LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Lori Kwee

Position: Fourth Grade Teacher
School: Ala Wai Elementary School
School District: Hawaii Public Schools
City, State: Honolulu, HI

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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:

  • Engaged in helping one another; 
  • Who are inquisitive about learning and who pay close attention to each other and their teacher;
  • Who are enthusiastic about ideas that they have dreamed up;
  • Who are excited to come to school every day, thus increasing daily attendance;
  • Who find there are simply not enough hours in the school day to do all that they want and who carry their focus and inquisitiveness home with them; and
  • Whose excitement and courage to innovate is like a beacon on this little urban school campus.

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.” 



Comments (28)


Keishia Thorpe Posted 5 months ago

Congratulations! This is truly amazing. I do not know you but I hope to get a the chance to in Hawaii. Great work!

Lisa Tsuruda Posted 5 months ago

Lori is simply awesome!!! I have worked with her at Summer school for a number of years right next door at my school. She brings passion and organization to her classses! She continues to look for ways to improve her teaching craft and integrate student Choice! So well deserved!

Sara King Posted 6 months ago

Lori is an amazing teacher! I am so lucky to be able to work with her and learn so much from her. She truly is inspiring in the way she gets her students to think critically and find their voice. I've seen shy students come out of their shells all dueto the fact that students are taking control of their learning and are bring inspired to speak up. I truly believe Lori is deserving of this award! She's definitely changing lives with everyone she comes in contact with! Congratulations Lpri!

Jay Huang Posted 7 months ago

As a student, I wouldn't realize my teacher as a world changer but it is true.This teacher made me want to cry when I look at the amounts of motivation she gives me.The vaquita project is awesome.It is true that she didn't take me as a big deal but every life changer like Mrs.Kwee is positive and learn more about students.First, she taught me the importance of quotes.Now I like quotes a lot and I write quotes for the awesome project they are doing.Second, she motivated me to want to garden.I might land a safe job after I shine through the amazing years of studying, I can be a leader and I know I can because I found my voice.Third,she made me want to be a nice student so I will have good luck. Forth, she made me want to share kindness.I am constantly thanking the principle that I am in this class.If you can, imagine the grateful times you will have in a all star class.The vaquita project is the most awesome thing I ever know in my life.First, she motivated us to save the vaquitas.In small group instruction time, we do the project.Then, she let us make a lot of things.I did posters and even used some clay to make a vaquita. After, she let us present to the rest of the world.I remember the time which I went to Doll canary.I spoke in front of the public.I know the new bully project is really going to be awesome since, they had this awesome presentation about no bully.She asked me to write quotes for her. I want every students to know the importance of finding your voice and they one day will know. But Mrs.Kwee made me know it very early.And again, thank you Mrs.Kwee, my rockstar.

Luyue’s dad Posted 7 months ago

Congratulations, I real like this project. She learned a lot.Kee0 going and make our community a better place.

Luyue Zhang Posted 7 months ago

Thank you so much Mrs.kwee for all of your hard work on our bullying project.You make me feel confident to talk to others don’t bullying.I know bullying and is a really big problem.So we start our bullying project since September 10,2018.I really appreciate all of your hard work. It take a lot of hard work to do this bullying project too. I really spend the happiest year with you.You are the best 4th grade teacher at Ala Wai Elementary school.

Lori Posted 7 months ago

Lori is an amazing, creative teacher and friend, who inspires her students to speak up for what they believe. She is able to follow her students' curiosity as she infuses academics with passion. Her students have displayed much confidence and excitement over their projects and continue to grow towards becoming positive contributors to society!

Luyue Zhang Posted 7 months ago

Thank you so much Mrs.kwee for working so hard on our bully project.It make me feel comfortable to talk to others.It also make me feel happy when I teach others don't bullying.I know bullying is a big problem. So we start this project when it's september 10,2018.The Dynamite leaders want to change the world so the world will be peace.It takes a lot of hard work to do this project.Also thank you Mrs.kwee you are the one who is a hero.You and Mrs.moku are the first two people who really support us.Thank you for supporting us.My family and I really appreciate it.We also get a chance to see Mahea,Augie and Kim from BRAVE Hawaii.They teach me a lot about bullying.Thanks to Mrs.kwee for give us a lovely year.I also spend my happy time with my teacher Mrs.kwee.She is a awesome 4th grade teacher.If any one want to come to our school come to 4th grade because you might going to be in Mrs.kwee's class.By Luyue Zhang!

