Position: Fourth Grade Teacher
School: Ala Wai Elementary School
School District: Hawaii Public Schools
City, State: Honolulu, HI
Lori Kwee was nominated by her principal, Michelle DeBusca.
Mrs. Kwee has been teaching at Ala Wai Elementary School in Honolulu for the past 31 years. She started her teaching career as a second grade teacher, and is currently teaching the fourth grade. As a seasoned veteran, Mrs. Kwee attempted a different teaching method in her class last year that she hoped would help her students become effective at problem solving and lead to better citizenship. It was a leap of faith, requiring a lot of courage and patience, but the outcome has far exceeded her expectations. This is her story about how a little known, but endangered porpoise transformed peer interaction and fueled an almost unquenchable desire to learn more.
If you walk into room A3 at Ala Wai Elementary School in Honolulu, chances are better than good that you will find students:
The spark behind all of this change is Mrs. Lori Kwee. In 2017, Mrs. Kwee started the new school year by asking her 4th grade students two simple questions: “What are you interested in? What are you curious about?”
With no restrictions and boundaries, students were challenged to think on their own, a concept that was new and foreign to them. Usually, children are told what to do and how to do things. Structure, especially in American education, is counter-intuitive to innovation. Uneasy at first, but with guidance from Mrs. Kwee, who dedicated class time for students to discuss and share ideas, the students quickly embraced the idea of “thinking” and found that learning has no boundaries.
The students in Mrs. Kwee’s class learned about the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez). They decided as a class to take action. Their thought processes took them in many creative directions, but what happened next surpassed the wildest dreams of even a most seasoned teacher.
The project to save the Vaquita Porpoise led to an insatiable motivation to write. Students wrote research reports, poems, creative stories, letters to policy makers, created posters, deployed social media strategies, and launched other artistic projects in their effort to save the Vaquita Porpoise. They researched and wrote for hours, both in school and out. Mrs. Kwee introduced different writing genres, but the students kept asking for more. In all of her 31 years of teaching, Mrs. Kwee said she has never heard students say they “can write for hours.”
Writing, grammar and vocabulary improved along with test scores. She didn’t have to worry about content standards because they met and exceeded them. Daily attendance increased. Parents took notice of their children's enthusiasm and excitement about school. Students became relentless in their pursuit of information and answers to their questions, even reaching out, without hesitation, to non-traditional sources (for their age group) such as local university professors and utilizing online resources (https://uk.whales.org/case-study/saving-vaquita). One university professor commented that the Ala Wai students were more engaged than her college-aged students. Their inquisitiveness was refreshing.
Their expanded thinking and excitement led to a fundraising effort. Students asked Mrs. Kwee if they could sell vegetables from their school garden to fundraise for the Vaquita Porpoise project. Owning the project, students took their idea and transformed it from concept to development, including marketing and accounting. Students met with the school principal, who helped them to understand the fundraising guidelines of the school and the Hawaii Department of Education. They met with the school’s Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) for support with their fundraising. They set up the fundraiser, raised money and collected it through the PTSA. Students asked the school’s custodian to learn about planting and growing vegetables. Their efforts raised $400 from vegetable sales, with the fund today continuing to grow.
Another English Learner (EL) student created and printed 475 informational brochures using her own supplies. She involved her mother, who drove her to nearby areas like Kahala Mall, Ala Moana Center, Walmart, Target and Ala Moana Beach Park where she distributed the brochures. This once shy student had shared her project with 475 different individuals. Because of their poor command of English, most EL students are embarrassed to speak in class or public. Yet, this student’s excitement and motivation about the project helped her to overcome her fear of public speaking.
One student designed a T-shirt and posted it online. Her family also got involved, and together, they printed the shirts with their own resources.
Project presentations before the class gave shy students, and EL students in particular, the practice to overcome their fear of public speaking and speaking up. They also found the courage to share their voice with a bigger audience. They were invited to the Hawaii State Legislature to learn about the legislative process, and they were invited to present their project to the (Hawaii State Department of Education) Instructional Leadership Team’s meeting, where teachers and principals from other schools rewarded the students with a standing ovation.
“The value of the process to provide meaningful opportunities for our students to activate their voice can't be measured. I've witnessed how this process has motivated a class to, 'Save the Vaquita.' Students were giving me updates until the last day of school. Our process was recognized as a commendation in our WASC team visit with the recommendation that we continue to develop the process through all content areas," said DeBusca.
Mrs. Kwee believed that last year’s Vaquita project was the gold standard for teaching and motivating students and wondered if her current students could be just as motivated and engaged with a different topic of their choice. The students have risen to the challenge and appear to be on track to meet or exceed expectations. Students chose the difficult topic of bullying. While Mrs. Kwee was apprehensive about undertaking such a sensitive topic, the students have fully embraced the topic with openness and empathy, proving once again that when freed from constraints, they have the capacity and creativity to solve problems “beyond their years.”
