Tlingit teacher helps students find their voices

Tlingit musician and teacher Ed Littlefield leads his students in performing at the Schoenbar Middle School and Ketchikan Charter School assembly on April 18 at the Schoenbar gym. Staff photo by Danelle Landis

 Tlingit musician and teacher Ed Littlefield wrapped up his three-week Sealaska artist-in-residency this past week, leaving Ketchikan’s middle school students with renewed confidence in their voices.

Littlefield, who was born and raised in Sitka, lives in Seattle part-time, performing and composing music as well as teaching music in the area. For about four months each year, he teaches in Alaska, from his family’s home base in Sitka.

His Ketchikan artist-in-residence program this month was part of Sealaska’s “Amplifying our Stories: Voices on the Land” program.

Talking about his work from Schoenbar Middle School’s music room on April 17, Littlefield said this is about his 15th year teaching students through state-sponsored residencies, and his third year teaching through Sealaska programs.

Schoenbar music teacher Jamie Karlson said she also has benefitted from Littlefield’s work with her students.

“It’s been really cool to watch Ed work with the kids, because his pedagogy is awesome,” she said. “He’s so good at building a rapport with them right away. It’s been almost like a professional development just having him in the room and watching some of the things he does to get them engaged, to help keep them motivated.”

Littlefield not only worked with music students, but also Schoenbar English and art students.

 “He’s teaching them Tlingit stories and sharing scripts with some of the kids and teaching them Native songs,” Karlson said.

 He taught the band students to create “soundscapes” for Tlingit stories — sound effects to give the stories drama and impact. He taught the English students to also to highlight stories by using their bodies as percussion instruments, and their voices to make sound effects. He guided the art students through visually illustrating the stories.

Karlson said that Littlefield taught the choir students Tlingit stories and songs, then asked them to create their own stories within certain parameters.

 “It’s student driven, a lot of it,” she said.

 Littlefield emphasized the importance he sees in teaching young people to speak up.

 He said he tells students there are two types of responses he won’t accept when he asks them a question: silence, or, “I don’t know.” He urges them to either guess, or they can just repeat an answer another student offered.

“You can say potato salad, you can say frog, you can say hi — whatever it is, I want to hear your voice, because your voice is important,” Littlefield said he tells his students.

He said that at first, they’ll blurt out goofy answers, with that instruction in mind, but after two weeks or so, he keeps urging them to “take a guess and they’re actually taking very thoughtful guesses,” he said, adding that he also tells them, “a guess can’t be wrong, because it’s just a guess.”

Littlefield explained, “I think finding your voice, especially at this age group, is really important — and making sure that they know that their voice is important.”

Littlefield said his favorite aspect of teaching is “showing students a way to better themselves, no matter what they’re doing.”

As Littlefield began his work with Ketchikan’s students, he said he introduced, in Tlingit, the four core aspects of the skills he would be teaching: face, body, voice, imagination. He used hand motions to give them hints when he asked them to guess what the words meant.

He said the Sealaska grant he was working under had a storytelling focus. He explored that idea with the students through his music background by combining traditional Tlingit raven stories with the soundscapes the band students created and performed, as well as the sound effects the English students explored.

He said that he enjoys teaching students to use courage to try new things — to feel the joy of trying and experimenting.

Littlefield is slated to be one of the lead instructors for the June two-week arts workshop for educators, “Amplifying Stories through the Arts.” It is a program offered through a collaboration between the Ketchikan School District, Sealaska Heritage and the Alaska Arts Education Consortium.

He also will be diving into his 19th year as an instructor at the Sitka Fine Arts camp this summer. He said he also attended SFAC three summers as a student.  

Littlefield’s calling as a music instructor came at a young age.

“I wanted to be an educator,” he said. “I knew that since I was in seventh grade. I said, ‘I want to teach music.’”

About 140 Ketchikan Charter School and Schoenbar students gathered in the Schoenbar gym Thursday afternoon, to perform what they’d created with Littlefield’s guidance.

Littlefield introduced the first piece, “Raven Makes the Aleutians,” then performed the dramatic reading of the story with the help of band members who took turns with some lines. The student musicians played rumbling, trilling and victorious-sounding accompaniment at critical moments, heightening the story’s drama.

The concert band was next, dramatizing the story “Raven and the Salmon Box.”

An English class group performed next, using verbal whooshing noises, stomping and slapping percussion to bring life to the “Raven and Whale” story. It was first recorded in Tlingit, in the 1960s by Suzie James, Littlefield told the audience.

The beginning Schoenbar band performed “Raven Hosts a Potlatch,” with Karlson reading the piece alongside. Students created a realistic Orca blowing sound on their instruments’ mouthpieces between playing music for dramatic effect.

Another English class group performed “Raven and Tide Lady,” expertly weaving lines together as they took turns reading and creating group sound effects.

The KCS and Schoenbar choirs joined up to perform the lyrics they’d written based on stories they’d learned, sung to the melody of the “Hook Song,” written originally written by Clara Peratrovich. They sang a hummed version, a version with their lyrics, then a rap-inspired version, performed with great gusto and loud percussion.

The audience applauded wildly at the conclusion of the rap version.

Another English class group performed “Raven Loses his Nose,” followed by the Schoenbar symphonic band’s performance of “Raven and the Killer Whales.”

The last performances of the assembly were three Tlingit lullabies, adapted from what Littlefield told the audience were very old stories, first told to him by Charlie Joseph.

As the audience applauded, the music and English students beamed, seeming to reflect one of Littlefield’s earlier assertions.

“How can you have fun working hard?” he said is an idea he always is exploring with his students. “If you find that, I think you’re going to have a great life.”