Student voice ignites new literacy push at Keaukaha Elementary


How do you ignite the spark to start a lifelong love of reading? It's a key question, because literacy is a key building block in preparing students for life, and the more you read, the better you become. A yearlong effort at Keaukaha Elementary in Hilo is yielding a passionate response from students.

​How do you cultivate a love of reading?

This is a question that educators and parents have long grappled with, and one that’s vital to answer for as many students as possible — literacy holds the key to understanding all subjects, from languages to math to social sciences. It’s the foundation of knowledge.

Keaukaha Elementary in the Hilo Complex Area has been taking a yearlong innovative approach to answering that question, which peaked this month in a Student Showcase that put the students’ favorite books in the spotlight.

“Reading has always been a focus for us, but it was previously centered on how to read,  as a way to improve. Now we’re focusing on the why we read,” said Principal Stacey Bello. “ We want students to get excited about reading — the stories, the characters. We don’t want them to read because they have to. We want them to read because they want to. They need to feel excited about books, and that happens when they’re choosing stories and characters that ignite a spark in them.”

Lip sync battle for 15,000 books

At the start of 2017, the school had already implemented “SURF” (silent uninterrupted reading for fun) for 15 to 20 minutes a day in all classes, and launched a guest reader program to have support staff, parents, tutors and community members come into the classroom to read to students. But the school's Academic Review Team was kicking around ideas to trigger stronger reading interest.

What would inspire children to read, say, 15,000 books in a semester? The idea that had some traction is what they eventually pitched to the school’s teachers — if the students hit the mark, the teachers, assistants, support staff, tutors and administration would perform in a lip sync battle for the whole student body.

Pinkalicious“There were a few reluctant teachers, but we put it to them that we ask students to step outside of their comfort zone all the time, so we could do it, too,” said Lei Fa‘anunu, the school’s academic coach and former 5th grade teacher, who has been teaching at the school since 2006.

It was all the students needed. Teachers logged the readings of the school’s 426 students weekly, with assessments for each varied by grade level. Students had to aim for two books a day to hit the mark — easier to do with lower grade levels and the picture-rich reading versus the greater complexity and length of the upper grade levels. Students who wanted to challenge themselves could use the Lexile scores assigned to books, but that wasn’t the focus.

“Kids should read what they want to read and find their niche,” Fa‘anunu said. “My own daughter dreaded reading until she found the ‘Goosebumps’ series. Now she loves it, reading has become her favorite pastime.”

It was clear at the end of last semester that the staff would have to honor the agreement — Keaukaha’s students read 18,617 books. In May 2017, Keaukaha hosted its first staff lip sync battle: eight group performances that were judged by the top student reader from each grade level. (“They took their job seriously,” Fa‘anunu laughed.) Principal Bello and her  lip sync crew won the battle with a mashup that included “Apache (Jump on It),” “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” “Single Ladies,” “Gangnam Style” and “You Can’t Touch This.”

“One student told me, ‘I would read a thousand books to see my teacher do that again,’” Fa‘anunu said.

Keaukaha winning lip sync battle team
Above: Principal Bello and her lip sync crew with Keaukaha El's Battle Trophy. Strike a pose!

Spark becomes a flame

Now that they knew they could hit that mark, Keaukaha has set that 15,000-book goal for each semester (as of Dec. 15, they hit 15,211 books). But how to sustain the interest level and keep that ember burning and growing?

The idea for the Student Showcase was in a list of planned activities in the school's Academic Plan to try in the new school year. “We didn’t imagine what it would become,” Bello said. “It was a home run.”

Students were invited to create a project using any media of their choice that demonstrated what made their favorite book so special. Even though this was an optional activity, most students leapt at the chance to create their own interpretation of their favorite book. Teachers reached out to families to ask them to collaborate with their child so they would participate in the learning, making it a group project.

On the due date, an avalanche of creations appeared on campus: rap songs, puppets, costumes, posters, a ship made of Legos, a diorama in a fishbowl. “Even the kids who have academic challenges, they really loved this project,” Fa‘anunu said. “They took a lot of pride in their work.”

Kindergartener Evan Auna teamed with his uncle Marcus on a stop-motion video to illustrate his favorite book, “The Usborne Big Book of Sea Creatures.” Evan chose the wild ocean animals he wanted to talk about, then he drew, colored and cut out each of them along with their names, his uncle Marcus took photos of them and Evan, they recorded a simple script, and they worked together to compile the video.

“They spent two days working on the project — drawing, doing some research, practicing Evan’s lines in the video,” his father Aaron Auna said. “Evan was so proud to share his final product with us.”

“It made me really happy,” Evan said. “I liked learning about the shark and the colossal squid and the humpback whale.”

Students orally presented their projects to their homerooms to demonstrate their understanding of the material and explain their interpretive process. The top project from each classroom as voted by students is represented on the school’s website, the top four projects per grade level are on permanent display in the library, and all projects were part of the schoolwide showcase in the cafeteria.

Project for For the schoolwide showcase, teachers brought their students to the cafeteria in shifts so all students could see what their peers did and learn more about the books. Each filled out a list of five books they wanted to read based upon the creations.

“The whole goal was to inspire students to keep reading, and now they have even more to read because they were inspired by what their fellow students did,” Bello said. “It wasn’t even just the amount of projects we got back, but also the quality of the projects and how involved the families were. This was more than just a book report.”

Students to set next challenge

Keaukaha’s teachers are now surveying the students to find out what they want to do for the next reading challenge. (Given the popularity of the lip-sync battle, the staff should be ready for anything.)

Principal Bello said the leadership team will debrief with feedback and recommendations from teachers based on what they’re seeing in the students’ learning through this new effort. But they’re taking a well-earned moment to reflect and enjoy. They generated a lot of learning and student and family engagement.

“The teachers and support staff here are doing a fantastic job modeling the value of reading and the importance of literacy,” Bello said. “I’m so proud of everyone — our students, our staff, our families.”

Fa‘anunu underscored that. “Through reading, so many more doors are opened. As a Native Hawaiian, how could I not want that for my own people and for our entire community?”

“All we did was provide an opportunity,” she added. “The kids took it from there.”

Contact Information

Communications Office

Phone: 808-586-3232


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