Delivering Culture-Based Learning


An OHA grant is helping INPEACE bring its Kupu Ola program to Waiʻanae Intermediate School

E kuhikuhi pono i nā au iki a me nā au nui. Instruct well in the little and the large currents of knowledge.

“In teaching, do it well; the small details are as important as the large ones.”

Once considered just theory, it’s now become a standard model for connecting to Native Hawaiian students.

Culture–based teaching methods have been positively related to students’ socio-emotional wellbeing, civic engagement, school motivation and higher academic outcomes.

To aid in the delivery of Hawaiian culture-based learning, the Institute for Native Pacific Education and Culture (INPEACE) was recently awarded a $134,309 grant from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to support its Kupu Ola program offered to students at Waiʻanae Intermediate School (WIS).

“This program was created in response to a basic understanding, and subsequent research findings, of the benefits of culture-based education for the growth and development of Native Hawaiian students and its connections to positive student outcomes,” said Sanoe Marfil, who serves as INPEACE’s chief program officer.

“Outdoor classrooms, each consisting of garden spaces, help to reintroduce students back to the ʻāina and provide them with hands-on experiences that present multiple opportunities to learn and reinforce lessons being taught in the classroom. Learners are able to thrive outside of the four walls of a typical classroom and engage in learning that is relevant to who they are and where they come from.”

Kupu Ola has been a key component in helping to address the issues of chronic absenteeism, behavioral challenges, and low academic achievement. From an external point of view, Kupu Ola might appear to be a school garden program for students, but the program is focused both on students as well as on teacher development in strategic alignment with state Department of Education curriculum objectives.

“Our staff collaborates with teachers to create lessons and activities for students in the outdoor classroom that align with lessons being taught in the classroom, primarily with the science, social studies and special education classes. Teachers electing to participate bring their classes to the garden once or twice a week to co-teach the lesson of the day alongside our INPEACE cultural specialist,” Marfil said.

INPEACE designs and develops programming through a culture-based lens, utilizing moʻolelo, cultural knowledge and values, practices and techniques that make a connection to the learning objective of the classroom teacher. Through this teacher engagement, INPEACE staff can mentor the techniques and strategies for integrating culture into the current educational system, with the goal that teachers can begin to see the increase in student engagement and motivation and then integrate these approaches into lessons on their own and within their classrooms.

“Culture is an integral part of our program. We first ground ourselves to place and people, our moʻokūʻauhau, those who have set a path before us to follow. During this time our students engage their family members to get information and share stories so that they can complete, or begin, their journey to understand who they are. While our students are learning about who they are, we are also teaching the moʻolelo of who we are as Hawaiians through creation stories,” Marfil said.

“We teach stories of place and the importance of these stories which may be reiterated through presentation, oli and mele. Once students begin to understand we then identify the values and leadership characteristics that are found in those stories and relate it back to the values and work we do in the outdoor classroom when we are teaching about Aloha ʻĀina and Malama ʻĀina.”

Marfil said working with WIS principal John Wataoka has been critical to the success of the program.

“Everything starts with true committed partnerships, and our partnership with Principal John Wataoka has made all the difference,” she said. “Mr. Wataoka’s commitment to the program and understanding of the value of instilling culture identity and pride in his students has set the tone for our ability to truly work collaboratively with his staff. He has been open to our suggestions for expansion and new innovations and has included us in his future plans and developments.”

Kupu Ola started on the Waiʻanae Coast in 2008. Between 2011 and 2014, thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the program was in 26 independent preschools and DOE classrooms, serving 567 students at 10 different sites providing training to more than 130 teachers.

Today, the program is only at WIS – which was serving more than 400 students before the pandemic hit. Last year, approximately 100 students and 27 parents were served. The hope is to serve more than 200 this year.

“The limiting factor is the absence of funding for this type of programming – that prohibits us from expanding,” Marfil said. “Continuity and consistency are key, particularly for Native Hawaiians in the communities we serve. Being there and knowing that they can count on us to do what we say we are going to do helps to build trust, not just with the people we serve, but also with the partners that we engage. It is not always easy for nonprofit organizations to rely on funding and support from outside entities.

“The ability to self-sustain some of the most critical programming is difficult, in that those who we serve are not the ones who can pay for services. Itʻs important for the partnerships between the providers and funders to be seen as a true and seamless system of kuleana sectors in order to keep the system functioning.

“ʻHulō to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for standing in that gap and being willing to acknowledge the kuleana and need to secure, manage and disseminate funding to organizations on the ground who are doing the work in the Hawaiian community, in order to allow those organizations to focus on the services needed in our communities.”