Alaska SLPs Embrace Distance, Weather SLP Diana Marsh visits a U.S. Post Office at one of the villages in the North Slope Borough School District in northern Alaska. It was like any other autumn Saturday afternoon in Barrow, Alaska, and school-based speech-language pathologist Donald Zanoff recalls getting ready to attend the local high school’s ... Features
Features  |   August 01, 2011
Alaska SLPs Embrace Distance, Weather
Author Notes
  • Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at
    Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / Features
Features   |   August 01, 2011
Alaska SLPs Embrace Distance, Weather
The ASHA Leader, August 2011, Vol. 16, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.16082011.26
The ASHA Leader, August 2011, Vol. 16, 26-27. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.16082011.26
SLP Diana Marsh visits a U.S. Post Office at one of the villages in the North Slope Borough School District in northern Alaska.
It was like any other autumn Saturday afternoon in Barrow, Alaska, and school-based speech-language pathologist Donald Zanoff recalls getting ready to attend the local high school’s football game. But instead of pulling on a jacket, hat, and mittens to head outside, Zanoff had a few more layers to negotiate. Considering the football field is about 100 yards from the Arctic Ocean, the temperature was five below zero, and the wind was howling, he also added a fur hat (“The real stuff—the Natives up here wear it for a reason”) and the all-important ski mask. It takes a lot of fortitude to learn how to cope with the frozen temperatures of Alaska, but Zanoff seems to have acclimated.
“Today [in mid-April] it’s still five below zero outside, which usually means two layers of jackets, not the three layers you need for 40 below,” Zanoff explained. “But really, it’s bright and sunny outside and what most people here would consider a ‘good outside’ day.” Don’t worry, he assured, the schools on “the slope” usually close if the temperature reaches 40 below zero (ambient) or if there are dangerous high winds.
SLP Donald Zanoff and his dog, Una, dress for the freezing temperatures of northern Alaska.
Zanoff is one of two SLPs serving the students of the North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD), located 725 air miles north of Anchorage and 320 miles north of the Artic Circle. No roads lead to the NSBSD; the only way to travel to and from the area is by boat or plane, depending on the season. While Zanoff maintains a caseload of 50 or so students in the town of Barrow, his colleague, Diana Marsh, serves the seven outlying villages.
A true land of ice and snow, this region is inhabited primarily by the Inupiaq Eskimos. Although the area is not primitive (there is electricity, plumbing, and other community amenities such as schools, hospitals, and grocery stores), the culture and traditions of the Inupiaqs still revolve around hunting caribou, seal, walrus, birds (ducks and geese), and, of course, whales. In fact, whaling is still such a large part of the local culture that it is common for students to miss school during the fall and spring whaling seasons.
“Whenever a crew catches a whale, the announcements via VHF radios, e-mail, and telephone go around immediately and kids are pulled from school to help their families butcher the whale,” Zanoff explained. “It takes a lot of effort because they have to pull the whale back from where the ice meets the ocean as fast as they can before the polar bears smell it and show up.”
Polar bears? Yes, polar bears.
And that’s just the beginning when it comes to the twists in the lives of these SLPs. Although Zanoff and Marsh have the same job description—to provide speech-language services to school-aged children—each is responsible for different areas that come with unique challenges and adventure. Marsh, for example, lives farther south in Soldotna, but provides services to 45–55 students in the NSBSD villages. To access these remote regions, she spends much of her time on airplanes, flying from village to village. From January through April, Marsh took more than 50 cargo plane flights.
If a storm or other problem arises, she sleeps in the village school and tries to depart the next day. She visits each school from three to five times per year. The individualized education plans she creates are implemented by special educators in the villages. She enjoys her work and is proud of the impact she has on her students, but is often reminded (even after 30 years) of the communities’ cultural traditions. She recalled, for example, a family that wanted to thank her for her work with some caribou meat. She politely accepted and was astounded by what she received. “They handed me a leg—a whole leg! With a hoof!”
Zanoff lives in and provides services to the students in the more “densely” populated town of Barrow (the entire district, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, has a total population of approximately 6,000). He lives with other teachers in a former school building, sleeping in what used to be the school’s walk-in freezer. The building’s 100 or so residents take turns cooking or hosting potluck dinners and organize movie nights and book clubs. There is also plenty of social activity that revolves around the local high school’s athletic program.
