Native language students mark Yukon Education Week with commitment to learn

AN INHERITANCE... Stephen Joe of Pelly Crossing transcribes Northern Tutchone words at a community literacy session.

A native language workshop held in Pelly Crossing in late May involving both students and elders was a huge success, according to one of the participating local teachers. In fact, it was so successful that his Grade 9 to 12 students are all asking when the next one will be held, says Roche Lambe.

The two-and-a-half day Northern Tutchone literacy session was requested and hosted by the Selkirk First Nation, with teaching sessions conducted by the staff of the Yukon Native Language Centre.

More than 50 people attended the workshop, ranging in age from elementary students just learning the language to elders who are fluent speakers.

"It was just fascinating for me as an outsider and a teacher who's relatively new to the Yukon to realize that this small area has a language unique to it," says Lambe, who arrived from Newfoundland two years ago.

He's been to a lot of conferences with student groups during his 30 years of teaching and says that "often the kids agitate to return to class."

But this workshop was different.

First of all, says Lambe, students and elders were teamed so that they could work together.

"The students were asked to go sit on either side of an elder because for the elders it's their native language, they've used it," he explains.

"That meant that when the kids tried to pronounce a word, the elder was monitoring. The students and the elders were working side by side."

Elders in attendance at the workshop included Rachel Tom Tom, Shirley Johnny, Alyce Joe, Maria Van Bibber, Danny Joe, Betty Joe, Johnson Edwards, and Peter Johnny.

"A number of them spoke about the fact that they felt they were passing their language directly on to the kids," says Lambe.

"They said, 'We're prepared to come to the school and talk to the kids at any time - - you've only got to invite us.'

"They stress the importance of passing all this on before they're actually gone themselves."

The other key factor in the success of the workshop was the atmosphere that was established, says Lambe.

"The YNLC staff greeted everybody when they came in, and the whole atmosphere from the very beginning was just so positive and upbeat. We were very reluctant to see it end."

That approach to learning—what Lambe called a "relaxed structuring"—made the process enjoyable for everyone.

"If you made a mistake you just laughed at it," he says.

As an example of that relaxed approach he describes a difference of opinion that arose over the Northern Tutchone word for "ladybug."

"One person would say it's this, and another person would say it's something else, and there was a lot of laughter about the way the word is pronounced in Aishihik."

That's because YNLC staff member Margaret Workman, who is originally from Aishihik, speaks Southern Tutchone, a different but closely related language to Northern Tutchone.

"One of the elders went to get some tea, and as he was passing he said, 'Nobody can figure out what ladybug is!', and he was chuckling away."

The students were also encouraged to practice writing their language on the board during literacy exercises led by YNLC staff linguist André Bourcier.

"André would identify certain words that had sounds unique to Northern Tutchone in them and ask one of the elders to pronounce it," says Lambe.

"Then another elder would pronounce it so that we'd hear it repeated, and then the students would try the spelling of that particular word."

The idea was to involve the students as much as possible, says Lambe.

"The children recorded the words themselves, so they were up at the board writing down the letters and trying to pronounce the words," he explains.

"When one student was up writing, the others would be saying, 'No, this is what should be here,' with the elders monitoring the whole thing."

Lambe was particularly impressed by how absorbed the students were by the workshop content and approach.

"The students were so attentive! Usually after an hour or so you have to say 'Okay, calm down, pay attention', but we didn't have to do that here."

Participants also practised listening exercises to help them distinguish similar sounds that are unique to the language.

"We had two native language teachers with us and they would bring all the students into the centre of the room and they would listen as one of the elders pronounced a word," says Lambe.

"We'd turn it into a game—students would move from one line to another depending on which particular sound was in the word."

Another exercise involved writing sentences to accompany pictures in a story booklet depicting traditional activities, such as berrypicking.

"The kids and the elders would take these booklets and try to identify a storyline in connection with the pictures," says Lambe.

"Then they would come up with sentences that suited that particular picture.

"It got pretty humorous at times as different people tried to pronounce the words."

Native language teachers Alyce Joe and Shirley Joe also presented a demonstration lesson with their Grade 4 to 6 students.

At the end of the third day, Stephan Joe, a grade 11 student, took the microphone to thank YNLC director John Ritter, YNLC staff, and participating elders.

He was very happy to continue the process of learning his language, he said, noting that he hoped to converse more in Northern Tutchone with his grandfather, Danny Joe, when they went fishing in a day or two.

"It was all about native language and native culture, and we plan to work with the community to push that in a big way," says Lambe.

"The content of these workshops is very important, but the delivery is even more important, and the YNLC staff certainly seem to have that down.

"Everybody came away with the same impression—boy, that was a great two and a half days."