Today on Wordmaster, Rosanne Skirble takes us to a school in America’s Pacific island state, Hawaii, where students are immersed in the Hawaiian language and culture.
RS: Students at Anuenue (ah-new-new) Hawaiian Immersion School in Honolulu straddle two worlds. At home they speak English. In school, from gym class to the science lab, they speak Hawaiian. They also learn Hawaiian chants and the ancient Hawaiian art of conflict resolution.
On this day we find a class of sixth graders outdoors in the taro field. Taro - the root crop brought here long ago by migrating Polynesians - is a staple in Hawaii. They believed it was the plant form of the great god Kane - the giver of life.
The teacher for this agrarian lesson is Baba Yim, who learned Hawaiian as a second language in college.
BABA YIM: “Every week we take part of our morning on Wednesday – about two hours or so – and take care of the taro patch down here and just clean up the leaves that fall and we make sure that the water is running. We take water from the river up there and we return it to the stream down here. They can see the importance of taking care of the whole stream because we take water from a stream that comes from somewhere else. But when we return it back to the stream it is actually cleaner than when we got it.”
RS: “What do you like about working with the students in Hawaiian in the taro patch?”
BABA YIM: “For me it is more like family. It is more of a life than a job. It is not just one child “kiki” who goes here. (We have) brothers, sisters and cousins – big extended families throughout our school.”
Students in this 6th grade English class feel the same way. Thirteen year-old Kanani says the corridors of her school are like her home.
KANANI: “I came to this school because I wanted to learn more about who I really am and how I became a Hawaiian and my family and stuff and who are my ancestors.”
RS: “And, are you getting some answers to those questions.”
KANANI: “Yes, I am. I’ve learned that my people stick up for themselves. They have a lot of (ethical) rules that all Hawaiians follow and it is like we are all a family.”
RS: "How about you? What do you think that you are learning in this school?”
SECOND STUDENT: “I’m learning that there are different chiefs in the Hawaiian nation and they teach us things they mostly don’t know at other schools.”
KANANI: “Other schools, they only talk about English (non-native) people. They don’t talk about Hawaiian people.”
RS: “How do you think this language and culture is going to make a difference for you as you grow up?”
KANANI: “At least when we grow up we will know who we really are, not like some people who forget who they really are.”
Only one thousand native Hawaiians -- or less than 1 percent of the population -- speak Hawaiian as their first language. Native monarchs ruled Hawaii until it was annexed by the United States in 1898. At that time English was named the official language for school and government and Hawaiian was abandoned. The immersion school is part of a cultural renaissance, which began in the 1970s to revitalize Hawaiian traditions.
Today, fourteen hundred students are enrolled in 22 public school immersion programs in Hawaii. Some, like the Anuenue program, are conducted school-wide, while others operate as an intensive course within the school curriculum.
Anuenue Principal Charles Naumu says English is not taught as a separate subject in the immersion school until grade five.
CHARLES NAUMU: “And we are held to the same standards as a student who has had English for five years in a regular school setting.”
RS: “How are you doing in a general sense with students who have graduated from this program?
CHARLES NAUMU: “We feel that our students do as well as or better in test results as students in a comparable public school.”
RS: “So what, at the end of the day, are your expectations for students who go through this school?”
CHARLES NAUMU: “We are preparing them to remember who they are, to have a positive self-image and to be a contributing member of the society, whether it be here in Hawaii or any place else throughout the world.”
Kalehua Grug from the University of Hawaii prepares new teachers to work in immersion programs. Watching the basketball game from a grassy hill overlooking the school playground, he says these students – unlike those in Spanish or French immersion programs – are helping to revive their own language. KALEHUA GRUG: “And so the kids, without even knowing it, are giving back to our entire “lahuii,” our entire race of people.”
Kalehua Grug hopes that their success builds bridges between cultures at home and elsewhere around the globe. For more about Anuenue School you can log on to the Wordmaster website at www.voanews.com/Wordmaster. Or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Rosanne Skirble.