Angelina Fabien, an Aboriginal language teacher at Deninu School in Fort Resolution, has long been lauded in her community for her role in revitalizing the Chipewyan language, but those efforts recently caught the attention of a national audience.
Fabien travelled to Ottawa last week to accept the 2013 Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.
Brent Kaulback, assistant superintendent for the South Slave Divisional Education Council (SSDEC) responsible for the Aboriginal language program, told The Journal that Fabien’s recognition confirms what they’ve known for years.
“She’s very special, just in terms of the enthusiasm she brings to the job and the commitment she has for the language growth and the development of the language of her students,” Kaulback said.
More importantly, he said, she is responsible for moving the language out of the classroom and into the community.
“The language that she teaches in the classroom is very functional, very authentic. It’s language and sentence patterns that they can use in the hallways and at home and in the playground and all that, so that the students have a sense that the language has meaning to them,” he said. “She’s basically infected all of those kids in that entire community.”
Born and raised in Fort Resolution, Fabien has been teaching at Deninu School for more than eight years as the Dëne S? instructor, a Chipewyan language spoken by the Dene of Fort Resolution.
Students at Deninu – a 100 per cent Aboriginally-attended school – have daily lessons from Fabien, where they are encouraged to learn through everyday use of the language.
Fabien said her teaching style is no secret: she just teaches according to the seasons.
“I wouldn’t talk about a pair of sandals in the middle of the winter; I’ll talk about skidoo boots, or how ptarmigans don’t come in the summer, they come in the fall. It’s whatever the elders will be talking about then,” she explained.
When an elder calls up a student and asks them in Chipewyan how they are doing, she wants students to be able to respond in the same language.
“It’s very important because it’s who the children are. It’s their identity,” Fabien said. “It was locked away for so long, now it’s in downtown Res.”
Fabien is also responsible for putting up Chipewyan signage around the school to encourage students to use the language in the context of everyday activities like addressing the teacher or asking questions in class.
Kaulback said the school board is frequently contacted by parents who are thrilled that their children are picking up the language and conversing with them at home.
There have been some cases, he said, where the students are teaching their parents. “That’s how you make a language grow.”
Teaching Aboriginal languages in schools is not a new initiative for the SSDEC, but has been happening for as long as Kaulback can remember.
He points to the residential school system as a factor behind the loss of language.
“I think we owe it to all the students that we serve to help them regain that love for their own ancestral language,” he said.
SSDEC currently has eight language instructors on staff. With Fabien’s success in mind, Kaulback said the board is looking at promoting her instructional strategy across the board.
“Things like making it very functional language, very authentic experiences, making it fun to learn the language, making it cool – those are the elements that Angie has incorporated,” he said.
“Angie is basically proof that languages can grow.”