Diani Labuguen Posted 7 months ago

CONGRATULATION Mrs.Kwee and Ms.DeBusca for sending the great comments.Thank you Mrs.Kwee for helping us to stop bullying and thank you Ms.DeBusca for helping the school to become better and having a good doc. ms leisa and great teachers and the best principle thank you alawai staffs for helping the students

Rylee warden Posted 7 months ago

Thank you for teaching us!I really appreciate you and i hope you win.

Bruce Fujita Simmons Posted 7 months ago

Amazing job, Mrs.Kwee.She inspired my classmates as well as me to never give up and should help others instead of being selfish bullys.We may become famous thanks to Mrs.Kwee. She taught us about how forgiveness can be hard.Special thanks to BRAVE hawaii leaders Mahea, Augie, and Kim Tulba for teaching us about bullying and inviting us to go on CNN. we're famous,WE'RE famous!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Keiko Koide Posted 7 months ago

Wow! Mrs.Kwee has been teaching me lots of things especially public speaking.She made me more confident with talking to groups of people. She’s super awesome! We got to see lots of people to prevent bullying and spread kindness. We got to see governor Mr.Lam and Mahea, Augie and Kim from BRAVE Hawaii. We might even become famous. Thanks to Mrs.Kwee we are having a lots of fun days at school and our bully prevention project is going great! By Keene Koide

Kelli-Anne K. Posted 7 months ago

Lor is one of the most influential and inspirational teachers that I know and am lucky enough to call a friend. She brings light and positivity wherever she goes and I can always count on her to make my day exponentially brighter. She consistently uses her students curiosity to grow lifelong learners and leaders. The students in her class have found their voices when it comes to their passions and it has been an amazing journey to see how much they have grown and to see their confidence soar. I truly believe that Lor's heart is so full of love and genuine compassion for everyone that she meets. She is the embodiment of a life changer and regardless of the outcome, Lor has made our school, community, and state a better place to be.

Liesl Posted 7 months ago

Lori is an exceptional teacher who is able to ignite a passion for learning in her students' hearts through curiosity and wonder. She is able to integrate relevant content area curriculum with technology that allows students to showcase their strengths and talents. Her 4th graders have become confident public speakers as they share their research and lessons learned in the area of anti-bullying. Lori has magically transformed her students into proud leaders of Ala Wai School on a mission to make a difference in our school and community. It's amazing to see her students synergize so well. I marvel at her energetic enthusiasm for teaching and am inspired by her efforts, hardwork and dedication to teaching using 21st century teaching strategies.

Jennifer Moku Posted 7 months ago

These problem based units have been transformational for so many. Lori Kwee's students not only learn so many valuable life and academic lessons but they also become an inspiration for all at our school. Lori has empowered each child in her class by giving them a voice in all that they do in school. It has been amazing to see the changes of her students in just six months. Yesterday the students held an assembly for the Ala Wai students to inform them about bullying and how stop bullying. They are only ten years old! Each child (sped and EL students as well) had a role and had to speak into the microphone. After each student spoke I could see the others in the class clapping quietly for their peers. The students are empathetic towards others and know how to support them when they need it, and as a result, the students are now much more confident and truly believe that their efforts can change others and change the world. She is an amazing and inspiring educator and truly deserving of this award.

Claire Posted 7 months ago

Mrs. Lori Kwee is kind, generous, thoughtful, and caring. She is not only a wonderful teacher-she is a wonderful person.

Deirdre Greene Posted 7 months ago

I am delighted to comment on my colleague, Lori Kwee. Every school day, not just most, but every school day, Lori has a radiant presence at our school. She is full of positivity which truly is contagious. When faced with difficult decisions, Lori is always thoughtful and considers everyone's perspective. She is a first class teacher, colleague, and ambassador for our school.

