How Can We Better Understand Our Students? Build a Cultural Bridge

by Verona Holder

I have been teaching for a total of 14 years and every year has been a learning experience for me both professionally and personally. I do my best each day to respect others’ thoughts and feelings and to always take them seriously. I believe it is important for every teacher to do the same, especially when teaching in an area where the cultures of their students may be different than their own.

My interest in other people’s cultures started when I was very young. For as long as I can remember, culture has been an integral part of my daily life. Although I was born in the United States, both of my parents and all of their families are from the Caribbean islands. They were intentional about embedding their culture into our daily lives. Their family members were constant guests in our house throughout our childhood. I always enjoyed listening to their beautiful accents and stories about our other family members and the way they lived their lives now. I savored the foods that were part of our heritage and watched and listened carefully, hoping to replicate the same meals when I grew up. I took delight in the traditional celebrations that were special to my family and planned how my future family would carry them on.

I grew up  in an area of South Florida that was extremely diverse. My classmates came from all areas of South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. I couldn’t wait for each school year to roll around so I could have another opportunity to meet people from a different culture than mine. Once I made a new friend, I made a point to learn more about their culture. This was natural for us.

We shared with each other by spending time together during school and engaging in conversations. I spent much time with my closest friends’ families, listening to the beautiful accents and languages of their parents and savoring their delicious foods. I was honored when I was included in the traditional celebrations that were special to their families and was always honored when they would share time with me and my family.

When I married my husband, again I was ready to be immersed in a new culture. I had never met a person from Europe, and now I was married to an Englishman. Throughout our 18 years of marriage, I’ve been able to meet his family members, listen to their beautiful accents, and hear the stories about the places they have lived. He shares the food of his culture through the delicious meals that he prepares for our family. I have learned about his traditions and our celebrations have been meshed into one.

As a teacher, I engage in learning about the cultures of my students. I’m amazed not only at the differences, but the many similarities between my culture, the culture of my childhood friends, my husband’s culture, and the multiple cultures of my students. I believe that it is my job as a teacher to facilitate the exchange of cultures between myself and my students.

Each year, my new set of students become members of my family. When they walk into my classroom, I let them know “You are now not only my students, you are my children. I intend to treat you like my children. I am here to support you, to encourage you, and to help you become a better version of yourself. I want you to treat your classmates like they are a part of your family, as well. You may have disagreements, but I expect you to respect each other, and do all that you can to work them out.”

Moving from Georgia, to California, and now to Hawaii, I have been able to learn so much from my students and my co-workers. I am honored to share in their cultures through discussions, social gatherings, and the sharing of celebrations and traditions. It has added to the depth and breadth of my knowledge as a person and as an educator. I am open and willing to understand where they are coming from and to adapt to their expectations and cultural norms. I am always happy to share what I have learned with others, and I do believe that it helps us to build a special bond.

As teachers, we should all do our best to learn and grow with our students. It can be as in-depth as an “All About Me” that includes pictures and descriptions about their favorite foods, cultural celebrations, and countries of origin. Or, it can be as simple as 10 minute structured daily discussions where we engage with each other and share information about our lives. Hopefully, when students leave our classrooms, they will be one step closer to learning how to immerse themselves in the cultures of others in order to grow as individuals. This is my goal as a teacher, and my hope is to one day pass on my passion for learning about cultures to other teachers.

Lucky We Live Hawaii: The Case for Environmental Education

by Whitney Aragaki

I recently polled my AP Environmental Science students about their experiences exploring their island’s unique natural and cultural heritage sites. My curiosity was piqued when many of them said they had never walked on a lava field or traversed the high elevation cloud forests or the near shore reef systems, or the many areas in between. These students, within a year or so, will be graduating from high school and the majority of them will be attending college on the mainland. This lack of engagement in their own landscape is an important missed opportunity.

Beyond the geographic isolation and sandy beaches, overemphasized in college application essays, how many students recognize their luck to live in Hawaii? How many teachers prioritize this luck?

