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Hula Dancing Brings Students Closer to Native Culture

A Hawaiian school mixes indigenous dance and academics to create a local success.
By Lisa Morehouse
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One recent afternoon, twenty-six ninth graders -- some rambunctious and playful, some wearing skull-emblazoned sweatshirts -- swarmed into the cafeteria. After moving lunch tables to the side of the room, they shed flip-flops and formed a chant circle. Instructor Alison Hartle, her waist-length hair bound in a knot on her head, called out in Hawaiian, and the students responded, their voices sending stories of the native fire goddess, Pele, reverberating around the room.

When the students moved on to a hula lesson, Hartle asked questions before each dance about words and coordinating movements, then clarified meanings and demonstrated. Nearly an hour is devoted to dancing, with Hartle's chanting and drumming on a handmade ipu gourd providing the only accompaniment.

More Than Dance:

Hula and Chant is a required class for all ULS ninth graders. Here, a group perfects the hela step in preparation for its final performance.

Credit: Nina Lee

The Hoopla About Hula

Hula and Chant is a required course at the University Laboratory School (ULS), a K-12 charter school run out of the University of Hawaii's College of Education, in Honolulu. The school has existed in various forms since the late 1800s -- first as a teacher-training school, then as a laboratory for curriculum, research, and development.

In the 1970s, when a statewide renaissance of Hawaiian history and culture brought traditions such as hula and chant back into the public sphere, ULS injected those traditions directly into the curriculum, creating courses such as Hawaiian Language and Oral Histories of the Pacific, and now Hula and Chant, Hawaiian and Pacific Studies, and Modern Hawaiian History. The school provides a culturally and arts-enriched curriculum to a cross-section of Oahu's kids, giving equal emphasis to subjects like hula and literature and using skills from all subject areas to inform instruction in every class.

A few years ago, ULS began requiring all ninth graders to take one semester of hula. Through daily practice, students experience its depth. "There's meaning behind it -- it's an art form, it tells stories, and it is history and culture all in one," Hartle explains. "It's a teaching tool for so many different facets of the culture."

The abundance of storytelling and interpretation make hula class as much about literature as about dance. Hartle assigns vocabulary from hulas and chants, and many students use a Hawaiian dictionary online to find definitions. "Then I explain context and kaona, the underlying meanings," she says. In today's class, a student asks, "What's ami?" Explaining the quick, circular hip movement that eludes many students, Hartle explains, "Ami means 'A hinge,' like a joint, so the movement should look like a hinge in motion."

The complexity of the Hawaiian language allows Hartle to weave in other types of academic skills. "Hawaiian is a very poetic language, where you say one thing literally and there are different layers of meaning underneath," she says. "We talk about all of that because I give it to them as their kuleana, the responsibility of knowing what they're dancing about."

Student Miranda Glenn admits the vocabulary homework helps. "Since most of us -- actually, all of us -- don't speak Hawaiian, it's mostly just a lot of memorization with the hands. If you know the actual story line, it's a little bit easier to remember what you're trying to do so you don't mix up the flowers with the lava." Then she demonstrates, moving her hands gracefully to mimic a lava flow.

The Dance of Art and Academics

This marriage of academics and performance exemplifies the vision of ULS, according to counselor Tracy Teixeira. "Everybody is involved in art, PE, music, and science every single day. It's kind of like a renaissance school where we believe everything is of equal importance," she says. "Math is not more important than performing arts, English, PE, or social studies."

Resisting the national trend of cutting arts classes in favor of more test-preparation instruction, ULS has a rich master schedule: one part comprehensive high school, the other part liberal arts college, including classes in orchestra, fiber arts, printmaking, and Pacific studies/anthropology. Marybeth Hamilton, who teaches seventh-grade English and reading, explains, "Things missing from other schools -- art, drama, PE -- are mandatory here."

What students do in those classes also distinguishes ULS. "We're a performance-based school," explains Teixeira. "Everybody is a doer." Don Young, interim dean of the university College of Education, adds, "The underlying philosophy is that students should be engaged in the discipline in the same way as a practitioner."

In algebra, for example, students are given challenging problems they haven't engaged with at school, and they work out potential solutions at home. The next day in class, they share solutions with a small group, which then shares their preferred method with the class, with the teacher facilitating conversation. "This method gets at inventing solutions to problems, because that's what mathematicians do," says Young. "They're problem solvers and teachers."

Using inquiry to tap students' natural curiosity is another tenet of this practitioner model. Sixth-grade science teachers, for example, challenge students with the problem of a Cartesian diver -- a historical standby in physical science instruction. Young explains, "A floating object in water, like a baby bottle, sinks when you squeeze the sides and apply pressure. When you release pressure, it floats." Students wrestle with the questions: What's going on in the system, and how does it work?

"Even sixth graders, after they define the underlying problems and decide how to measure, can determine the density of a diver at different positions," he adds.

English teachers dub their program Performance English, with grade-level themes such as Comedy Hour and Going Solo and projects like podcasts of scripts and polished autobiographies. For more than twenty years, ULS students have learned communication skills through the Golden Triangle, a program that includes daily journal writing, grammar dictation, and read-alongs.

In the new senior project, driven by individual student interests, one student, who wants to join the FBI, spent a semester working at a Honolulu police station in the Crime Stoppers division, while another student, with theatrical talents, presented her own production of The Vagina Monologues.

Diversity and Determination

Unlike as with some other arts-based schools, ULS's 400-plus population is intentionally diverse, according to Young, and he adds, "Students have been selected to represent a cross-section of the state population in terms of ability levels, economic levels, and ethnicity." The successful heterogeneity of all classes is another core principle. "This is our grand experiment: How do we create a school where all students are learning to a high level?" Young says. "We don't do tracking. We don't think it's appropriate, and we've been able to prove it's not educationally sound."

ULS can corroborate such statements through the university's College of Education evaluations. The recent annual report shows a daily attendance rate of more than 95 percent, and administrators report virtually no dropouts. Though Young asserts that "we don't worry about test scores -- we never have," results are impressive nonetheless.

The school benefits from this university relationship both pedagogically and financially. Teachers partner with and have daily access to university faculty," says Young. And though ULS receives the same per-pupil funding as other Hawaiian charter schools, the university offsets some costs, like those for facilities and maintenance. But the school also retains its unique classes through what Young calls "creative scheduling" -- like giving students PE credit for hula.

Yes, He Hulas:

Logan Meyer didn't discover his talent in hula and chant until he took the class.

Credit: Nina Lee

Just one afternoon in hula class provides ample evidence that education here, wrapped in a rich Hawaiian heritage, isn't merely theoretical. Logan Meyer, a tall boy with a wide smile, brags that he memorized today's chant on the first day. As a young child, he ignored his grandmother's attempts to interest him in hula, but this class has unearthed his hidden talent. "It was like a rhythm, so I just started saying it as a rhythm and it got easier after that," he explains. "Plus, my mom knew it, so that helped me, too."

Lisa Morehouse, on leave from teaching at San Francisco's Balboa High School, is an intern with The California Report, on KQED public radio.

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Kevin Boggs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One thing to consider is that in pre western contact Hawaii there was no written language so hula and the associated chants were the primary form of recording history and important family genealogies. Hula is much more than just a dance.

Mahalo for a great article!

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