Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Hooper Bay Zen

One of the reasons I love living here is the feeling that we have the chance to make things better -- we don't have a ton of infrastructure, so when stuff gets put into place we (the collective "we", as in Hooper Bay) have a chance to make things more sustainable than they would have been made a few decades ago. Not that there still aren't a million things to make better, just like any place, but living in a small, unique part of the world, it feels like it's possible to make a positive change, a positive impact, whereas in other places things are so big, complicated, and entrenched that it would be harder to change things. Anyway, here are two of those good things that make me feel uplifted whenever I see them.

The windmills that were installed a year ago are finally working. We had to live through several multiple-hour power outages while they were getting hooked up to the town's electrical system, but it was worth it. Look at how beautiful they are!
For an environmentally-minded (read: constantly feeling guilty about polluting/using energy) person like me, the fact that our town runs on diesel fuel REALLY bothers me. The existing power plant looks like this, with the fuel tanks all around:
So, now, whenever I look out and see these windmills, I feel a strong sense of calm and reassurance. They add so much to the landscape of the town, the beauty of the view, like they are tall guardians watching over the town. At night they have little red lights so that they planes can avoid them, and they seem like watchful eyes (yes, I suppose it could be reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, but there doesn't seem to be anything sinister about these lights!). I know that they are high-tech industrial metal things, but for some reason they are also extremely beautiful to me, and they actually FIT in with the landscape. Perhaps it's the constant, perpetual, circular motion of the arms -- it's SO calming to watch them. I've never been able to meditate well, as I always have thoughts buzzing through my head, but I can actually push pesky busy-thoughts away when I'm relaxing and watching the motion of the windmills, just watching the motion and breathing, slowing my heartrate down.
They also make a wonderful whoosing sound when you are directly under them. What can I say, I'm in love with the windmills. I'm so grateful for their installation, thank you AVEC (Alaska Village Electric Company) and other powers that be that made it possible.

The other thing that I've been having a love affair with is the black plastic road -- I know I posted about this not too long ago, but I'm so enamored with it that I am going to wax on about it(I know, I know, I am NOT a fan of plastic, but here it is, used in a perfect way, where we don't want it to break down). I took some pictures of honda trails here and there around town that do not have the black plastic trail installed. Some are nice trails, just as they're supposed to be, with just two solid tracks through the tundra:
And some, tearing up the tundra, are NOT:
The main reason for this is because wet spots develop and people keep trying to go around the wet spot and it ends up getting wider:
Flying in and out of the village, looking out over the tundra from above, these honda trails are very evident, cris-crossing the ground. It is not very pretty, especially when you think about how long it takes for the tundra to be revitalized -- a LONG time.

However, with the black plastic trail, this is not an issue. Drivers can get through wet spots unpeturbed because there is traction at the bottom of the wet, muddy, messy dip (and I HATE getting stuck. It tears up the ground, it wears out my honda, and it is unsafe for me and the girls), and there is no need to make the trail wider and wider:
In fact, even some of the impassable creeks (they are tidal creeks, and in general they are deceptively deep, even if narrow) are now made passable by honda with little bridges:

There are even pull-off spots so folks can park or pass, still on the trail:

And the tundra flourishes underneath this trail because inside the little grid, the pressure from the wheels is distributed:

In fact, in time, I can see how this trail will totally blend in with the tundra, just with hidden reinforcement underneath:

This trail was built by Sea Lion Corporation -- what a great idea; and it really makes a difference. It makes me eager to take my family out on the tundra -- thank you! Oh, PS: Any suggestions as to what to name it? "Black Plastic Trail" is kind of boring and not as exciting as it really is.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Contentment Defined: Berry-picking on the tundra

I think I once thought salmonberries (or cloudberries; I don't know which they are truly) were an aquired taste. I can't imagine, now, life without that tart slipperiness, that hard seed exploding between my teeth. And now my girls need never know life without it.
So solemn, like Esther and Jasmine are partaking in a sacred ritual involving food of goddessess....:)Iris figuring out that there are good things to pick up and put in her mouth on the tundra:Katie is a good berry buddy:Iris with a wild tundra Iris flower -- I found out the Yup'ik name for this plant, but it was hard for me to remember. I'll find it out soon and write it down.

