Sunday, August 28, 2011

"There's No Such Thing as a Bad Day in Alaska, Only Bad Gear"

It's Sunday afternoon, the eve of the commencement of my first year teaching and I'm freaking out! I thought it might be therapeutic to take a break from the overwhelming task of preparing my first classroom to blog for a few minutes!  Though you can't exactly consider blogging productive in light of the first day of school tomorrow, it is a serious effort to clear my mind and get me back on track :o)

While our east coast family and friends were surviving hurricane Irene, (happy to hear everyone is safe :o)) I was surviving my first week of SIG (School Improvement Grant) training!  After feeling like I was relatively prepared for the first day of school a week ago today, this week of training completely changed my mind and threw me into panic mode.  The grant is an effort to help schools who are not meeting AYP (adequate yearly progress) and who need help getting their students' standardized test scores and graduation rates up.  While they throw some nice perks at the teachers (iPad 2's, free round trip flights to Nome, returning bonuses, etc...) they also supply you with student data, school wide goals, high teacher expectations and a whole lot of acronyms that I'm not sure I understand yet!  I'm really excited to be working for a school that's going through this change and I feel super motivated to make an impact on these kids and help them to succeed on their tests.  I also feel added pressure and am really worried about living up to the high expectations!  It's going to be a challenging year, but a good friend of mine and fellow AKT2 member, gave me a new motto to live by:  "Fake it 'til you make it." :o)  Maybe if I can successfully pretend that I know what I'm doing, I'll actually figure it out at some point!!  In all seriousness, I'd hoped to be at least a quarter ahead of my kids this year, but reality set in pretty quickly and now I'm focusing on executing this week successfully--I'll worry about next week on Saturday!

While there was a LOT of essential information handed to me this week, (that I'm still processing)  Brendan and I also gained some other useful facts from some pretty great resources.  We actually met the couple who lived in the house that we currently live in, back in the 80's.  Talk about a great resource!  We learned that while they were living there, a polar bear was killed on the front porch that our kitchen window looks out on. YIKES.  My new favorite game to play is displaying scenarios for B to solve.  "So what if you go to grab your coffee in the morning and there's a polar bear looking in the window?"  Don't worry Dad, we've got a solid emergency plan in progress!  We came to the conclusion that storms here will have all of the same exciting/frightening aspects like making sure we have enough water, candles and batteries, but the difference is that back home we got to curl up at home while schools and roads were closing, with a glass of wine and a good book.  There won't be any closings or delays here, just bundling up earlier to ensure that we can fight our way through the storms and still make it to school on time! We are definitely enjoying the sunshine while we have it. :o)

The couple also gave us some great names of brands and stores to look at as we continue our quest to invest in some serious winter gear.  They told us which stores will give us the best deals and which ones will ship for free.  I also took a quote from him, "There's no such thing as a bad day in Alaska, only bad gear."  We know it's going to get cold, that's a given.  I don't have a problem spending money on a jacket if it's going to keep me warm all winter!  A headlamp is essential, our walks to school in the morning are already getting pretty dark!  Rainpants are first on the list...we experienced our first rainy, windy, dark walk (which was one adventure) and then got to experience wearing the cold, wet pants all day.  Two lessons were learned that day: 1) Keep dry clothes at school and 2) invest in some rain gear!  That first paycheck is coming up...and it's definitely already spoken for!

We were able to get out of town last week and hike to some cliffs about 2 miles outside of the village.  We went with some teachers who have been here for a few years and they took us to the spot where all of the puffins fly around and hang out! It was pretty incredible, standing on the edge of a huge cliff with the Bering Sea crashing on the rocks and thousands of puffins flying all around us.  We are trying to take advantage of as many opportunities as we can to get out of the village to explore...before we know it the sun will be gone and the snow and polar bears will be here!

Brendan has had a really successful cross country week and had almost 20 kids at practice yesterday!  He found out that he'll be attending the Unalakleet meet on September 10th with 8 athletes of his choice. They have to have 10 practices to travel, and a few of them are almost there!  He might be able to coach volleyball as well, which we all know he'd be pretty awesome at! :o) He's gotten a great start on the website, which the principal approved and he's also been opening the school store.  His regular hours will start this week and the store will be open Monday-Friday from the time school gets out (3:40) until 4:00, and then Monday-Saturday during open gym (7-10 pm.)  We might be back to working opposite schedules, but at least we are staying busy and enjoying some meals together!  With the amount that we both have to do, I think this year is going to fly by!

