Lesson Plan on Yup’ik Orthodoxy

ED 680- Lesson Plan 3.0

As I reflect on the lesson plan that I have created, I think that the most important thing I am trying to address is Cultural Standard for Curriculum E.1, which reads, “encourages students to consider the inter-relationship between their local circumstances and the global community.”

The most basic portion of my lesson is to get my students, who are all formally members of the same religion and who share in a very homogeneous culture, to understand that other people who share their religion do not necessarily share their culture, including their specific religious culture. I think on many levels they are already aware of their cultural distinctness already. For instance, when I or other kassaqs visit the village, nobody expects us to speak Yup’ik or know local table manners. On other levels, they may be somewhat blind to their own culture, because they look out at the other from within, not necessarily seeing themselves. So for instance, when they talk to kassaqs subtly with their eyebrows or hear a kassaq speaking loudly, they may mistake the person for obtuse or rude, when in fact he or she simply doesn’t know what Fr. Oleksa so eloquently called “the rules of the game.”

When Orthodox people come in from outside, as I did in January when I visited, they very often are coached in how to adapt themselves to the rules of the local religious culture, and so I suspect differences that would otherwise become obvious are muted. There are exceptions to this, like, for instance, a few years ago when Fr. John Erickson, the respected former dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, came to give some lectures. When he saw certain women standing outside the sanctuary where he was about to give his talk, he asked them to come in. When they refused and continued to try to listen from the doorway, he was told that this was due to the fact that they were menstruating. Understanding this, Fr. Erickson began to try to theologically convince them that it was okay for them to enter the sanctuary for the lesson. They laughed at him, thinking his request absurd to the point of being comical. Needless to say, he lost the argument.

It is my hope, through the cultural component of my lesson, to begin to help address the very basic issue of “not all Orthodox people do it the same way,” and that a lot of this can be understood in terms of culture. But I’m not completely convinced my strategy is a winning one. I remember my fiancee telling me about arguing with some of her high school students about the existence of abortion. No, I didn’t type that wrong; I’m not talking about the ethics of abortion, I’m talking about the existence of abortion. When my fiancee asked one of her classes to compare general Republican and Democrat positions on a number of issues, including abortion, there were several who were unaware that it even existed. One boy, one of the better students at the high school, challenged her directly, assuming that she was simply making up the worst possible thing she could think of and trying to tease the class with it. He simply could not wrap his mind around it. It made no sense. It was completely beyond his cultural frame of reference. “Babies are good. Everyone wants babies.” What happens when you have a baby you feel like you don’t want or can’t take care of? “Well, you find someone else who wants one and give it to them.” And that is simply how it is done in the village.

Religiously, my fiancee has encountered such cultural difficulties any number of times. Once, when she was taking a group of students to Hawaii on a grant, they met an Orthodox priest in an airport. He was dressed in a Western suit and clerical collar, as opposed to a more traditional Orthodox priestly garb, but my fiancee knew him and knew he was a priest. She went and received his blessing, which shocked and scandalized her students. She was eventually able to convince them that he was Orthodox even though (to them) he didn’t “look Orthodox.”

Later on that vacation, the students went into deep culture shock over things like restaurant menus (they had never eaten in restaurants before) and elevator buttons (they had never seen such things).

Therefore, I am a little concerned that my lesson may be over-ambitious, at least in terms of the embedded videos that I was thinking about using. The Greek Orthodox parish video from New Jersey concerns me the most, actually.

As I think about it, I’m beginning to have doubts that the students would even be willing to recognize these church people as actually being Orthodox. If students at the high school fought with my fiancee over a Roman collar, will they fight with me over all of the manifold, manifold Americanisms in the religious culture of this community that “prove” that clearly they are not Orthodox?

Angie asked me to try to write some things that might strike students as different and embed them within the lesson, and I came up with 14 just off the top of my head:

1) the use of instrumentation to accompany church singing (not traditionally practiced in Orthodox countries)

2) the presence of pews in the worship space (something not practiced in traditional Orthodoxy and not practiced in Yup’ik Orthodox Churches – they get in the way of traditional worship movements like prostrations)

3) the mixing of men and women freely in the worship space

4) the fact that the women are not wearing head coverings (which would indicate in Yup’ik Orthodox churches that they were not Orthodox, but means nothing in most East Coast American Orthodox congregations)

5) the fact that the senior priests are not wearing hats for this rite

6) the presence of stained glass windows in the building’s structure (not a part of Orthodox architecture in traditional countries and not a part of Yup’ik Orthodox church architecture)

7) the use of the censor by a subdeacon during the procession (a traditional Greek practice that is not a part of Yup’ik tradition)

