The Inspiration of Kalaupapa

In the late 1800s, the Kingdom of Hawai’i was besieged by leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease. It crippled the kingdom, affecting all ethnicities, but was particularly ruinous to Native Hawaiians, whose numbers had already been decimated by foreign infectious diseases in the early 1800s. Hansen’s disease was called “the separating sickness” because families were ripped apart, and the patients were shunned and abandoned to die alone on a remote peninsula of Moloka’i.

Nourished by the rich heritage of this uniquely sacred place, an idea for creating voice took hold and grew into a collaborative effort at St. John Vianney Parish School. Inspired by the stories of the patients, and by the work of St. Damien de Veuster and St. Marianne Cope, who devoted their lives to helping the patients, our students felt compelled to create original art and innovative writing—yielding beautifully unexpected voices of Kalaupapa.

How do you Teach Students to Create Voice from a Given Theme?

With the motivation and constant encouragement of our principal, Caryn DeMello, the children and teachers of St. John Vianney School began a four-month journey of discovery in learning about the stories of the patients who lived at Kalawao and Kalaupapa.

Our 2016-2017 theme, the Hawaiian value of Lokomaika’i (compassion) carried us through the project. From the youngest of our students in the ELC to the 8th graders, each child created artistic pieces, which, in the case of the older children, would heavily influence their writing. Being able to generate a voice that is so powerful it becomes real is especially difficult for young and developing artists and writers.

We began to correlate ideas that would culminate in the voices of art-inspired writing and writing-inspired art. We read to them, showed them photographs, and told them countless stories about the patients there. The teachers made pilgrimages to Kalaupapa, and our experiences helped ignite passion in us, but how could we now “teach” that passion and compassion to our students?

We soaked up every opportunity to learn about Kalaupapa: we read everything we could, watched films, marched in parades, planned field trips to see St. Damien’s relics and artifacts, and attended presentations about photographs of unidentified patients.  And a question emerged—what if we could speak for those who no longer can? What if the students could write from the point of view of inanimate objects, giving voice to something that served at Kalaupapa?

Teaching Voice in Student Writing

Teaching Voice and Expression in Art

As the students created in art class, they imagined what it might be like living away from their own families and enduring the heartbreak of separation. No longer were social justice issues something we studied about happening only to people in other countries; social justice issues are in our own backyard, happening to our people, our relatives, and in our homes.

The children learned about various artistic styles and techniques. They created Fauvist landscapes and portraits expressing the topography of the rugged Kalawao coastline. They used computers and ipads for research, photography and digital photo editing. They were far more connected and expressive in their art because it was connected to a schoolwide curriculum.  Creating thank-you notepads for our field trip guides inspired more art—and beautifully poignant messages of gratitude.

Showcasing Student Work

At our annual Open House, in a weekend-long exhibit showcasing student work, there were vibrant cray-pas drawings, icons, foil reliefs, digital photography, and mixed-media sculptures, as well as their very powerful and poignant writing.

Many of the student art pieces were labeled with QR codes linking artifacts to their “voices.” Student guides helped guests to load QR Reader apps on their phones, and then the guests stood, riveted, reading the stories of Kalaupapa through the voices of the artifacts. With tears in their eyes, parishioners and community members approached teachers and students, recounting stories of their own relatives who had lived in Kalaupapa.

Catholic Identity, Catholic Voice

As teachers, our willingness to collaborate, to keep the conversation always open, and to share our ideas and passion for learning with each other enlivened and enriched our learning.

Kalaupapa started as a place of exile and abandonment, but it has grown, with the shared love of Christ, into a sacred place of refuge. It is holy ground. Ka Ohana ’O Kalaupapa is working to reunite families. And by teaching our students to find voice, we have shared in the mālama (taking care of, protecting) of Kalaupapa. Instead of separation, there is unity.

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