We watched a beautiful sunset last night after enjoying some fresh local halibut for dinner, and there's a lot to look forward to this week.  School starts tomorrow, we get our first box of organic produce, we can finally pick up the rest of our groceries, and...drum roll....I finally get paid! WOO! This will be a 6 day work week, as we have Saturday school this week, but we get Labor Day off so it will be a regular weekend still.  I have high hopes and expectations for the school year, but reality is certainly keeping those hopes in check.  As of today, even though I feel extremely overwhelmed, I feel motivated and challenged, and ready to tackle the year.  All we can do is take day by day and put forth our best effort.  Since I was 5, my favorite day of the year has always been the first day of goes nothing!!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back in Savoonga, Back to Work!

I got back to Savoonga last Friday evening, after my first experience of craziness while traveling in the bush!  There were multiple flights leaving the inservice on Friday.  One flight was chartered and was supposed to go straight from Unalakleet to the island, dropping off Savoonga first then dropping off Gambell teachers.  I was on the flight scheduled to fly from Unalakleet to Nome on the district plane, and then take a regular flight from Nome back to Savoonga.  Weather in Unalakleet was not good, and weather on the island was even worse!  Gambell teachers were told that Gambell was fogged in and there was no way the plane would land...they would have to sleep in Savoonga overnight.  The people flying to Nome first were told that we might end up flying back to Unalakleet later that night if we couldn't get from Nome to the island.

Talk about confusing....I was just along for the ride, with no idea where I'd be sleeping that night and, since B had the phone, no way to let him know when I'd be getting back.  I was a little stressed out but decided it wasn't worth it since there was nothing I could do anyway.  The flight from Unalakleet to Nome was less than pleasant...the fog was pretty dense and it's a bit unnerving when you can see out the same window the pilot is looking out, and you can't see ANYTHING!  But the district pilot is highly thought of and well respected, so I felt relatively safe!  We flew right above the water the whole time, never reaching an elevation of 500 ft. ( I was close enough to the pilot that I could see the control panel and gauges :o) )  It was an adventure for sure, and the first time that I'd ever felt nervous on a plane.  We decided we need to invest in some ginger or peppermint for our next bush travel...I was pretty nauseous by the time we landed!  But, we landed safely in Nome where the sun was shining!

The weather turned and we were able to catch the next flight to Savoonga.  I was home for dinner and it ended up being a beautiful day on the island!  Sadly, this past weekend, there was a plane that did not reach its destination when leaving a teacher inservice from another district, and the pilot and a veteran teacher did not survive.  While we planned on not telling Mom and Dad (didn't want them stressing...) the news made the local newspaper in Salem. Go figure!  Bush pilots fly in much worse conditions and much more challenging terrain than commercial pilots do in the lower 48.  I give all of them so much respect and credit....we have a lot to get used to if we plan on traveling a lot from here!

Since I've been back we've been hard at work setting up my classroom.  So far, we've gotten the desks arranged, books sorted and put away and posters up on the wall.  I was lucky to receive almost 40 boxes of brand new book sets that we'll be using this year.  Opening all of the boxes felt like Christmas morning--it was awesome! I've also been attending inservice meetings and training, and we've been getting to know the other teachers.  Brendan has been holding cross country practices, and hit a PR with 6 kids showing up yesterday! Go B!  Hoping for more this afternoon :o)

I'll post pictures of my classroom when we get it finished, it's still a work in progress.  I'm getting pretty overwhelmed with all that I have to do.  Anyone who's taught already knows how tough the first year is....I'm trying to prepare myself for it! The great thing is that we don't have much else to do but prepare.  There aren't any distractions here, we can't go out on the weekends and we don't have other jobs and responsibilities pulling us in every direction.  We are finally getting enough sleep every night, and have time to just enjoy each other's company!  We've been playing lots of scrabble, reading lots of books and being created with the limited food that we have until our big grocery order comes in.  Last night was black beans, corn and peppers (frozen, not fresh) with rice, which is actually a typical meal for us.  We can't wait to get our groceries, we don't even remember what we bought at this point!

The other night after dinner we went and explored on the beach by our house.  When we came in around 10 pm, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.  It's so peaceful here, I can't remember the last time I felt so at ease all the time!  Even with so much to do, and the overwhelming feeling that comes and goes as I'm lesson planning, I think we are both more relaxed and NOT stressed than we've been in a really long time!

The rocky beach by our house:

Enjoying the p.m. sunshine...:o)

Home sweet home for the next few years!! (Unless of course we get lucky and the new teacher housing is actually finished in the near future ;o) )  The vice principal was pretty sympathetic the other night during our housing inspection, and is rallying for a new carpet for us...we'll see if it happens!  We did get hooked back up to the main fuel source last night though, so no more 5 gallon bucket having to be replaced every other day! Hooray for heat!!

