Monday, January 13, 2014

Our Hawaiian Garden

I've shared about our Hope Garden as an example of project-based learning which engages students, integrates different content areas, and embeds technology through researching, sharing, and blogging.  I haven't shared as much about our fourth grade Hawaiian garden which is a venue for teaching our students about our unique history.

The Hawaiian garden started about three years ago, the vision of Lars Hanson, one of our fourth grade teachers.  For those who are unaware, a study of our State history is a fourth grade standard, and Mr. Hanson wanted to share the important interrelationship between the land and its people.  As an island state, it is particularly important that we share information about our endemic plants because they are vital to an understanding of our cultural history.

Last year during Make a Difference Day, volunteers from DPW, US Army Garrison-Hawaii and Weston Solutions worked with our teachers to fix up the garden.  They divided the garden into three parts:  one part has endemic/native plants which came to Hawaii by natural means (wind, water, and wings); a second part is planted with what the Polynesians brought with them when they made Hawaii their home; and the third section contains introduced plants brought by immigrants.

Students learn about the myths and legends surrounding the plants.  They learn about how the ancient Hawaiians, the Polynesians, and the immigrants used the different parts of the plant and how they cultivated plants for specific purposes.  Students research to find out information about native plants and animals and share their knowledge with others.  
Two weeks ago, the sugar cane plants were
taller than the building with tassels gracefully
crowning the top of the plant.  Mr. Hanson
and fourth grade students get together to work
on the garden every week after school, and 

when I went past one day last week,
the sugar cane had been cut down.  All the
students will get to have a piece of sugar
cane; they will be surprised to taste it and to
realize that the sugar they put in their food comes
from this plant!

The culmination of their fourth grade study of Hawaii is a visit to the lo`i or taro patch where students assist in the harvesting of the taro which is then used to make poi, a staple of a Hawaiian meal.  Students love turning the squishy mud with their feet (sort of like hoeing to prepare for planting) and washing themselves off afterwards in the cool underground spring (punawai) on the premises!

The plants are bought in pots and when they are ready, they are planted in the ground or Mr. Hanson goes to the mountains to gather plants. They have planted several different kinds of taro; I didn't realize there were so many different varieties of taro!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Math Literacy

Our focus this year is on math problem-solving which is one of the Mathematical Standards of Practice in the Common Core.  I have always enjoyed math and teaching math, and I want our students and teachers to find beauty in solving challenging problems and seeing math all around us.

As I reflected on how we are struggling with the problem-solving process, I think I realize why we may be having difficulty.

When we teach reading, we introduce skills and students apply those skills as they read - reading to learn something new, reading for pleasure, reading to answer questions, reading to understand.  When students can apply their acquired reading skills to select books of their own, when they know how to find information about a topic they're interested in, when they can discuss a book or a story with others, or when they can persevere to make sense of a difficult passage or article, we are confident that they have the skills to be a literate learner.

Yet we do not provide opportunities for students to apply math skills to real-world problems which are all around them.  We teach skills in isolation, and after students have practiced that skill and seem to understand the process, we move on to the next mathematical concept.  We may assign word problems that may or may not be realistic or meaningful to students. We may play math games or read books about math or sing songs, but we don't give students the opportunity to apply the math skills in a meaningful way so students can make sense of why this is important to know and be able to do.

Rather than make up problems involving percentages or decimal points, why not have students look at newspaper ads to determine which store has the best value on a laptop or a Wii?  Can we have students plan a meal and then determine what they will need to purchase at the market and how much that might cost?  How about walking around the school and taking photos of different patterns they find and putting together a slide show?  Or bring in menus from a restaurant and have students figure out what they could buy with a certain amount of money.

Our fifth grade has an organic Hope Garden which is hands-on and project-based.  Students learn science and social studies concepts; they research so they can post a comment to a question on their Hope Garden blog; they decide what they want to plant and why; and they do math.  Lots of math.  Students measure the plots and determine the perimeter and area of each plot as well as the whole garden.  They do experiments and measure the growth of different plants.  They predict how many ears of corn they will harvest and share their strategy.  They weigh their harvest, decide on how to package what they've grown, and keep track of their expenditures and profits.  All these different activities help students realize that literacy -- reading, writing, AND math -- can be part of their everyday lives.  This relevance is what makes the Hope Garden so popular with our fifth graders.

