Academic journal article Language Arts

Fostering Culturally Relevant Literacy Instruction: Lessons from a Native Hawaiian Classroom

Academic journal article Language Arts

Fostering Culturally Relevant Literacy Instruction: Lessons from a Native Hawaiian Classroom

Article excerpt

It is a bright, sunny morning in Mrs. Akaka's second-grade classroom in Honolulu. Sprawled out on the classroom floor, twenty Native Hawaiian students are working on their genealogy projects. The children chatter excitedly as they sort through and arrange their family photographs on a large poster board, which each student will fashion into a uniquely themed family tree. As the students glue photos and record the names of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, siblings, aunties, uncles, and cousins, they begin to notice family traits that have been passed down through the generations, and they recall family stories, which they share with their classmates. One can sense great pride in who the children are, where they come from, and their relationships to their families and communities.

We selected this particular vignette because we believe this classroom is an exemplar of inclusive, culturally based literacy education. While research has been conducted on the benefits of culturally based education for indigenous and culturally diverse students, many educators continue to ponder what a culturally based literacy curriculum looks like in practice. We address this important question by providing examples of culturally based Native Hawaiian literacy instruction and considering how teachers in other diverse classroom settings can build upon and extend these examples.

historical Context

Before the institutionalization of education, Native Hawaiians enjoyed a rich oral tradition characterized by an intense appreciation for and refinement of oratorical practices. Our Hawaiian kuuna (ancestors or elders) had a keen awareness of the many expressive and communicative functions of language. They captured family histories, genealogies, and the ancient wisdom of our people in elaborate legends, proverbs, poetical sayings, and lengthy chants, which were meticulously memorized and passed on from generation to generation (Au & Kaomea, 2009).

Once the language was rendered into written form in the 1820s, Hawaiians "enthusiastically took up reading and writing as a national endeavor" (Nogelmeier, 2010, p. xii). Our Hawaiian kupuna "loved to read and eagerly bartered for the pages that came from the press" (Day & Loomis, 1997, p.16). In two generations, nearly the entire population could read and write in Hawaiian. By the late 1800s, the literacy rate surpassed most of the world (Nogelmeier, 2010).

As the effects of western contact began to erode our native culture and national sovereignty, Native Hawaiians embraced Hawaiian-language newspapers, which disseminated information of national importance as well as Hawaiian historiography, genealogy, literature, and general cultural preservation. Hawaiian newspaper editorials pleaded for historians, genealogists, storytellers, and cultural specialists to submit material so this cultural knowledge would be available for future generations. The resounding response from Hawaiian authorship was over 100,000 newspaper pages of Hawaiian mo'olelo (stories or histories), mo'okuauhau (genealogies), oli (chants), and mele (songs), all of which were eagerly consumed by a highly literate populace (Nogelmeier, 2010).

In stark contrast to this aupuni palapala, or nation of fervent readers and writers, after nearly two centuries of American occupation and the neartotal obliteration of our native language, Native Hawaiian students in Hawai'i schools today, like students from other diverse cultural and linguistic communities, are consistently identified as struggling in the area of literacy. While many suggest a need for more standardized, externally developed literacy programs, we contend that more locally developed, culturally based literacy curricula can reconnect Native Hawaiian students to our rich cultural and literary heritage and increase educational success.

The Study: Background and methodology

Cultural diversity and Literacy Acquisition

The politics of high-stakes assessment and the awareness that schools have failed to provide students of color with the literacy skills that society demands have led literacy researchers to increasingly aim their efforts at understanding the relationship between cultural diversity and literacy acquisition (Fairbanks, Cooper, Masterson, & Webb, 2009). …

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