Kumu Appreciation Week: Student empowerment and identity drive education innovation at KS Hawaiʻi

May. 7, 2024

Kamehameha Schools recognizes that world-class campuses start with exceptional kumu. As the kahua (foundation) of our learning community, their contributions and accomplishments are recognized year-round. By celebrating our teachers during Kumu Appreciation Week, we invest in the future of Hawaiʻi and propel Ke Ali‘i Pauahi’s vision fueled by their hard work and dedication.

At Kamehameha Schools Hawai‘i, teacher Kaipo Bowman-Tam sees a parallel between mastery learning and a hula dancer’s ʻuniki ceremony. In both instances, students must showcase their readiness before advancing.

His experience as a dancer informs his belief that the journey to mastery is characterized by resilience, not perfection — a philosophy he applies in his sixth-grade math class.

“It’s not so much about the mistakes,” Bowman-Tam said. “It’s about how they overcome them and problem-solve.”

Kumu Kaipo Bowman-Tam teaches middle school math at KS Hawai‘i.

Bowman-Tam’s curriculum is grounded in his Hawaiian values and practices. As champions of ʻŌiwi Edge, all KS Hawai‘i teachers empower haumāna by emphasizing their native ancestry, identity and knowledge as assets for success. This commitment motivates kumu to innovate within their classrooms, going beyond traditional subject instruction to promote self-determination and pride in their students.

Bowman-Tam adopts personalized instruction in his classroom. Instead of lecturing and talking “at” students, the mid-career kumu customizes the students’ assignments according to their competency, allowing them agency over their own educational journey. This method fosters a vibrant, sometimes noisy learning environment where students can correct their test mistakes, work in small groups and manage their time independently.

His curriculum is founded by the kauhale learning expectation of ‘Ōiwi Edge that promotes a growth mindset, where learners demonstrate proficiency and grit.

“Students know exactly what they need and want to learn, so we as kumu have to be flexible,” Bowman-Tam said.

Fellow kumu leilani portillo shares his commitment to student empowerment. In their unit, Hip-Hop as Literature, the English teacher creates a safe space to discuss Hawaiian identity and social issues through modern music. This unprecedented curriculum bridges a popular genre students love with their heritage and mo‘olelo traditions.

Kumu leilani portillo teaches high school English at KS Hawai‘i.

“When I first started teaching here, I thought how I can empower them and have pride in themselves as Hawaiians in ways that I never experienced,” portillo said.

Throughout the unit, high schoolers analyze lyrics and create playlists, music videos and even break dance routines to demonstrate their understanding. The new teacher hopes that listening to Kanaka rap artists will inspire their haumāna to be community advocates through creative expression.

“Our ʻōiwi identity is an asset because there's a wealth of knowledge and history in our mele and moʻolelo that we should rely on,” portillo said. “As a teacher, I am always thinking about how to foster that identity in my classroom.”

Across Kamehameha Schools campuses, innovative educators are redefining traditional teaching methods to empower students through Hawaiian culture-based education. Their fresh initiatives exemplify the impact of forward-thinking and dedicated educators that propel KS’ mission to grow ‘ōiwi leaders.

Read more about Bowman-Tam and portillo’s teaching methodology and explorations in E Ulu! Volume 3.