Making Connections: Infusing the Hawaiian Language into Student-Led Sustainability Initiatives

Dec 1, 2023 | Community News, Educator Spotlight

Wayfinder Society is for environmental educators who believe in the power of collective action. It is an online platform hosting a robust offering of classroom and teaching resources that makes it easy for educators to create a fun, dynamic, and engaging classroom and to inspire their students through environmental awareness and action. Every other month, we highlight an educator in our network.

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Michelle Pieper is a Hawaiian language teacher at Nanakuli Intermediate and High School in Waiʻanae, Hawaiʻi on the Island of Oahu, who shares her passion for sustainability in and outside of her classroom. After struggling to get students interested in sustainability, Ms. Pieper began integrating culturally relevant curriculum to help students better understand the complex issues facing our planet and impacting communities.  

It seemed like a difficult feat when she first began, but as she started incorporating more Hawaiian traditions and values into her curriculum, all the dots started to connect. From field trips to local farms to learn how farmer’s take care of the land to teaching the Hawaiian words for commonly used environmental terms, Ms. Pieper’s leads opportunities for her students to actively participate in efforts that have a positive impact on their local environment, all while honoring their communities’ rich history and practices. 

For example, as their community continued to see sea levels rise and extreme weather become more commonplace, Ms. Pieper helped bring local history and culture into the conversation by teaching a related lesson from the perspective of Wakea (or Sky Father in the Hawaiian Culture). And just like that, she began to reach her students on a deeper level than before. In addition, Ms. Pieper encourages students to become environmentally conscious citizens by incorporating lessons on restoring ecosystems with native plants, evaluating local water quality, composting, and more. 

In 2020, Pieper launched a sustainability club at her school after being inspired by organizations she follows on social media. The club started bokashi composting, a type of composting that uses a fermentation process to breakdown organic matter. After lunch each day, Ms. Pieper’s students bring the food scraps from the cafeteria to sealed buckets located in her classroom. From there, they add in bokashi – which is a concoction of water, molasses, microorganisms, and bran – and allow the fermentation process to do the rest. Once the process is complete, the students add the nutrients to their school’s garden or give it out to farmers in the community! In addition, the sustainability club also hosts “Sustainable Saturdays” once a month to upcycle cardboard into biodegradable planters for local farmers. This activity allows club members to give out locally grown produce from those farms to residents. Working at the intersection of culture and environmental education, Ms. Pieper leverages the wisdom of their rich history to inspire a sustainable future right in her local community.

We are excited to award Wayfinder Society’s November Mini-Grant to Michelle Pieper. Wayfinder Society was created with the goal of empowering every educator to become an environmental educator. Ms. Pieper is a glowing example of how every educator (regardless of discipline) can become an environmental educator too! We hope her story can serve as an inspiration for other educators in the field. 

Ms. Peiper and her efforts were highlighted in an article titled “Hawaii Kids ‘Connect These Dots’ To Understand Climate Change” in the Honolulu Civil Beat, in January of this year that details more about her work if you are interested in digging in deeper! 

students drawing, outdoor activity

Students engage in composting, transforming organic waste into nutrient-rich soil to gift to local farmers.