Sullivan Honors Alaskan of the Week: Danielle Riha

WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) spoke yesterday on the Senate floor in recognition of Danielle Riha, middle school educator at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage, who has helped pioneer culturally-relevant curriculum in her classroom while also instilling the values of Alaska’s First People into her students. Riha was honored this week in Washington as Alaska’s Teacher of the Year and one of four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. Senator Sullivan recognized Riha as part of his series, “Alaskan of the Week.”


Mr. President, it is Thursday afternoon, and it is one of the times that I enjoy the most in the Senate because it is the time I get to come down on the Senate floor and talk about my State, talk about the people in my State, and talk about the people who make Alaska a great and unique State in our wonderful country.

It is the time when we talk about the person I refer to as the Alaskan of the Week. It is someone who has helped to make their community or Alaska or America--or sometimes all of the above--a better place. I think it is the pages' favorite time, too, because they get to learn about Alaska and hear all of the unique aspects that make Alaska such a great, wonderful, and unique State. 

To those listening in the Gallery or on TV, I always make a plug. It is also a time to pitch Alaska for our visitors. Come on up. You will have the trip of a lifetime guaranteed. Don't put it off. It is time to book your trip to the great State of Alaska.

Today I am going to recognize an extraordinary teacher, Danielle Riha, whom I just had the privilege of meeting right here off the Senate floor, and who is in the Gallery right now. We are excited that she is hear watching. She teaches at the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage. That is a pre-K through eighth grade charter school. She is our Alaskan of the Week.

You might say: What is she doing? Why is she in town?

She is in town because she was chosen to be the 2019 Alaska Teacher of the Year. She is so impressive in her profession and her teaching is so impactful on her students that she was one of four finalists in America--across the country--to be chosen for the National Teacher of the Year award for the whole country.

What does that mean?

In other words, she is viewed by her peers, by her students, and by others as one of the top four teachers in the United States of America--our Alaskan teacher of the year. We are so proud of her.

We have thousands of teachers in my State, just as you do in yours, who do such great work, day in and day out, to make sure that our next generation is not only educated on the facts and things like math and history but that they also understand, in the words of the great leader Nelson Mandela, that ``education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.'' That is true, and that is why our teachers in Alaska and in America are so important. 

Danielle Riha is teaching our youth so that they can go out and change the world. She and all the teachers in Alaska and in America have one of the most important jobs for our Nation and one of the most difficult jobs for our Nation. We certainly salute and honor them all, particularly this week, as so many of the top teachers in the country have been in town. 

Why is Danielle good at what she does? Why did she get this award? Why is she viewed as one of the top four teachers in America? Why has she touched so many students in Alaska? How did she make her way into this profession?

Let's talk about that. Let me start with the last question first.

She came to Alaska in 1995 when she was a college student at North Texas University. She came to a part of Alaska called Unalaska--which is way out in the Aleutian Island chain--to fish and to help pay to finish college, where she had plans to become a physical therapist. That is a great profession as well. Like a lot of people, she came up to Alaska maybe for a little adventure, and maybe she was only planning on staying 6 months. Then, one day, the principal of the school in Unalaska approached her when she was playing basketball and said: Have you ever thought about being a teacher? How about a substitute teacher?

Well, that was the beginning of the love affair she had with teaching, with the classroom, and with her ability to really connect with kids, particularly kids with difficult emotional challenges.

She finished her education degree at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Then, she taught for 7 years in two small villages in Southwest Alaska. While there, she helped to develop the curriculum that was culturally appropriate for her students, most of whom were Alaska Natives. She was then recruited to teach at the school where she now teaches, the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School, and she was one of the original teachers to start up this great new teaching and education venture in 2008.

Let me read from her Teacher of the Year application form:

Imagine you are a 7th grade student living in a rural, Yup'ik speaking, Alaskan community. 

By the way, we have many communities in our State where English is not the first language and where the Alaska Native languages are the first languages.

Back to the application:

The only way to get to your village is by small plane or boat in the summer and snowmachine in the winter. You have never been to a city or had life experiences that include seeing an elevator, stores, restaurants, or roads [even outside your community].

Your family survives by subsistence hunting and gathering from the land of their ancestors.

By the way, that is how thousands of Alaskans survive to this day.

Now imagine yourself in math class considering a word problem that takes place in California and involves distance, rollerblades, a convenience store, and a curb.

That is in the application. What this is getting at is that there are things so many Americans think are common for education that in certain communities in Alaska, and I am sure in other places, aren't common. It is difficult to teach when everything is assumed to be the same when it is not. You can imagine how confusing that might be. These are the kinds of educational challenges that Alaskan students, particularly in our most rural communities, face every single day.

What did Miss Riha do to help with the confusion? Working with Alaskan Native elders, she helped to create what she calls the Kayak Module, which uses culturally relevant material to teach math, science, social studies, and language arts.

Let me give you an example of how she uses the module to teach math and science. The students are given blocks of clay and put into groups. Each group then designs a kayak of different shapes and different weights. They are tested for speed, water disbursements, and capacity. Data is collected. Hypotheses and mathematical calculations are made, and the students learn from using these examples that are actually examples from their own lives, and they love doing so.

This can work across cultures. Think about it. Alaska Native students who are on rivers or who are on the ocean, or Samoan students, many of whom live like in the example--all of these kinds of students have boats in their culture. They understand that.

``As an educator,'' Danielle said, ``nothing feels better than allowing students the opportunities to bridge what they already know culturally to new content, and to teach them to have a voice for themselves.'' This helps them learn. Isn't that a simple, but insightful approach to teaching? 

I think you are all getting the picture of why she was considered one of the top four teachers in America. She and the whole school are also devoted to ensuring that the students go to school in a very safe place and where the students feel welcome. For example, one student who wrote a letter in support of her for her Teacher of the Year nomination talked about how she was worried about being bullied because she came from a different culture. She was Muslim. Because of that, she started to feel that she was falling behind in reading and math. This student wrote: 

[Miss Riha] helped me be bold enough to teach others about my culture in a way that made me feel proud of who I am. Needless to say, I caught up in my math and reading within one year because of her leadership, and now I love learning. 

That is from one of her students. That student is now studying to become a dental hygienist at the University of Anchorage. She and Miss Riha still stay in touch. As you know, we all have that teacher--maybe one, maybe two, maybe several, but that one teacher--who made a difference in our lives, who encouraged us, who believed in us when maybe no one else did and who helped us through hard times by passing on the joy of learning, by passing on the passion of learning.

Danielle and thousands of other teachers across my State, and millions across our great Nation, wake up every day to do that as their mission, to take on one of the most important things any of us can do, and that is educating our youth.

Danielle, congratulations for being Alaska's Teacher of the Year, for being one of the top four teachers in the United States of America, and, importantly, thank you and congratulations on being our Alaskan of the Week.

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