By Nancy Tarnai
If you can imagine something as slight as a niche hidden in the enormous expanse of Alaska, then watch Jerry Lipka at work, and it’s clear he’s found his.
“The best part of my job is I’m still learning,” he beams. “It’s an extraordinary position to be in, to try to create a new math curriculum and work with school districts for the betterment of kids. This is a fantastic opportunity.”
For 30 years, Lipka has collaborated with Yup’ik teachers and elders to transform traditional knowledge into math skills in the classroom. Lipka, principal investigator for UAF’s Math in a Cultural Context and professor of education, is painstakingly careful about his research and publications, which incorporate Yup’ik knowledge into math curricula.
Born and raised in New York City, Lipka grew up ingrained with a sense of fairness and equity from an early age.
“My whole career is wrapped around that very core element,” he says. “I remember always feeling like that.”
As a youth he worked as a busboy in the Catskills, sold hats at the World’s Fair and hawked balloons on the boardwalk at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
Lipka earned a master’s degree in business at City College of New York, but the world of business was a bad match, and he switched to education. It was 1967, a time of conflict and change, when communities started to seek more control of their schools.
“The intrigue of politics, schooling and power came to me at the very start of my teaching career,” Lipka says. Yet it was the human dimensions of teaching that interested him the most.
He taught third grade in an experimental, locally controlled district in Harlem; he was the students’ third teacher that year. He made a point of visiting parents in their homes, giving them encouraging messages about what their children were doing in school. Meeting the families, he says, was one of his best teaching experiences.
At the time, he attended a workshop led by Caleb Gattegno, who popularized the use of Cuisenaire rods to teach math concepts. (Cuisenaire rods are colored rods of varying lengths from 1 – 10 cm.) Lipka found them an excellent way to teach multiplicative structures, introduce the concept of variables and encourage flexible thinking. Later, he applied the Cuisenaire approach in his work blending Yup’ik math concepts with Western methods.
“The very foundation of our mathematical approach is built on spatial relationships, using body proportions to measure,” Lipka says. “I used the rods yesterday in my office. They definitely influenced my thinking as I develop materials today.”
After earning a doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Lipka joined UAF’s Cross-Cultural Education Development Project in 1981. The program’s purpose was to increase the number of teachers in Alaska, particularly indigenous teachers. High turnover rates then, like now, can hurt the education process in the long run.
Lipka worked in Southwest Alaska, in the villages surrounding Dillingham, where he and his wife and children lived for 11 years.
“I was met with openness,” Lipka says. “The people adopted me and my family and always had a place for us. It was a very hospitable place.”
His focus was changing the schools to reflect the knowledge of local communities. In the process he met with elders who spoke only their native language and who communicated with Lipka through bilingual aides. “I learned a tremendous amount from those meetings,” Lipka says. “Inviting the elders was the best thing we’ve ever done.”