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Focus On Basics

Volume 7, Issue D ::: September 2005

Culturally Relevant Education

Teaching Hawaiian inmates about and via their culture motivates and inspires them

Between 60 and 70 percent of the inmates in Hawaiian prisons are of Hawaiian heritage, but many of them were not raised in it or have lost contact with it. Hawaiian values are really different from western values, according to Maureen Tito, Corrections Program Services Manager for the state of Hawaii. “In our corrections education programs,” she explains, “we try to use cultural information to teach math, English, and cognitive skills. Sentenced felons learn hula and Hawaiian chant, learning, at the same time, how to behave, and the expectations of the community.”

The Learning Center in the Halawa Correctional Facility in Aiea offers adult basic education, preparation for the tests of General Educational Development (GED), independent studies, college courses, and what they call “branch electives”: Hawaiian chant and dance, Hawaiian language, music, yoga, meditation. Samoan, Japanese, German, and Russian language have been offered as well, based on the availability of instructors. Of a total population of about 1,200 inmates, about 650 a year participate in educational programs. This represents a large proportion, given that participation is voluntary. The teaching staff includes three full-time education specialists, one education supervisor, usually three contract teachers, and about six volunteers. All inmates who wish to participate take the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE) to determine their reading and math levels. After they complete it, they attend orientation, during which a staff person explains the rules of the center and helps inmates chose classes based on their test scores and interests. Most offenders take a combination of up to six classes at one time.

The adult basic education classes use, among other materials, Hawaiian authors writing about Hawaii. Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawaii includes a number of such stories, and although the learners have to stretch because of the material’s reading level, its content sparks their interest and motivates them to make the effort. In math, learners might be asked to calculate the number of flowers needed to make an ili lei (approximately 4,000), explains Vanessa Helsham, a teacher at the prison. Of course, she points out, many learners don’t see math as relevant to their lives. “We tell them, you need to bring up your math scores,” she says. “And they ask why they need to know math. ‘I don’t use math in my life.’” She asks them, “Aren’t you here for a drug charge? So how many grams did you sell? And they say, ‘I can tell you that.’” Her retort: “So I thought you don’t use math in your life? There are grams, ounces, money.”

And they say, “Wow, ok.”

Relate to Them

Unless you tell them something that relates to them, they won’t get the importance, Helsham explains. She is Hawaiian, and most of the staff are either native Hawaiian or grew up in Hawaii. They all use cultural references in their classes, not just Hawaiian but almost all the cultures that are, as she says, “part of what makes Hawaii a unique place to live.”

Helsham starts work with her students by connecting with them, explaining that she grew up in [public] housing, as did almost 80 percent of them. She explains to them that life is not easy: it’s a matter of choice and consequence. “I hear from folks,” Helsham remembers, “that they wish that someone taught them that, that it’s choice and consequence.”

Not just Hawaiian culture, but really local cultures, street and drug culture, become reference points, if not topics. What is and what is not Hawaiian culture is also investigated. Helsham teaches a cognitive skills class, providing participants with tools that help them change the way they make choices. “I find that I can’t teach it Americanized,” she says, “so we step back and change it, not just to Hawaiian culture but local culture here. I have heard students say, ‘I get it when you tell me.’”

Teaching Hawaiian culture and values via dance and music, language and discussion, and using Hawaiian examples in the teaching of basic academic skills works because learners see themselves in this material. The approach incorporates two elements that underlie Youth Cultural Competence, a technique found to be successful in engaging youth (Weber, 2004). These elements are positive peer influence and popular culture. In this case, the positive peers are teachers such as Helsham and local artists such as the hula dancers whom she brings into her classes. Popular culture encompasses all the material drawn from local life: the drug references that illuminate the inmates’ use of math, the critical analysis of trips to the park, the Hula and the expectations that go along with the dance.

