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Southeast Alaska teachers learn to weave Northwest Coast arts into math lessons

Middle school and high school teachers in Juneau last week learned how to weave — literally weave — Northwest Coast art into math lessons.

Brita Steinberger had her hands full, weaving a small basket using a mix of traditional — and less traditional — materials:

“This is spruce root here, and this is cedar bark right there,” she explained. “This is a tomato paste can with tape around it.”

Steinberger is a special education teacher in Juneau. But last week she was the student, in a weeklong seminar for teachers put on by Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Leading the basketry lesson was Ilskyaalas Delores Churchill of Ketchikan. She’s been teaching weaving since the 1970s.

“Actually I was my mother’s assistant at the beginning and didn’t teach until after she died. Even though I taught evening classes she still sat in the classroom to make sure I was teaching correctly,” Churchill said.

Her mother was Haida weaver Selina Peratrovich. Churchill also studied with Tlingit and Tsimshian weavers, learning how to make baskets, hats and regalia.

She said there’s a lot more to it than just mastering skills.

“Basketry is not just basketry. You’re out harvesting in the forest, and you learn to respect the animals that are there, because you know that when you’re in the forest, this isn’t where you belong,” Churchill said.

Churchill said it’s not hard to get kids excited about weaving, because it’s so much fun. And that’s good news for teachers of a subject that could use some livening up: math.

“All basketry is math right from the beginning,” Churchill said.

To back her up on that, with her at the workshop was mathematician Swapna Mukhopadhyay.

A basket pattern for a Sealaska Heritage Institute seminar for teachers on Northwest Coast arts and math, photographed on Aug. 8, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

“Everybody’s life has mathematics, plays a role in it, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly,” said Mukhopadhyay. “And how do you unearth that and bring it to [the] foreground and make people realize that they have this fantastic tool, and they don’t need to be afraid of that?”

Mukhopadhyay is a special kind of mathematician: an ethnomathematician. She studies the culture of math and math-learning. She thinks a lot of people’s dislike of math comes from how it gets taught — just numbers and equations that have nothing to do with real life.

“When the cultural artifacts and cultural knowledge system is integrated together, that’s when a lot of the fear could be erased, more or less right away,” she said. “And they get curious about the mathematics and they learn it better, differently.”

Take, for example, basketry. Mukhopadhyay said weaving a basket can help students grasp concepts like measurements, proportions and geometry — and see the links between them.

“It’s a nice flow from one to the other, instead of being so, you know, disconnected, like in a textbook,” she said.

There were fifteen teachers at the workshop. They came from local schools in Juneau, but also Klukwon and Kake.

For Naomi Love, a teacher at Juneau’s Yaakoosge Daakahidi alternative high school, just as important as the math lessons is the opportunity to disrupt typical classroom power dynamics. Many of her students are Alaska Native, and she says she wants to be culturally responsive.

“And also if I’m doing something like basket weaving that I’m a novice at, and they have watched their auntie or maybe done it themselves, and they can come and show me, that’s so empowering for them,” Love said. “So being able to know enough to take it into the classroom, but then struggle kind of with the kids through it, it’s great.”

Love said she’s especially grateful for the seminar after years of budget cuts at the school district.

Baskets woven by students in a Sealaska Heritage Institute seminar for teachers on Northwest Coast arts and math, photographed on Aug. 8, 2019. (Photo by Zoe Grueskin/KTOO)

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