Learning By Doing

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Blogger and son learning to pound mochi during school's Japanese New Year celebration.

It is hard to believe that I am closing in on my third year as an elementary head of school and kama'aina (resident of Hawaii). Much of my journey has been remarkable, as I learn how to navigate an environment replete with new customs, cultural understandings, and traditions. In some ways, I imagine it feels similar to what people describe when moving to a new country.

I vividly recall my first year when a colleague and I dropped in to visit our neighborhood Hawaiian immersion school to discuss upcoming land development that was scheduled to take place. We were a tad late for the meeting scheduled on their campus, and it had just gotten underway when we entered the room. We quietly entered and took our seats. It wasn't until I caught my breath and looked around at the guests that I realized I was the only one wearing shoes. Everyone's footwear had been left at the door. I quickly tiptoed out to redo a proper entrance.

Before I could take my seat again, everyone rose and joined hands while the oli (Hawaiian blessing) was shared. I experienced chicken skin for the first time as I listened to the unfamiliar language roll off of the kahu's soulful tongue, giving thanks for our many gifts and for uniting us in fellowship. I recall thinking to myself, "I have no earthly idea what he is saying right now, but I certainly know what I feel."

After the blessing, the meeting commenced with an invited speaker who wanted to bring to everyone's attention the recently completed E-A (ee-ay). I was still coming down from my spiritual high, and was growing increasingly curious about all of the Hawaiian language I was hearing that morning. I tried to use contextual cues to see if I knew what an EA meant. Were they building a new location to host luaus? Had they just finished blessing the site? I couldn't figure it out and so I leaned over to my colleague and asked, "What exactly does EA mean in Hawaiian?" She laughed and whispered back, "It doesn't translate to anything in Hawaiian. He is referring to an Environmental Assessment."

That day was one of many teachable moments I've experienced since 2013. These unexpected blunders have fortunately allowed me to learn more about my new home over time. With each opportunity I gain a deeper understanding of what makes the island such a special place to live. In fact, so many of these memories dovetail with our own school's philosophy, "learning by doing." It comforts me to know that I am still developing new habits of mind just like our students, through experiential learning and real-life lessons.

During the month of February, I elected to examine our school through a different set of lenses: our students, both past and present. To begin my homework, I spent one day in each of our grade levels, living the life of a student from morning arrival to afternoon dismissal. I followed students to recess, dined with them during lunch, observed them during Shop, Art, and other specials, and got down on the floor with them during centers, class assignments and projects. I intentionally did not mention to our students that I had assigned myself this special homework assignment, for I wanted to make sure I observed the children in their truest, most comfortable state. At the end of the day, what surprised me most was that very few students even asked me why I was spending the day with them. Truthfully, the most surprising inquiry I received over my five days in-residence was from one of our younger five-year-olds who asked me, "Why do you always smell so good?" It was the truest measure of joyous work I've witnessed to date, when students are so engaged in their learning, they hardly notice you are there!

In addition, I was fortunate that month to be an invited guest at a local recognition ceremony for a 95-year-old alumna who chose to receive her award in true school spirit. In place of the standard acceptance speech, she moved the crowd with the most graceful hula dance I ever witnessed. Likewise, during an alumni reception held in San Francisco, I overheard one of our former students talk about her life as an opera singer, listened to another alumna sing a tune she had written in honor of Hanahau'oli School, learned about the passionate work of one alumnus who is now committed to supporting education in underserved communities, and chatted with the grandson of our founders. I was thrilled to meet these esteemed graduates and learn about their collective years of learning, commitment and leadership spent in a school infused with teachable moments. Each alumnus had moved on in many different directions personally and professionally, yet still remained lifelong learners and stayed true to our mission of graduating "productive members of democratic communities."

What struck me the most as I reflected on my February assignment was how much I learned about human capacity. At Hanahau`oli School, we believe that once a child is given an opportunity to learn in an environment that expects mistakes will be made, relationships fostered, risk-taking encouraged, and creativity cultivated, the outcomes are limitless! When I became a resident student in our classrooms, I witnessed teachers giving children opportunities to think critically, ask questions, collaborate and make independent choices without fear of failure. Older students were supporting younger students in their learning and giving them the encouragement they needed to feel safe and successful. Authentic learning was taking place in real time throughout campus, and our students were fostering new understandings about the world around them. Tangible, teachable moments were taking place just as they had for me during my visit to the immersion school. I could just picture those brain synapses firing off throughout the day, as new connections were being made and strengthened in the students' learning environments.

As an educator fiercely committed to inspiring students to become passionate "makers and doers" of the world, I feel fortunate to belong to a school where the mission of learning by doing is not just stated, but celebrated. We often forget that meaningful learning should last a lifetime. Without asking questions, we will never know the answers. If we can help our students establish a healthy mindset early on, I believe it will help them face new opportunities, obstacles, and setbacks with true optimism and an inherent desire to learn more, creating a better world for all of us!