Helsham explains, “I say at the beginning of class: ‘I can get you to realize within the next ten minutes that you’re going to realize something you never realized before.’ I ask them how many of them take their children to the park, and 99 percent raise their hands because they all have children, or nieces or nephews.” Then, she continues, she asks “When you take your children to the park, do you see that as being quality time with those children?”

She probes: “Ok, so what are you doing at the park? Are you letting your child play? And that’s quality time, because you’re at the park with them?

“A lot don’t answer,” she explains. “Most of you, I say, are probably partying at the park, drinking. They say ‘Yeah’ and I say ‘and you call that quality time with your child? Quality time means you’re actually playing with them, incorporating yourself into their lives.’”

She explains to her students that they — and by “they” she includes herself — were brought up to know that being at the park with our child was our culture: it was good enough, and that parents didn’t have to also play with the children. She challenges them: “Why do you see it as good enough?”

“This is your homework,” she explains. “Call home and ask your child if just being at the park was good enough.”

According to Helsham, 80 percent of her students returned to class reporting that their children were angry with them for not being with them, because they saw the other kids’ parents playing with them. Their children had not forgiven them.

Helsham presses her learners, asking them if they really believe that that’s local culture.

She feels that drinking and having fun isn’t a culture: it’s a behavior and it is one that they can change.

Hula Is Like Life

About 50 percent of the adult basic education students in the Halawa Correctional Facility take branch electives in addition to their academic classes. Helsham teaches a Hawaiian chant and dance class in which she explains to the students, “Hula is a lot like life: if you’re going the wrong way in hula, you have to change it to make it right. I say that it’s like life: if you’re going the wrong way you have to change to make it a better person.

“Right now, my dance class students are mostly of non-Hawaiian ancestry. Most of them have girlfriends or wives of Hawaiian ancestry. I asked them

if that was the reason they were taking the class and 95 percent said no. They took the class because they were once one of the men who would ‘tease’ the men in previous classes because they once thought that hula was for females only. They learned that hula in the old days was taught only to men and was kapu (forbidden) to women. I have often challenged inmates to come to class to see what hula is all about. Lots of them say that they first joined the class for a form of exercise or to ‘just get out of the modules [housing units].’ They soon found that they were actually working hard, using their minds and their muscles in ways unknown to them before.”

Helsham’s first break in hula, she explains, was given by a very kind woman, Mrs. Maxine Kidder, who understood that Helsham wanted to study hula but couldn’t afford even the $10 a month that the lessons cost. Mrs. Kidder told her that she was giving her the opportunity to learn and that, one day, she would do the same for those who were less fortunate. “When Ms. Tito approached me with the idea of teaching hula in the prison, my response was automatic, ‘Yes of course!’ Even to this day, I can feel the spirit of that wonderful lady each time I pa’i [hit] my ‘ipu heke’.” (Ipu heke is the name for a double-gourd hula instrument. Ipu Hele ‘Ole is the more commonly used drum, used in modern dances. Ipu Heke is what the Kumu Hula [the hula teacher] uses to send the beats to the haumana [students].)

“In my class I have the gangs,” she notes. “Knock on wood, I’ve never had a problem. When you’re in my class you’re a dancer, nobody but a dancer.” She remembers the Chief of Security’s amazement in seeing members of rival gangs tying each other’s skirts and helping each other with their leis. He never thought he would see that, she explains.


Moments like that help to build support for the education program, particularly the Hawaiian cultural classes. The warden and deputy warden are very supportive. The Chief of Security is so supportive that he asked Helsham to increase the number of performances given by her Hawaiian chant and dance class from one to four times a year.

Can other corrections institutions use a cultural approach to education? Helsham thinks so. “Any culture can do what we do here,” encourages Helsham. “It’s important for you to know who you are, so that others can understand you.”

–Barbara Garner

Weber, J. (2004). “Youth cultural competence: A pathway for achieving outcomes with youth.” Focus on Basics, 7A, 1-10.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL