Galena teaches the value of basics

by Molly Dischner
Sun Star Editor-in-Chief

The day before the mushers arrived in Galena on their way to Nome last week, the small town was silent. Ours was the only plane on the tarmac when we arrived. The lunchroom was quiet (save for when a student jumped and hit his head on the ceiling; even then, I think our table of UAF students was probably the loudest). The road between the boarding school and the city school was mostly empty. There was no stampede when the bell rang to signal that it was time to switch classes one last time that afternoon.

And then I entered a fifth-grade classroom. I’ve taught basic lessons about resource use and conservation in a couple of different classrooms this year but the Galena kids win the award for the most rousing rendition of Red Light, Green Light. (They were also the most enthusiastic students during our discussions, and the most knowledgeable.) The game was supposed to be a way to gauge their knowledge. But their enthusiasm convinced me that, more than they needed to know what a production factor is, maybe they just needed to get their winter wiggles out.

I spent the day in Galena with about half a dozen other UAF students. We were teaching a variety of workshops as part of a project for our Students in Free Enterprise team.

Before I made my way to that fifth-grade class, a high school English teacher told me about a conversation he’d recently had with a professor. The professor was talking about education as social justice, and the English teacher said he just wanted to teach his students to write a paragraph. A little while later, he invited part of my group to teach an etiquette workshop to his freshmen. When we visited his seniors, he was busy taking Cap and Gown photos for the yearbook. Just as Red Light, Green Light really isn’t part of resource economics, photos and handshakes are not part of paragraph-construction. But in a way, they are prerequisites.

The English teacher mentioned that he lived in Galena year round. Like the fifth-graders, he’s there when the Yukon is roaring and when the river is frozen. His students are his neighbors. He wasn’t there to change the world or equalize education, but he also wasn’t there just to teach them paragraphs. He was just being a good neighbor. Anyway, if the high school newspaper is any indication, the English teacher has already succeeded on the paragraph front. It was better than half the submissions The Sun Star gets every week.

With some of the lowest graduation rates in the country, we need to do a better job of helping all high school students graduate. Galena has one of the highest graduation rates in Alaska. Something must be working.

I think the English teacher has the right idea. Take photos. Write newspapers. In winter’s silence, the paragraphs will come.

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