In their rural subsistence village, this educator teaches coding to Alaska Native students
Braving blizzards, butchering caribou, and packing a year of groceries on a barge: For Anna Mekki, it’s just part of the job teaching computer science in Wainwright, Alaska.
Located in Alaska’s North Slope Borough, the village of Wainwright is home to about 550 people — 90 percent of whom are Iñupiat, a group of Alaska Natives whose ancestry can be traced to the Utukamiut and Kukmiut. Winters are long and harsh, with temperatures that can drop to -50 degrees Fahrenheit. Most residents fish, hunt, and gather their food within a subsistence lifestyle, a tradition here that dates back thousands of years.
There are ten miles of developed roads, one post office, two stores, and one school: Alak School. It’s here that Anna Mekki, originally from Oklahoma, teaches computer science to the school’s 7th graders.
“In this village, every student has some kind of digital device,” Anna says. “They have a tablet, they have a laptop, or they have a phone. I want to give them something to do besides just play a game. Hey, create a game, you know? Create something!”
Old meets new in Wainwright, where students may help their parents or grandparents cut and distribute whale meat, then return home to work on an app for class. Anna says combining computer science and subsistence living is a great example of this year’s Hour of Code theme, #CSEverywhere.
“People might say, ‘Well, how could it be?’ But actually, I think that some of them have used some different apps and things to help redesign their weapons and things like that,” she says. “So technology has a way of coming in to many things. It can be both worlds and work harmoniously. You can work with the nature world and the digital world without losing one or the other.”
The road to Wainwright
Anna has been teaching in Wainwright for three years, and taught in Barrow, Alaska, for nine years before that. She lives with her two adopted daughters, both of whom are Inupiat.
But prior to her teaching career, she had wanted to be a computer programmer. Anna spent years working at a semiconductor firm in Oregon and served as a peer trainer. It was while she was training an older coworker in computer skills that she had what she calls her eureka moment: “I realized, ‘Hey, I want to teach and I love kids. Let’s teach kids!’”
After getting her teaching degree, she got an email from Alaska’s teacher placement and thought, “Why not?” Quickly upon arrival, she got her first lesson in Alaska living: She locked herself out of her house without a jacket in below freezing temperatures.
But now, Anna has adapted: She can dress for the weather, speak some of the Inupiat language, drive a four-wheeler for transportation — as many in the village do — and has a freezer full of whale meat and caribou.
“It is not for everyone,” she says. “Not everyone can do it. They just don’t make it. They think, ‘Oh, the adventure!’ Well, yes, it’s adventurous, but it’s hard work.”
Anna loves the village and the community she’s found there. When her mother passed away, Anna returned from caring for her and found a large group of friends waiting at the airport to comfort her. Friends and neighbors regularly share supplies and food with each other, be it a surplus of donuts or even an entire caribou — one of which was dropped off on Anna’s front porch a few weeks ago.
Sharing is part of the Inupiat values, which Anna instills in her daughters and her students. The values include compassion, cooperation, family and kinship, humility, humor, avoidance of conflict, hunting traditions, knowledge of language, love and respect for our elders and one another, respect for nature, sharing, and spirituality.
Going the extra mile
At Alak School, Anna’s main job is teaching kindergarten. But during their gym or language periods, she runs across the school to teach computer science to the 7th grade class. Both Anna and the school’s principal have been excited about bringing computer science to the school, but it hasn’t always been easy.
To start, there weren’t enough computers and Anna had to work with the school district to get the laptops needed for the class of 14 students. Lately, the internet in the area has had connectivity issues, so Anna’s had to bring in her own hotspots to keep the class going. Still, she’s enjoying teaching using the Code.org platform.
“Code.org offers problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration and working with each other — all those kinds of things that we want students to do in every class,” Anna says. “It’s a platform that makes it so easy to see, ‘Here’s where I am, and here’s where I need to be.’ And it offers tutorials, how-tos, and help. It offers a lot that you don’t have to dredge up from a book or something else. It’s right there at your fingertips.”
Her students are having fun, too: “When we tried out the apps, everyone was giggling and laughing,” she says. “It was a good feeling. I heard one of them say, ‘This has been the best day.’”
The parents in the village weren’t quite on board at first, but only due to an incorrect course description: Anna’s class was initially listed as “Keyboarding,” and parents didn’t understand how a student could be struggling in Keyboarding on their report card or why a keyboarding course was necessary at all. So Anna sent home a letter to explain Code.org and the benefits of learning computer science.
“They respect me as a teacher,” she says. “And I think once the parents actually see some of the things that their students are working on, they will be pretty excited about it.”
Some of her students are especially interested in computer science, and Anna plans to get them started on the CS Fundamentals Express course in their own time to help foster that interest. Like most teachers, she’s especially hopeful about reaching students who may not have found their aspirations or passions yet.
“Whatever I can do to encourage or to help, even if it’s just one student that goes into the computer science field and does something extraordinary. What if it’s just one student that tips the world for a better tomorrow?”
— Samantha Urban Tarrant, Code.org
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