Sunday, April 2, 2017

Springtime Arrivals

The weather is changing. The change is subtle, but it is absolutely happening. Hints of springtime are officially in the air on the Alaska Peninsula. It helps that the sun is now shining for over twelve hours a day.  Sunrise is at 7:51am and sunset is at 9:15pm. We no longer live our lives in the dark. Instead, we walk to work in beautiful sunrise light, and we even go to sleep some nights with dusk still on the horizon. This newfound daylight has definitely been affecting our daily schedules.


At the beginning of the month, we had visitors to our little corner of the bush. Two student teachers from the University of Alaska came to visit Pilot Point as part of their Rural Practicum program. Our district frequently hosts student teachers, practicum students, and even tutors. They come to us from universities all over the US. However, Pilot Point is not often one of the places where these visitors find themselves. Our larger villages tend to be more appealing simply because there is more to do. Pilot Point, while being a nice little home for us, is also considered one of the more "boring" villages in our district.


With that in mind, I was determined to show our visitors that, while Pilot Point is indeed a quiet village, we are not a boring village. Cody and I were happy to pack as many fun activities as we could into the short week that the student teachers were visiting. We took them for drinks at a friends house, we hosted multiple dinners at our own house, we went for walks after work each day, we explored all of the special little spots in town, we went hiking, and we even had a bonfire in the middle of a frozen lake.




All of this wouldn't have possible three weeks ago. The single-digit temperatures, 60mph winds, and knee-deep snow kept us inside and in a state of hibernation. Thankfully, the sunny days and rising temps that signal the start of spring have officially broken through.


There are a few days next week with snow in the forecast, but it definitely feels like we've begun to turn the corner into spring. The longer days are perfect for adventuring and breathing new life back into everything, including us.

Your turn...Is spring starting to settle in where you live? 
Currently listening to...Head Full of Doubt - The Avett Brothers 

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Pilot Point Needs a Teacher!

This past year has been a wild adventure, and Pilot Point has been the central setting to that adventure. Our time here has been largely shaped by the people, and more specifically the other teacher and her husband. Unfortunately though, Melissa and Ben will not be staying in Pilot Point next year. This means that the secondary position at our school is open. I, of course, am anxious to see who will fill the role. Pilot Point is a wonderful little community, and I want the very best for our kids. It's hard to recruit good teachers for the bush, and it's harder still to recruit for such a small site. However, even though we are small, there are a lot of good things about teaching in Pilot Point.


Lake and Peninsula School District is one of the best rural districts in the state. LPSD is the third district I've taught for in my career, and it's the best by a mile. The benefits package is great. The administration is supportive, consistent, and easy to work with. There is very little turnover, which is a HUGE deal for a bush district. Plus, we use a standards-based system of grading, which in my opinion trumps traditional grading in every way. 


The class sizes are small. If everything goes according to plan, Pilot Point should have fourteen students (K-12) next year. The secondary position would most likely involve teaching 7-8 students. Imagine how many cool activities you could do with a class that small! Not to mention, the relationships you'd form with your students would be non-comparable to those you'd form in a big school. 


With only two teachers, we are really free to design the school to be what we want it to be. Honestly, Pilot Point's size gives us a lot of freedom that even many of the other sites in our district don't have. Our principal is on site about 3-5 days per month, but the rest of the time we run the show (and our principal is great too, which helps). Curriculum, class set-ups, schedule, and everything else is completely up to us. This year we've had a blast getting to make the school into exactly what we want. At any other school you definitely wouldn't have this level of freedom. 


The kids are super amazing. Our kids are awesome! Seriously, our biggest behavioral issue is kids throwing the basketballs too hard in the gym. The relationships that we've been able to form throughout the year have really made a difference in the school climate, and now there really aren't any big problems. That being said, they're kids and they will push your buttons, but they are SO GOOD. 


The community is nice, safe, and supportive. I never feel unsafe walking around in Pilot Point. In fact, half the time I'm out walking people stop me to say hello or to ask me if I need a ride. Cody and I get invited to do stuff fairly frequently, whether it's dinner at someone's house or ice fishing on the weekend. It's quiet and very non-rowdy. We also have a VPSO, which definitely adds to the feeling of safety in the community. 


