The World Beyond Our Walls – Punahou's Campus Springs to Life as an Outdoor Classroom

By Catherine Black '94

Imagine a class in which students learn to see the living world with new eyes – where they acquire a conceptual framework to connect with their island home; to see how hydrology and geology shape our daily landscapes; to understand why Hawai'i's native species are among the world's rarest; to recognize the complex conditions that enable biological systems to thrive.

What setting would be required to teach these lessons: a visit to Foster Botanical Garden? A day camp at Mokule'ia? A class trip to Hawai'i Island?

Not necessarily. Punahou's campus can also be an excellent classroom with an endless supply of teaching tools. For kindergartners on the "kukui nut trail" or Academy biology students measuring algae populations in Ka Punahou, the lands of the New Spring are a living book, inviting readers to learn its subtle language.

As the School's curriculum evolves to include more interdisciplinary, experiential and inquiry-based teaching approaches, faculty are seeing the 76-acre campus as fertile ground for instruction. Traditional notions of outdoor spaces as a setting mainly for sports or play are evolving as their deeper potential comes into focus: plants that were once merely landscaping become excellent subjects for scientific observation and cultural reflection; the historic artesian wells and network of underground springs that feed Ka Punahou present an opportunity to study water systems, civil engineering and the unseen dimensions of our everyday surroundings; Pu'u o Manoa (Rocky Hill) is a laboratory to study erosion and ecosystem restoration.

"What is the educational value of our living environment?" is a question that fascinates Punahou Outdoor Education faculty David Blanchette. Having grown up in both Hawai'i and the continental U.S., his appreciation for the Islands blends the local's passion with the visitor's sense of wonder.

With the support of Junior School Principal Mike Walker, Blanchette has been working with faculty across campus this year to identify unique learning opportunities hidden in unlikely places.

Dave Blanchette and Devin Caswell with K – 1 students on Pu'u o Manoa last summer.

Seeing the Campus through its Trees

Kukui has been a part of Hawai'i's culture and ecology for centuries. Also known as the candlenut tree because of the traditional practice of burning its oil-rich seeds for light, kukui had many uses for ancient Hawaiians, from the medicinal to the recreational.

The Punahou campus has a number of kukui trees, particularly in the Omidyar K – 1 Neighborhood. This past fall, K – 1 PE faculty Malia Lee '83 collaborated with Blanchette to create a kukui nut trail unit, which took kindergartners on a winding adventure from the Neighborhood's central playground to a lookout on the slopes of Pu'u o Manoa. Along the way, they harvested leaves and nuts while practicing skills like observation, counting and comparison.

By the time each class regrouped at a rainwater catchment barrel in the Neighborhood, the students had learned how to identify the trees and recognize the process of decomposition of their leaves and seeds on the ground. They took turns putting their collected nuts to a flotation test to see which ones contained meat – and sank – as opposed to those that had dried out, and therefore floated.

K – 1 Supervisor JoAnn Wong-Kam describes the students' attentiveness to their surroundings as a "wonderful way to get to know the Neighborhood. The next time they're near a kukui tree they'll remember what it is and what it's used for. It would be great for them to continue to refine this type of awareness through all their 13 years at Punahou."

Kathleen Thomas took the kukui nut curriculum one step further by inviting Blanchette to show her kindergartners how to crack the nuts and pry out their meat. Taking turns in a circle, they refined their motor skills and coordination by learning to crack the hard shells on a concave lava rock with just the right pressure and focus in order to avoid crushing the soft, inner seed.

Vincent Saito '26 tapped his shell gingerly several times with a smooth stone before hearing the telltale splitting noise. Upon inspecting the kukui nut, his eyes opened wide with delight: "Oh wow, look! It's a whole one!" he exclaimed, holding up his prize. His excited classmates applauded and leaned in closer to see.

Some of the shelled nuts were passed on to Outdoor Education faculty for grinding into a buttery paste. Kaniela Lyman-Mersereau's '05 seventh-graders used the paste to waterproof the wooden hand planes they had made for bodysurfing at a Waimanalo day camp in September.

"Most of the students thoroughly enjoyed feeling and using the kukui nut butter," reported Lyman-Mersereau after the wood workshop. "I would say it was their favorite part."

The Light of Learning

Seventh-graders in Ke'alohi Reppun's '99 social studies class also intersected with the kukui nut trail.

"Kukui was a symbol of enlightenment for the Hawaiians," explains Reppun, who grew up on her family's organic kalo (taro) farm in Waiahole. "Kukui means light – knowing, seeing, clarity. So the kukui tree became a symbol for these things, and a house or place of learning could have a kukui tree nearby as a reminder."

Reppun's class began the fall semester by reflecting on the meaning of enlightenment, before learning about kukui's practical uses with Blanchette. She says the time they spent outside with kukui prepared them for a subsequent unit on family structures, which she illustrated with kalo: "The most important social unit in Hawaiian culture is the family, or 'ohana, and kalo is a symbol of 'ohana."

The class studied the plant's botany and mythology before surveying the courtyard outside Kuaihelani Learning Center, which houses the School's Hawaiian Studies program. They examined the kalo planted around Kuaihelani and discovered it was actually Bunlong, a Chinese variety. After reflecting on this, the students embarked on a project to replant the area with the Hawaiian Moi variety commonly used to make poi.

