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Back to Basics: elementary students learn how Inuit people survived in the Arctic

Mary Cingcade
Mary Cingcade with her poster presentation of the Arctic unit.

January 30, 2015

Originally posted: January 2015

Ever since I attended a presentation several years ago entitled “Who Owns the Arctic?” by Nadine Fabbi, Canadian Studies Center, I have wanted to collaborate with Nadine to increase awareness of the Arctic region. This past year the perfect opportunity presented itself when I was assigned to a second and third grade classroom at Parkwood Elementary as a student teacher. I would be responsible for a social studies unit on Northwest Coast People that would include the Arctic region and Inuit people. I e-mailed Nadine right away, and she replied with her characteristic enthusiasm – “I’m soooo excited!” Our collaboration, many years in the making, was finally underway.

The first time I met with Nadine, like most student teachers, I was barely keeping my head above water. All I had was a CBA (Classroom Based Assessment) – Humans and the Environment – and an undetermined time line to work with. Nadine sailed in and provided me with the resources that would later become the framework for my thinking and teaching about the Arctic region and Inuit people. The work of two key Inuit figures informed the CBA-themed mini-unit I later created. The first was the lecture at UW by Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier: “The Right to be Cold” (March 11, 2014). In her lecture, Watt-Cloutier described the extraordinary pace of change in Inuit communities, a result of development and global warming. According to Watt-Cloutier, protecting Inuit communities from global warming is a human right, and preserving traditional cultural practices is essential to Inuit futures. Inuit in the Arctic have the “right to be cold,” and to experience the “joy of ice and snow” in their Arctic home, declared Watt-Cloutier, as breathtaking images of snow scapes filled the screen behind her.

The second resource Nadine introduced me to was the work of Inuit children’s author Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak. Like Watt-Cloutier, Kusugak was raised in what would now be considered a traditional existence, living in iglus in winter and tents in summer, near the source of food. His stories, inspired by tales his grandparents and parents told him, not only enchant children with tales of fanciful creatures like sea monsters or Qallupilluit (A Promise is A Promise, 1988) and the timid trickster Ijiraq (Hide and Sneak, 1992), they also serve as vehicles to teach children about the Arctic landscape and Inuit culture.

As I learned from these excellent primary sources, my goal was to align the story my mini-unit would tell with the values Watt-Cloutier and Kusugak – both important figures in Inuit communities – conveyed through their work. The focus question of the CBA themed mini-unit became: How have Inuit people adapted to the Arctic environment? Following Watt-Cloutier’s and Kusugak’s leads, I wanted children to understand the challenges and opportunities presented in features of the Arctic environment while developing their understanding of and respect for the ingenuity of Inuit cultural practices. These cultural practices allowed Inuit people not only to survive, but to thrive in subzero temperatures.

At the beginning of the unit, we studied the Arctic environment and ways that animals and plants adapted to living in an environment cloaked in darkness and cold for much of the year. Once students had a basis for the environmental features and resources available in the region, we did a short simulation activity in which small groups of students put themselves in the shoes of early Arctic migrants. Each group had to decide how they would meet their needs for food, shelter, transportation, and clothing. This prediction activity hooked the interest of my second and third graders – they wanted to know how Inuit people “really did it.”

Next, students formed expert groups. Each group was responsible for learning about how Inuit people met one of their basic needs. They did readings and examined the visuals for their assigned topic that I provided for them, drawn from a variety of sources, photographs, and Inuit art pieces. Then, as experts on their topic, they presented what they found to the large group. We talked about how each of the ways Inuit people met their needs represented various means of adaptation to the Arctic environment. The concept of adaptation was a difficult one for students, especially given that adaptations can take the form of physical adaptations for plants and animals, as well as values and practices for humans. My cooperating teacher suggested defining “adapt” as “change to live,” which eventually became our go-to definition throughout the mini-unit.

To illustrate some of the cultural practices students were learning about and to bring students’ picture of Inuit communities up-to-date, I showed the documentary “Boy Among Polar Bears” (BBC, 2005) that tells the story of 10-year-old Apak Taqtu who sets out to learn from his father early survival techniques and traditions, such as seal hunting, travel by dogsled, iglu building, and carving. The documentary takes students through an entire year, optimal for helping them understand seasonal changes in the Arctic environment and corresponding Inuit practices. The film’s theme is overwhelmingly of Inuit people’s reverence for and dependence on Arctic animals, especially nanuk (the polar bear) and the Arctic environment. The film beautifully illustrated Watt-Cloutier’s point that the Arctic is home to Inuit people. While we might wonder who would want to live in such a cold place, many people there thrive on the cold and experience joy from it. Apak’s father, for example, pauses in the middle of a hunting trip to watch a polar bear and her cubs, a tender moment he later captures in a carving of the scene. My students enjoyed acting out the hunter’s modest way of imitating the polar bear’s seal-hunting technique, sloping their shoulders and hanging their heads while staring down into imaginary seal holes.

