It seems fitting that in the lead up to Christmas we should take a visit to the most northerly SOLEs we know: in Greenland.
Nestled just beneath the Arctic Circle where spectacular Northern Lights displays are a common occurrence, children in two villages – Atammik and Kangaamiut – are learning more about the world beyond their classroom through the Granny Cloud.
These remote Inuit communities rely on fishing and tourism and the region is sparsely populated – each school has only around 20 children. It’s a very different environment from the usual Granny Cloud locations and as a result a ‘granny cluster’ of four volunteers was created to Skype in each week from all over the world to talk to children from Grade 1 upwards.
I spoke to Anna Bolethe Rakel Heilmann, who originally brought the grannies to Greenland, via Skype from her workplace in Maniitsoq, a haven for ski enthusiasts. The snow there is currently about half a metre thick, with skiing now possible on the small fjords inbetween the islands. Usual transportation, however, is by boat, plane or helicopter.
Last week Anna set foot on the sea ice for the first time this winter, an experience she says always makes her a ‘little nervous’ as she’s about to cross, especially when she can hear the ice cracking beneath!
While we were speaking she had to shed a layer of clothing, remarking that, at -15 Celsius, it wasn’t really that cold (it can be more than -20 during the day at this time of year). It’s worth noting that they use the term ‘day’ loosely in Greenland this time of year as there’s not a lot of daylight to go round: in Anna’s hometown the sun rises around 10.30am and is on its way down again by about 1.30pm. But in the northernmost towns, they don’t see the sun at all for almost four months from about mid-November.
Anna told me that in just a matter of months since the children started interacting with the Granny Cloud, their confidence in English is growing, so much so that they now greet their teacher with ‘good morning’! This is no mean feat for children who also speak their own local language, Greenlandic, and some Danish.
“We are full of gratitude for what these grannies do for us as volunteers,” says Anna. “I never thought of the grannies seeing our world. I was thinking more that they are going to show to the Greenlandic children another world. But they are also curious to see the world they are connecting with, through the children. “
A private company, Villum-fonden, funded a project some years ago to provide iPads to every child from Kindergarten until they finish school. As part of this, schools were encouraged to use the technology to develop more distance learning opportunities, so Anna’s municipality decided to contact the Granny Cloud to see if anyone would be interested in linking up.
In this particular municipality, English and Danish exam results are very low. The children have virtually no English language skills, so it is a challenge for the grannies involved. As a result, most of the sessions currently revolve around simple greetings, singing and learning vocabulary such as the different body parts.
‘Granny’ Sandra Frisby, who lives in Montreal, Canada, divides the younger children’s sessions with Ruby Choy, based in Hong Kong. A former teacher from kindergarten up to college level, Sandra found the children in this school (pictured above) very different from what she’s used to.
“During our session the kids were all over the place and couldn’t sit still, crawling under the table and on the chairs and the teachers weren’t doing much to control them,” she says. “One of the other grannies in the cluster (Margaret Hart, who shares the older children’s sessions with Susan Crole) did a bit of research and found out that in Inuit culture, the spirit of an elder is thought to inhabit each newborn child, so to discipline them unless they are likely to hurt themselves or others would be insulting to them*. That explained quite a bit for us!”
Greenlandic is a fiendishly difficult language to learn, with famously long words (Anna told me one that was over 100 letters long!) but despite this, Sandra says they’re picking up a few words here and there. Her favourite is ‘iggu’, meaning ‘cute’ or ‘beautiful’ which she was able to use for the first time recently when a little girl drew her a wrapped present on a piece of paper and wrote ‘Sandra’ under it.
The Granny Cloud has been operating in Greenland since May and sessions have been scaled down from the usual length to two 15 minute slots for the younger ones and two 30 minute ones for the older groups, to avoid the children becoming over tired and disengaged. “They are really sweet children and eager to learn,” says Sandra. “I’m really looking forward to seeing how they progress in the New Year.”
*Anna wanted to point out that not all children in Greenland act like this!
On Christmas Eve, Anna (pictured above with her dog, Salma Hayek!) will join her fellow villagers for a longstanding tradition: carol singing around the houses very early in the morning, giving gifts along the way. But she won’t be tucking into turkey later – she let me into a secret as long as I promised not to tell the children: reindeer is the traditional meat at Christmas in her part of Greenland. “It’s true, we eat Rudolph,” she admits.
We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a peaceful festive season and a very Happy New Year 2017 from the School in the Cloud team.
Credit: Main photo, of the Northern Lights from Anna’s father’s house, is shared with us by kind permission of her sister, Mariane S Heilmann