When will I ever use this in real life?
It’s the age-old question you ask in your high school calculus class, five minutes into a lecture that went over your head four minutes ago. But at Sanikiluaq’s Paatsaali School, much of what students learn in school, they’ll use as soon as they walk out the door.
In shop class, students make qamutiqs, eider-down cleaning boxes, and seal-hunting harpoons or nitsiks—a hook used to pull a seal from the water after it’s shot. (Sanikiluaq is an island community in southern Hudson Bay and seal is an important part of local diets.) The school’s Inuktitut teacher is making an amauti and she teaches her students vocabulary based on the part of the baby-carrying garment she’s working on. In art class, students create sealskin necklaces or birch mats for ice fishing. “It was known that when a woman had a birch mat to use while fishing, that she was wise and lived a good life,” says Mina Rumbolt, the assistant principal who has also been teaching sewing for the last two years.
In her class, students follow patterns to make sealskin mitts, kamiit, and parkas. If a student has never held a needle or used a sewing machine before, Rumbolt has them start by sewing a canvas gun sleeve or an ice-packing bag. The simpler items are a gentle introduction to the craft.
Rumbolt grew up in Sanikiluaq. When she was younger, traditional ways weren’t encouraged in school. Fortunately, she learned to sew from her mother and grandmother, but fewer and fewer kids today have that same chance to sew or build hunting equipment at home. “I think they find it interesting when they get an opportunity to actually learn about it in our school,” she says.
One of the more complex but popular projects Rumbolt teaches is parka-making. It’s a lot of work. If the stitching is done improperly, the students have to start over. “The traditional way is to make them take it apart and do it right,” she says. Rumbolt lets students come up with creative designs to tailor the parka to the wearer so it’s something that teens feel cool wearing. That can mean a customized Pittsburgh Penguins parka for a fan of the NHL team. “I want them to use the warm parka,” she says. The school does more than teach traditional sewing. “I’m trying to go back to the traditional style of making something for people who don’t have a hunter in the family or no mother or father in the family,” says Rumbolt. Not everyone can afford a store-bought coat, she says—and anyway, the school-made parkas are warmer—so students are expected to make a parka for themselves and then someone else.
Since opening in 2011 for Sanikiluaq’s grades 7 to 12 students, Paatsaali School has quickly become a meeting place, a town hub. Students might show up in the morning to find a hunter skinning a polar bear in the large foyer. And then some will join in. (The school even has access to a trapline that students can go out and check with trappers. Fox furs are used in the sewing class.)
“If you can make the content relevant to students’ everyday lives then they get engaged and they care about learning,” says principal Tim Hoyt. It’s no coincidence that graduation rates and attendance are on the rise since 2011.
The student engagement shows through in other ways, too. “Over the years, I thought traditional styles of clothing were going to die off, but it’s still pretty popular,” says Rumbolt. And the lessons learned are evident every time she sees someone walking around Sanikiluaq in a parka or wearing a pair of mitts made at Paatsaali.