You'd get to work with ME! That's right - you get to work with me, and Cody, and I'll even let you play with our dogs. That right there - total selling point (ok, maybe not...still throwing it out there though!). 


Pilot Point is an awesome little village, and we need a teacher who is going to be the right fit for our school. A single person, a couple, or even a small family (our students would LOVE more kids to play with) would be great! If you or anyone you know would be interested in teaching in our little community, please feel free to contact me! 

Your turn...What are some of the "pros" to working at your job?
Currently listening to...Empire - Trampled by Turtles 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Five Things I Want Incoming Bush Teachers to Know

This weekend is the Alaska Teacher Placement (ATP) Job Fair. At the job fair, much of the recruiting for the upcoming school year is done. Teachers fly from all over to convene in Anchorage. In the coming weeks, other fairs will be held in Portland, Minneapolis, and Austin. In the past I've posted links and stories about topics I think are important for incoming teachers. Here you can find my post about "How to Find a Teaching Job in Alaska." Here you can find my post about "A Day in the Life of an Alaskan Bush Teacher." There are so many things that I think are important for new teachers, especially first year teachers, to know before they take the leap and head out on this great adventure.


With all of these things in mind, I thought I would share my top five tidbits that I think incoming bush teachers need to know. There are definitely more than just five important things to know, but these specific things have been on my mind lately and I wanted to share.

//Five Things I Want Incoming Bush Teachers to Know//
  1. Teaching in the bush is unlike teaching anywhere else. There are a lot of unique things about living in rural Alaska, and teaching seems to further amplify all of them. For starters, your relationships with your students, especially in small sites, is extremely different than anywhere else. In urban areas, it would be seen as very inappropriate to have students at your house. In our community though, a chorus of, "can I visit??" follows us constantly. There are also many cultural norms, like raising your eyebrows to indicate that you agree, that you have to get used to. Because of all of these new things, it is incredibly important to be an adaptable person and to remember that you do not always know what is the best or the most culturally-relevant for your students. 
  2. Involving yourself in the community is important. Many rural communities are used to teachers being very insular, or even leaving their village after mere months (heck, some teachers don't even make it off of the airplane). It can be hard for the locals to accept new teachers because of how often they've been burned in the past. It took us many months, but we've slowly worked our way into a routine of getting invited to do things out and about. Now, we regularly get invited to play cards, take a steam, go ice fishing, and etc. It definitely took time to form these relationships though, and we wouldn't be nearly as content with life here without them. 
  3. You must be content with yourself. Teaching here is incredibly isolating in a lot of ways. As a person, you really have to be ok being alone with your own thoughts. A negative person or someone with self-destructive tendencies would struggle immensely in such an unforgiving place. Being content also applies to your family that comes to live in Alaska with you. Cody and I had to really work to create some kind of balance because we see each other 24hrs/day (literally). We work in the same classroom all day, we come home together, and then we repeat the next day. Our relationship has grown stronger, but it has also been tested. All personal and familial problems will be magnified, so it's important to weigh the considerations of your own sanity before you take the leap. 
  4. The winters are long.  The Alaska Peninsula, where I live, experiences far less extreme temperatures and daylight patterns than much of Alaska. However, it doesn't matter where you are in this state - the winter will be long. The sun won't rise until after 10am, and it will be dark by the time you get out of work. In some places, you may not see the sun for months. Some people, like myself, don't mind the lack of sun too much. There is a big difference between "not minding" something and "being happy" about something though. If you are new to the state, the winters will affect you. Take some vitamin D, stock up on hobbies, and make sure that you are keeping yourself busy and happy. 
  5. The kids will get very attached to you, and vice versa. The kids in rural Alaska can be amazing. I may be a bit biased, but I think Pilot Point kids are some of the world's best. They are kind, thoughtful, loving, affectionate, smart, witty, and independent. My relationship with my students is so personal because we see each other every single day. We work one-on-one in our classroom, they follow me on walks after school, and on the weekends they help me grocery shop. Early in the year, we didn't have such a close relationship. They were, understandably, a bit slow-to-warm because of how regular teacher turnover has been here. As the months passed though, and they realized we were committed to staying all year, their warmth towards me (and Cody) grew exponentially. 
Teaching in the bush is an amazing adventure. However, it isn't for everyone. For us, living in the bush seems to work, and we intend to keep doing what we're doing for the foreseeable future. In fact, my contract has already been signed for next year. We will be returning to Pilot Point in August for another year of adventure and wonder.