I had only intended to show brief clips of the documentary, but students were so captivated by it we watched the entire 55-minute film over the course of a few days. Not only did students learn more about traditional cultural practices, but they also became aware of their place in contemporary life. The film shows footage of Apak’s life in his home, equipped very much like the homes of my students, with TVs and computers. My students had studied the Arctic before and knew about iglus, but they didn’t know that Inuit kids today live in modern homes, go to school, and do a lot of the same things they do. Putting traditions in perspective was one of my goals for the unit so that students would understand that cultures and the ways we adapt to our environment change over time, another challenging concept for young students. Because of time constraints, I was not able to talk with students very much about global warming and their role in helping to preserve the Arctic home of Inuit people today. Next time I teach this unit, I will build in this important component and more actively feature Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s message.

To spark students’ imaginations and support the concepts they were learning, each day during the mini-unit I did a read aloud with students that brought to life the concepts studied the previous day. The bookNorth: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration (2011) by Nick Dowson, while not specifically about the Canadian Arctic, elegantly illustrated for students the global migration patterns of Arctic-bound animals, countering many students’ perspectives of the Arctic as a barren, lifeless region. Polar Bear Son: An Inuit Tale (2007) retold by Linda Dabcovich, which tells the story of an elderly woman who raises an orphaned polar bear as if he were a son—a kindness the animal reciprocates by providing her with meat—reviewed what students had learned in the film about the early Inuit people’s respect for and reliance on the polar bear.

Next, three stories by Michael Kusugak allowed students to better understand how Inuit people viewed features of the Arctic environment. In A Promise is a Promise, students learned of the dangers of the ever-changing sea ice as a little girl ignores her parents’ warnings to stay away from its cracks or risk being taken by the sea monsters that live there. Hide and Sneak, voted by my students as their favorite of all the books we read, warned children away from wandering off in the tundra and falling prey to the beguiling Ijiraq, a shy imaginary creature that tempts children to play hide and seek, never to be found again. Eventually, an inuksuk, the rock formation Inuit people used to mark significant places, navigate the vast Arctic tundra, and corral caribou, helps a lost little girl find her way home. My students were captivated by the inuksuks, which we talked about as being like early “road signs.” Using the book The Inuksuk (1999) by Mary Wallace, my 2nd graders viewed examples of inuksuks and built their own out of legos. Each student wrote a short caption about the “spot” his or her inuksuk marked and many chose “showing the way home.” Finally, I read students Northern Lights: The Soccer Trails (1993), which Kusugak claimed was Canadian children’s clear favorite. Soccer Trails tells the story of a little girl who loses her mother to illness. The grieving little girl is comforted by the Inuit traditional belief that the Northern Lights depict spirits of the departed playing soccer with a walrus head in the sky. Despite my students’ interest in soccer, according to our class vote, this book did not compare to the charm of the shy Ijiraq and the safety of the inuksuk. Hide and Sneak won by a landslide. On their ballots, I asked students to include an explanation for their votes. One student responded that Hide and Sneak was the best book because “it gave me the best idea of what Inuit life was like.”

The mini-unit gave students a brief introduction to life in the Arctic, but more importantly it shifted their perspectives of Inuit people today. As a new teacher, for me the unit laid a foundation that I will be able to build on in the future, eventually elaborating on the Inuit art and literature components in particular. If I were to teach this mini-unit again, I would incorporate print-making as an Inuit art form that depicts aspects of both traditional and contemporary life in Inuit communities. I would also engage students in an author study of Michael Kusugak, allowing students to more thoroughly explore the books’ themes and why he might have chosen to share them. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, I would also connect the mini-unit to local actions students can take to protect Inuit communities from global warming, in response to Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s challenge. The resources available from the UW Canadian Studies Center, as well as the Teacher Resource Center of the Seattle Art Museum and the Seattle Public Library, make these future directions possible for elementary educators, who can access all the materials mentioned here free of charge.

The collaboration with the center was an immensely gratifying experience that provided me with the focus and support I needed to produce an accurate and authentic unit for my students. I loved bringing such rich content to my second and third graders, and in return, the students energized me with their excitement to learn about the Arctic region and Inuit people. It was a privilege to teach Parkwood students this past year; they deserve nothing but the best and they got it thanks to the UW Canadian Studies Center.

Mary Cingcade currently teaches in Edmonds School District. She holds a Master’s in Teaching (MIT) from the UW College of Education and a master’s in International Studies (China) from the UW Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.