One more picture...this is the view from our kitchen window.  There's a little cliff, then that's the Bering Sea! 

Will write more after the next week of training!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Live From Unalakleet!

It's 4:00 on Wednesday afternoon and I just finished my first day of New Teacher Training in Unalakleet, AK. The BSSD flew us here on their district plane yesterday and we flew the whole coastline of the St. Lawrence Island at 100 ft before gaining elevation to fly over the Bering Sea.  It was incredible!  Unfortunately, B had to stay home during this training, but I can't wait to show him all of the pictures.  Hopefully he'll take that route to one of his cross country meets!

This is where Flying Wild Alaska is filmed and although, unfortunately, I'm not too familiar with it, several of the new teachers are so I managed to gather some insight from them!  We apparently walked by the Tweto family's home, (sorry fans, I didn't take pictures because I hadn't yet realized who the Tweto's were!)  However, I did see some photographic proof that Ferno was, in fact, unloading some of the new teacher's luggage at the Unalakleet airport!

Unalakleet is a really nice village and is much smaller than I expected.  I'm not sure how the population compares with Savoonga's, but it is less remote and a little more modernized.  There are paved roads, several vehicles, a pizza place and a pool hall.  There is also a fish cannery, which some people are touring tonight.  We saw some locals bring in fresh silver salmon and they taught us how they prepare them.  Everyone I've met has been extremely welcoming and eager to talk about their fishing livelihood.

We visited the AC (the village store) and I scoped out some prices.  I haven't been to the store in Savoonga yet (but B might have checked it out by now,) so I don't have anything to compare it to, but here are some examples:
Loaf of bread: $6
Canister of Quaker Oats: $11
Bag of frozen veggies: $4-6
Bag of chips: $6
Cereal: $7
They did have a small fresh produce selection, so I'll be filling up the cooler that I brought before I leave on Friday!  We are signing up for Full Circle Farms, which is an organic farm out of Seattle that delivers fresh produce to several of the rural villages in bush Alaska.  They deliver once a week, which is as often as we can get it, but we will probably start off getting a box every other week and seeing how long it lasts.  It's $68 a box, which includes the actual transportation of the veggies, so in the grand scheme of things, and taking into consideration the amount of veggies B and I consume, I think it will be well worth it.  The residents who lived in our house before us left a hydroponic plant system in our boiler room, so we may be adventurous and plant some veggies of our own.  That's a pretty big project though and I'm sure won't happen for a few months :o)

Our training has been really interesting so far and even though a ton of information is being thrown at us, I'm really learning a lot.  We are implementing a new curriculum this year and I'll be working hand in hand with the Social Studies department.  We'll be doing something called Character Based Literacy, and we will be covering the same time periods as the semester progresses.  The curriculum gives the students multiple ways to show understanding, and it seems to differentiate really well.  I'm pretty excited to be at the beginning stages of it and to try it out in class in a few weeks!

Although I feel completely out of my element in this whole Alaskan adventure, and can't believe we are actually here, I feel simultaneously 100% accepted, supported and at home.  It's been a great experience so far and I hope for it to continue to be positive.  I think we've already overcome a lot, and I also think the hard stuff (tough kids and winter) is still coming.  We're as prepared as we can be and are up for the challenge.

B's in Savoonga now, making preparations to begin his cross country season.  He's going to be such an awesome coach, I can't wait to see how the kids respond to him!  He's already been great with the kids who knock on our door asking to come in and to play, and he's used the interactions wisely and done some XC recruiting!  I'm really looking forward to getting back to the island on Friday and catching up on all he's been up to in our new home!

Thanks again for all of the love and support you've been sending our way.  There's currently a cell coverage outage in Savoonga, so apologies to those who have tried to call or text--we haven't been ignoring you!!  We will keep everyone posted! :o)

Saturday, August 6, 2011


We made it!  We've reached our destination but I'm pretty sure the real journey has just begun!  We arrived in Savoonga, AK yesterday afternoon around 5:30.  We flew from Anchorage to Nome, where we had a 4 hour layover.  We went into town with a few other teachers and enjoyed one last pizza and pitcher of beer before life on a dry island.

Our second flight was from Nome to Gambell (the other village on the island,) where stopped briefly to drop off 5 of the 9 airplane passengers.  From Gambell it was only a 15 minute flight to Savoonga.  I was lucky enough to see a whale spouting off the coast of Gambell, but poor B was on the other side of the plane!  The island is breathtaking in its completely desolate beauty.  There are mountains, beaches and cliffs, and only a tiny portion is actually inhabited.  We got some great pictures as we landed.

