Erin and Jonathon Medeiros Talk Story with Whitney Aragaki, Hawaiʻi Teacher of the Year
On sunny weekends this school year, you can find Whitney under an umbrella along the wall next to the ocean near Hilo. Laying out food and a waterproof bag and her laptop, she sets up a space so she can work and watch her son, now 11, and an AP Environmental Science student of hers as they dive. Teaching and learning are happening here and now, in this place and time, in the ocean on the weekend. Whitney observes, gets her work done, and listens later when the boys come in and talk waves, currents, winds, and fish.
The inspiration to reach out to Whitney came to me as I sat on the floor of our shed over Winter Break. This unfinished space, with its window looking east through banana and ti leaf, is where I go to do yoga, the only space large and quiet enough for a mat and some minutes to myself. Oftentimes I imagine taking a new step with my practice and completing teacher training; I would love to use yoga as a tool to work with high school students in our community since it’s something that has taught me so much in the past 20 years. I smile knowing it can be done even while raising kids and teaching full-time and responding to all the obligations of adult life. I know this because Whitney did it last year, in the middle of the other hundred things she does. And I smile more knowing that, then again, Whitney is exceptional.
She is a voracious learner and a finalist for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year. She gave birth to her first child in the first week of her first year of teaching. She teaches where she was born and raised and educated. At her alma mater Waiākea High School, where her mother taught biology for years, she too teaches biology and AP Environmental Science and, soon, Foundations in Teaching. She earned a Bachelor of Arts at Swarthmore, holds a Master of Science, is National Board certified in math, served as a Hawaiʻi State Teacher Fellow, and holds so many other awards and honors that one could almost be distracted from the fact that her genius cannot be contained in a resume. She is a real, live, breathing, funny, humble, generous, critical, and active mind, body, and spirit.
Last week, we were lucky to talk story with Whitney. We explored the venn diagram of yoga and teacher leadership, and we marveled at the elastic magic trick of time that comes from saying yes to opportunities. Below is an edited transcript of the rest of our conversation.
EM/JM: We want to ask you about place-based learning. You come from the community in which you teach. What connection do you make between place-based learning as a concept and being an educator from your community? How do those things connect?
WA: I am from the Waiākea ahupuaʻa, yet I’m not native. I recognize my role as a descendant of Japanese settlers and the impact of Asian settler colonialism in our place. At the same time, I also recognize that I have a privilege having my face, as opposed to someone who is a more immediate settler because my students have a more natural pilina and a trust that I care for the place that I’m in. If I think of Nā Hopena Aʻo, I hyperfocus on belonging and responsibility, and I see that as cyclical. Once we deepen our belonging to our space, whether it is our classroom space, our school space, our community, or environment, we have a stronger perceived responsibility, a stronger kuleana. And then when you have a stronger kuleana, then itʻs back to deeper belonging. More than anything else, if students have the inclination that they want to come back to the community or they want to go somewhere else, it’s how do you build belonging and responsibility in the places you choose to be in.
EM/JM: What is happening in your schools or in Hilo around place-based learning? What are some programs that are doing a good job in this area of place, belonging, and kuleana?
WA: I think that UH Hilo has done an amazing job in their teacher ed program identifying that they are a HĀ place of learning. They have embraced Nā Hopena Aʻo so that the teachers coming out of the UH Hilo program are fully vetted in Nā Hopena Aʻo. They have problematized their experience and their identity to the point that now they walk into the classroom and don’t assume ownership of anything. It’s a shared space.
EM/JM: I’m wondering if there are any other promising programs for recruiting young people into education or have you seen anything change in terms of students who maybe have that interest to push them in that direction?
WA: CTE is really transforming the way they’re looking at career pathways. We [Waiākea High School] will be starting the new CTE career pathway for education next school year. I have been tasked with teaching the Foundations in Education. I read through the CTE Foundations course standards and it said I must teach a history of the state education system, and I was like what is the state, let us redefine the state, so they’ll be getting everything from contact onward.
I have been fortunate enough to have two classes in my doctoral program with Julie Kaomea, who has done a lot of research on royal schools and the harms that they caused Native Hawaiian children. They will be getting those readings.
EM/JM: As the pandemic stretches on, how are you revising not just how you are teaching but what you are teaching?