Trudy Guo Posted 8 months ago

As I read about your groundbreaking accomplishments, i flashed back to when we were in elementary school and faced bullies together. Even back then, you inspired me with your courage and compassion.. Until today, you continue to build up others with words of encouragement. You generously give of yourself in so many ways, such as chairing numerous committees and events at our daughters' school, volunteering to help whenever asked, and sharing your delicious homemade goodies, You are surely changing lives by teaching and exemplifying such essential life skills and values. Congratulations and a big mahalo from one of the countless lives you have changed!

Tara Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations! What you are teaching in your class is amazing. It wasn’t until college where I had a class discuss topics of compassion, forgiveness and empathy. I strongly believe that teaching students this type of mindset at a young age will not only benefit the students themselves, but also their communities that surrounds them. You have such a positive impact on others in which they will carry on with them forever. I’m very grateful for the unconditional support that you have shown me throughout my life. How you are teaching your students is very inspiring and I know that will not change! :)

Chelsea Yamamoto Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Mrs. Kwee! From the first day I met Aunty Lori, she was always so sweet and full of encouragement. As a new teacher, she encouraged me with positive words to help me embark on my new career. The love she spreads in her class as well as outside impacts the world. Aunty Lori is someone that touched many lives and those lives she touched will pay it forward by focusing on things more important than fame and money, but being caring, respectful, empathetic, and independent.

Dean Estabilio Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Lori! You certainly deserve the nomination and recognition! You have dedicated much of your life to help shape the young lives of those that are so impressionable. That is very commendable! It certainly makes “work” much more satisfying knowing that you have had a positive influence on our future with our keiki! Keep up the excellent work! Love, Lynne and Dean

Valerie Posted 8 months ago

Mrs. Kwee, you are an inspiration to all who are privileged to know you. For the many years that I've known you, you have consistently revealed a beautiful optimism in daily challenges and shared this positive attitude in all your interactions. I'm sure this "gift" also helps open closed doors (that often hide one's fear of failure). As a teacher, the ability to recognize the strength and weakness of a student and guide each student to grow from both is not easy. Most teachers do not have this ability and rely mainly on their textbooks and experience. Never give up, and continue your amazing work. Congratulations in finding success in all that you do for your students, your coworkers, your community, and your friends/family. (Law) Kwee, you are most deserving of this honor. You are a LIFE CHANGER and I am so proud to support your nomination! God bless you Law!

Cyrenne Okimura Posted 8 months ago

I have had the privilege to witness the amazing gift of compassion, intelligence, warmth of spirit that encompasses and drives Lori Kwee. As an educator for more than 35 years, Lori sets the bar of excellence and compassion not only in the classroom, but mirrors that same zest for life through her personal life. Always the first to reach out during both the celebratory times, and the difficult challenging times, Lori has always demonstrated her love and sensitivity for the human spirit. Congratulations Lori(Law)! We are all so very proud of you and YOU ARE A LIFE CHANGER!

Dolly Hsia Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Lori!! You are an inspiration to your students and to those who are blessed to call you their friend. You are kind and thoughtful in all aspects of life. Your heart is always filled with sincere love and gratitude. I am blessed to have you as my friend for over 20 years, you never cease to amaze me in your desire to grow as a person and be open to new experiences. You clearly have instilled this spirit of curiosity in your students. God bless you, so proud of you for challenging the norm. You are very deserving of this award. Aloha Nui Loa, Dolly

Jennifer Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Lori!!!!! This recognition is well deserved. Not only do you inspire your students, but you inspire your friends and family as well. You always write and express yourself with such beautiful words of love, compassion and gratutude. .... always touching the hearts of those you come into contact with.... changing each of our lives. You epitomize what a life changer is. So BLESSED to know you!!!! Jen

Gal Posted 8 months ago

Congratulation Lori!!! You’re an amazing inspirational teacher! Never stop teaching! Mahalo! Gal

Karen Nomura Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Law!!! You truly are an inspiration as a teacher and as a friend! Your heart is filled with love and you’re always finding ways to help others and finding the good in every situation! Wishing you the best and you are most deserving of this award! Love, Karen

joyce Posted 8 months ago

Congratulations Lori! Yes you are a Life Changer! You ignite the whole school. Thank you for changing all our lives for the better, Aloha, Joyce