Canoe as the Classroom: Cultivating Culturally Responsible Navigators...

Diversity and Equity

Canoe as the Classroom: Cultivating Culturally Responsible Navigators and Leaders

By Denise Espania     Oct 5, 2017

Canoe as the Classroom: Cultivating Culturally Responsible Navigators and Leaders

This article is part of the guide: What Personalized Learning Looks Like Across the Country: The 2017 Fifty States Project.

In May 2014, Hōkūleʻa, a traditional Native Hawaiian double-hulled canoe, launched on its worldwide voyage to spread the message of Mālama Honua, which translates as “to care for Island Earth.” Hōkūleʻa is not a modern day vessel with a powerful motor, GPS or even a compass. Hōkūleʻa has something better. She is powered by the wind, waves and most importantly, a shared vision, mission and values. Her crew is trained and led by navigators who had to relearn indigenous sailing methodologies and reclaim knowledge and traditions lost due to colonization. Her charge was a daunting but critical one: to safely navigate, using traditional skills and knowledge, around the globe to connect us like a lei (garland) of aloha (love), so we as a global community can heal and care for the only island we have: Earth.

Inspired by the voyage, Mālama Honua Public Charter School (MHPCS) opened its doors to the children of Waimānalo, on the island of Oahu in August 2014. Our charge was also daunting, but critical: take the values and experiences of this iconic voyaging canoe to create a learning environment that cultivates the “Mind of the Navigator” spirit in students, teachers, and community alike.

The importance of a values based education

He waʻa he moku; He moku he waʻa.
“The canoe is the island; The island is the canoe.”

This Hawaiian proverb reminds us that how we live in a canoe should guide how we live on an island. With limited resources, we need to respect and care for each other and our resources in order to survive. When we live this proverb, we will not only survive the journey, but thrive and flourish.

The mission of the voyage is to share that message across the world. It also forms one of the foundational tenets at MHPCS and shapes the educational experiences for our teachers and students.

Every year at MHPCS, students in grades K-5 focus on gifts of our earth: ocean reefs, farmable lands, mountains, rivers, water systems, and oceans. Students learn firsthand when they visit different sacred places why it is important to care for our natural resources and what others are doing to preserve, protect, and restore these resources. Together they problem solve with each other and the experts (scientist, cultural practitioners, artists, community leaders, politicians) to come up with ways they can help to preserve, conserve, and advocate for the resources of island earth.

These hands-on activities align with Common Core State Standards as well as the Next Generation Science Standards. Through their course of study, students at Mālama Honua Public Charter School apply their core values and “Mind of the Navigator” framework to engage in projects and learning that aim to make a positive contribution to our world.

Community engagement extends learning beyond the four walls of a classroom

Aʻohe pau ka ʻike i ka hālau hoʻokahi.
“Not all knowledge is learned in one school.”

Photo credit: Denise Espania

Just as traditional wayfinding is not learned by listening to lecture while sitting within the four walls of a classroom, MHPCS recognizes that our students will learn and engage with experiences that are relevant and meaningful because it impacts their own lives and their community.

In 2017, our school population, of a little over 100 students, mirrors the community which we serve: our K-5 student population is over 70% Native Hawaiian and more than 65% qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. To ensure that their learning is meaningfully tied to the community, our students engaging in project-based learning about the land and host culture in which they live and belong. Our students do projects to answer the overarching essential question: “How do I live mālama honua?”

Our classes partner with local farmers, scientists, cultural practitioners—those engaged in restoring and preserving our natural resources. They learn about the history, current impact and challenges facing the land and water. Our students and teachers present their learning at at the end of each trimester. Additionally, each year concludes with community service that allows students to give back to the land and organizations that guided their learning experiences that year. Learning happens within the walls of the class as well as at the beach, on the farms, in the mountains, and with community experts—wherever they may be.

Helping students discovering the source of learning

Nana i ke kumu.
“Look to the source.”

Source: Denise Espania

This proverb asks us to look to any source of knowledge. Our ancestors realized that knowledge came in all forms—from talking to people, observing nature, working with the land. The source was everything. (Another translation for kumu is teacher.)

For our students, one source of learning has been the voyage. Throughout the year they connected with the Hōkūleʻa crew 2 to 3 times a year, to learn how the values they learned in school also guided those making the voyage thousands of miles away. Hearing about the crew’s experiences offered different expert perspectives on the research and teachings the students engaged with in school.

During a Google Hangout with crew members during the spring of 2017, as Hōkūleʻa sailed through the Panama Canal, our first- and second-grade students had an opportunity to reflect and learn from their kupuna (elders). The question they asked was, “How do you nānā i ke kumu?” It was the proverb that the school was focusing on at the time.

After a pause, Uncle Billy, a crew member, responded that Hōkūleʻa was a source of inspiration, as well as the ocean, for it is a source of life and breath. He explained that his teachers and mentors are also sources of knowledge, as are the children who provide a source of inspiration. During reflection time following the Hangout, one of our second-grade boys said, “Hearing about Uncle Billyʻs connection to the proverb made me think about how my actions can be a source of life to someone else.”

Our values, culture and project-based learning challenges our students, creating a reason to learn reading, writing, and math. These skills are tools they use in their role as leaders and advocates in their community, as stewards of our honua (Earth).

Denise Espania is the founding school leader of Mālama Honua Public Charter School

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