Cool runnings with Alaskan schools

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Children from Aberdeenshire and Alaska are learning how much they have in common through an exchange programme

As school exchange visits go, the North Slope of Alaska must rank as one of the most unusual, certainly one of the most remote. Most of its villages can only be accessed by boat or plane, three months of the year are spent in total darkness, and temperatures as low as -40degC mean that time outside is limited.

The north of Scotland may not be in quite the same league, but schools in Aberdeenshire are finding that they both have much to learn from each other.

In 2006, the Living Earth Foundation set up the Polar Pairs school exchange programme, to promote shared learning between schools in Aberdeenshire and those in the North Slope of Alaska.

It was felt that the areas had much in common: rurality; the importance of traditional local culture; the impact of the development of the oil industry; as well as various social, environmental and economic factors.

Five schools in Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen took up the offer - Grantown Grammar and Banff, Alford, Banchory and Torry academies - and six schools in Alaska.

Jamie Fairbairn is a geography teacher at Banff Academy and has been involved in the programme from the beginning. Having previously worked as a researcher in Latin America, he was immediately attracted to the idea.

"I am always fascinated by any cultural link-up with other countries," he said. "I think it is great for the children because it allows them to build empathy with other cultures and it helps them to develop a sense of their own culture when they have to tell that to other people."

S1-4 pupils at Banff have been writing letters to the children in Alaska, and have made films telling the Alaskans about life in the north-east.

"Part of the project is called Trading Tales, where we swap stories," Dr Fairbairn explained. "We took Macpherson's Rant - a Banff story about the hanging fiddle - the kids made a cartoon of the story and sent it to Alaska, where they tried to interpret it and work out what the story was. Then they sent back one of their tales about whaling."

The programme has also challenged ideas. Dr Fairbairn said: "One of the things kids here find difficult is that, in Alaska, whaling is a big part of their lifestyle and has been for thousands of years.

"The idea of killing whales is something the kids here in Scotland find difficult because we are more along the lines of Save the Whales. It is interesting to get kids from Alaska to explain how important the whale is in their lives - that it is sacred and that they are very reverent towards the whale.

"Some of the kids here were shocked to see the food. That was one thing which was totally different, but I was able to explain that it wasn't so long ago that we were sending out whaling boats to that area, that there were some Scottish explorers who made it out to Alaska and there are some Eskimo people there of Scottish descent."

Teacher exchange visits have boosted motivation too. "We were made to feel really welcome when we visited," said Dr Fairbairn. "We also started teaching the pupils Doric and had Eskimo kids saying, `Fit like?' They thoroughly enjoyed this and got into the spirit."

Laura Couper, a history teacher at the school, also visited Alaska. "In Alaska, they don't really do history but what they call Alaskan studies," she said. "They learn through stories, and lessons are more relaxed. This gave me the idea of doing more local history here and I have plans for a Banff-based project using local stories."

The visits also allowed teachers to compare education policies. Dr Fairbairn said: "The Alaskan teachers felt that in Scotland we are very good at support for pupils and support between different agencies, such as social work, curriculum support groups, personal support groups, career guidance - being able to give an all-round support to pupils, particularly those who are finding it difficult.

"They were pretty impressed by the community support network and they want to convince their authorities to use the same model as we do in Scotland," he adds.

"They were also interested in the Gaelic language and how it is being promoted," Dr Fairbairn said. "Their indigenous language is Inupiaq and they are keen to encourage it. They were interested in how it was brought into legislation and even how the Scots language is being encouraged."

While at Banff Academy the history and geography departments have played the biggest role, in other schools the art department and others have become involved.

"It is very cross-curricular," said Dr Fairbairn. "I see it as more about community development and education environment. We plan to continue with it, and the website allows us to keep in touch with teachers there."


The Living Earth Foundation is a charity that establishes environmental projects around the world, focusing on community development, and encouraging partnership work between different countries.

Through the sharing of ideas across cultures, it is hoped that countries can learn from each other's experiences and help solve the challenges that each face.

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