of Kwig is the melting of the permafrost, that layer of frozen ground that lies just below the earth's surface and that is supposed to stay frozen year-round. Recently, that permafrost has begun to melt, and as a result, major changes are taking place. Many homes and other structures in the village are beginning to sink, leaning to one side as the permafrost they were built upon begins to shift. In addition to sinking homes, new, invasive species of plants are beginning to take root and grow, which in turn is slowly changing the migratory patterns of big game such as the local musk ox populations. Fishing, too, has been affected by the warming trend, and fish camps have had to relocate depending on the changing location of the fish. These are big changes that can be seen and felt and experienced daily in the lives of Kwig's high school students. It was these changes that they wanted to tell us about, to tell the future teachers "down there" to share with all of their future students. They wanted to let everyone know that climate change is real and has a face and a name?hence the "First Person Singular" project. This was a project to create a warning for the rest of us, those of us who do not have to prop our houses up with sandbags or who do not have to go hungry due to a lack of fish in our rivers. Or at least not yet.

The "First Person Singular" Project

As mentioned, the relationship between Kwig and WWU began when a former student of mine was hired into the district. I had always been interested in Native cultures and found this to be an opportunity to weave that interest into the literacy classes that I teach. The more the students shared with us about their culture and their harsh, yet beautiful landscape, the more I felt as if I had to visit. In an initial visit, I met with the teachers and students at several village schools. I saw firsthand what the students of this region had to share with my students, not only from a cultural perspective, but also a scientific one as we delved deeper into the issue of climate change and its effect on their culture.

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