Kekoa Harman finds richness in teaching ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i online

Associate Professor Kekoa Harman says students being at home with family while doing online learning of the Hawaiian language gives them more familial context, fostering their abilities to bond with the language in new ways.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura. Video by Kirsten Aoyagi.

Kekoa Harman, associate professor of Hawaiian studies and Hawaiian language at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, is an educator not just for the benefit of his students, but to ensure the preservation of the sacred dialect that is ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi.

“Our Hawaiian language program at UH Hilo is connected to the Hawaiian language community,” says Harman. “So with that, there is an understanding that when you’re going for this knowledge, when you’re learning the language, you want to seek out other ways for the language to live.”

Kekoa Harman
Kekoa Harman

He goes on to explain, “I utilize the resources that I have to ensure that this knowledge, this ʻike, will continue to live on.”

This resourcefulness has proved invaluable during the pandemic when the professor cannot meet with his students face-to-face, and his students cannot interface in-person with classmates, the university community, and the community at large.

Realizing its importance, Harman has borne the responsibility of carrying on the Hawaiian language through teaching since being hired as a lecturer in 2003. He started his current position in 2010 and graduated this past spring with his doctorate in indigenous language and cultural revitalization.

Expanding on the significance of preserving ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, Harman also believes that his classes are an extension of what the entire Hawaiian studies department has to offer. He says, “Our particular program here at UH Hilo really presents an opportunity for students who are from here to gain a better understanding of Hawai‘i.”

He further explains, “From the language, to the people, to the food, to the history–I think students who are born and raised here come to our program with questions about their identity. Once they understand who they are and where they come from, that helps them to pursue anything in life. For our local students, the program presents this opportunity for them to establish their identities.”

As for national and international students, Harman believes the Hawaiian studies program is a way to manifest accurate perceptions of the islands. “Whether or not these students choose to live in Hawai‘i, they become messengers of what Hawai‘i is. For students who come to school here, they want to know about Hawaii, beyond the surface of white sand beaches, Lovely Hula Maiden, and things that they’ve seen in marketing.”

Harman believes that his courses force students to answer the questions, “What is the real Hawai‘i? What is the authentic Hawai‘i?”

Virtual learning brings surprising richness

In the spring of this year, little did Harman know that any previously conceived notions of Hawaiʻi, and in fact life as everyone knew it, were about to change forever. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and growing number of positive cases, Harman was challenged to find new ways to do right by his students, and consequently, the culture he had been working so hard to maintain.

Upon first hearing the news that classes would be moved online, Harman says, “I was shocked that I wasn’t going to have an opportunity to meet with my students on a regular basis, especially for language courses. The ability to interact in-person was something I knew I would miss but I realized that I had to find a way to work through it.”

He now feels grateful for this period of time. “The amount of technology that we have available, to help me as an instructor, and to help our students has generated a lot of learning, and a lot of humility.”

Kekoa Harman with back to camera, teaches online class. The screen on his desk computer shpws grid of students in class.
Kekoa Harman, in his campus office, teaches an online class.

Since the conversion to online teaching, Harman is using Google Classroom, Padlet, Kahoot! and Quizlet. He uses Kahoot! and Quizlet for vocabulary practice and assessment purposes, but really praises Padlet for helping him make the very types of personal connections with students he thought he would be missing.

“I use Padlet as a journal. I pick a particular topic and students write about that topic. They can also upload pictures,” explains Harman. “In a very quick way, I’m able to learn about them. I never realized that I could connect to them that quickly. It really gives me a chance to learn about my students through the language that I never had before.”

Whether it’s students introducing their family members in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, or using the language to point out plants in their yard, Harman uses the virtual experiences to bond with students, and to foster students’ abilities to bond with the language in new ways.  “I also got to know my students better because I realized that everyone was going through the same thing, at the same time. They are in their homes, too, with their families. Being at home gives students access to more props, enriching the learning process.”

Kekoa is standing facing computer screen with grid of students. In background is tree ferns and foliage outside the windows.
Associate Professor of Hawaiian Language and Hawaiian Studies Kekoa Harman chants with his online class. Courtesy photo.

Moving together with music and dance

The success of and appreciation for Harman’s distance learning methods can be seen in the reactions from his students. In an anonymous survey which gave students the chance to comment on how well educators have adjusted to this new way of teaching, one student says, “He took what we thought (ʻaha piko) was something that [we] wouldn’t be able to do online, but we did.”

The student goes on to reference Harman’s hula class and explains, “It was really difficult especially since the camera doesn’t do mirroring so we had to make our brain do the movements he was doing but in the opposite direction.”

To adjust to this, and the many other issues of trying to conduct a music and dance-driven course through Zoom, Harman says, “The main thing was that I saw that everyone was participating and they were moving along as taught to them through Zoom. From an instructor’s perspective, it became more about the spirit of the student and moving along together, rather than me nitpicking every single thing.”

Harman goes on to explain, “It is most important that the dancers know the story of the mele, how it connects to history, and for them to understand the lyrics and be able to explain what that chant or song is about.” For example, students are expected to know who the composer of a song is, when it was written, why it was written, and how it connects to us today.

“For the students to really understand and internalize what the song means, and the connection of the movements to that, are the primary goals,” says Harman. Drawing on his predominant mission as an educator, cultural and linguistic preservation, Harman feels it is essential to “set a foundational understanding that the feeling and movements need to come from the words, the language, and the understanding of the language.”

All in all, Harman is a symbol of giving and connecting—to his students, to his people, to the language, to the culture. To continuously evolve and adapt to these times, he urges us to question, “How do we make our community better and stronger?”

Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo. 

Video by Kirsten Aoyagi, who is earning a bachelor of arts in communication at UH Hilo.

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