Visiting Educators Focus on Place-Based Education

Last month, 120 educators and administrators from schools across the globe convened on campus as participants of the 2016 ISEEN (Independent School Experiential Education Network) Conference co-hosted by Punahou and 'Iolani School. The theme for this year's conference, which took place from Jan. 18 – 22, centered on place-based education.

Optional pre-conference excursions helped teachers get acquainted with the Hawaiian Islands. Teachers had the opportunity to gain a sense of place during a visit to Ualaka'a State Park. Perched at the top of Round Top Drive, with a view of the entire South side of the island, teachers learned about the natural history and hiked to a former macadamia nut orchard. David Blanchette, Punahou PE faculty, led the group, and 'Iolani teachers plus the other locals offered their insight on the surroundings as well.

After spending the day at 'Iolani on Wednesday, teachers visited Kualoa Ranch on Thursday. They learned the concept of ahupua'a during a hike, rolled up their sleeves for some hands-on taro cultivation in a lo'i kalo, connected with service learning through stream restoration and learned about Hawaiian traditional fish farming practices at an ancient fishpond.

"My favorite part of the day was going to see Secret Island," said Patricia Bohn, a teacher from St. Louis, Missouri's College School. Teachers had some free time to enjoy hammocks, stand up paddle boards and other beach recreation.

On Friday, teachers met at Punahou where they were welcomed with an oli and mele from Dr. Scott and students. In groups of 20, teachers discovered the unique aspects of campus during several experiential education activities across campus.

At the Lily Pond, conference participants heard the story of Ka Punahou as told by Chaplain Lauren Medeiros. Rocky Higgins, a coach and PE teacher, spoke about the continuous effort required to keep the pond healthy before the group entered the pond to clear invasive species and remove debris. A group of students gathered to watch the adult activity and gleefully passed on their knowledge of the Lily Pond and its aquatic inhabitants to the educators.

After completing the service project, the participants moved to the Winne Units and observed the third-grade Hawaiian culture curriculum in action. The group was in awe as Punahou teacher Max Nu'uhiwa conversed with the students in Hawaiian. The students were more than happy to explain the various projects they were working on, which included tying fishing nets, playing games of kōnane and writing stories about Hawaiian plants.

"Coming from a three-building school in the middle of Montreal, the outdoor education opportunities for Punahou students on campus are truly staggering," said Matt McCarney, a teacher at Selwyn House.

Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, Academy English teacher and K – 12 Garden Resource teacher Eliza Leineweber '92 Lathrop, assisted by Social Studies teacher Bill Waring and a student, welcomed participants to Ka Papa Mala o Punahou, one of the gardens on campus, located in the Academy area.

Introduced to the overview of programs across campus, participants learned the welcoming oli and practice that students engage in when coming to work in the garden. As Lathrop explained, the goal is to focus students on the connection to place and the curriculum. Then the educators got to work.

Pausing briefly in the hale to learn about the current moon phase and cultural understanding associated with it, they got the list of to-dos and divided it up by choice. More than half the crew headed to the compost area and worked on the many steps from emptying cafeteria scraps and mulch into the bins, to clearing out a bin to the sifter and prepping the compost for use.

The remaining group headed to the pea patch, which needed some weeding and restringing of the trellis for the growing tendrils. Lathrop reinforced the notion of understanding the system of the garden as a great learning experience for kids of all ages.

Coming from working in the garden into the comfort of Gates Family Science Workshop, educators were introduced to the Academy Psychosocial program, with an overview of class offerings. The focus of the session was the camp experience and the role that camps play in building connections for high school students and for empowering students to help each other, providing limits and support.

Academy Psychosocial faculty Lei Ahina and Sarah Slater underscored the value of the programs to support a school culture of empathy, self-awareness and channels of support that create a safety net for teenagers. The key to the camps is student leadership which allows kids to spend time looking at how they are living their lives. Three peer counselors then took over the session by inviting educators to participate in one of the exercises they use in camps.

Educators got a short break to visit the Star Compass mosaic in the Mamiya Science Center. Science teacher Dave Strang offered an overview of the resurgence of traditional navigational practices currently being used in Hokule'a's Worldwide Voyage and a brief introduction to the star compass.

On Rocky Hill, former Punahou teacher David White took a group of teachers to see what the buzz was about in the structure which houses bee hives and serves as a classroom for students. Katye Steenrod, an outdoor educator at St. Anne's Episcopal School in Denver, Colorado, appreciated the setup and said she would consider it in an effort to keep bears out of her hives back home. Further up the hill, Gail Peiterson and Tai Crouch, co-directors of the Gates Family Science Workshop, gave teachers a tour of the native Hawaiian plant garden and explained the service learning and teacher workshops that take place on Rocky Hill.

"Welcome to the K – 1 Omyidar Neighborhood," said a group of first-grade students in chorus as they saw the group of visiting educators approaching. At the neighborhood, K – 1 Supervisor JoAnn Wong-Kam, explained that the learning environment is a reflection of a new vision of education, emphasizing closeness with nature and environmental stewardship.

The teachers were inspired by all the activity taking in the neighborhood. "This is gorgeous," said one. "I'm ready to play," said another. "The trust in the kids here is stunning," commented yet another.

Teachers observed the cooperation taking place through play and the physical confidence the students were developing. Peter Balding, outdoor education teacher, led the visitors and some student helpers on a trail behind the play area to unearth sweet potatoes. Balding talked about the ways he engages children in physical learning, connecting them with the rest of campus via excursions.

Among the teachers taking note of the setting's success was Blake Amos from Trinity Valley in Fort Worth, Texas, who runs a K – 12 program for outdoor education. He is in the midst of creating a new play area for his school. It's the place not the structures that make an area engaging, he realized while watching the kids digging, climbing rocks and splashing around in the stream.

Other teachers had a chance to connect with Punahou's administration during panel discussions. Members of Punahou's Administrative Leadership Team shared their perspective on their roles in supporting students, teachers and alumni in outdoor and adventure education, global education and service learning.

After lunch, the teachers reconvened during a "Show and Tell" session where they shared about programs at their schools. Nick Francis from The Seven Hills School was one presenter. He talked about experiential learning and the new idea his school has employed this year: concentrations that students can focus on in following their passions.

That evening at the President's Home, Nainoa Thompson helped close the conference by sharing his work with the Worldwide Voyage. "It is the best project-based learning that we know," he said.

He paid tribute to his childhood neighbor who first introduced him to the ocean. "My choice in life has been to follow the road on the ocean, that's where I find myself, but that wasn't because it was innate, that was because it was taught," said Thompson.

Thompson also reflected on the Hawaiian cultural renaissance that's had a significant role in place-based education in Hawai'i. "Private schools will become irrelevant if they don't teach about place, about first peoples and their relationship to the larger society," he said, which inspired applause from the teachers.

Thompson invited the group to connect with the voyage's mission. "This may be the ending of a conference, but it's the beginning of a relationship. You can help us be the bridge to experiential learning that will help kids be able to navigate their lives by finding their own way."

Jessie Barrie, executive director of ISEEN, ended the night with a gracious thank you to Punahou and 'Iolani. "Punahou and 'Iolani are schools that every independent school knows about and aspires to be like. Your schools carry weight and they have value in that broader dialog. For you to recognize us so warmly, to let us feel like we are your family, and to share your culture, your schools and teachers, is such a gift to us. So we will so gladly give the gift back any way we can."