Hamline News

From Pineapples to Pinecones, the Outdoors is a Critical Classroom


Ke Kula Niihau O Kekaha Public Charter School is a K-12 school of 65 students on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Its curriculum is special in that it is one of only two schools focused on preserving the Niihau dialect, which is a traditional dialect of the Hawaiian language facing extinction. The school’s principles and beliefs are rooted in the Niihau culture, which is rooted in the environment-- every decision takes the natural world into account.

Recently, 11 teachers and staff from the school visited the Hamline School of Education for its St. Croix Rivers Institute. It’s all part of a collaboration with Hamline University’s Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) that will support Kekaha’s special curriculum and environmental focus and help keep the Niihau culture and language alive along the way.

“Our vision is to graduate fluent speakers of the Niihau dialect of Hawaiian and English,” said Kekaha school principal Tia Koerte. “We want to create resources in the native language, but also build skills necessary for success in the 21st century.” Environmental learning is key to their approach.

First at Interstate State Park near Taylors Falls and then at William O’Brien State Park at Marine on St. Croix, elementary and middle school teachers explored scientific and engineering content represented by the rivers and the outdoors.

Led by a team of experts, educators engaged in critical thinking to draw connections from classroom lessons to real-life content in nature’s classroom. Participants made observations which were kept in journals, conducted experiments, and learned how to foster inquiry-based science investigations in their lesson plans.

“We hope to instill the concept of an inquiry framework where it is okay to not know the answer,” said CGEE Director Tracy Fredin. “We want to teach in a way that lights the fire in our students to think, act, and engage.”

Earlier this year, the CGEE made a major commitment to Kekaha when it approved a $500,000 agreement for the Hawaiian charter school. With this dedication, the school will work with the CGEE to create educational posters, tools, interactive media, and other educational engagements to perpetuate the dialect into the classroom.

Fredin has high hopes that the school will be able to make 1,000 books in the Niihau dialect. On the St. Croix, the Hawaiians dispersed in groups with all the other educators. Group leaders took them through various observation exercises, where they measured the depth of glacial potholes, studied the river on a ferry boat, and gained skills to become more comfortable teaching outdoors.

“I think this idea of community that we’ve been able to create is entirely unique,” Fredin said. “We know that these are very skilled educators with all different backgrounds, but they can grow with this institute and transfer the knowledge they learn here into their own curriculum.”

The St. Croix Rivers Institute was the first of two Rivers Institutes offered by the CGEE in Minnesota every summer. Hamline has also brought environmental education across the country with similar institutes in Texas and Louisiana and with a Mississippi Multimedia Kiosk

Learn more about opportunities for professional development offered through the Hamline School of Education ranging from certificates to single classes.