When we went that day, most of the berries were not ripe yet -- they were still dark red and hard. But after the advice of three people that picking them unripe is OK if you're going to freeze them, as they will soften after being frozen, I decided to take advantage of the most gorgeous weather day all summer and go pick as many as I could find, ripe or not. Here Esther decides to use a plant as a mike and play tundra idol:
Melody was our berry partner this day:

And here is what makes it all possible without being too hard on our tender tundra: the hard plastic road:
It has been built and steadily extended over the past few summers by various folks employed by a village organization -- it's SUCH a good idea. The plastic is REALLY hard and heavy mesh, like a grid, and it makes it so that it can kind of sink into wet places and muddy places, but it won't get warped as easily as wood would, and since the 4 wheeler can go through shallow spots of water and mud, it just adds some traction down under that. And then the places where the creeks can get high because of the tide, there is a bridge-structure with the black plastic on top that can kind of rise or fall depending on the tide. I am so grateful for the inception and building of this road, because now I can get out further on the tundra than I would by walking with two children and all our crap (yes, there it is, piled up on the front of the honda), I can get through the mucky places by myself without worrying about getting stuck or driving like a maniac to get through them, and I can do it all without destroying the tundra that I love... *sigh*

Monday, August 17, 2009

Homecoming! Or AKA: the one in which we arrive home and immediately I become famous and make friends with high-up government folks...well, KINDA

We left Indiana Friday night, and somehow made it through the 6 hour flight directly from Chicago to Anchorage -- it was a source of trepidation for me all summer, but we did it, and it actually went OK. There were definitely some moments when everyone on the plane hated us, but those moments didn't last long. Since the flight left at 6:pm Chicago time, and landed at 10:pm Anchorage time which is 1:am Chicago time, both girls pooped out about halfway through the flight, after a fierce battle with sleep. But, hey, at least they pooped out! So then, after a gorgeous, fun weekend on the Kenai penninsula and a day of shopping in Anchorage (hooray Natural Pantry!), we made our way home to Hooper Bay on Tuesday, and made it seamlessly; with our bush flight even taking off early and getting us home so we could collapse. Jill and Iris looking at a book during our short siesta in NikiskiEsther is hamming it up in Jill's dog lot:

But big things were a-brew at home. Rumors were flying about big-wigs making a stop in Hooper Bay, but no one could figure out who or why. Or exactly what day, or what time. Everyone I talked to knew about the previous security check, when security folks had flown out to Hooper the week before and timed voyaging around the village, such as how long it took to get from the airport to the school, from the school to the store, and so on.

It sounded exciting, but it was one of those things that I thought would never pan out, like however many times Sarah Palin was supposed to visit Hooper Bay and never did. It always seemed like she would schedule her Hooper visits on the days she really just wanted to stay home because she could always beg weather concerns (which she did) since they so commonly interfere with air travel here. But this did indeed happen, even with some fast-moving fog (but then, they also had a fast-moving plane and probably got here and out of here really quickly). So here's the news on my big moment: I had a chance to talk with the #1 person directly in charge of education policy in the US: Arne Duncan, the US Secretary of Education.

It happened like this: truckload after truckload of fair-skinned and blonde haired folks started arriving at the school, even riding in the back of the truck. We thought, "Wow, these politicians are hardy!" But it turns out they were just the press. It felt like we were playing a game of: how many reporters does it take to photograph a politician? But it turns out that it was more than one politician: it was kind of a lot of politicians from the state level and no less than FOUR of Obama's cabinet members AND their staff: the Secretary of Agriculture, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, the Secretary of Education, and the Secretary of Energy. They arrived at the school and were ushered in quickly -- everything happened quickly. The secretary of Agriculture spoke, and then our mayor, Joseph Bell, and our tribal chief, David Bunyan, spoke, all briefly, and then it was announced that the cabinet members wanted a tour of the school (too bad school was NOT in session yet and none of the classrooms had been set up). The members of the President's Cabinet and Alaska Senators, listening to Tribal Chief David Bunyan speak:

Everyone stood up and was milling around, and I lost no time. I located family members to toss my girls to, squared my shoulders, and in my rainpants and mudboots, with my tundra-wind-tossed hairstyle, made a beeline right for Mr. Duncan. I wondered if I would have to push through other people, but surprisingly I think folks were a bit shy of the bigwigs; I had wondered if I would have to ask a security person to approach him, but I encountered no obstacle as I made my way there. I waited patiently for him to finish his conversation with an important person in tribal government, and then he turned to me and stuck out his hand.

