Learning on a roll in the Arctic

Scottish staff have taken part in a frosty exchange with teachers in Alaska. Jean McLeish reports

Jean McLeish

Home economics teachers tell students that it's always a good idea to try to taste something new before you turn your nose up at it. So when a whale was landed during her teacher exchange to Point Hope in Alaska, Patricia Fearon knew what was expected.

"The whale is called muktuk, so it's raw and a bit like eating sushi, and it's black skin and pink whale meat," the Aberdeen teacher explains, back at Torry Academy.

She coped with moose soup - "a bit like broth with lamb" - but when it came to the muktuk, she declined politely. "I don't like sushi - so I don't suppose I was ever going to try that whale."

Five teachers from the Aberdeen school have taken part in the Polar Pairs Project - an exchange between teachers in the northeast of Scotland and North Alaska in the Arctic Circle. They come from various disciplines - modern studies, geography, English, home economics and art. Over the past five years, each has returned to their classroom with a fresh perspective on the beautiful, sometimes bleak polar landscape and the Inupiat people who live there.

Every year a teacher from this school joins colleagues from another five Aberdeenshire primary and secondary schools to fly over frozen land and seas, perhaps glimpsing the aurora borealis or watching whale- hunters return to the beach with their catch.

Educational charity Living Earth Foundation runs the exchange, which is funded by oil giant Shell Anchorage in Alaska. This month, six teachers from Alaska will travel to Aberdeen to explore common issues - threats to traditional cultures in rural places and the environmental and economic impact of the oil industry.

Living Earth promotes the sustainable development of North Slope of Alaska and through Polar Pairs encourages shared learning between teachers, pupils and communities in the two regions.

It's a fascinating journey for the Scottish teachers, who take a dozen flights across the region in 10 days, visiting schools and seeing daily life in some of the world's most remote communities.

Geography teacher Clifford Leith discovered connections between Alaska and his native Shetland: "My mum thinks oil is the worst possible thing that could have happened to Shetland, because it destroyed the fishing industry and the knitting industry, whereas when I was growing up we just thought that we got all the new roads and sports centres - all the nice things.

"It's probably like that with the young and old in Alaska. The old people think oil just destroyed their culture, whereas the young probably see the benefits."

Mr Leith and his colleagues learn about social problems with drug and alcohol misuse and high unemployment in the communities they visit, where subsidies from the oil industry and state mean there's less incentive to work. "They get about $10,000 (pound;6,400) a year per person, so if you're a family of five, you're getting $50,000 a year," he says.

The native people lack the know-how for highly skilled jobs in the oil industry. At a refinery at Nuiqsut in 2011, modern studies teacher Greig Summers learned that just a handful of 1,500 employees are from the local community.

The Scots teachers say the exchange has inspired their teaching: "We have this link which is all about investigating similarities and differences between these different societies around the world," says Mr Summers. "Being able to go and visit the area we are studying is invaluable."

Having a whale of a time

There's a high turnover of teachers in the most northerly communities of Alaska. Most are incomers and not everyone copes in the challenging polar climate. "There was even a story of somebody getting off the plane and looking around and just getting right back on," says Torry Academy English teacher Rachael McKean, who went in 2011 when she taught at Banff Academy.

"Teachers tend to go up there for a couple of years and then come back down to some of the states further south," says art teacher, Jacqui McCulloch, who visited four years ago.

In coastal communities they visit, like Point Hope, whaling is central to the culture of the Inupiat people. "When the whale is brought in, the whaling captain does the dissection and the whaling captain takes his slice," says home economics teacher Patricia Fearon.

It's an incredible sight for visitors lucky enough to see a whale being dissected - there are strict quotas and it's not an everyday event. "It was so cleanly done and there was ceremony to it and you could tell it was all tied up with the tradition," says Mrs Fearon.

Modern studies teacher Greig Summers made the journey almost 18 months ago. "The kids had an amazing respect for their own traditions and culture. Whaling was the thing to do. Being a whaling captain, that's your goal in life - that's a real aspiration.

"If you're a whaling captain, you've got massive status. They don't engage with traditional Western ideas of society and education - that's never been their way of life and we've imposed it on them. They like to take the trappings of what we offer because they've got all this money, but they want to hunt. They want to catch whales."

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