Steve Soltysik teaches Wilcox 2nd graders about Polynesian navigation, Hokulea

LIHUE — When Steve Soltysik was in the second-grade, he couldn’t read or participate much in the classroom. But when it was time for a hands-on activity, Soltysik would seize the opportunity.

As he instructed Florence Tavares’ second-grade class at Wilcox Elementary School Friday morning on how to make a small canoe out of scrap wood and Popsicle sticks, Soltysik saw himself in the excited and eager faces of the children.

“This reminds me of when I was a little boy,” Soltysik said. “I couldn’t read, I didn’t know anything about academics, but hands-on activities that the teacher could use in the classroom that connects with a student, made a huge difference for me.”

A sailor and an educator, Soltysik has spent 42 years teaching and volunteering to work with children to help them find their way with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, both literally and figuratively. Soltysik first sailed on the Hokulea back in 1996 on an interisland voyage from Kauai to Oahu. He recently traveled on an escort boat for the Hokulea and is leaving for another trip Tuesday.

“Of all the thousands of kids I’ve worked with here on Kauai and on Oahu, I’ve never had one humbug kid,” Soltysik said. “They all want to do something with their hands. And for many of these students, it’s the very first time that they had a piece of wood in their hands and very first time they’ve gotten a chance to sand.”

The 18 students in Tavares’ class were engaged and excited to make their own canoe and learn about the Hokulea’s voyages and history. Even Tavares was surprised by how focused her students were, pointing out that a couple students who rarely pay attention in class were volunteering to participate in the activity.

“Whenever you have lessons that are hands-on, that learning experience becomes more meaningful to them,” Tavares said. “It reaches out to the kids who are that type of hands-on and visual learners. I’m just blessed to have (Steve) and (kumu Malie Jumawan) to come and give this kind of learning experience to the children. It just makes it real for them, rather than just learn from a book.”

Not only did the kids learn how to make a canoe using pieces of wood and Popsicle sticks, they also learned the importance of navigation and wayfinding, similar to what the students saw in the new Disney film, “Moana.”

Using “Moana” as an example for the kids while giving them a hands-on learning activity really generated a buzz, said Tavares.

“When Steve presented this idea to me, I was super excited and the kids were excited,” Tavares said. “We were all really looking forward to this day.”

While Soltysik has been doing this project with students for some time now, he admitted that “Moana” has increased interest in wayfinding among younger students, which is an encouraging sign for the future.

“The young kids are really, really excited about the new film and finding their way,” Soltysik said. “And if that film helps them in a small way in gaining a sense of direction, not just with their canoe but in their personal life, then it’s of value. But that’s all stuff that we’re all still trying to figure out.”

The pieces of scrap wood that the students sanded down and decorated with stamps and markers were donated from The Home Depot and then cut by inmates at the Kauai Community Correctional Facility.

“I think this is a valuable connection for the students, but also for some of the inmates who have worked for so many days, cutting thousands of pieces of wood for these kids to learn,” Soltysik said.

Many students told The Garden Island that this was the first time they ever used sandpaper or held a piece of wood in their hands. For others, it was decorating that was the most memorable part of the activity.

“My favorite part was stamping and coloring the flag because that was the second time that I ever stamped,” said Makai Calvin. “I also learned that making a boat is not that easy.”

Laney Carvalho, who served as Soltysik’s captain of the classroom, also enjoyed decorating her canoe with stamps, which were in the shape of the Maui’s fishhook from “Moana.” But Carvalho lso learned a lot about the Hokule’a.

“My favorite part is that we get to learn about the Hokulea,” Carvalho said. “I liked that we could use different colors and color (the canoes).”

His 42 years of teaching and volunteering has been a journey for Soltysik, who told TGI that it’s time for the younger generation to step up and get aboard the Hokulea and start becoming more involved in the ancient ways of navigation.

“It’s time for your generation and these kids to take over for me,” Soltysik said.

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