Although I was quite nervous, I think what came out of my mouth was halfway coherent. I had run it over and over in my mind how to say what I wanted to say succinctly and passionately and powerfully, and even though I didn't get it out exactly how I wanted it to sound, I think it went OK. Molly, another teacher at the school, came up and backed me up, and she said I sounded OK, so I'm just going to go with the memory of me sounding OK. Whatever happened, what I said held the attention of a very important man for at least 3 minutes, and to his credit, whether he is genuinely concerned with what little peons like myself think, or whether he is just a really smooth politician, he made me feel like what I was saying was the only thing he was interested in/paying attention to at the time.

I rarely mentioned my opinions or politics on this blog because I feel like it wouldn't necessarily mesh with the focus of the site. Also, as a teacher, I worry that my words and politics may get me in trouble. But sometimes I feel chafed by this because I am a strongly opinionated person and I feel like I am reaching a fairly wide audience at this point, at least from where I started out. So I am going to write what I spoke to Mr. Duncan about, because it's important, and although what I believe runs cross-current of national policy, that's why I value free speech. And I am not going to write anything I wouldn't say to any student, principal, or even the superintendent of the district. But don't worry -- I'm not changing the focus of the blog! :)

So this is my memory of what I THINK our conversation was like:
Me: Hello, my name is Cate Koskey, and I am a reading specialist at this school, and I would like to express my hope that the president will fulfill his promises to change the No Child Left Behind Act to reduce the testing pressure that our schools are facing.
Mr. Duncan: (nods) How long have you been teaching here?
Me: Ten years, off and on. I took time out to get my Master's Degree.
Mr. Duncan: Thank you for your years of service.
Me: Yes. In my time here, I have seen that our students have great intellectual strengths in spatial and kinesthetic intelligences, and we can use those strengths to teach them core skills such as reading, math, and science, but we can't do it within this intense testing framework. As teachers we do nothing but prepare for the tests; we have no time to teach to students' needs.
Mr Duncan: What would you like us to do differently?
Me: Replace the current testing with various authentic assessments that allow us to measure a student's strengths and growth from a previous assessment point.
Molly: I agree with everything she is saying (yay Molly, backing me up!).

And right then, a security person said to me, "We need the Secretary now so that he can go on a tour of the school with the superintendent," which was wierdly considerate that they would say anything to me rather than just bustling past. Next to me slipped his Chief of Staff, a tall blonde woman named Margot M Rogers, who said "If I could just give you my address," and handed me her card, "you can email me to articulate more of your concerns. Let's walk and talk," and I was bustled along with the crowd touring the school; a security person tried to stop me (and Molly! She was still with us!) from following the group, but Ms. Rogers said, "They're with us." and we were bustled through with the rest of the bustling group. Fancy!

Ms. Rogers said that they are working on the education policy. She said that of course there need to be standards -- and I told her that our district had gone to a level system in which students need to master certain standards to move on, and she liked that. She said that she thought they will be moving towards a system in which students can show growth from a previous point, which I agree with, but I spoke about how time-consuming some of those systems can be, as we use one in our district that takes away so much time from teaching. She said she really was glad to hear about our experiences and thoughts, and she felt she was learning a lot about all the corners of the country on this rural tour, as she was learning a lot about the challenges of inner city schools as well. I mentioned that one of my good friends is teaching in a school in Brooklyn, and that when comparing challenges, that we find they are often the same. Finally, I told her about our Yup'ik Immersion School, and how important that is for preserving Yup'ik Language and Culture, and how the testing interferes with that because the students are still required by the state to test in English. She appeared really intrigued by the Immersion School and said, "Well, I hope to hear from you," and by this point we had reached the bottom of the steps and the politicians and reporters were streaming out of the school for their tour of the village by truck, and she smiled, shook our hands, and rejoined her group.

Maybe it was all just smooth politics, but I have to say that I felt listened to and valued by these Washington bigwigs. I never expected that going in to the conversations. Could it be true what I feel about our current administration, that Obama and his people truly care about citizen's opinions and experiences, and are genuinely listening to people? I have been so jaded by our government that I never expected to feel this way again, kind of hopeful and sweetly optomistic. I guess it's like I'm having a crush on the current administration. Is my heart destined to be crushed? What do you think? Any teachers out there with a message that they would like for me to pass on to the Secretary of Education's Chief of Staff when I email her? :)
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