WA: This past year I have been teaching biology through a COVID lens, and through a lens of disease since colonization in Hawaii. The students have said this is an experience and knowledge that they wish they’d had earlier. Knowing that Queen Liliʻuokalani supported quarantines, for example, they would have been more on board.
So, yes, I was ready to move forward with biology as status quo until I got all of my students’ introductions and reflections and they were like, “What is this COVID thing ruining my life?” So I thought I guess I’m just gonna pivot and teach COVID for the first quarter. So that was a big weekend. I had a weekend to start doing something, and it just somehow came together. I was able to bring in some social justice biology curriculum about why our Black and Latinx communities were more prone to getting COVID. And then Pauline Chinn at UH Mānoa was creating this informational packet about the history of disease in Hawaiʻi, which I also relied on. And now? There’s less of the unknown, less why, and more why arenʻt more people getting on board with vaccines and wearing masks. They’re advocates.
EM/JM: One thing that the three of us share is that we’ve been raising kids through the last 12 years of teaching. What insights have you recently gleaned from raising kids while you teach?
WA: I recently had a success story in that my son has found a passion for spearfishing and diving. My older son, he’s 11 now, and he can now bring us home dinner from the ocean. That is huge because his father is into fishing and hunting, but my son had never found passion in either one. But he just found diving. And it was very happenstance. One of my students who hangs out in my classroom everyday was like, “Oh, you like go dive?” and he was like, “I don’t know, what is that?” and he showed him this video on YouTube and was like “this is what I do.” Now they go diving almost every weekend together. This student, he’s a senior and is teaching my son about the waves, about the currents, about what kind of fish to get, about how we let the keiki swim, the invasives, about how to read the winds.
It’s just really place-based science, and this is knowledge I don’t have. So this is near peer mentorship. My son has always been more to himself, and he has just bloomed with this older brother figure. To tie it in, this senior, he’s a baseball player, kind of like Mr. Cool, and during the pandemic he really discovered diving because he had nothing else to do. He couldn’t play baseball anymore, didn’t have all the stresses of having to be here or there, so he learned it on his own. It’s getting our kids back out into nature by going down to the same spot, by watching, by doing.
It’s been great. It’s a different perspective. I am usually the one taking my students on field trips, and now my student is taking my son. It’s really helped me reconnect to things I’ve forgotten since elementary school.
EM/JM: Is your son now the one teaching you?
WA: For sure. He’s now the one leading the conversation. He knows what he needs. He’s experiencing things my dad used to do. It feels really nice. As a kid I think I missed out on some opportunities to really appreciate my place.
And I think to my student, he is really an ambassador of what kuleana is, what building relationships is, and the ocean. He was an average student in 10th grade right when the pandemic hit, and in senior year I encouraged him to take AP Environmental Science, and he just has the understanding of biological and environmental processes. It’s not about reading, it’s just natural, and now he can bring up these examples, and his classmates are like, “Brah, why are you the one getting the A?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, it’s just…writing what I know.” It’s a testament to where learning happens.
As this pandemic creeps into its third full year, many of us have seen the edges of our worlds contract, sometimes to the four walls of a room. Many have felt scared, cut off, adrift, maybe overwhelmed by the quiet and the simple fact of time as it peels slowly by, never quite getting us “back to normal.” Living as closely to our places as possible has challenged or surprised us.
What do we do with this time as we find ourselves in our places?
We can wish for things to change; we can curse the virus, the government, chance. Or we can take a lesson from Whitney, her son, her students, and be exactly where we are, as difficult but full of potential as that may be. We can observe, wonder, reflect, research, and say yes.
We are privileged to see this side of the pandemic, but there are powerful lessons right here for everyone and for times beyond right now. Just as Whitney shared, the simple act of engaging mind, body, and spirit, of experiencing the same place, can lead to real learning, to connection, to responsibility and belonging.
This is the gift and the promise of place-based learning. Sitting still on the wall. Being present in a shared space. Watching the current. Observing the changing tides. Noting the right time to dive. Getting to know the fish. This is where learning happens. When we slow our forward motion through life and observe, we build knowledge, layer upon layer, until what was once just the view of the sea from the wall, is now a three-dimensional encyclopedia we learn to read and explore.