Aʻo Hawaiʻi: Teaching and Learning
By Karen Holman —
[Overview: Aʻo Hawaiʻi is a community of educators working together with PVS and other organizations to support the educational mission of the Worldwide Voyage and to design inter-disciplinary curriculum that will relate to themes of the voyage and endure beyond, based on the principle that “the canoe is the classroom and the classroom is the canoe”.]
The morning began with a pule or prayer beside Hōkūle’a. It is a familiar image, of people holding hands in a circle beside the canoe, one that has unfolded over generations and geography, and continually reminds us of just how powerful Hōkūle’a is in bringing people together, and establishing a sense of unity, connection, and aloha in an instant. One person began the oli that binds the group together, and all others followed.
Throughout the day, the same oli or chant was used as a way of brining everyone together in the present moment, to drop whatever may have been happening in that moment to gather and chant. It is an amazing synchrony, like migrating birds flying in a perfect v shaped formation, an unspoken communication that travels like a ripple across the sea.
At the sound of the chant, an incredibly humbly and inspiring group of educators gather. They are Aʻo Hawaii teacher crew members, a community of formal and informal educators who, via the Federal Department of Education grant awarded to the College of Education, work in a collaborative partnership between the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), the Pacific American Foundation (PAF), professors from the University of Hawaiʻi (UH) system wide (UH-M College of Education, Honolulu Community College (HCC) and UH-West Oahu), the Center for Microbial Oceanography (C-MORE), and a diverse group of educators from public schools, private schools, charter schools, and informal education institutions (ie. YMCA) from across the Hawaiian Islands, to support the educational mission of the Worldwide Voyage.
Aʻo Hawaiʻi teacher crew members serve as ambassadors for the Worldwide Voyage and the Statewide Sails in their communities. These innovative teachers are designing inter-disciplinary curriculum that will relate to themes of the voyage and endure beyond, based on the principle that “the canoe is the classroom and the classroom is the canoe”.
The mission of the Worldwide Voyage is Mālama Honua – to care for the Earth. Education is the core of this voyage, with the vision to inspire children and their communities to Mālama Honua to care for one another and our natural and cultural environments, and to create sustained educational transformation.
The theory of change is that if you inspire children to care for Island Earth, they will protect it. The education canoe crew are “actively navigating these new waters of learning and teaching”, and developing creative ways not only to connect children to the canoe, but also to navigate educational transformation into the future and towards a sustainable destination for our children. This group is based on a philosophy of reciprocity, for in Hawaiian culture, “Aʻo means to teach and to learn” We are both teacher and learner, and “Aʻo Hawaiʻi is the teaching and learning of our place and connection to others”.
On selected weekends Aʻo Hawaiʻi teachers convene from across the islands to build their curriculum during a two-day exploration and appreciation of our island home. Supporting engaging and unique curriculum centered around themes of Pacific Unity, Environmental Stewardship, Community, Indigenous knowledge and Perpetuation, Marine Conservation, Justice, and Leadership, weekends include lively discussions and special adventures.
These teachers have imagined the future, sailing with Hōkūle’a and learning the star compass through a theoretical journey to Tahiti, and they have ventured into the past, on a hike into the mountains with Nainoa Thompson, recalling the history of Maunalua Bay.
On one such weekend, discussions began around STEMS education. STEMS education is “a place-based, project-based, and problem solving technique approach that integrates Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, (and other supporting disciplines such as language and arts) in order to promote critical thinking, community, global stewardship, and civic action.”
Teaching from a STEM perspective traditionally means to teach integrating science, technology, engineering, and mathematics via the use of project-based, real world, problem solving curriculum (Rogers & Portsmore, 2004; Gutstein 2003; Knaupp et al., 2002).
However, in order to authentically engage students in real world problem solving they must understand the context of the problem. This contextual understanding is based in social studies. Thus, we propose the addition of the “S” to the traditional narrative of STEM.