Each student chose a huli (stalk) to plant and care for, after measuring out the area and calculating the space needed for the entire class. In the ensuing months, they observed the plants' growth, analyzed the impacts of sun and shade, and became increasingly familiar with their particular huli.

"Each kid connects to the outdoors in a different way," says Reppun. "It allows for them to make an observation about features that are applicable to the world outside school. In that sense, the classroom as a space for learning is great, but it's not the real world; it's an artificial context.

"We're inquisitive by nature as human beings," she continues, "but that inclination can get watered down to an extent by an educational system where the teacher knows everything and the students only ask questions when we tell them to. Critical thinking is about reviving the spirit of inquiry. If you foster critical thinking, it fosters environmental awareness."

The Light of Learning

Seventh-graders in Ke'alohi Reppun's '99 social studies class also intersected with the kukui nut trail.

"Kukui was a symbol of enlightenment for the Hawaiians," explains Reppun, who grew up on her family's organic kalo (taro) farm in Waiahole. "Kukui means light – knowing, seeing, clarity. So the kukui tree became a symbol for these things, and a house or place of learning could have a kukui tree nearby as a reminder."

Reppun's class began the fall semester by reflecting on the meaning of enlightenment, before learning about kukui's practical uses with Blanchette. She says the time they spent outside with kukui prepared them for a subsequent unit on family structures, which she illustrated with kalo: "The most important social unit in Hawaiian culture is the family, or 'ohana, and kalo is a symbol of 'ohana."

The class studied the plant's botany and mythology before surveying the courtyard outside Kuaihelani Learning Center, which houses the School's Hawaiian Studies program. They examined the kalo planted around Kuaihelani and discovered it was actually Bunlong, a Chinese variety. After reflecting on this, the students embarked on a project to replant the area with the Hawaiian Moi variety commonly used to make poi.

Each student chose a huli (stalk) to plant and care for, after measuring out the area and calculating the space needed for the entire class. In the ensuing months, they observed the plants' growth, analyzed the impacts of sun and shade, and became increasingly familiar with their particular huli.

"Each kid connects to the outdoors in a different way," says Reppun. "It allows for them to make an observation about features that are applicable to the world outside school. In that sense, the classroom as a space for learning is great, but it's not the real world; it's an artificial context.

"We're inquisitive by nature as human beings," she continues, "but that inclination can get watered down to an extent by an educational system where the teacher knows everything and the students only ask questions when we tell them to. Critical thinking is about reviving the spirit of inquiry. If you foster critical thinking, it fosters environmental awareness."

"Each kid connects to the outdoors in a different way. It allows for them to make an observation about features that are applicable to the world outside school. In that sense, the classroom as a space for learning is great, but it's not the real world; it's an artificial context."

A Sense of Place

Angela Church also incorporated the campus into her curriculum this year. For the past decade, her fifth-graders have planted a tree for World Peace Day. Church explains that this year they chose 'ohi'a because it is a native species that would also commemorate the new fifth-grade trip to Hawai'i Island (where the red 'ohi'a blossom is the official flower).

Thanks to Hui Ku Maoli Ola, a native plant nursery co-founded by Matthew Schirman '92, Church's students received a young 'ohi'a that lived in their classroom for a week prior to the planting. During that time, they researched different aspects of the tree, from the rose beetles that plague it to Manoa Valley's once abundant 'ohi'a forests.

After they planted their tree in the Chapel courtyard, the class set off on an 'ohi'a adventure with Blanchette. The students compared healthy and sick specimens to learn about the conditions that favor 'ohi'a; they marked trees for potential cuttings and propagation; and they collected seeds for future plantings.

"It felt good to be helping the 'ohi'a trees that are dying out," reflected Will Case '21, who described the plant with sensitivity and detail: "It's very delicate – the flowers and the tiny seeds and the leaves."

"People want more and more land for people, so there's very little room for the 'ohi'a," chimed in his classmate Jack Vann '21. "Before, I thought it was just a regular tree – now I know that it's native and we should really be protecting it."

As a result of getting to know one species in greater depth, these fifth-graders are reflecting on larger questions ranging from native plants to urban development. This evidence of "systems thinking" is one of the virtues Junior School Principal Walker sees in situating student learning within broader, interrelated complex systems – from ecosystems to social institutions.

Place and Purpose

When learning transcends the classroom, the interdisciplinary nature of the world outside becomes more evident. While this challenges an educational approach built on standardized curriculum, it offers new ways to explore and integrate traditional disciplines – not to mention intersecting with many of the School's values, such as sustainability, Hawaiian culture and instructional innovation.

Recently implemented ideas include fourth-grade "water walks" that explore the area's complex network of underground springs and their use in the School's infrastructure; harvesting tamarind pods from our centuries-old trees to create edible dishes in middle-school Home Economics; the study of Ka Punahou's water quality and ecological health in Academy biology; and native plant reforestation on Pu'u o Manoa to mitigate erosion as part of a seventh-grade inquiry-based project.

Reppun says that these "opportunities create connections, because you are metaphorically liberated from the walls of your discipline when you move out of the classroom. That can have a huge impact on the School and on Hawai'i as a whole."

"It's not just the ground we walk on or the buildings that we go into, but the idea that the campus is a living, breathing entity that can sustain us," affirms Walker. "The challenge is to turn that into curricular experiences for the students that help us to think about this place and this space as not just something that we occupy, but that we have a relationship with and a responsibility for."

From the Punahou Bulletin Spring 2014

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