As always, if you're interested in coming to the bush - send me a message! I'd be happy to answer any questions that you have and offer support, advice, or just an ear to bounce ideas off of.

Your turn...What are some tips you would like to offer newbies at your job?
Currently listening to...Love is All - Tallest Man on Earth


Saturday, March 11, 2017

Pilot Point Carnival '17

In many of the villages in our district, "Carnival" is a big deal. Carnival is a weekend of fun events, hosted by the village. We'd been hearing about Pilot Point's Winter Carnival practically since we stepped off of the airplane back in August. The kids are constantly raving about it and asking us things like, "Are you going to dance with me at the Carnival dance?!" With the students so excited,  I couldn't help getting a bit hyped up about it myself.


Friday afternoon we released from school at lunchtime and then the village officially kicked off the Carnival with a kids cooking competition hosted at the school. This was probably one of my favorite events of the whole Carnival because the kids were so incredibly excited about it. The competition was set-up like the show Chopped. The kids each had a basket of "mystery ingredients" and they were given one hour to create an edible dinner meal. Each kid was assigned an adult to help them chop things, get supplies, open packages, and other safety-type things, but the adults weren't allowed to give any meal/cooking ideas. The winning dish ended up being a great curry that one of our fifth grade boys whipped up.




Other fun events that we participated in on Friday included: a poker run, scavenger hunt, dinner hosted at the school, and a dance. Our village flew in a band from the neighboring village of Kokhanok. The band was missing a drummer, but they were in luck - Cody keeps a great drum kit at our house here! So, Cody joined the band and ended up playing three nights in a row. He had so much fun getting to play with an actual band for a change, as opposed to just jamming at the house solo. The kids also enjoyed seeing Cody play, some of the littlest kiddos even got a drum lesson from him one evening. Meanwhile, I was recruited by the little girls to dance non-stop the entirety of the band's performance.



The second day of Carnival began in the morning with a community breakfast. After breakfast, there were many events planned. The first event of the day was the Air Drop. For the drop, a local pilot flew really low over a designated spot (this year it was Loon Lake behind the school), and he threw candy and prizes out of his airplane window. Everyone in town ran around the lake trying to collect the items. It was a freezing morning for the event, with temps in the single digits and waist-deep snow drifts on the lake, but we still had a blast.





Throughout the rest of Carnival we continued to try and participate in as many events as possible. We played bingo, ate dinner at the big community feast, went to the dance every night, played the raffles and cakewalks, and what seems like a million other little things. By Sunday, we were exhausted. Lucky for everyone else, there was no school on Monday or Tuesday following Winter Carnival. Unlucky for me, I had to travel for basketball early on Monday morning and didn't get to enjoy the necessary recuperation time after all of the excitement. Even with the extreme busyness of the weekend, I couldn't help but feel extremely happy that we got to participate in such a unique community event. I'm already counting down until Winter Carnival 2018!

Your turn...Does your community have any unique events that they celebrate?
Currently listening to...Move to the Mountains - Clock Opera

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Basketball

Basketball is life for students in rural Alaska. Our village is no different in this respect. Basketball is one of the few sports that our students can play year round because all it requires is access to an indoor court (and conveniently all of our schools have one of those). Our village does have an outdoor court - one with wooden planking for a court floor, a fishing net in place of a standard hoop net, and endless ocean views - but it is really only in use during the summer months. The rest of the year, the school basketball court is king.


In our district, there are only two schools that are big enough to compete in regular 5-on-5 basketball tournaments. The rest of our small schools, including Pilot Point, compete in 3-on-3 tournaments instead. This year, I volunteered to be our schools basketball coach. Our team was tiny, with only one student allowed to travel, but we still practiced hard and flew to two separate tournaments this season. We were paired up with Port Heiden, a neighboring tiny school, in order to have enough players to compete. Our schools played together for over ten games this season (all packed into two short tournaments trips).