It isn't necessary to have an extensive project to teach math using the world around us.  College and professional sports provide wonderful opportunities to present challenging problems.  The score of the football game was 35-24.  What different ways could the teams have scored their points?  The Sochi Winter Olympics is coming up.  Which country do you think will win the most medals?  Why? Then keep track daily to see if any of the students will be right.  There's a construction project going on at our school. How do the workers use math skills in their work?  These are just a few examples of how we can engage students so they love math and see the relevance of math in their daily lives.  We need students to persevere in solve challenging problems and to recognize that math is an important part of their daily lives.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Year's Day 2014

Last night, we had our traditional ozoni or mochi soup, something our family looks forward to every New Year's Eve. Today, we'll be going to Mom's to celebrate the start of 2014. New Year's Day was always a special holiday for us, and it has its roots in Shogatsu which our ancestors celebrated in Japan before immigrating to Hawaii.

When we were little, we always did extra housecleaning before January 1.  To this day, I feel guilty if we don't clean the house - including the windows and screens -- prior to New Year's day. I remember playing with firecrackers with our older neighbors in Whitmore Village. It was a ritual to scare away the evil spirits, and we looked forward to the day when we graduated from sparklers to firecrackers.  We used a mosquito punk to light the fuse and had to throw it before it exploded.  I  didn't care for this activity, especially after I held on to one too long and it blew up in my hand. I suffered a minor burn and learned a valuable lesson which probably impacted my attitude today towards fireworks. On New Year's morning, we got up, took a bath to start off the year, then had Mom's delicious mochi soup. I remember going to our grandparents' house to celebrate New Year's Day.  We always wore something new, usually a dress we received as a Christmas present the week before.

Time passed, and some of these family traditions changed as grandparents passed away, children got married and had kids of their own, or relatives moved.  I'm not sure when we went from mochi soup in the morning to ozoni on the Eve.  Fireworks require a permit now as we are more health-conscious and worry about the air quality and noise pollution, and we no longer buy them to "scare away bad luck" before the start of the New Year. As the younger generation start their own traditions with their own families, I wonder if our traditions, based on Japanese culture, will eventually fade away.

Like family traditions which began as part of our culture but changed over time, traditions at schools based on "culture" may be difficult to understand.  We've been told that as a new leader, we should go in with our eyes and ears open so we can learn what the culture of the place is.  We risk alienating those who may be offended if we come in as a new leader without understanding why things are done as they are.  However, by moving forward respectfully with honest discussions, change is not just possible; it is necessary.  Every school, under new leadership, has the potential to become better.

February 2014 will mark the start of my twelfth year as principal of Hale Kula Elementary School.  There have been many changes in the time I have been here, in part due to the increased expectations for schools to prepare students for a rapidly-changing world, and this is where knowledge of the culture of a place is most important.  Is it a culture where the school community works together to address challenges?  How do we communicate and work together to ensure the best teaching and learning environment for our students and teachers? Is there a climate where new ideas are embraced, shared, and discussed? What is the decision-making process at the school? Where do we leverage our resources so they have the greatest positive impact on our students?

Every school culture is a reflection of its community.  At Hale Kula, our culture is a blend of our unique island culture and the transient nature of our military community.  We believe that our school is an `ohana, a family, and that we treat each other with respect.  This is especially important because most of our students are an ocean away from the support of their extended family.  We believe in providing our students with an education that will prepare them to be successful now and in the future while also embedding an appreciation for the unique history and culture of our state.  And finally, we want our students to understand the importance of taking care of our natural resources because their actions today affect our world tomorrow. Our students are global citizens, and their education at Hale Kula needs to prepare them for a rapidly-changing world.

Just as influences beyond our control have impacted our family's New Year's traditions, the ways of doing things at a school may change due to changing times and/or changing leadership.  A strong positive school culture can determine whether the changes will be successfully implemented or not.  As we move towards major changes in how we determine teacher and principal effectiveness and the impact on achievement, it is my hope that our school's strong culture of collaboration will translate to success for our students and teachers.