Using the same methodology as the Vaquita project, Mrs. Kwee established a safe zone and fostered open discussion without fear of punishment, retribution, criticism or embarrassment. Mrs. Kwee asked probing questions and over time, students shared that they had experienced bullying. Two students in the class even admitted that they were the bullies.
With a safe culture established and Mrs. Kwee’s encouragement, the victims were willing to openly discuss how they felt. They expressed hurt, fear and embarrassment. They felt powerless, frustrated and angry. These students were ashamed. The two admitted bullies were also participants in the discussions and as a result, saw a different perspective of the impact their actions had on others. They soon realized the damage and hurt they had inflicted and on their own, initiated apologies to their classmates.
Standing at this cross road, the student victims faced the difficult and emotional choice: accept the apologies, or seek revenge and retaliation for the hurt, embarrassment and shame these bullies had caused. With Mrs. Kwee’s encouragement, the students continued their inquiries and discussion. Mrs. Kwee facilitated by asking questions: “What are the pluses and minuses of each option? Does revenge and retaliation adequately resolve your hurt and embarrassment? What is forgiveness? When forgiving, who wins or who loses?”
Through this inquiry process, the students learned that victim’s forgiveness and accepting the apology were essential to rebuilding their own self-image and self-esteem. To carry the hurt forward would only perpetuate the hurt and affect their self-determination.
The students asked the two bullies to work on forgiving themselves. Paraphrasing some of the discussion, this is what the students said:
“They need to forgive themselves, recognize the unpleasant effect they’re responsible for, let go of the past and take control of their destiny. They should not deny their sense of frustration and powerlessness as the source that produces anger and in turn, bullying. They need to recognize this and take control in order to initiate and cause changes to prevent future incidents.”
As a teacher, Mrs. Kwee realized that what the students had learned could not be taught - it needed to be experienced. When one of the admitted bullies had to leave the school because of family circumstances, Mrs. Kwee challenged the students to put what they had learned about forgiveness to the test. Again, she asked questions: “What can we do to show our friend love? How do we express forgiveness?”
The students’ response was to organize a farewell party for the departing student. They produced video clips and wrote letters. They planned a class potluck. One student made a Lego statue for him. Mrs. Kwee supported and encouraged the decision for the party. She recognized that the effort was more than a single student. It was about the entire class. The bully had become their friend.
What the students have learned is wise beyond their years: both the bully and the victims need to forgive. The culture of the class has changed. Students are happy, kind and respectful to each other. They love coming to school. Even after the student bully left the school, the students have not stopped in their efforts to support their friend, nor has their quest to better understand bullying ended. They are thinking of ways to extend their message of forgiveness to the student who left, and they are discussing writing letters to him as well as inviting him back to the school to share a new music maker space. The students are also exploring and evaluating anger management alternatives to continue supporting their friend.
The excitement of Mrs. Kwee’s students to learn more, write more, and help each other in spite of their differences has not gone unnoticed by other teachers and administrators at Ala Wai Elementary School. Other teachers on campus are trying to learn from Mrs. Kwee about this method of teaching and inquiry and are starting to implement this into their classrooms.
In a two-year span, Mrs. Kwee has successfully managed to transform the young minds of her students and has changed their lives by teaching them an important skill set that will carry them through in the classroom as well as in life. Below are comments from students in Mrs. Kwee’s class last year.
“For the rest of my life has changed (sic), and I will remember that I can stand up in front of others with confidence.” L
“I know I am not alone, and I care for others.” J
“I was scared to speak in front of others, afraid they would laugh and make fun of me. But now I know, I can do anything.” K
“I was proud of myself and my friends cause we did a great job. We found our voice as we made the decision to save the Vaquita Porpoise.” JR
“I was not picked to speak in front of teachers and principals, but I was happy for my fellow classmates who were chosen because they represented all of us and that made me proud.” P
Mrs. Kwee’s teaching method does not require new or additional monetary support from the school. It does, however, require a dramatic shift in mindset and consciousness. And even for Mrs. Kwee, the change in teaching method at this stage in her professional career has been a LifeChanger.
“I found myself excited with renewed enthusiasm to come to work everyday to learn with my students and colleagues. I became more confident and willing to take risks to learn and discover more, said Kwee. "All of this stemmed from the curiosity of my students to raise awareness about the endangered Vaquita porpoise. With growth mindsets, we found our voices to represent examples that can change the world.”
Mrs. Kwee continues to collaborate with her fellow teachers and helps them to look at things from the perspective of their students. Teaching compassion and empathy isn’t handily available in curriculum, but through the process of empowering her students to think, Mrs. Kwee’s students have learned these traits through experience. They have acquired important skill sets that will help them throughout their lives with better and informed choices.
"This process has elevated student motivation to a passion to act that goes beyond an assignment, grade, or even the school day," said DeBusca. "Our parents rallied alongside their children in support of saving the Vaquita, which is one of the highest forms of parent engagement in my opinion. I also reflect back to last school year, when a student continued his project into the summer and continued to visit the Chaminade University lab to test the water from the Ala Wai Canal. It's just amazing how this process can inspire a teacher, a student, a parent, and me.”