We were greeted in Savoonga (at the landing strip, not the airport :o)) by another new teacher and one of the head school maintenance men, who has proven to be extremely helpful as we've been settling in!  He brought us in his pickup truck (we were pleasantly surprised to see a couple of vehicles on the island!) first to the other teacher's house, and then to ours.  The village is small, and we only have about a half mile walk to school from our house.

Our house is literally oceanfront property, we are about 30 yards from the waves of the Bering Sea crashing against the rocky shoreline!  So far we've seen kids playing and men fishing, even though the water temperature is probably only in the high 30's! BRRR! The house is definitely a fixer upper, but B has been hard at work and it's already starting to feel like home.  We ran into an issue with not having heat when we arrived, but the maintenance men have been working overtime and got us fuel, so we are good to go!

The school is practically brand new and extremely impressive.  We spent a few hours there today, getting acclimated and making plans.  As of right now, we think I have the wrong classroom's keys, so we held off on beginning set up.  We are planning on just using school internet for a little while, so after this post we'll be turning ours off and using it only during the day when we're at school :o)  Our cell is the best way to reach us, we have surprisingly perfect reception here in the Bering Strait!  Text or call, we're always hoping to hear from people!

We really appreciate all of the support everyone has been giving us.  It's going to be a huge adjustment and I'm sure we'll be in touch with everyone, asking for help and looking for support!  We are looking forward to getting back to the basics, simplifying and adjusting to life at village pace. As excited as we are, we've already been shell shocked a couple of times--the differences between here and lower 48 living are already innumerable and we've only been here a day!  So for now we are embracing the culture and the changes we're experiencing and rising to each challenge that comes our way.  We are really lucky to have each other, and to have the wonderful support system that we do back home!

Will write more when we get a more stable internet connection! Promise to post pics soon :o)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Welcome Wagon: Day 1, Moose Count: 0

So B hasn't seen his first Alaskan moose yet, but it took me a few weeks to see mine.  He was, however, able to experience several Alaskan beers, which I'm pretty sure makes up for it!

We were up with the sun this morning (which in Anchorage, is pretty damn early,) and got started right away with BSSD Welcome Wagon activities.  Although breakfast at Denny's wasn't quite our speed, we were able to visit with other new hires and began forming some great new friendships.  From breakfast we went to the DMV where I was able to obtain my Alaska driver's license...woo woooo! (Even though I semi-failed the vision test and am restricted to driving only cars with mirrors....yeah.)  Unfortunately, since B doesn't have a contract, he wasn't able to switch his residency over yet.  He was bummed, but at least has some time to study the manual (I missed the first 3 questions and you can only miss 4!)  So to all of our VaBeach friends and families, B just couldn't let go of his residency, he'll be hanging on for a few more months :o)

After the DMV, which was a much more pleasant experience than any DMV I've ever visited, we headed to GCI, the rural cell provider here in Alaska.  We will be sharing a cell phone in Savoonga, and got the unlimited coverage and texting plan, so that we are able to keep in touch with everyone as best we can!  We will both still have our old numbers until Friday, so text us or call if you need the new contact info!

The only other thing on our list for this week was to finish up our grocery shopping, which we'll do tomorrow. This left the rest of the afternoon for us to relax and for B to explore Anchorage!  We enjoyed some great lattes from Middleway Cafe, a great spot that some of my AKT2 cohorts and I frequented in the weeks that we spent here earlier this summer.  We also were lucky to meet up with Emily, who will be heading to Holy Cross, AK on Friday.  It was really nice to catch up with someone who is in the same boat as us and is having the same anxieties, frustrations and anticipations as we are.  I'm pretty excited to hear everyone's experiences and share ours as well!

We had a great dinner and enjoyed some microbrews at Moose's Tooth in Anchorage, a great (extremely popular) local pub and brewery that Dad and I stumbled upon when we were here in January.  After waiting out some passing showers, we checked out grocery prices in preparation for tomorrow! We are in good shape as far as Friday is looking and are eager to continue our adventure tomorrow!

We may not have seen any moose, and the mountains may have been covered in clouds, but we're enjoying the short time we have here, making new friends and catching up with fellow AKT2 participants.  We are looking forward to tomorrow and are anxious for the big move on Friday! We are missing Sampson lots...the pet aisle at Fred Meyer may have brought upon some unnecessary tears, but we are dealing and are so thankful that my parents were willing to take him for the time being!!  The sun is still just now setting at 11 pm and we are looking forward to another good, Alaskan night's sleep!