Knowledge becomes far more powerful when it can be applied to real world situations. When learning is made culturally, socially, and environmentally relevant, students that were previously unengaged, become captivated and fascinated. The knowledge becomes real, tangible, and eternal; geometry, for example, becomes vivid when applied to the optimal shape of a sail in order to catch the wind, while algebra comes alive when framed within a star compass and figuring out how to sail from Hawai‘i to Tahiti. In reference to social studies, values are deeply embedded in a floating canoe of finite resources where how we treat each other carries a legacy that sails alongside us always.
The idea behind STEMS is that learning can be approached from an inter-disciplinary perspective that does not draw hard boundaries between subject areas, but rather sees math, science, English, social studies and other realms as interwoven and necessarily entwined when taught from a real world perspective.
Recently, we were asked to write about our personal view of the goal behind the grant. My own perspective of Aʻo Hawaiʻi is “to transform education to become a value-based, place-based, socially and culturally relevant program, that highlights the interconnectedness of all life, the importance of cultural diversity, and the value system of caring and compassion. Intrinsic to this value-based program will be the notion that we have a shared and global responsibility to care for our island home Earth, to which we are all Indigenous. Our children will grow up with the skills, values, and heart centered insight to cope with a changing climate and contribute to a healthy, balanced, sustainable community and planet Earth”.
Testaments as to why a new sail plan is necessary are bountiful in our world today. A time in our recent history illuminates how we lost sight of our values, a time poignantly visible in our hike up into the ridgelines that surround Nainoa’s home.
As we climbed up a hillside of Kiawe trees, we passed native plants and ancient Hawaiian walls, symbols of our past not entirely lost. Nainoa shares with us the Hawaiian place names or each ridgeline and valley, names absent from contemporary discourse, but still alive and laden with mana and meaning.
In his vivid storytelling, we are launched back to a time of the Konohiki, when there were fish. We imagine the Ahupuaʻa as it once was; Maunalua Bay with virtually no houses, when the present highway was a coral road, and when the ocean held a healthy fishpond and a fresh water spring so abundant that Laura Thompsons has a picture in her living room of her horses drinking fresh water right off the surface of the sea.
Nainoa recalls his childhood, when a stream full of eels and mullet coursed through the valley. A stream that always flowed, is now a big sandbar that only opens during heavy rains. He was there the day when, in the building of the shopping center, a crew backed up their truck and dumped several 55 gallon drums of oil straight into the stream.
“In that single day,” he recalls, “it was over, never again, and now there is nothing but tilapia”. He remembers the Hawaiian fishpond upon which multi million dollar homes presently sit over a dredged reef in an area that is supposedly a seabird sanctuary, and he remembers all the people, farmers that were displaced along the highway in the process.
We look down from the ridgeline to a green cavern in the reef that he calls the blue hole, a place where in the winter, sharks would lay their eggs in the tide pools and lobsters would march in great numbers, “today none of that happens”, he says, “and this whole sense of understanding the power of life, I can’t show that to my kids. Where do I take them? Palau?”
His biggest regret in life is to have witnessed Mauanlua Bay being destroyed, to have witnessed the change without being a part of the change, the way that, as communities, we can let things happen to us.
“There was a time”, Nainoa recalls, “when someone else’s vision ran over your whole lifestyle and now it is this issue of the belief in restoration”. He highlights the movement happening in Maunalua Bay, one of restoration in the streams and on the reefs. The bay itself will be a training ground for the crew of the Worldwide voyage, teachers, and youth leadership, her waters linking the 3 pieces together.
Maunalua Bay will become an ocean education reserve, not defined by creating restrictions, but rather as an expression of “reserving and protecting the values we believe in and the way that we protect it is through teaching it.” The oceans and mountains of Hawaii become the school as we redefine our entire concept of a school, approached from the mind of a navigator, and the values intrinsic to voyaging, which include:
- Aloha: To love
- Mālama: To care for
- ‘Imi ‘Ike: To seek knowledge
- Lokomaika‘i: To share with each other
- Na‘au Pono: To nurture a deep sense of justice
- Olakino Maika‘i: To live healthy
As we prepare to descend back into the valley, a teacher from Hawaiʻi Island asks Nainoa, “you know what this place looked like when you were a kid, what do you think it will look like when your children are standing here at your age?”