8) the general posture of worshipers, which is free and shifting

9) the fact that the priest explicitly permits kneeling instead of full prostration (as is done by most Orthodox during this rite)

10) the use of the Greek language in the service

11) the generally different (non-Russian-influenced) character of the music

12) the pillar-style altar table (a Greek style not built in Western Alaska)

13) the fact that one priest who can clearly grow a beard is cleanshaven and another has only a mustache (culturally, Yup’ik priests tend to grow as much facial hair as they can, following an older Russian practice)

14) the fact that the priests don’t prostrate before the cross, but rather only bow (in a Yup’ik context, both the priests and the congregation would have made full prostrations)

So the question is, do these things become teaching moments about “culturally Americanized Greeks who are truly also Orthodox” and who can serve as a basis for expanding the horizons of the class, or are they really just a waste of time? Certainly, the answer that I’m looking for is a culturally responsive one. How do I use the culture that they have now (without in any way judging it) to try to bring them to an expanded view of the world? How do you get kids to follow you outside of the confines of their own minds and (indeed) the confines of their own culture? I guess the answer is, first of all, to try to teach them that you love them and that they can trust you and that you’re worth trusting. Only then, maybe, will they let me help them “consider the inter-relationship between their local circumstances and the global community.”

8 thoughts on “Lesson Plan on Yup’ik Orthodoxy”

  1. I am curious what class(es) you will be teaching and how you will be able to work religion into the picture?

    1. Hi Cecelia,

      Well, theoretically I’ll be teaching Social Studies, but since my fiancee is formally the certified Social Studies teacher on the faculty (although she also teaches Math, Computer Science, and Music), I’ve been set up with a mentor in another field. As for what I might actually end up teaching during my student teaching year, it could be just about anything. These schools have very small staffs and teachers often end up wearing many, many hats.

      As for working religion into the curriculum, the Alaska history standard calls for teaching what the impacts of the arrival of the Russian Missionaries were. One of those results of course was the establishment of local cultures that led to the unique synthesis that I will be living in in Napaskiak.

      My thought, anyway, was to work backward from lived experience (e.g. they all know Slaaviq – Julian Christmas – because they all participate in it, down to the last household) back to “Russian history,” and in this way to attempt to bring about a sense of connection to the material we are studying.

      But, as we have discussed in class, it is important to try to bring up and address “essential questions” or “big picture questions.” It is one of my personal convictions that we only know ourselves in dialogue with the “other.” My hope would be that introducing an “other” in the form of “other” Orthodox Christians might give my students insight into themselves and their own culture, religious or otherwise.

  2. This is really cool Ed. First off: I had no idea that there was a culture in Alaska that still inculcated a belief that menstruation was a thing that should be kept out of the “sanctuary.” But I show my ignorance here; I don’t know what a sanctuary is. I’m assuming it has something to do with the Orthodox church (the physical building, not the metonymy). And the fact that there could be young adults who are so outside of the cultural background of our federalized world to be ignorant of the existence of abortion – the legalization of which is really one of the landmark social issues of American society in the last 40 years….I mean, what a different, rare space to be brought up in to have never heard of abortion, much less the massive cultural debate surrounding it.

    Anyways, your lesson plan and more to the point -your write up above – really makes me want to go to “Yupikia” the Y-K delta, et. al. How wondrously improbable it is that there is still such a different, “foreign” culture existing within the homegeneity of modern America?

    As to your lesson, I think this part of your focus REALLY ties your students’ potential lack of comprehension to a VERY common universal lack of comprehension, which is:
    -That every religious group is completely the same everywhere it is found.
    -That religions that migrate between cultures do not take on characteristics of
    each culture.

    Whether it’s Russian Orthodoxy or “Islam” there are so many people, young and old, who love to simplify an entire religious/cultural complex of belief to a single label. Ex. I’ve been to countries where Muslim women wear mini-skirts in the streets and nightclubs pump the latest jams…and I’ve been to countries where the Muslim women are all veiled and turn their faces away from traffic in the streets. But they were all “Muslim”. So, the utility of the label is extremely limited…you really have to narrow in to a specific culture say anything accurate at all about a religion. It’s just not universal, regardless of the label. That’s a truth that needs to be told.

    1. Hi Ryan,

      a “sanctuary” is a general term for a religious group’s sacred space. For Orthodox, specifically, there tends to be an antechamber in their architecture, so the “sanctuary” is all of the space beyond the antechamber.

      You’re right that such towns are “wondrously improbable” in our “federalized world.” It is a bit of a marvel. I think that modern communications technologies will do much to reign such places into the broader American cultural orbit, as will the continued effects of the presence of the public schools.