More to come... :o)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ready, Set, Go!

Well, we promised everyone that we would be blogging throughout our cross-country trip.  That obviously didn't happen.  We thought we'd have a lot more time to sit down every day and write about our travels, but to be honest, I'm glad we didn't.  We enjoyed every moment of our trip and didn't spare a minute over the course of our travels.  Now that we are sitting in the airport in Portland, OR I'll sum up our trip, and be sure to add more later!

Our journey began on Wednesday, July 20th when we went from Virginia Beach to Gettysburg, PA.  Wednesday morning was crazy because we weren't packed yet, but somehow managed to squeeze all of our belongings into the back seats and the trunk of my car.  Sampson rode the whole way on our laps in the front seat, scaring us a few times by throwing the car into neutral while we were driving on the highway.  We spent a night camping in Gettysburg visiting with my Granny, Aunt Pat and Uncle Sal.  It was great to see family and break up the long trip to NY!

We drove to Salem, NY on Thursday and stayed with my family.  We caught up on sleep, enjoyed some sunshine by the pool and were so thankful to spend Saturday with our families and friends.  It was so great to catch up with everyone and get some quality time in before we left!  We were, of course, still packing Sunday morning, but were able to get on the road at a decent hour.  We rented a Nissan Altima Hybrid which saved us tons on gas and was a super comfy upgrade from our original compact car. (B's legs were extremely thankful.)

We broke up our trip from Salem to Chicago with a quick detour to Niagra Falls.  We'd both been here before, but the falls were still impressive and it was great to get out of the car and walk around.  We made it to Chicago late Sunday night and spent the day Monday with Jordan enjoying the city and catching up!  It always feels like home when I visit Jord and we always have a great time.  Monday night we got to see my second family, the Hoffmanns, and B met them for the first time.  We wish them safe travels and all the best in their new home!!

From Chicago we headed west to Nebraska, stopping briefly at the biggest truck stop in the WORLD. I mean how can you pass that up?  Although we opted out of their dental services, we did take some pretty sweet pics and got a few good laughs.  Overall, Iowa and Nebraska were flat and monotonous, but it was a beautiful day for a drive.  We saw tons of windmills and are eager to learn about wind powered energy, as we didn't realize how much of the country uses the resource.  The windmills are absolutely massive and pretty impressive when you see them on the horizon.  Since it was over 100 degrees with the heat index when we got camp set up in Ashland, NE (and the pool cost $8) we decided we could put our money to better use in an air conditioned, local microbrewery.  We hung out for a while before heading back to our campground.  We experienced our first mid west thunderstorm in a tent, and would rather not relive the experience!  We were ready to hit the road by Wednesday morning!

On Wednesday we continued west to Colorado, where we were grateful to stay with B's friends, Sam and Kate, in Colorado Springs.  We walked through the Garden of the Gods and went out to eat downtown.  The change in terrain was unreal!  We were up early and ready to go on Thursday morning.  Driving through Wyoming was a pleasant surprise, as we weren't expecting the state to be so beautiful!  We were continuously taken aback by the mountains and valleys, and the sheer, desolate, beauty that were drove through.  The pictures we took just didn't do it justice!

We thought we'd seen the best of the country but were awestruck when we arrived in Utah.  We camped in a state park in a canyon, surrounded by beautiful mountains. Our campsite sat right on a huge reservoir, with plenty of wildlife and natural beauty.  The temperature got down into the 40's at night, even though it was in the 80's when we arrived.  I was glad B was driving on the way in and out because the road were so windy and right on the edge of the mountain!  We got some great pictures and the backdrop never got old. Salt Lake City was gorgeous, and is the home to Polygamy Porter (Why Have Just One?) which I thought was hilarious and we obviously had to buy some.  It wasn't bad!

We got some pictures of the Great Salt Lake, but were way more impressed by the salt flats in western Utah.  Our next stop was Lake Tahoe, which is now high on our list of places to go back to.

The last few days were spent in San Francisco, with some good friends from college.  We got to have lunch with Maureen and B kicked another marathon's ass and we got to see a lot of the city (including the Full House house which was obviously a highlight in my book!)  We took a trip up to wine country and enjoyed a day in Sonoma and Tomales Bay.  And now it's time to board our flight to Anchorage!!

Thank you so much to everyone who has helped make this trip happen.  We are having the time of our lives and can't wait to share pictures and stories.  We are thinking of our families and friends every second and can't wait to see everyone again!!  More to come...