Liam Conway-Nesson: A new academic model for teaching English composition

My use of Sam Low’s Hawaiki Rising incorporates seminar style class sessions, short lectures and experiential learning excursions into course design.

Liam Conway-Nesson
Liam Conway-Nesson


By Liam Conway-Nesson

My use of Sam Low’s book, Hawaiki Rising, as the primary text for a first year English Composition course came as a unique opportunity. I was hired to teach for the Kupa ‘Āina Summer Bridge Program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. The administrators of this program encouraged me to adapt an English 100 course for the added goals of a new academic model. Hawaiki Rising fit amazingly well within the framework of the course and program goals. Through exercises with the text, I was easily able to focus on composition skills while engaging students in place-based, historical, cultural and environmental issues. Hawaiki Rising’s focus on indigenous and modern technologies also came as a boon since the curriculum was designed to encourage students toward the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. This anthropological history, used as a course text, was a much welcomed answer to the multi-faceted goals of this individual course and to the program as a whole.

 Group of students pose for photo.
2014 Kupa ‘Āina Summer Bridge cohort. Click to enlarge.

The Kupa ‘Āina model was originally developed by the Kamehameha Schools to teach land stewardship and indigenous practices and perspectives within its private school system. With the 2014 Kupa ‘Āina Summer Bridge Program, it geared this model toward public school students. The new direction of Kupa ‘Āina was funded by the Department of Education, UH Hilo and a grant from the Kamehameha Schools. The target demographic is public high school graduates in high socioeconomic needs areas of Hawai‘i. The program hopes to attract students of Hawaiian descent; however, it is open to students of all ethnic backgrounds. For the first cohort of this summer school program, a group of 25 Kea‘au High School graduates earned full scholarships (room, board and tuition) to attend UH Hilo for the six-week, residential program. Students took English 100 and Math 100 courses in the morning and were instructed by Kamehameha Schools experiential and cultural learning staff during the afternoons, evenings and weekends.

Cover of book, photo of Nainoa taking navigational reading of Sun. Words: Sam Low, Hawaiki Rising, Hokulea, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance
Cover of Hawaiki Rising by Sam Low.

My use of Hawaiki Rising incorporated seminar style class sessions, short lectures and experiential learning excursions into the course design. Much of the English 100 course was spent in the classroom with ten students who were assigned a section of reading for each class session. Each session focused on plot, themes, people and/or topics of cultural significance. Class activities ranged from analyzing the traditional and modern technologies used on the Hōkūle‘a’s voyages; reflecting on ritual ceremonies lead by crew members; to discussing metaphors of cultural and human value. Students were also assigned a number of composition and research projects that used Hawaiki Rising as a main source of information. One standout project, and one I shared with Dr. Kerri-Ann Kealohapau‘ole Hewett Fraser of the Kamehameha Schools, asked students to investigate and write an analytical exposition on the life and motivation of a “Hawaiian Leader.” A term project directed them to investigate a “Hawaiian Technology.” Among the many intriguing short essay research topics were: Nainoa Thompson’s life of seafaring; Mao Piailug’s leadership role within the Pacific Voyaging Society; traditional and modern uses of the Hawaiian fishhook; and time-honored Polynesian way finding compared to modern technological navigation.

Equally important to this course were various experiential learning excursions. Some of these excursions were part of the summer program as a whole, and two were more directly related to Hawaiki Rising and to my course. The first of these two was attended by all twenty-five students and the entire program staff. On this weekend excursion, we were welcomed to the Keaukaha Canoe Club at Radio Bay and were instructed on the parts of the wa‘a (canoe) before taking a vigorous paddle to many points around Hilo Bay. Memorably, we paddled up the mouth of Wailuku River to view the demigod Maui’s mythic canoe. Many of the students had never set foot in a traditional Hawaiian canoe, so this was a very strong experience for them. Another trip included only those students in my class. For this outing, we took a short journey from campus to the departure point of Hōkūle‘a’s 1980 voyage: the waterfront moorage of the Naniloa Hotel. A photograph in Hawaiki Rising (p. 235) shows the Hōkūle‘a moored on the same chocks that sit rusted and unused today at the water’s edge near the hotel. The students, two staff members and I walked along the short pier, contemplating the Hōkūle‘a crew’s anticipation of its voyage over thirty years ago—as well as the 2014 departure just months ago. We sat on the Naniloa’s lanai and conducted a seminar style discussion of the anticipation, preparation and performance concomitant to their 1980 and 2014 voyages.

My judgment of the success of this summer program and course are biased. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching these students, within this unique framework, and with this text. My own literary and theoretical interests—and personal inspirations—are tied intricately to the goals and values encouraged by Kupa ‘Āina, Malama Honua and Hawaiki Rising. From an objective standpoint and in an attempt to judge student progress thusly, I participated in a double-blind assessment that rated student writing before and at the end of the program. However, this assessment did not measure the degree to which students were inspired by the subject matter; nor did it adequately perceive the undocumented learning that took place in the classroom and experiential learning field. To the delight of the administrators, staff and instructors of this program, students succeeded on both fronts—through inspirational and measurable gauges of success. Fortunately for me and the students, Sam Low’s book played a big part in our academic knowledge and cultural inspiration.

Liam Conway-Nesson, PhD, is a lecturer at UH Hilo, where he primarily teaches English composition and grammar to international students at the English Language Institute. His main areas of teaching and research are in composition for non-native speakers of English, composition theory and practice, and environmental literature and rhetoric. He is currently working with Kerri-Ann Kealohapau‘ole Hewett Fraser of Kamehameha Schools, investigating the history and theory surrounding the Kupa ‘Āina educational model in an effort to encourage indigenous and environmental pedagogies in mainstream curriculum. They have an upcoming presentation on this topic titled, “The Kupa ‘Āina Summer Bridge Program: Stories of an Indigenous and Environmental Pedagogy,” at the annual meeting of the Western Literature Association next month in British Columbia, Canada. They plan to publish their research findings shortly thereafter. Conway-Nesson received his master of arts in English literature and doctor of philosophy in English literature from University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Contact.

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