Our first tournament was in January and took us to Nondalton, one of the far northern schools in our district. Nondalton was large compared to Pilot Point and it felt a bit like stepping into a completely different district. There were many teachers at their school, a huge student store stocked with goodies (pizza, big pretzels, soda, etc). It was also a huge change in scenery. Nondalton was full of trees, big lakes, and huge mountains. We stayed there and played basketball games for three days. The student that I took with me had a blast, but I could also tell he was a bit overwhelmed. At our school all of the students are related in some way. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by other boys and girls his own age who weren't related to him. It was fun to see him come out of his shell and make so many friends.



Our second tournament was in Chignik Lake, which is even farther south on the peninsula than Pilot Point. By this time, we (my student and I) were much more comfortable with traveling for a tournament. We both knew exactly what to expect, which was good because this tournament was longer. Flying into Chignik Lake was spectacular, the views were unlike anything else I've experienced. The southern part of the Alaska Peninsula has to be some of the most spectacularly untouched wilderness in the world.


The tournament itself went smoothly. We played four games, but were unfortunately eliminated after that. Our elimination wasn't too surprising though, as our oldest student was only in 9th grade and our players were pretty small compared to the crews that some of the other schools had assembled. Regardless of the outcome, they played their hearts out and had a blast. I was also incredibly proud of my one player because he took home the Citizenship Award for good behavior!



I had a lot of fun at this tournament. The scenery itself was a selling point, but the people of this community were wonderful too. They really turned out to fill the stands for the evening games and it was fun to interact with them. We did have one slightly unnerving experience while traveling to the Lake though. By the second day, I was getting antsy for some fresh air and some of the teachers were eager to get out for a hike. Unfortunately, the locals there were uncomfortable with teachers exploring the area because of a tragedy that happened in our district a few years ago. It was requested of us that we only walk in close proximity to the school, so we didn't get to explore much, but I totally understood their reasoning. With their request in mind, we stayed close to the school, just exploring the beach that was nearby, and still got to enjoy the beauty of the area.


The weeks that we spent traveling for basketball will be weeks that I will never forget. I learned so much about the intense love of basketball that our students have, as well as so much about their individual cultures and homes. I'm so happy that I got the opportunity to coach this year and I hope that I get to continue to do it in the future.

Your turn...Have you ever coached a sport?
Currently listening to...Oceans & Streams - The Black Keys

**Some of the tournament/game photos were taken from the LPSD Facebook and Cutterlight Photography pages. Thank you to everyone who shared photos from the tournament!!** 

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Adventures in Smelting

Consistently cold temperatures, sometimes down in the -20's, have been a regular part of our winter here on the Alaska Peninsula. While we do often get some reprieve, with temperatures jumping all the way up into the 30's occasionally, the cold has been regular enough to cause a deep freeze to occur on our lakes and rivers in the area. This has been VERY exciting to everyone in our village because smelting (going out and ice fishing for tiny smelt fish) is a hugely popular activity. The last few years have been poor for smelting, so the successes of this year have been much to celebrate in our tiny corner of the state. 


We have been invited out to join local families for smelting a few times, but I had been nervous about the thickness of the ice. However, last week, we were informed that the ice was 4+ feet thick on the entire road out to the smelting grounds. I figured that 4+ feet of ice was more than enough to support us out into the wilderness. 


On Friday, Melissa (the other teacher) and I decided that smelting seemed like the perfect "girls night out" activity. We dumped the husbands at home and took off on the ice road, traversing frozen lakes and tundra, to the area where other locals would be fishing. The lake where the actual smelting takes place is a little over halfway to Ugashik, which is a neighboring village that boasts only about 5 regular residents. Although you can glimpse a bit of the village from the smelting spot, it still feels very remote. 


The actual act of catching the fish was a new experience for me. Holes were put into the ice using an auger, which is typical of all ice fishing, but the poles/catching the fish seemed a bit foreign to me. For starters, you use the tine of a fork and attach it to a string. This string is then tied to a piece of wood. There is no bait involved in catching smelt, instead you just lower your fork into the water and the smelt will try to bite it. As soon as you feel a bite, you drag the line up quickly and the fish comes with it. This whole process tends to be pretty quick. Many people in our community have been catching 80-100 fish in the span of only a couple of hours. It seems that you're barely dipping your line in the water before you are having to quickly drag it back out. 