When students enroll in my AP Environmental Science class, I ask them why. Why is environmental science important? Not surprisingly, many students reply with versions of “I love the earth” or “Climate change has been in the news a lot and I want to learn more.” While these are valid reasons, they do not reflect the responsibility that our students have to our island home. These students have nearly a decade of compulsory education behind them before walking into y class and making these statements.

Why aren’t students learning about and feeling their responsibility to Hawaii? Where is the urgency to action and connection? Why aren’t we teaching this responsibility to place and action and stewardship?

The development of Nā Hopena A‘o is a start. Since 2013, the Hawaii Department of Education has invested time and resources into this framework to develop the skills, behaviors, and dispositions that reflect Hawaii’s context and honor the language and culture of Hawai‘i. Engaging students in meaningful conversations, activities, and assessments that elevate their global understanding and ground them in local context is crucial for the perpetuation of culture and language but the physical, natural aspects of Hawai‘i are key to this necessary learning.

As Nā Hopena A‘o was coming to fruition, a disease blanketed Hawai‘i Island. Rapid Ōhi‘a Death (ROD) decimated Ōhi‘a trees islandwide and sent the scientific research community into a frenzy. This tree is important, physically, in its relationship to native birds and forests. But is also important in a less visible way. Real parts of Hawaiian language and culture rely on the ōhi‘a existing. The description of Panaewa rains (Ka ua lu lehua o Pana‘ewa), for example, requires knowledge of the ōhi‘a lehua blossom. If ōhi‘a disappeared, parts of the Hawaiian language, important cultural stories and lessons, could lose their meaning. When connections between the natural and cultural realms are severed, more than just a tree is lost.

Students in Hawai‘i have the opportunity and responsibility to become the near-future stewards of our land. While they all have the basic opportunities to explore and learn, the current structure of science classes and educational funding doesn’t lend itself to actual environmental engagement and action. In previous decades, there was dedicated funding for field trips, field work, and community activities that would bring the classroom outside. Recently, we have focused our teaching on bringing the outside into the classroom. To combat student disengagement from the natural world, it is imperative that we flip our classrooms back outdoors and put our students directly in the natural world so they can truly learn about the connection between theory and the culture and place in which they live.

One of my students put it best when she said, “As someone who tries to perpetuate the sacredness and values of Hawaiian culture, I was taught to care for it. I try to live by the 'ōlelo noʻeau, or Hawaiian proverb, ‘He aliʻi ke ʻāina, he kauā ke kanaka.’ This translates to ‘Land is chief, man is it's servant,’ and speaks to the kahiko Hawai'i concept of how people are here to look after the land and not cause it harm nor destroy it. Because Hawai‘i nei takes care of us by providing food and life, we should mālama it in return. One way I can do that is to dedicate some of my time to becoming more educated about it.”

This is the knowledge and responsibility that we want all our students to take with them after graduating: a keen sense of belonging and responsibility to cultural and natural resources. And this is the epitome of a young spokesperson for Hawai‘i. Fostering more young people like this must be the goal of a public education in Hawai‘i.


Whitney Aragaki is a high school science teacher at Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, serves on the Hawaii State Science Work Group, and is a part of the Hawaii District Science and Engineering Fair Steering Committee. A former Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Aspiring Teachers of Color and National Science Foundation GK-12 Graduate Fellow, she was born and raised on Hawaii Island. Whitney has a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College, and an MS in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Whitney Aragaki is a high school science teacher at Waiakea High School on Hawaii Island. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, serves on the Hawaii State Science Work Group, and is a part of the Hawaii District Science and Engineering Fair Steering Committee. A former Woodrow Wilson-Rockefeller Brothers Fund Aspiring Teachers of Color and National Science Foundation GK-12 Graduate Fellow, she was born and raised on Hawaii Island. Whitney has a BA in Biology from Swarthmore College, and an MS in Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Build Teacher-to-Teacher Relationships to Increase Student Success

By: Lorna Baniaga-Lee

It’s Thursday, 11 A.M. on another hot and humid day. The three of us, team content teachers,  are looking forward to the long awaited weekend. It was a challenging week for all of us, our students included. As we sit to eat our lunch, we casually talk about our families, which leads our conversation about a particular student who seemed removed the last few days.

