Focus on culture
Conference brings together Deh Cho educators

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

FORT SIMPSON (Aug 27/99) - Respect. In a word, that's one of the most important aspects of cultural awareness, according to educators Mary Jane Nayally and Bernice Gargan.

They were among the close to 70 teachers to attend the Focus Forward educators' conference in Fort Simpson from Tuesday through Thursday. Nayally and Gargan both took in facilitator Rebecca Martel's presentation on cultural awareness, one of many different sessions held over the three days, and they spoke highly of what they heard.

"She teaches you to look deeply within yourself to teach the younger generation," Nayally explained.

"...and to understand where they're coming from," Gargan interjected.

Nayally, a language specialist at Bompas elementary school in Fort Simpson, said Martel also discussed the significance of aboriginal traditions and ceremonies and the importance of teaching youth to respect the land and living forces. Educators new to the community were encouraged to learn about the Dene culture and to try to pick up the language, even if it's just a word or two.

"Basically to show respect for one another -- to care and share," she said.

Cindy Buterbaugh, a teacher at Charles Yohin school in Nahanni Butte, was also moved by Martel's message.

"She deals with everything with such respect and calmness. You could just listen to her for hours," she said.

Andy Norwegian, language specialist for the Deh Cho Divisional Board of Education, gave a presentation on the Dene Kede program. Its purpose is to immerse students in the Dene language through a vehicle like the Dene camp used by Bompas school.

"So you're using language in the context of an authentic cultural experience," he said.

Cultural awareness was just one aspect of the educators' conference, entitled Focus Forward. Among the other topics were: bullying, student support and classroom subject material.

Nolan Swartzentruber, director of the Deh Cho Divisional Board of Education, which sponsored the conference, said teacher input was sought when the topics were being arranged.

"We want to try and meet educators' needs," he said.

Gerald May, who has been teacher for over 20 years, said these sorts of conferences are definitely worthwhile.

"This is one of the best we've had. It's local, it's Deh Cho region. When you go to Yellowknife it's not as pertinent," he contended.

May, a grades 8-9 teacher at Echo Dene school in Fort Liard, said he was particularly interested in the subject matter dealing with computer technology because a new curriculum will be introduced in the next year or two requiring specified standards for each grade level. He was also anxious to brush up on the changes to the math and science programs.

"Each year you pick an area you'd like to improve on," he said.

One of the greatest challenges for this year's conference was finding a guest speaker. Comedian Don Burnstick cancelled as did his replacement, Education Minister Michael Miltenberger. Pauline Gordon, the assistant deputy minister, wound up behind the microphone Tuesday evening instead.