The Department of Education hopes to both cultivate long-term student success and reverse the erosion of Inuktut with literacy initiative Inuktut Titiqqiriniq.
In the making since 2013, with a price tag so far of $9.6 million, the program is a sophisticated web of literacy resources for students and teachers.
In February, Qikiqtaaluk educators gathered in Iqaluit for a week-long teachers' conference, where Inuktut Titiqqiriniq figured prominently.
"There are quite a few that have seen it and are already using it. The department is looking for similar opportunities to roll out the program in the Kivalliq and Kitikmeot," said deputy minister of Education Pujjuut Kusugak.
So far, the working group of linguists, educators, language specialists and contractors has produced more than 450 Inuktitut books from Kindergarten to Grade 4, or 16 levels of skill, under the auspices of the Resource Services division, with an additional 150 in Inuinnaqtun.
Stacey Kadlutsiak is a teacher at Arnaqjuaq School in her home community of Hall Beach. She received her Bachelor of Education degree in 2016 via the Nunavut Teacher Education Program offered by Nunavut Arctic College in Hall Beach, in affiliation with the University of Regina.
"This rolling out, I'm so grateful. I'm very excited about it. Not only does it make my job easier but it will make other Inuit educators' across the territory – make their jobs easier. And, hopefully, also develop a better understanding of how to deliver and teach our language," said Kadlutsiak.
The Grade 4 teacher started using the resources in her classroom this year. Kadlutsiak says she's just started using the guided reading material.
"And they're lovely. I do use them to teach the kids some comprehension skills, some syllabic recognition. It just kind of occurs to you: Oh my gosh, it's something that's not too difficult to do. Looking at the picture and making predictions, looking at chunks … the kind of things I didn't really think of doing before the program rolled out. The things I thought about in college, that I would want to do in my classroom, came back …"
Kadlutsiak says the students do need time to adjust to the program, but she sees how "it will definitely have a bigger impact and a bigger meaning to all these kids in the future, that's for sure."
And that's exactly the point of the program.
"The Education Department saw a need to improve student literacy. There are determinants through literacy skills for how successful a student will be once they're out of school, but also for ways of seeing how successful they will be in school … So to be able to retain them, to be able to assess them properly to help them be successful students," said Kusugak.
The program map is serving as a potential road map of sorts for other jurisdictions, as Nunavut is forging new ground. Nunavik, for example, is interested, as is the NWT.
"It's because there's never really been a program like this just on an Indigenous language. To be able to have the leveled reading, group reading, the writing, the word work …" said Kusugak, stressing the assessment tools.
"That's what's so exciting about this. Being a past teacher, I was joking, saying, 'Man, it makes you want to become a teacher again.'"
No dialects in new resources
To produce the books for all schools, the working group opted to standardize the Inuit dialects. That means no one dialect is represented.
That's a hot topic. Communities feel protective of their dialects. But both Kusugak and Kadlutsiak are proponents of what the Hall Beach teacher calls "the educational dialect."
"This was a bit of a concern for me for a little bit and also a concern for other educators in our community right now, and obviously in other places – that there are words in the books they are producing that we don't know … What the meanings are, if it's the proper pronunciation … I just want to say that even though there is now a standard dialect in education I'm hopeful and encourage all educators to embrace this, and be proud that they're going to be part of a great change," said Kadlutsiak.
As she notes, these types of resources are used to teach English and French in schools, and it's about time young Inuit learners have access to the same in their language.
"I just believe, personally, that at this point to be picky on the dialects is a threat to our language," said Kusugak, who says he grew up with two dialects – Arviat and Rankin/Naujaat.
"We're going through a very difficult time where the language is being lost very quickly. This has been well-documented. You've seen different language people saying the rate is going so fast and there's a threshold for us to have a certain percentage for language to continue."
The working group had to achieve consensus on word choice, and Kusugak says they did a great job.
And as Kadlutsiak says, "We are educators and readers that teach these kids how to decode words. So whenever they (the educators) feel pressured that they picked up a book that they're going to cover during a lesson and there's a word that they don't know – they can figure it out whether it's through a colleague, through an elder … It is about life-long learning."
Development of resources to Grade 6 is underway, and will eventually continue to the higher grades.