During first period, my class, she came in late-- again. Just like she has every day, so far this week. She has that faraway, glazed look and only responded when spoken to. Jamie, another teacher, shares how she seemed more focused on the new math concept they are learning, but was still distant. Renè mentions how she chose to work alone on an assignment-- very unlike her. Jamie recalls the red scratches on her arm that he noticed. Our lunchtime conversation becomes about our next steps: I will talk to the student immediately after school today to ask her what is going on. Jamie will contact the counselor to give him a heads up of the situation and request additional support. Renè will call home and let parents know that we are concerned. We end our lunch with an unspoken understanding how we will help our student. It is this deep relationship we built as colleagues over the last ten years that helps us get through our long days so we can help our students get through their long days.

We teach in isolation. Our classroom is our world. We have the power to create the environment and space that we want. In doing this, though, we begin building walls from others as well. It is easy to engulf ourselves in our lesson plans, assignments, and our students’ lives. We may not do it intentionally but when faced with prioritizing our time, we will put connecting with other teachers last on our list. While that may seem effective because we think we are focusing all of our energies within this world we created, it can get lonely and can lead to complacency.

Such complacency can lead to ineffective teaching. Creating and being part of a professional learning network, or PLN is a crucial piece for both students and teacher to thrive. We need to surround ourselves with others who will be that sounding board, who will be that resident expert, who will be our cheerleader and most of all who will be a friend.

I have been fortunate to be surrounded by amazing colleagues who are a part of my educational journey. They play just as much of a role in my students’ successes as I do-- the immediate success of winning an essay contest, the academic achievement of graduating with honors from high school, the impactful accomplishment of being the first in their family to graduate from college or being commissioned as a Naval Officer.

Ironically, teachers’ days are filled with so many “things”: fulfilling mandates, meeting due dates, attending various mandatory meetings-- all of which are supposed to increase student success. Prioritizing our energy to meet those expectations puts relationship building last on our list. It is a challenge for administrators to carve out time in the school year to balance what needs to be done and what should be done to provide meaningful and purposeful opportunities.

Some teachers may be lucky to have an administrator who will invest time to create a supportive culture for all; however for those who are not as fortunate, I encourage you to take advantage of any occasion that allows you to make connections with other teachers in and out of campus.

If you are a new teacher and your school, district or union organizes an event for you, make time to go. It may seem like another thing on your already filled plate, but there are benefits to these events. As a new teacher being surrounded by others who recognize and empathize what you are going through can be the greatest gift that one can receive in the beginning of their teaching career.

Additionally, seek out professional development sessions that interest you. Meeting and collaborating with other teachers is a great way to exchange ideas and share similar experiences. Being around other educators who are open to new ideas and are excited to grow as a professional can be very inspirational.

Lastly, don’t allow time and distance to be your biggest obstacle in making these connections and building relationships with other teachers. Utilize social media like Twitter and Facebook as your professional medium to exchange ideas and be inspired by others. Seek out professional development that can be done virtually. It is just as effective as face to face meetings. As teachers, we teach in isolation, but in this age of technology, isolation is now a choice.

Our goal as educators is to improve student success, no matter what it takes. Success doesn’t just mean grades or graduation rates, but creating a network of teachers that know how to care for our students. But it is important to know that in order to build successful students, we need to build effective teachers. Strengthening teacher-to-teacher relationships should be a part of that foundation. Making connections is fundamental. Engaging in professional dialogues and working collaboratively on meaningful projects will bring greater value to our work. Build teacher-to- teacher relationships to improve student success, no matter what it takes. It will make a difference, just like it did it with our student.

Lorna Baniaga-Lee is National Board Certified and has been an English teacher for the last 20 years at James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, Hawaii. In addition to being a classroom teacher, she leads the school’s Induction and Mentoring program to support beginning teachers and provides professional development courses to help build teacher leaders. She is also a 2016 Hope Street Group Fellow.