“The main form of entertainment here is high school basketball,” Zanoff said. “The whole town rallies around all high school sports, but basketball rules. The district flies our teams to other towns and other teams fly here. Most other schools enjoy coming here because our high school has a pool and they all get to swim after the games.”
Classroom Activities
Despite the unusual location and different culture, Zanoff and Marsh say their classroom activities are just like what any other SLP would be doing—working on articulation, language, social skills, and pragmatics.
But there are some overarching challenges that differentiate their experiences. Aside from having to don several layers of outerwear, one of the biggest hurdles for both Zanoff and Marsh is working with students who grew up in a bilingual community. Although the language-rich environment enhances the lives of most students, Zanoff said that it can present a challenge when evaluating students for speech and language delays. Although interpreters are plentiful, the wording used on many standardized tests can be problematic.
“Even the tests that supposedly aren’t culturally biased don’t take everything into account,” Zanoff said. “For example, we have no trees here and the second question on the Expressive One-Word Vocabulary Test requires a child to name a tree. Later in the same test, children are required to name a leaf, a train, and corn on the cob. Our kids think of leaves as feathers because most of them have helped pluck geese and ducks and if you’ve never seen a tree it can be hard to imagine. And forget about the question about escalators.”
Marsh also noted that the language difference can be tricky, but with the help of local citizens and by calling on her own experience, she is able to differentiate between a language difference and a language delay.
“It’s definitely one of the biggest challenges, but I’ve found ways to work around it,” she said.
Counterbalancing these challenges, however, is the support they have from the borough. Over the past several years, Zanoff had been working with several elementary-school students who have hearing impairments. The elementary school has amplification systems in the classrooms; the middle school didn’t. When the students transitioned to middle school, the North Slope Borough mayor’s office helped Zanoff secure 10 more amplification systems at a cost of $1,100 each.
“Now all students in the elementary and middle schools are able to benefit from these systems and we’re so grateful to have them,” Zanoff said. “That’s just one example of the support we get from the borough and the importance it places on education.”
Marsh had a similar experience when she was trying to find culturally relevant and age-appropriate materials to use in the remote villages. A grant from the borough allowed her to create eight language tubs filled with theme-related language materials that rotate through each village monthly. “We still struggle with cultural relevance but add materials as we find them,” Marsh said.
How They Got Here
Neither Marsh nor Zanoff hails from the Great White North. Zanoff, originally from Arkansas, has always had a penchant for exploring; before going to Alaska he lived and worked in Montana and New Zealand. In fact, it was at the end of his two-year stint in New Zealand that, “on a whim,” he e-mailed the school district in Bethel, Alaska, about openings. He was hired, and left New Zealand on a bright sunny summer day to land in Alaska in the dead of winter. Eleven years later he’s still happy with his decision. He is staying in Alaska for the foreseeable future and has renewed his contract for the upcoming year, but his long-term plans include moving back to the house he bought in Montana in 1988. “I remember when I moved from Arkansas to Montana in the ‘80s my family said, ‘Oh, you’re moving to the middle of nowhere,’” he said, laughing. “Compared to my life in Alaska, Montana is bustling with civilization.”
Marsh, originally from Vermont, received a master’s degree in Colorado in 1976, got the outdoor adventure bug, and decided to check out the Alaska scene.
“I came up with a friend and we took jobs for the school year and figured it would be cool for about nine months,” she said. “We had no idea what we were getting into. But then we got hooked, then we got married to our husbands, then we had kids, and now … well, it’s been a pretty long nine months.”
Both view their positions as a privilege.
“Alaska is a very cool place,” said Marsh. “Very few people get to do what I’m doing. I feel like I’m an advocate for these kids. There’s a lot of turnover of staff and I feel like my job is to fill in the history of each kid for each new teacher. What started out as a whim became a really awesome life.”
Contact Donald Zanoff, MS, CCC-SLP, at ContactDiana Marsh, MS, CCC-SLP, at
Submit a Comment
Submit A Comment
Comment Title

This feature is available to Subscribers Only
Sign In or Create an Account ×
August 2011
Volume 16, Issue 8