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Chiefess seventh-graders celebrate kupuna with book release party

Twenty-two Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School seventh-graders will present Kaua‘i kupuna with a bound copy of a book they co-wrote last year.

“Ka Leo Hano: Honored Voices,” is a collection of interviews with kupuna conducted by the students. From 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday, at the Kaua‘i Museum, students will give copies to their kupuna. Four students will read essays from the book.

The project was a collaborative effort by seventh-grade teachers Sarah Iha and Kahele Keawe with documentary filmmaker Keya Keita. Keawe conceived of the project two years ago when he observed the recurring theme of family in his students’ journals.

“This project is about strengthening the family,” Keawe said. “This is the age when they are really discovering who they are. I am trying to bring the community together by having them learn from different perspectives.”

Not only does the slim volume build a generational bridge, it serves as a historical document of a rapidly changing community. Keita’s interest grew from her film, “In a Sea Change,” which focuses on progress and preservation.

“I was interested in hearing young people interview kupuna,” she said. “Keawe and I realized our goals met — we wanted to honor kupuna by having students interview their grandparents.”

Keita helped launch the project by leading two workshops for the seventh-graders — one on interview skills and the second on how to turn notes into narrative.

Iha said that one of the biggest challenges she observed in her students was the art of taking notes during an interview.

“The big thing was teaching them to ask follow-up questions,” she said. “Keya taught them how to go deeper, so the interview was more like a conversation.”

Each student designed a list of questions tailored to their kupuna. While some students did interview their own grandparents, many chose to stay with the historical intent of the book by interviewing kupuna with a long history on Kaua‘i. Of the 300 interviews conducted by students, only 22 were included in the book.

Keawe saw this as an opportunity to celebrate great writing.

“I was an athlete in school and was recognized in the playing field,” he said. “I want my students to have a sense of empowerment in their writing — the book is their stage. Theirs is the art of storytelling.”

 “Ke Leo Hano” includes photographs of the kupuna. The book is divided into five parts: “New Beginnings,” “Plantation Life,” “‘Iniki,” “Changes,” and “The Land, the Family and Traditions.”

Core English teacher at the time, Chris Fujita, read through the chosen interviews to develop the themes.

“She is the one who made the book a cohesive piece,” Iha said.

Keawe observed that the most important lesson learned by his students was respect.

“They are learning to listen and to respect the voices of others,” he said.

On a more logistical note, both teachers praised their students’ tenacity.

“I am sure my students rewrote the thing 10 times,” Keawe said. “As adults, we tend to underestimate what they can do — given the vision and support, they can do anything.”

A grant from Kaua‘i Economic Development Board paid for printing costs, a laptop, digital cameras and a DVR. Some 500 copies were published at cost by 4Stops Press.

“Hopefully money raised from these can go toward the next year’s edition,” Iha said.

Ultimately Keita, Iha and Keawe hope this project will enjoy a long life.

“It can be a model for future curriculum,” Keita said.

Already Iha and Keawe are introducing the idea to their English students.

“When I showed them the book, their eyes got big,” Iha said. “It’s exciting to be part of something that seems real to them.”

“The idea of relevant work,” Keawe added. “They are doing something that professionals do — it’s meaningful. We are giving them a voice that can go around the world.”

Copies are available for $15.

• Pam Woolway, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 257 or pwoolway@kauaipubco.com

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