Teaching aloha


POSTED: Sunday, December 27, 2009

When Hawaiian language teacher Ku Kahakalau began instructing in the Big Island's Waipio community in 1985, she was struck by how much the environment shaped the kids. Even if they were doing well in Hawaiian, they were doing poorly in other subjects. So she changed the way they were taught. “;Hawaiian”; became not just a classroom exercise, but a way of life.

“;We went into Waipio with about 25 students, from 3 years old to 21 years old,”; she later explained in a talk for the AlohaQuest Hawaiian-interest group. “;And we lived in Waipio. That was our school, that was our way of education.

“;We farmed the land. We looked at the clouds. We tried to look at what was, (what) happened to the weather. We cleaned the 'auwai, or the irrigation ditches. We learned the chants, the songs, the stories of this valley and all the important things that our kupuna did there a long time ago.

“;We taught them how to speak Hawaiian by just talking to them in Hawaiian,”; Kahakalau said. “;We taught them the value of Hawaiian food by just giving them that Hawaiian food and feeling the energy that would come from that food.”;

It worked. The land itself became the classroom and grades steadily improved. This year, the school dedicated Halau Hoolako, the Big Island's first “;green”; school. At 9,300 square feet, the facility is one of the largest gathering places in Waimea, becoming a community center during non-classroom hours. The facility was designed around Hawaiian cultural priorities as well as a low environmental footprint, incorporating open meeting spaces, natural lighting, renewable energy sources, recycled water for irrigation, “;occupancy sensors”; that adjust light and air flow accordingly—and VIP parking for fuel-efficient vehicles. The school serves just over 100 students.

For the school's contribution to the environment, Kahakalau received the Laulima '09 Leadership Community Award from Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi, sponsored by Keep Hawai'i Beautiful.

In addition to founding the Kanu o ka 'Aina Learning 'Ohana—from the Hawaiian proverb “;taro planted on the land”;—Kahakalau has created cultural education programs that are community-based and family-oriented. She calls it a “;pedagogy of aloha,”; a curriculum that draws on old ways to address future needs, including an indoctrination of Hawaii's future political leaders. Kahakalau's doctoral dissertation specialized in what she called “;indigenous heuristic action research,”; a methodology that colors her teaching methods.

“;Ku Kahakalau has influenced not just our children's education, but an entire community as well,”; said educator Trisha Kehaulani Watson, one of the school's volunteers. “;The number of people she has inspired is countless. I can't even imagine modern Hawaiian education today without her.”;