Melissa and I's success the first day led us to drag the husbands out with us the following day. The four of us drove back out and were pleasantly surprised to find no less than fifteen others from our village and Ugashik out there fishing already. Our village tends to be fairly insular, so getting the opportunity to get out and do something with such a large group was a huge deal. I was also excited to meet some of the residents of Ugashik because the tiny, nearly abandoned village is pretty fascinating to me. One of the residents even had a mammoth ivory carving that he brought out to show us. It was pretty incredible! 



We caught quite a few fish over the course of the weekend, and the four (Melissa, Ben, Cody, and I) of us had a fish fry with our daily catch on Saturday night. There is no doubt in my mind that we will go back out, if given another chance. Smelting was just another fun, new experience to add to our list of adventures out here in the bush. 

Your turn...Have you ever gone smelting or ice fishing? 
Currently listening to...Blue Ridge Mountain - Fleet Foxes

Friday, January 20, 2017

Christmas Break in Alaska

Cody and I spent our Christmas Break differently than most young bush teachers. At Christmastime, there is a mass exodus of teachers leaving (usually the same day that school gets out) and heading down south to spend three weeks with their families. While Cody and I debated this, we also were concerned about the expense. It's nearly $1,000/person just to get to Anchorage from our little village. It's another $500-$800/person to travel from Anchorage to Chicago. The district will happily reimburse my flight to Anchorage, but we still had to pay for Cody's flight to Anchorage, both of our flights to Chicago, and all of the dogs' travel. So, as much as we would have loved to see our families and to go home, continuing to be debt-free ended up winning out and we decided to stay in Pilot Point.


Staying in Pilot Point for Christmas ended up being a fantastic idea. We had a ridiculously relaxing break, and I feel like the community really reached out to us because they were excited to finally have teachers stay over the holiday season. In our first two weeks of break we were invited to holiday parties, game nights, fishing trips, and a local who was heading out of town even loaned us their four-wheeler. I feel like we really were able to cement our relationship with the community by planting ourselves here.



The final week of break we did head to Anchorage for a few days. Our grocery stash was dangerously low, Cody and I both needed to find a new doctor, and Specks (our older dog) had developed a small mass on his gums over the last few weeks and we needed to get him to a vet.


Our stay in Anchorage was...interesting. We store our car in a gated lot near the airport, but somehow we'd managed to have our car get robbed even in a secure lot. Someone had stolen ONE tire off of our car and left it up on a jack. The first two days of our trip revolved around hunting down a tire, filing police reports, and dealing with insurance. After the tire fiasco, we were feeling (understandably) a little burnt on Anchorage. We did manage to have some fun in the city though, and it was nice to take advantage of the amenities of civilization. We ate at a different restaurant every night (49th State Brewing was my favorite), we shopped for new clothes, purchased many fancy groceries, and all of us - dogs included- saw doctors and left feeling healthier.

At the end of the week we headed back to our little village. Our flights both ways were with Lake Clark Air and we flew direct from Pilot Point to Anchorage (and vice versa). This allowed us to fly through some of the most spectacular parts of the state, including Lake Clark National Park. The mountains were huge, the lakes were endless, and I couldn't believe that we are lucky enough to call this beautiful place our home.



Your turn...What did you do over the holiday season? 
Currently listening to... Darkness and the Light - Trampled by Turtles 

(Special shoutout to My Place Hotel for being the most pet-friendly hotel on planet earth, and for having the most helpful staff.  Check this place out if you're ever in Anchorage!)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Moving Your Dogs to Rural Alaska

Oftentimes people ask Cody and I about how our dogs have adjusted to the move. Anyone who knows us knows that we horribly baby our dogs, so, naturally, people wonder how they are holding up in the new environment.  I usually respond to people's questions with a simple, "they're good, it's different, but they're good."  I say this because - they are good! There are some interesting adjustments that we've all had to make though, and being a dog doesn't exempt them from the oddities of life in the bush.