      Interestingly enough, Napaskiak went straight to cellphones technologically. They skipped landlines. How weird is that?

  3. You bring up a few topics that stir up a lot of emotions in people and go into great detail in your discourse. You have been pontificating for quite some time, but I would caution you to choose your words with great care especially when it appears you are questioning the value of a group of people and their place in the world. Be careful of using language where you put yourself above the group you wish to engage. You write, “How do you get kids to follow you outside of the confines of their own minds and (indeed) the confines of their own culture?” First of all, you have written yourself as their leader leading them from the confines of their culture and that is not how I interpret the Cultural Standard.
    At the Tling’it language camp, a student shared a valuable lesson he learned from his Elders. He said, the Elders taught them that they are all equals. Though an Elder is highly respected, he or she is at the same level as anyone in the community. He suggested I bring this mindset to the classroom by not talking down to my students. I have taken that advice to heart and I am offering that same advice to you. Thank you for sharing your perspective. You are obviously someone who thinks very deeply on many facets of life and I believe you can understand the weight of a word can have on a person.

    1. I can, Tyler, and I appreciate your note of caution. I certainly am not trying to talk down to anyone.

      The problem is that we cannot remain unchanged when we end up in contact with the “other.” If nothing else, knowing changes the knower. I am certainly not some guru who wants to reform the culture of Napaskiak. Frankly, there are quite a number of elements that I see in it that I prefer to my own culture.

      However, I must recognize that in my role as an educator, I will be provoking some level of change by necessity. I think that Scott’s statement last week that “teaching is a political act” was absolutely profound. There is a host of difference between illiterate, semi-literate, and highly literate societies, as sociological research has borne out. If you take an illiterate people and make their children literate, you are changing their culture dramatically. It even changes the way the brain functions in day-to-day life (memory functions, linear versus cyclical talking patterns and oratory, etc). No matter what you do in education, if you have any effect at all, you are changing culture.

      And this is so because culture is not some static artifact up on a shelf, but it is rather the living, breathing, dynamic experience of a group of people, be it relatively small like that of the village or a hulking behemoth like dominant Western culture, whose influence extends far beyond its hundreds of millions of direct participants.

      And we should make no bones about it – the American educational system is about assimilation as much as it ever was. Don’t kid yourself, you’re on somebody else’s mission in this. We claim we cherish diversity, but it is only diversity within a very narrow band. Tell me, if you go to these Yup’ik first language villages, where English penetration is still somewhat limited, and you succeed in your job as an English teacher and teach all the kids English, and then you set books in front of them and teach them to read other men’s stories (or their own stories, written down in a language that was not their ancestors’ and in characters imported from Europe) – will you then turn around and tell me you have not changed their culture, that you have not, as an educator, led them from one culture to a new culture? Their new culture will of necessity be built on their old one and what you have brought them, but you will absolutely have changed their culture, just as much as the advent of the cellphone in the village has already started to.

      I’m sorry if this comes off as harsh. Knowing changes the knower, and I very much expect to be changed in Napaskiak. But I do not wish to be self-deluded. I do not think it is the intention of the Cultural Standards that we fetishize the past or the present and store them on a shelf for a bunch of people with a completely different culture to come coo at. Rather, I think it the intention of the Cultural Standards that we treat the past and what seems to be passing away with respect and reverence, recognizing the dignity and humanity of our ancestors, our parents, and our own selves and respecting the unique experience of each community and each individual.

      I am not better than an illiterate man. In fact, judged in the grand sweep of history, there are a great many that I am vastly inferior to by my own measure of what counts in life. However, on balance, I think that universal literacy is a good thing. Its presence precludes so many unique and beautiful lives of illiterate men, and yet I call it “good.” Teaching is a political act, and politics is about shaping culture. We can’t get away from it.

      1. As a future educator I would like to further remind you that you are not going into that community as a knower, you are going as a facilitator. While “othering” people might seem like a safe act, it is a racist act. You will be the student, not the knower. You will have a lot to learn, unless you plan on surviving off of privilege alone. You can either accept that reality humbly and sit down, or you can go up there as an outsider and attempt to force your all knowing presence upon the community. You do not get to define anyone’s cultural world view, thinking that you can is an act of privilege. Please do not think that a 3 week course qualifies you as a multicultural educator, there is still so much more for you to not only learn about, but also to integrate into your knowledge, your heart, and into your soul. I hope for your sake and humility that you find the space to learn about your new community not as a method to reorient them, but as a way to expand your own world view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *