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
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."
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
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.