A teacher in the Dehcho has taken her Dene Zhatié classes online to make sure students still have a way to learn the Dene language during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Schools in the territory are closed for the remainder of the academic year. School districts have been choosing so-called “core courses” to continue online or through packages dropped at students’ doors.
Sharon Allen’s Dene Zhatié class – for junior high students at Líídlįį Kúę High School in Fort Simpson – wasn’t a core course, she told Cabin Radio. Despite that, she thinks the language is not only important to learn, but enjoyable, too.
“So I was [thinking] what am I going to do?” she said.
“We’re not part of the core courses to be taught from home and we still need our languages.
“Why not continue on with what I was doing at school?”
Allen created an online group – Dene Zhatié on Facebook – to keep her lessons going.
In one video, she can be seen holding up plush-toy versions of different birds and announcing their names. Other short videos from the kitchen have people announcing the names of foods.
Getting kids to ‘connect the dots’
Dene Zhatié is one of 11 official languages in the NWT.
Allen, a fluent speaker and writer of the language who has taught for as long as she can remember, says the most important thing is to keep practising it, no matter what.
“I was raised in Jean Marie River by my godparents and so at the time when I was growing up, we mostly spoke Dene in the home,” said Allen. “I’ve always had my language, but it wasn’t until I was much older that I always spoke it.”
She credits a man named Andy Norwegian for pushing her to practise writing her language.
“When I was going to high school, Andy Norwegian got me doing a lot of writing,” she said. “And then, when I got my first job working with senior citizens, [part] of my job was speaking to Elders every day.”
Despite creating a Facebook group, Allen realizes some of her students won’t have computer equipment or internet access.
“We’re limited for having access to technology … like iPads and things like that,” she said. “With our community, with our level of internet bandwidth, it’s not very good.”
That creates a challenge because her language teaching is a vocal exercise. Allen has to find a way to commit some of that knowledge to paper packages.
“Teachers are trying different ways to get the kids to connect the dots,” she said.
“I pretty-much have to create a lot of the material from home. I put the packages together and supplement their learning by putting it on Facebook – then they can watch the wordings that I use regularly.
“I’m having to do the extra legwork for some of my students, like doing the research for them and having the material for them so that they can be successful.”
Learning on the land
Ordinarily, one of Allen’s tools is the land. She would take students outside and incorporate everyday tasks into the language she taught them.
“At the high school, they were getting 80-minute blocks, but [the school boards] reduced the time to 40 minutes,” she said. “I used to have 80-minute classes with my students and it was fantastic, because I could take them out on the land, make a fire, talk about fire, and by the time we got back to class our 80 minutes had run its course.”
When asked how long it takes a student to become fluent in Dene Zhatié, Allen laughs.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “Well, they would have to have a lot of language exposure. Any kind of learning is tough.
“You need to practise and need the discipline to be fluent.”