“What will it look like?” he replies, “we should have marae built, we should have teachers coming up here, we should have students coming, we should be going back into the valley and creating small sanctuaries for native plants, we should figure out how to capture water. Each place should be a learning site so that we should use the land the way my grandparents intended it to be. Restore what we can in line with the protection of plants and animals for the restoration of the valley and do what we can. And that is what we need to be comfortable with – do what you can, otherwise it is to set up unrealistic dreams you will always fail at, or don’t do anything at all. I don’t know exactly what they will look like because it is another voyage. You learn along the way, it is like getting on Hōkūle‘a, she will teach you along the way, this valley will teach us along the way”.
Upon returning from the hike, we discuss our compass and our destination in a light tinged with the pink of the setting sun and filled with a sense of our interwoven dependency on the Earth beneath us.
Nainoa describes the purpose behind the first leg of the Worldwide Voyage, Mālama Hawai‘i, a sail across the Hawaiian Islands to pay respect to our home and our communities and to thank those, who in many diverse ways, are fulfilling our shared mission by caring for the values we believe in. He reminds us that there are thousands of people taking care of Hawai‘i, we don’t know them and they don’t know us.
The voyage, he says, “is not about sailing across the ocean, it is about that movement and then you transcend that microcosm of Hawai‘i to the millions of people across the earth that are reacting in more instinctual, innate ways that are deeply grounded in what makes us human, that the destruction of the Earth is not okay”.
We ground ourselves in this movement and Hōkūle‘a “becomes the teacher in making that happen, bringing us together, allowing us to sail together and to look at how can we believe in the fact that the larger movement going on across the planet is going to make the difference in the canoe. If the premise is that we can navigate our future the best way is going to be through the long term movement of education, we need to give children the tools and teach them the values of caring”.
The core, Nainoa emphasizes, is “ all about how you see the world. Change how you see the world because the way we do will not work. We can do the arithmetic of population alongside food, water, energy and space, and it will not work. It is about being honest and stepping on the voyage that people believe you can’t do”. Lacy Veach, an astronaut from Hawai‘i, looked down upon the islands from space and said, “here is the laboratory for living well on the islands, and here is the school, and in the teaching is a gift to the rest of the Earth”.
In the “piko” room of METC, where all the visioning behind the voyage takes place, there is a quote on the whiteboard:
Hawaiʻi… “in sharing the same Ha (breath), Wai (water), and I (spirituality, connection to one another), Hawaiʻi has much to teach the world and learn from the world.”
We think of ourselves as both teacher and learner, with so much to share and so much to learn. Personally, I have learned so much about our Earth through the eyes of a child and through the window of other cultures. Reciprocity is the basis of all relationships on Earth and we must nurture this same relationship with our home. When we care for our home, she cares for us, just as is life on the canoe, so too is life on land. As Hōkūle‘a sets sail as a catalyst for change, and a needle, weaving a lei of inspiring communities around the planet, I can only begin to imagine what lies beyond the horizon.
In Nainoaʻs words, “we need to stop thinking of Hawaii as segmented in counties, and stop allowing newspaper reports of how bad economy is to define who we are. We need to look at this place as sacred, as a special place, start to believe it and reframe it”. He poses a question to the educators of Aʻo Hawaiʻi:
“Can you help us make the Mālama Hawai‘i sail move us in that direction, and advance ideas in the beauty and the power of Hawai‘i?”
With the support our communities, I know that we can, and we will.
Nainoa reminds us that hope lies in the change and the change first begins in your mind. He emphasizes the importance that we all become active voices in envisioning the future of our communities, cautioning us that if we do not do it ourselves, someone else will, and perhaps without the same value system. When we hiked up the hillside and back in time with him, he left us with a thought that transformed us, a truth he has learned over his lifetime, that “if you don’t have a vision for your place, someone will come along and fill it for you.” As a community, we have a vision of a healthy and sustainable future for our children. It is a vision based on values and we must, as Nainoa puts it, “embrace the Earth in those values.”
For more on the development of Maunalua Bay as a ocean and navigation learning center, see “School of Navigation in Honor of Mau Piailug.”