Teaching on the tundra

January 9, 2017
Tony Knapp
CU graduate Tony Knapp keeps a beard in order to keep warm in Tundra where he teaches.

When Tony Knapp accepted a position as a teacher in Alaska's tundra, he knew it would be a challenge. However, nothing could have prepared him for life in the bush or teaching in a bush classroom - and more often than not, the two go hand-in-hand.

Tony teaches seventh through 12th grades at Akula Elitnaurvik in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in Kasigluk, Alaska.

"Our school district is the size of Ohio," Tony said, putting his teaching situation into perspective.

However, land mass has nothing to do with the number of students in the school. For the 100 students, the school employs 11 full-time staff, which includes a principal, teachers for preschool, kindergarten, first through second grade and third through fourth grade dual language, a fifth through sixth grade teacher, an English teacher, Knapp and a technology guy who also teaches Yup'ik, the students' native language.

Tony teaches 12 classes in seven periods, including American history, world history, economics, psychology, geography, consumer life skills, junior and senior high health and physical education, and other elective courses including online classes.

"You have a 30-second transition to teach the next subject," he said.

That transition is different from when he was student teacher teaching the same subject all day long. He gets a five-minute break twice a day.

He and his wife, Jessica "Jess" Miller Knapp, a 2015 Clarion graduate with a B.S. in environmental geoscience and geology and a minor in geography and GIS), also developed a program which teaches students how to properly trap, take fur and sew pelts into garments and items to support themselves and their families.

"Here, we're like the MacGyver of teachers," he quipped.

He said considerable preparation and good relationships with the students are the best tools he has for teaching so many different grade levels at the same time.

To teach in the Alaskan Bush requires flexibility. The day Knapp arrived in Alaska was one day ahead of when he was supposed to start teaching. That's also when he found out what he was going to be teaching.

Tony said nothing in college could have prepared him for this type of educational experience.

"Everything we do in college, with the exception of the lesson plans, is thrown out the window," he said.

The students are Yup'ik Eskimos and a major challenge is communicating with them.

"They don't really answer you to say 'yes' or 'no'," he said. "They really don't talk."

He explained that in the Yup'ik culture, they lift their eyebrows to say "yes" and scrunch their noses to say ''no."

"At first, it's very hard to get used to," he said.

He realized that the best way to assimilate to the culture was to join it – even if it meant being less verbal in his teaching style.

"I started teaching the class like that and got a good response," he said. "These kids can actually yell at you with their eyebrows."

He said his students learn best when he shows them skills in a hands-on way, which works particularly well in the trapping shop.

Tony's wife, who isn't a teacher, but a geologist, is a big part of this program. She helps students with their homework after school and also teaches the students to sew the animal skins into useful items.

Tony said the students are much more willing to work with her, and her willingness to be part of all aspects of the program, from the hunt to the creation of useful fur goods, has garnered her great respect in the village.

"I'm very fortunate with that," Tony said of his wife.

Knapp spends a great deal of time in the shop where he teaches students life skills such as trapping and properly taking pelts.

Growing up in Plum, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Jess never did the types of trapping, skinning and sewing skills she does in Alaska. However, she would go fishing with her dad and chose to attend Clarion for its scenic location. She joined Clarion's Recreational Outdoors Club where she met Tony and picked up additional outdoor skills that she says come in handy living in Alaska.

"My favorite part about working with the kids is probably just being with them and being there for them," Jess said.

"Their lives are so different from anything Tony and I experienced while growing up, so it's really neat to get to know their personalities and interests during the after-school activities that we do with them. And what's awesome about it is that they are equally as interested in learning about us, because they want to know about what we grew up with."
Jess also has bonded with the girls.

"I love being able to show the girls not to be afraid of touching a gross animal or going out to check traps. It's different for them because the culture is different. However, being able to teach confidence is something I've never done before, but I absolutely love it. I try to remind them as often as I can that they can have the life they want. They can be happy, even when life is really hard."

She also has a pet cat which fascinates the students. A lot of people still have pet dogs but they are mostly garbage disposals. The Knapps order a 35-pound bag of cat food, and that sustains him for the year.

As for Tony, he had a slight advantage getting to know the students because he was an avid hunter, fisherman and outdoors person when he grew up in Brookville.