If you're thinking of moving to rural Alaska with a dog, particularly as a teacher, or if you're just curious what they heck we do with ours up here, then this is a good post for you. Here are seven things I've learned about having dogs in bush Alaska, so far:

1.) Room to roam. There really isn't a limit set on where dogs can go here.  For a dog like Specks, who operates leash-free, it's wonderful.  He can roam around, smell all the smells, chase birds on the beach, and just basically live his life like a wild dog. There are no leash laws or rules about dogs being registered.  As long as a dog isn't a nuisance, it's pretty much good to go. Even for a leashed dog like Luna it's still amazing how much exploring she gets to do.

2.) Stray dogs. Stray dogs are EVERYWHERE. In our village, all of the dogs have owners, which is a rarity in bush villages. That doesn't mean that they aren't still much like stray dogs though.  They roam freely all day (and some of them all night too).  Many of them sleep outside and forage around the village for food. Again, we are lucky because our stray dogs are mostly nice, but we do have to be extra careful with our dogs because of this. There are always going to be dogs that yours don't "click" with and it has taken some trial and error to learn to deal with the village dogs.

3.) Wildlife is both good and bad. Our dogs love to chase wildlife.  A shrew, a rabbit, every single duck they see. Here though, we do have to be a bit more careful. We have frequent fox visitors and there are obviously big predators all over the place.  While it's fun for them, it's also quite dangerous. Wolves, bears, and lynx are pretty common in our village and the surrounding areas.  The threat of big predators makes me really nervous because if our dogs wandered off there's a good chance they'd run into one of these animals.

4.) Local attitudes. Alaskans in general look at dogs in a slightly different manner than people from the lower 48. Traditionally, Alaskans have used dogs as a means to get a job done and as a way to travel.  Dogs in our village tend to hunt and forage for a lot of their food (and some of them like to beg at my door too - they must sense that I'm a pushover). Many of them still get fed at home, but it's not always going to be the traditional diet of kibble and treats.  It's often table scraps or chum salmon. Many of the dogs here also sleep outside, warn their owners of bears, and live more like animals of the wild. I've had multiple locals give me a jokingly hard time about walking Luna on a leash or the fact that our dogs don't roam unsupervised. I brush it off and always tell them, "I just love to baby them!"

5.) Buy all doggy items in advance - way in advance. We're lucky because our store does occasionally sell bags dog food. However, this is not the norm, and it's definitely not the brand that our dogs are used to eating.  It takes weeks for our dog food to ship from PetCo, so we have to order 3-5 bags at a time. It's an expensive and necessary evil of having dogs in such a remote place. We also tried to stock up on basic doggy meds and anything they might need if they get ill.  The closest vet is in Anchorage.  Our vet will meet a dog on an airplane at the airport, which is amazing, but little things needed to come with us.

6.) Talk to your district/employer. I highly recommend discussing the pet-friendliness of your village/district with your interviewers before you accept any type of job here. I had one district offer me a job and then tell me they didn't allow pets in teacher housing and another district warned me about bringing dogs because any dogs that the village saw as "strays" would be shot one day per month. Our vet in Anchorage even warned us about animal abuse in certain villages. Obviously, none of those districts or villages would have been good fits for us.  Safety of our pets and the availability of housing that allowed more than one dog was important.

7.) Consider travel. What will you do with your dogs when you travel? As a bush teacher, we have to travel a handful of times per year for district events, inservice trainings, or coaching sports. For these events, it's likely that your pet won't be able to join you. Cody is an aide at the school and is therefore exempt for these events, but if you're alone or if your spouse teaches too you do need to take into consideration who will watch your dogs when you are gone. You also have to consider the cost of flying them to and from your village. Some airlines charge per pound (we paid $300 for ours on one airline) and other airlines may allow your dogs to count towards your free freight allowance.




If you are planning to come to the bush with dogs you should think about it seriously because it's much different than having dogs in the lower 48. We lucked out with being placed in a village that has a good view of pets and a district that is so pet-friendly, but we had to do the research to find them.  Aside from everything I listed above, we wouldn't have ever considered coming to Alaska without our dogs because they are our family.

Pilot Point seems to be a good place for them though, and I think they're really enjoying the wild rumpus that is their lives in the bush.

Your turn..Do you have any pets? 
Currently listening to... Dog Days Are Over - Florence and the Machine