New trainee instructors enthusiastic about native language teaching

In back, Minister of Education John Edzerza (left) and Champagne-Aishihik Deputy Chief Gerald Brown (right) with newly recruited aboriginal language instructor trainees and mentoring teachers.

Sitting in a classroom at the Yukon Native Language Centre, Ragene Blackjack says, "It's a big thing, but I'm ready for anything."

The young woman from the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation is talking about the fact that she's just been hired as one of the new trainees in YNLC's native language instructor program.

In fact Blackjack has barely had a chance to catch her breath.

She was hired on a Friday and began her first week-long training session in Whitehorse the following Monday.

Yet she exudes all the confidence of someone who believes wholeheartedly in the importance of what she's doing.

"I can't carry on a long conversation in Northern Tutchone yet, but in time I know I will," she says, since like many of her generation she is only partially fluent in the language.

"I want to do this because I want my children to learn. I don't want them to lose the language."

Blackjack, who has two young sons aged three and two, is attending the training session with veteran native language instructor Grace Wheeler.

Wheeler team-teaches in the native language program at Tantalus School in Carmacks along with another experienced instructor, Amy Billy.

Blackjack will form part of their team, helping teach in the kindergarten to Grade 12 language program in Carmacks while being mentored by two long-time instructors who also happen to be her aunts.

And she'll continue to attend the Certificate training program at YNLC, a program that is accredited by Yukon College and requires three years of classroom experience and training to complete.

Wheeler, a graduate of both the Certificate program and the subsequent two-year Diploma program, jokes about retiring but says, "We're happy to have Ragene joining us."

The Diploma program requires participants to improve their linguistic and teaching skills, develop original teaching materials, and document oral history and traditional narratives.

"It's really great to see more younger people in the training sessions," says Wheeler. "It's essential for them to get involved if the language is to be passed on."

In fact, says Blackjack, young people are now beginning to realize that fact.

"There's people saying hey, we have to open our eyes now and look at the big picture. It's time to get back into our culture and bring ourselves back together as a whole."

Blackjack says she was "really nervous" about her interview for her new position and didn't think she would get it, so she was thrilled when she did.

She already has a year as an educational assistant in the school under her belt.

"I really got interested and the kids really respected me," she says of her year's experience. "I liked that, I liked having an effect on somebody."

But being a native language instructor is a big new step, and she says she expected the training session to be stressful.

"You're speaking your language and you don't want to say it the wrong way, you don't want people to laugh," she explains.

"But being here with other people and other trainees, nobody's laughing because you're trying and they're really supportive. It's a really good group."

Blackjack is one of three new trainees hired this fall who are attending the training session with their mentors.

When they go back to their communities, they will team-teach with those mentors in the classroom, improving their language along with their teaching skills.

Blackjack says she's "pretty confident" about the teaching itself, because of the support from Wheeler and Billy as well as from other elders in the community, the First Nation and the school.

She also has the recorded voices of her mother, Rita Hamlin, and her maternal grandmother, Eva Billy, to assist her in learning her native language.

Those recordings are particularly precious since her grandmother passed away three years ago and her mother just last January.

"It's good that the elders are making story books and tapes so that the younger generation can hear first-hand how to say the words properly," Blackjack says.

"My mum sounded so beautiful when she talked. It's like they're singing when they use those high and low tones."

Now, in order to develop her own fluency, she listens to those tapes and also practices reading in the language.

"And I listen to how the elders in the community speak, I watch their mouths."

One of the other mentor-and-trainee teams attending the training session is unusual because both participants are fluent speakers of their native language.

In fact, says Tlingit speaker Bessie Cooley, she's been asked whether she wasn't overqualified for the trainee position.

Cooley grew up living in the traditional way and speaking Tlingit with her parents.

She went on to study Tlingit extensively, earning both an Associate in Applied Science degree in native language education and a B.A. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But as she points out, "I learned the language in a home setting with my parents and my family, I didn't learn it in the classroom, so I didn't know how to go about teaching the language in the classroom.

"When I want to do a language lesson I put a bunch of stuff down and it always seems so small, so I throw more in, completely forgetting that I'm working with beginners!"

Cooley's mentor in the classroom is Margaret Bob, who has been teaching Tlingit at the Teslin school since 1992.

Bob, who is a graduate of both the Certificate and Diploma programs, is happy to have Cooley joining her.

"Bessie and I are going to work well together because she and I can both speak and write Tlingit," she says.

Ironically it was Cooley, twelve years ago, who encouraged Bob to apply for the native language teaching position at the school when Cooley herself was working for Aboriginal Language Services.

Now Cooley will join Bob in the kindergarten to Grade 9 program, where they will work as a team.

"It's very encouraging to see the students trying so hard," says Cooley. "Most of them are really cooperative, especially the younger ones."

They try to use only Tlingit in the classroom, they explain, which they're able to do with each other since both are fluent.

"I say to the older kids, 'Wouldn't you like to be able to understand what I'm saying to her?' " says Cooley, pointing to Bob.

" 'Yeah!', they say. Well, you've got to work at it, I tell them."

In fact both women enjoy being able to tell each other stories in Tlingit, something they don't have much opportunity to do otherwise.

As Bob points out, that was how they grew up.

"When I was young there was nothing but Tlingit spoken," she says. "That's how I learned, by listening."

Bob recounts proudly that some of the young parents in Teslin, including her niece, are helping to teach their children Tlingit.

"My niece has a little girl in kindergarten, and I asked her, 'Can you count in Tlingit?'

"She was shy and said no, but I just said 'One' in Tlingit and she rattled off the numbers like nothing."

That's what Ragene Blackjack wants to see too, and it seems she's found her life's work.

"I told my husband, I'm ready to make this my career, because one little tiny window was open and I climbed in.

"Now there's doors opening up."