Starting with Place: Molokai Students Re-Define their Education

Aka`ula School middle school students in Molakai, Hawaii thrive as they research and create positive solutions for environmental issues affecting their own community. This is Vicki's story.
Vicki's Students, Hawaiian Corn

Kalani Wainwright and Kaui Dela Cruz learn the pros and cons of the seed corn business.

Photo by Lei Ah Loy

I was a three-time teacher dropout when I returned to the classroom in 1989. Education didn’t seem authentic to me. Each time I returned to teaching, I felt like I could teach more from the experiences I gained outside of the classroom, but I still didn’t feel right because I was the one doing most of the talking.

When I originally signed up for IEEIA (Investigating and Evaluating Environmental Issues and Actions) training, I was looking for a better way of approaching environmental conflicts in my community, not in my classroom. I was researching the impacts of proposed shark culling legislation in Hawaii, and after going through the process I felt like I really understood the depth and complexity of the issue, not only my own perspective. I was hooked.

Using the IEEIA curriculum as a model, we created the PRISM project (Providing Resolutions with Integrity for a Sustainable Molokai). PRISM uses environmental issues as an integrating context for science, math, social studies, language arts and the development of critical thinking skills. Each year students at Aka`ula School select local environmental issues and take them through the IEEIA process, which includes: writing research questions; constructing a data collection instrument; gathering data; crunching the numbers; making conclusions; inferences and recommendations; and constructing an action plan. About half of our students go on to implement their action plans. In addition, our students do field research, practice community networking, hold a speaker’s bureau to better understand differing viewpoints, travel outside of Hawaii for environmental conferences, and organize their own symposiums.

An example of an issue investigation is one conducted by Olana Chow. She began this project in sixth grade, looking at the environmental and economic impacts of polystyrene. Over two years, Olana surveyed community members and businesses looking at problems associated with the use of this non-biodegradable material. Olana brought in samples of polystyrene alternatives, contacted legislators and communities that have banned the material, and ,in the third year, she worked on implementing an action plan based on the data she had collected. She was able to get three businesses to ban the sale of polystyrene for a day, develop a business plan to retail alternative products, and persuade Aka`ula School trustees to eliminate the use of polystyrene at the school.

Vicki's students sample water

Aka`ula students (Hikilii Chow, KJ Tanaka, and Shampayne Ka`ai) study chemical reactions at school prior to conducting field studies

Photo by Paul Riel

When our students begin these projects for the first time, there’s often a wild look in their eyes. The picture is so big, they can’t always wrap their heads around it until they reach the end of the investigation. It’s a lot like riding a roller coaster. They’re fearful about getting on because they’re not sure what will happen. The ride is exhilarating and scary at the same time, and when they’re done they can’t wait to do it again.

Throughout the process, students learn that opposing viewpoints are driven by values and that differences should be respected and communicated clearly. In the end, win-win just might be possible if everyone listens. Arleone Dibbon of Nene O Molokai wanted to reintroduce Nene geese at Mapulehu, where ancestral bones had been discovered. Alapai Hanapi lived near the site and was opposed to anything that might disturb the burials. The group that was conducting the investigation was having a hard time sorting through the opposing viewpoints. Arleone was worried because she felt the investigation was going to hurt her chances to reintroduce the birds. After the school year ended, I ran into Arleone and she said, “Tell your students thank you for their research.” Upon reflecting, she realized that Mapulehu wasn’t the best site after all and began to look for alternatives.

The Molokai community holds great pride in the students who have participated in the PRISM program. Many of these kids, a lot of whom showed little interest in school before PRISM, are now solving community problems, traveling all over the world, and coming home with awards. A social worker at Queen Liliuokalani Children’s Center said that for a native Hawaiian community, especially, PRISM is a natural fit because Hawaiian culture is inseparable from the environment. Our students relate to this feeling and they are most inspired when they are working on “backyard” issues.

PRISM has provided an opportunity for me to grow as a teacher. Now, I am not just a storyteller but an active learner within my own classroom. PRISM shows students that teachers don’t have all the answers and that we can be partners in learning.

Vicki Newberry's 5 Ways to Build an Engaging Place-Based Education Classroom

  1. Get training and read as much as you can about place-based education.
    Reach for as many opportunities as you can to learn about place-based education. IEEIA workshops are held across the country, and several organizations, including PEEC (Place-based Education Evaluation Cooperative) offer articles and practical teaching resources.
  2. Find a school or administrator who supports place-based learning.
    Not all schools emphasize place-based education. Finding a supportive and innovative administrator that is on board with your mission can make all the difference to your teaching.
  3. Try team teaching.
    One of my most valuable teaching experiences was working alongside another teacher in the same classroom. We were able to rely on each other to fill in each other’s gaps, but also there was a healthy pressure from constantly being observed by a respected co-worker. It forced me to do my best.
  4. Take advantage of teachable moments.
    Plans are essential, but remember to be flexible. If you’ve scheduled a week of lessons on teaching variables and writing research questions, and a team of US geological scientists offers a group of your students investigating soil erosion the chance to join them in the field—go with it. Place-based education is all about taking advantage of teachable moments.
  5. Get off the stage.
    I love the “stage” at the front of my classroom, but I’ve come to understand that my students learn more when I step out of the spotlight and place more emphasis on coaching them throughout their learning process.

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