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Reading Hawai‘i pono‘ī

by Spencer Salas |

Greetings from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte! For some reason or another, these last few days I’ve been playing a song over and over in my head — the Hawaiian state anthem, Hawai‘i pono‘ī. The 19th-century anthem was written by King David Kalākaua, one of Hawai’i's last monarchs before its annexation by the United States in 1898.  The song goes like this:

Hawai‘i pono‘ī  Nānā i kou mō‘ī  Ka lani ali‘i, Ke ali‘i 
Makua lani ē, Kamehameha ē, Na kaua e pale, Me ka ihe

[Hawai’i’s own, Look to you King, The Royal Chief, the Chief
Royal Father, Kamehameha, We shall defend with spears]

Hawai'i became America’s 50th state on 21 August 1959. I learned Hawai‘i pono‘ī in second grade at Kainalu Elementary School in Kailua, Hawai'i, USA. It’s an anthem we sang at school-wide assemblies just after the Star-Spangled Banner. I’m not Hawaiian and I don’t claim to speak the language, either. But, I still remember the words and the tune. I’m pretty sure that all my former second-grade classmates do, too.

Come to think of it, we sang an awful lot that second-grade year, and many of the songs and their lyrics remain with me.

There was one about a cat. El Señor Don Gato receives a letter from his fluffy white sweetheart, who proclaims her love for him. Don Gato gets so excited he falls off the roof from which he is perched and dies. At the funeral procession, a fish cart passes by. The smell brings Don Gato back to life:

When the funeral passed the market square
Such a smell of fish was in the air
Though his burial was slated,
Meow, meow, meow
He became reanimated,
Meow, meow, meow
He came back to life, Don Gato

We learned Hawai‘i pono‘ī and Don Gato and other songs to celebrate the various holidays punctuating the school year. There were songs for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and 1 May, or "May Day." We also sang about the United States — the flag, the 50 states, the redwood forests, and the Gulf Stream waters.

These were the songs our teachers taught us in between learning to read. Or, to be more exact, our teachers framed singing and music as an extension of the literacy curriculum.

Actually, a large body of research for literacy education supports my elementary school teachers’ practice of juxtaposing songs and singing in early grades literacy instruction. Among other things, singing develops phonological awareness — understanding that words are made up of units of sound that we can segment and blend. When we sing, we hear words that rhyme with each other. We break down words into syllables. We notice repeated sounds. These are all foundational skills for reading.

But more than random sounds, songs are stories. That’s another connection between reading and singing: Songs mean something. Here are a couple of more reasons: 

    • Singing in the early grades is a way of honoring and growing the different sorts of intelligence that readers bring to the literacy curriculum. 
    • It's a low-cost or no-cost pedagogical tool that teachers can access, regardless of a school or classroom budget. 
    • Finally, it’s a way of making learning joyful. 

One of the outcomes of several decades of U.S. educational reform has been the proliferation of high-stakes literacy testing. A 2015 report by the Council of the Great City Schools found U.S. K-12 students will take an average of 115 standardized tests during the length of their public school education. Consequently, primary grade literacy instruction has increasingly shifted from the sort of arts-based instruction that many of us grew up with to data-driven paradigms of teaching and learning. That is, we test to measure student achievement. We identify what they can and can’t yet do, and we teach or reteach accordingly. Then, we test and measure again, and again, and once more with feeling. There’s not much time for music anymore. It’s not serious enough. 

So, as we enter the summer holidays here in the United States, and with the sounds of Hawai‘i pono‘ī  still playing in my head, I’ll end with some questions:

    • What’s a song you learned in school that returns to you at random moments? 
    • How does it go? What does it mean? 
    • What does it still mean for you?

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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