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High school students came from Micronesia to take part in the Close Up Student Forum on Thursday at the Pacific Educational Conference at McKinley High School. Working on a presentation were students from Chuuk, from left, Tayuri Dungawin, 15, Beatrice Martin, 17, Corrine Risin, 17, and Russlean Akira, 16. CLICK FOR LARGE
Micronesian students teach teachers
Micronesian students, now attending Hawaii public schools in record numbers, face culture shock
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MICRONESIAN students, now attending Hawaii public schools in record numbers, often struggle with a mismatch between their traditional culture and the ways their teachers want them to behave.
The challenges they and their teachers face range from the basic -- students who don't speak English -- to the more complicated, such as parents who are not used to being involved in their children's education.
"I keep telling the parents, don't feel bad, every ethnic group goes through the same crisis," said Fialupe Tafaoa, a school-home assistant for English language learners in the public schools.
It's a challenge that is becoming more familiar in Hawaii as the population of Micronesians increases in public schools. In the last school year, 2,558 public school students here spoke Chuukese, Marshallese and Pohnpeian as their primary language, up 92 percent from five years earlier, according to the state Department of Education.
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The number of Micronesian students in Hawaii's public schools has nearly doubled in five years, and many of them face a culture clash that can land them in trouble in the classroom.
Customs that are accepted back home don't necessarily fly in Hawaii schools. Like borrowing without asking first. Avoiding eye contact. Staying silent. Skipping school to help out at home. Or even spitting.
Such cultural differences were highlighted last week at the Pacific Educational Conference, which attracted 1,000 educators from Pacific islands to McKinley High School. Several workshops were designed to help Hawaii teachers understand and work better with their new students.
"Teachers complain about students taking things without asking," said Hilda Heine, who is from the Marshall Islands and directs the Pacific Comprehensive Regional Assistance Center. "Back home, anything that belongs to the family or community, we don't have to ask."
"We need to do a lot of education for parents and kids," she added. "They come with different sets of expectations and understandings, and they're being blamed."
Micronesia is a diverse region culturally, linguistically and politically. It includes the Federated States of Micronesia (Chuuk, Kosrae, Pohnpei and Yap), the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. Their citizens have unlimited rights to immigrate to the United States, and many are choosing Hawaii.
In the 2006-2007 school year, 2,558 public school students in Hawaii spoke Chuukese, Marshallese and Pohnpeian as their primary language. That's nearly twice the 1,329 students five years earlier, according to Tom Saka, an information specialist for the Hawaii Department of Education.
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Meuton Laiden, 16, Ieft, and Annshirly Boon, 16, listened intently Thursday to other student presentations. They are from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. CLICK FOR LARGE
Marshallese has moved into fourth place among the top languages -- other than English -- spoken at home among students in Hawaii's public schools. The Philippine languages of Ilocano and Tagalog are the most common, followed by Cantonese.
Many teachers in Hawaii don't know much about Micronesia, and may misinterpret their students' behavior or unwittingly alienate them.
"Hawaii educators value verbal performance," said Suzanne Falgout, a professor of anthropology at University of Hawaii-West Oahu. "Micronesians see verbal performance as showing off about what they know. They listen, they don't discuss."
She led a workshop titled "Bridging the Cultural Gap: Micronesians in Hawaii Schools" and based on a pilot study that consisted of interviews with local teachers and Micronesian parents, primarily in the Waipahu area, in 2005.
Her research found that Micronesian students tend not to ask questions, take initiative or compete -- activities that are stressed in American classrooms. They avoid direct eye contact with their teachers and remain quiet as a sign of respect. They value the group over independence.
"Educators told us that their students from Micronesia seemed to come alive in group work," Falgout said. "They are competitive for the group, rather than as individuals."
In Micronesia, education is considered the school's responsibility, and parents don't get involved. Attendance isn't enforced. In Hawaii, parents are expected to make sure their kids do their homework and go to school. Micronesian parents who brave a parent-teacher conference only to hear criticism of their child's behavior may never return.
"You don't have to address the negative to the parents, all you have to do is encourage," Fialupe Tafaoa, a school-home assistant in the English language learners program. "Say things in a very polite way so they won't be offended. The bottom line is to build trust and a relationship with the students and the parents."
MaryAnn Johnson, who teaches at Waipahu Intermediate School, said she tries to avoid misunderstandings by encouraging her students to "teach the teacher" about their cultures.
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After participating in a group activity to illustrate leadership skills, from left, Corrine Risin, 17, Annshirly Boon, 16, Russlean Akira, 16, Beatrice Martin, 17, Ivenlynn Samson, 17, Leonina Rechy, 17, and Yayuri Dunga, 15, were all smiles Thursday during a forum at the Pacific Educational Conference at McKinley High School. CLICK FOR LARGE
"I didn't know squat and I admitted it," Johnson said. "We pulled out maps. I want to make my kids comfortable, and never, in my ignorance, shame a child. Just get to know the kid, and they'll start to share with you where they're coming from."
Along with educators at the conference, about 30 high school students came to the conference from Micronesia, and made presentations on issues they felt were important in their countries, from teen pregnancy in Palau to the need to preserve traditional culture in the Marshall Islands.
"Just to stand up and speak to adults is a huge thing for them," said Dana Mueller, who led the Close Up Student Forum. "We want them to know you can be humble and still be a leader."
Sixteen-year-old Meuton Laiden pointed to a simple drawing of a student with lipstick, earrings, red fingernails and short pants, and said he wished his classmates resisted such styles. "Our goal is to bring back the Marshallese customs," he said.
Sometimes old habits must be shed, such as spitting, Heine said. "We are having to teach our children, don't do that because it bothers people and there's also the health issue," she said. Both correction and praise go over better with Micronesians when delivered privately, according to Heine.
The conference was co-hosted by the state Department of Education, the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Education and Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.
"It's the same path the Samoans went through 20 years ago," said Tafaoa. "I know from experience. I keep telling the parents, don't feel bad, every ethnic group goes through the same crisis."