Waena Elementary Grows New Way to Teach


Sakura Emmer

     Since the spring of 2015, Mililani Waena Elementary School has been promoting the idea of green thumbs and hands-on learning with vegetable gardens for select classes. This garden project was initiated, at the time, by MHS Juniors Caroline Kelley, Risa Askerooth and Vanessa Roybal. They partnered with the elementary school for their Y.E.S. Futures project and started with help from the Kokua Foundation’s Aina in Schools Program.

     “A lot of our kids do not have experiences where they get to map out a different type of plant or seed they want to grow, plant it in the ground, water it, measure it, take data on it and see it basically to its potential. It’s basically to give our kids that kind of experience,” said Waena Elementary Vice Principal Sean Takashima.

     Takashima had been interested in finding a way to introduce the importance of sustainability and nutrition, resulting in his interest in the project. “We were looking for a way for real life applications of learning and we try to connect the curriculum to things you can actually experience outside of the four walls of the building. We call it sticky learning and it makes it a lot more memorable for students and relevant,” said Takashima. He helped to start the project, including building the garden beds and recruiting classes to participate.

     The gardens introduce various vegetables to the students, getting their interest in growing and eating everything from lettuce and tomatoes, to taro and beets. “The favorite thing I planted was radishes. We had a teacher and she told us we could make decorations—like a shape. I did a star and a heart so then when it sprouted up it looked like a star and a heart,” said fifth grader Mia Moss.

     Fifth grade teacher Bridget Hannu and her class are involved with the class gardens as well, adding an interactive element to her lessons. “I started it last year with fourth grade. As we were studying Hawaiian history we thought it would be neat to grow some native plants, so we grew taro,” said Hannu. This occurrence sparked Hannu’s interest in the gardens and has led her to continue for her second year.

     After Hannu’s on-going experience with the project, she discovered some interesting and unexpected aspects of teaching with gardens. “I think seeing things grow is amazing. I can relate it to a lot of other parts of life, especially with the kids. In order to learn something you need to be nurtured, just like in order to grow plant it needs to be nurtured,” said Hannu.

     Hannu has also expressed interest in continuing this project for the remainder of the year and expanding the project in the future. “I am hoping that one day the whole school can participate but we just don’t have the space, that’s the only thing. We would probably have to share garden beds, unless each grade level took one garden bed,” said Hannu.

     Preschool teacher Lola Ito, who also incorporated the gardens into her lessons, focuses on the basic needs of plants rather than scientific or mathematical skills like Hannu. “In preschool, the only thing you need to know is that they need sun and water, that’s it—that is all they learn,” said Ito. She places more emphasis on the fun and joy that comes with working in the soil and getting dirty.  

     After participating in the project, Ito found that there are bigger implications to be taught to her students. Ito said, “I think that it is so important—especially on an island that (has) resources often coming from outside of the island—and that there a lot of things we can do here in Hawaii. I think that it is important to look at our options and how we can grow things on our own, support local.”

     Moss has gained valuable experience through the garden lessons that she can share with those around her. “We can teach other people—like our siblings—and we can teach them how they can do this, and what they need and how they grow,” said Moss.  

     The involved classes at Waena Elementary School are hopeful that this project will continue for the rest of the year, and into the future, eventually expanding to serve the whole school.