In fact, when he first arrived, gentlemen from the village forced him out of the classroom to go hunting, knowing it was the only way to secure respect from the students. Also, hunting the animal is referred to catching the animal – the animal allowed itself to be caught by you. That's how the Yup'iks describe hunting.

He believes he actually gained respect from the students when he caught his eighth fox. When he would go out for a catch, a local gentleman would parade him through the village past the children with his catch. The boys liked him first and then the girls' decided to trust him next (which is typical in that culture).

"Most of the boys could see I was able to catch," he said.

Gaining respect also is hard due to the climate of turnover the school has had.

"It's not unusual to have teachers come and go," he said.

Not that coming and going is an easy feat in the tundra.

"We don't even have any cars," Tony said.

Knapp's wife, Jess, is instrumental in his teaching career by spending hours mentoring students and helping in the trapping shop.

Transportation is by boat, bush plane or snowmobiles, although the locals refer to them as snow machines. At $5.51 per gallon, gas is reserved for those modes of transportation and for necessary travel.
Life on the Tundra

At the end of September, temperatures were 45 degrees Fahrenheit in Kasigluk, but normally temperatures are already in the 30s. The lowest temperatures will likely be -42 degrees Fahrenheit with the wind chill factor. School is only delayed when it's -45 degrees Fahrenheit or colder.

Alaska has been experiencing the effects of global warming, and, with Knapp's town sitting at sea level, the effects are apparent at his ground-level shack which sinks during the summer months. In particular, the kitchen starts to sink because the appliances are heavy. When the cold weather begins, the ground freezes and shifts, bringing the kitchen level with the rest of the shack.

Global warming is just one of many concerns living in this part of Alaska. Soon daylight will start lessening by 12 minutes each day.

"It's definitely a noticeable change," Tony said.

In Kasigluk, residents get three-and-a-half hours of sunlight in the peak of winter and about three-and-a-half-hours of darkness in the peak of summer.

People in the village live in homes with modern amenities such as running water, cable and electricity that is powered by windmills. However, the Yup'iks are still primarily hunter-gatherers. There are no jobs in the village except a few at the town's only store, on the tribal council and as substitute teachers at the school.

Money flows back and forth in town, but because there are so few jobs, bootlegging alcohol is a problem among the town's youngsters. That's one of the main reasons for the trapping program – to help students make money in a legal way.

Despite their efforts, selling fur isn't what it used to be. There was a time, when fox pelts would garner $75 per pelt, but now they sell for $8.70 per pelt.

"By being politically correct, you're almost going against someone else's culture," he said.

And the culture isn't just catching animals for fur. They are catching animals for survival as hunter-gatherers. Foods they regularly catch and eat include beaver, salmon, moose and a variety of birds such as crane and last year's Thanksgiving swan. The Knapps have also tried muskrat and mink.

Tony and Jess have become rather fond of beaver, which he says tastes like roast after it's cooked for long enough in a crockpot.

They traveled two hours to get to where the salmon run. They caught and kept 15 to 16 salmon, which is about 32 filets.

The Knapps only keep one out of every three animals they catch. The rest of the animals they give to the local elders, which strengthens their relationships with the people there.

In the summer, there are berries everywhere on the ground, and they collect them and freeze them.

Jess becomes frustrated because lettuce is about $8 per head, and, in order to get the lettuce, they must travel an hour via bush flight to get it, then another hour to come home.

When they visit home, she splurges on the salad, Tony said. But for him, when they come home his dietary splurge is on doughnuts. He estimates having eaten several dozen last summer in a matter of weeks.

Catching one's own food and obtaining one's own educational and everyday supplies are some things that were a hard adjustment living in that part of Alaska. When he comes home to Pennsylvania, he has to remind himself of the convenience of stores and restaurants. They do have Amazon Prime, but two-day shipping is actually about two weeks for them.

The reason they continue to live there is for the students.

"We love the kids," Tony said.

Jess agreed. "We get asked a lot up here why we don't have kids yet, and we usually just respond it's because we already have 40 Yup'ik children."

They're not sure they want to expand their family there since the nearest hospital is between four and six hours away.

"We kind of hope to be here for a long time," he said. "It's definitely an adventure, at this point."

An adventure it is. Tony, with his long beard, can usually be seen with a rifle strapped to him and among dead animals – and that's at the school.

"I realize how ridiculous my life is when I look at pictures," he said.

Now, he believes he could teach anywhere.

"It's definitely a different world."

Last Updated 4/9/18