Kaua‘i educators team up to advance student voice


A team of Garden Isle educators is gearing up to collect student voice on how the Hawai‘i DOE informs Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) across its schools. They belong to an innovative collaborative, the Kauai Teacher Fellowship, which aims to bring teacher and student voice into administrative decision-making across the island and, potentially, the state. The data gathering effort will launch March 1.


​A team of Garden Isle educators is gearing up to collect student voice on how the Hawai‘i DOE informs Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) across its schools. They belong to an innovative collaborative, the Kauai Teacher Fellowship, conceived and designed in 2016 by Hope Street Group fellow Jonathon Medeiros. It was organized to bring teacher and student voice into administrative decision-making across the island and, potentially, the state.

It’s good timing for this work. Supt. Christina Kishimoto has made student voice a foundational strategy for implementing equity and excellence in statewide public education. She has specifically called for student voice to inform a statewide SEL Framework in a 30-point action plan (SV5). And there is a call to grow learning environments that support Nā Hopena A‘o (HĀ) so that students, adults and communities embody qualities valued in the host culture — belonging, responsibility, excellence, aloha, total well-being and Hawai‘i.

There are existing channels for student feedback, of course, via representative organizations such as the statewide student council or the annual Tripod Survey. But while they are used to track progress, how those data are used to guide top-level initiatives is an intermittent phenomenon. Also, the Fellowship hopes to gather input from as many Kauai Island students as possible, including those who may feel marginalized and participate less often.

It’s ambitious work for a team of educators who have full-time jobs in the classroom, but as the adults most closely connected with students on campus, they’re the right leaders of this work to answer the question…

Do students have the power to improve the culture of their schools?

Finding roots

The Fellowship meets quarterly to share impactful classroom practices to bring back to their campuses. At its third meeting this school year on Jan. 31, and to help ground them in the day’s assignment, they started with a review of place-based learning and Philosophy for Children (p4c), practices that resonate with students and have been deployed successfully in schools such as Waikiki Elementary and Waimanalo Elementary & Intermediate.

A replica of the Shikoku Pilgrimage in Japan lives at the Lawai International Center on Kaua‘i.

They met at the Lawai International Center near Kalaheo to hear about the long history of the Lawai valley and spend time in its new Hall of Compassion, built in the style of a traditional 13th century Japanese temple. The fertile 32-acre gathering place is upstream of where Queen Emma’s summer home was once located. At the turn of the century a replica of the pilgrimage of Shikoku was built there, with 88 Buddhist shrines, by Japanese immigrants who came for work at the Koloa Sugar Company. For years it was the epicenter of community celebrations, but as families moved away and sugar production declined, it fell into memory and was consumed by tropical growth. A former elementary school teacher, Lynn Muramoto, made it her life’s work to restore the site via a nonprofit she founded three decades ago. It’s now open two Sundays a month and hosts an annual Pilgrimage of Compassion.

Compassion is a natural byproduct of well-implemented SEL. Fellows reflected on this as they passed shrines filled with memorabilia representing love and loss. 

Unearthing a place of peace. Growing schools of compassion. The art and work of revelation.

Finding philosophy

Students need to be taught how to use their voice; there are skill sets behind thoughtful speaking and questioning, active listening, and deep thinking. In the Hall of Compassion, fellows sat in a circle and learned about p4c from ‘Ele‘ele Elementary teacher Laurelle Catbagan, who received training through UH-Mānoa’s Uehiro Academy via a Hawai‘i Community Foundation grant. With quality implementation, p4c enables safe group learning while activating a sense of wonder; over time that learning environment can enable many SEL competencies to thrive: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making.

It starts with an understanding of Intellectual Safety — no comments intended to belittle, undermine, negate, devalue, or ridicule. Teachers were prompted to consider a “good wondering” — something that makes you think deeply, that has more than one answer, that everyone can talk about, that’s interesting. Each provided a question, which the “class” then voted on, bringing in lessons on democratic process. The fellows chose to discuss: “Does everyone deserve compassion?”

Catbagan tossed a Community Ball to the teacher who crafted the question, granting him the right to speak. He then chose who spoke next and tossed them the ball, and it goes around the circle until all have had a chance to offer their thoughts, while the teacher facilitates. (Anyone can pass.) At the end of the discussion, a reflection is conducted on how the group listened, focused, and participated. Further reflection analyzes the quality of the thinking — was something new learned? did it get beneath the surface? Catbagan shared ways the activity can be differentiated for an elementary versus a high school classroom, and how the process can bring structure and greater rigor to class discussions.

With the morning sessions providing context, the fellows reconvened at Kaua‘i High to get to the task at hand.

Settling questions

The Fellowship refined questions, identified during their November convening, which aim to determine if students are empowered to make positive culture change in their schools. It seeks to gather both student and teacher perspectives. Student questions were adjusted for age groups to ensure adult guidance isn’t needed. With administrative permission, they plan to conduct two surveys: an islandwide online form survey with open-response fields, as well as at least one focus group each of students and teachers at each fellow’s school.

Na Hopena Ao -- Total Well Being

The reference for the surveys and focus groups, in addition to the Superintendent’s action item to include student input in a statewide SEL framework, is the HĀ statements document with a focus on Total Well-Being (figure, above). Sample questions:

​What are your ideas on how to make your schools a better (safer) place?
​How can we involve students in changing the culture of our school, as it relates to ensuring a strengthened sense of well-being?
​Are you able to share your thoughts, ideas, and feelings about your life, your school, your learning with your teacher? When and how are you able to do this? 
​In your role, what opportunities do you provide to students to share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings about their lives; their school; their learning; their classes (as it relates to a total sense of well-being)?

The fellows plan to gather data from March 1-15, then with Kaua‘i’s principals reflect on results and discuss next steps at their final convening of the school year.

In the meantime, the state’s Office of Student Support Services is convening an SEL Summit in Honolulu at the end of February, inviting educators, students and community groups who have made strides in implementing SEL and/or HĀ in order to share and find ways to scale what’s working. More to come.

Contact Information

Communications Branch

Phone: 808-586-3232

Email: doe_info@hawaiidoe.org


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