Thoughts on Teaching at my Tiny Hawaiian Immersion Charter School

I am finally in the swing of things with my new teaching job-- it took a whole semester, but I feel like I've found my pace. I don't wake up in terror every morning. Only occasionally, like the other day when I woke up choking on a nightmare about a co-worker... nevermind. :)

I began the year with about 4 years worth of plans all set up to get through in the first semester-- hands-on assessments and multiple intelligence projects and poems to memorize and essays to write and genres to explore and rubrics to publish. About half-way through I realized that I can plan on about 40% less class time than I have on paper, because of an endless stream of unexpected last minute speakers, activities, and field trips. And I realized that I could count on zero work being delegated to homework-- so if there was anything done, the bulk of it would have to be in class. I had to chop projects and content and readings out. I was reminded of my favorite writing advice: "Kill your darlings." But it still hurt to sacrifice the Poet biography projects and the Family Trees, the book binding and the song memorization, the book clubs and out-loud reading...

The first semester finished up-- it went out with a mad scramble. We lost nearly a week of class time in the precious days before term ended to some very cool but time consuming projects involving axes, river rocks, fire, and dead birds. I left school right before Christmas with a stack of semi-finished bilingual children's stories to grade, ranging from mortifying to publishable, and an in-box full of research papers-- some challenging and original, some copied and pasted directly from and wikipedia.

Three weeks of nearly catatonic Christmas vacation and I was sufficiently recovered to face my school again. I restructured. Instead of a secondary English class, I have to think of my plan as a homeschool independent learning program. I gave the students a complete syllabus, with nightly assignments all spelled out through the end of the year. Every assignment, every vocab word, every essay, reading, project and poem is all specified in advance. When we have class (whenever that may or may not be), we bash through as much of the coursework as we can, and then carry on virtually. My students take quizzes on the class blog and comment on youtube videos and podcasts. They keeping reading journals and send me their assignments virtually. With the older students, I can send documents and books directly to their Kindles. It's very space age and exciting. I can be the finishing touches for their learning, not the lynchpin.

But I still struggle with some very common things:
1. How do I get my students to do their homework?
2. How do I differentiate instruction with severely limited class time when I have kids whose test scores are on far opposite ends of the bell curve?
3. Do I teach the skills specific to mastering the standardized tests in the limited class time I have, or do I teach the skills the students need to be excellent readers or writers, and thereby hopefully understand the tests?
4.  And the threat of AYP (annual yearly progress) is hanging over me-- if there isn't a 15 percent increase in the number of students passing the standardized test the school goes in to restructuring.
5. How do I help these unformed-- sometimes amoral-- young humans become decent people who will take care of themselves and each other as adults?

My school is unique, though. There are some struggles specific to our odd little campus.

1. What is the real purpose of the school: a world-class education in Hawaiian or an exclusively Hawaiian education? One teacher pointed out that, obviously, not everyone could or should go back to leaving an "authentic Hawaiian life" (let's just leave that undefined for the moment), but if anywhere is passing on the skills that would make that possible, it needs to be our school. Other teachers point out that students need to have skills and options so that they can choose to be taro farmers OR radiologists.

2. What is the role of religion at the school? The teachers and students all pray to Jesus and sing Christian hymns every morning. And chant to Kane, the god of water, too. This is all very rigid and serious-- no figiting, no skipping your turn, no standing respectfully and thinking of England. How can a public school, devoted to Hawaiian culture (nope, still haven't pinned that term down), incorporate a rigid Christian dogma into its everyday practices?

3. What does this school believe about the relationships between students and their learning, between students and teachers, teachers and parents, and everyone and the administration? Is there a fundamentally egalitarian ideology that informs interactions, or is everything within a hierarchy of power? The school was created in a very democratic way, with teachers and cultural practitioners and parents working together to envision a personally empowering education. But the students are manhandled and threatened and coerced. Parents chuckle about this and say, "That's local style. You gone get dirty lickins you ack lie dat." So is this a school that believes in individual needs and voices, or one that has a single vision of success or failure?


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