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  • Writer's pictureConvening Storytelling Team

Building Belonging On the Ground: A Story About One School

This is the third in a series of pieces on the importance of Belonging in Assessment for Learning Work, specifically looking at the model brought to us from Hawai’i and the Nā Hopena A‘o or HĀ (BREATH) outcomes. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here. Kau’i Sang is the Director of Hawaiian Education at the Hawai’i State DOE.

Cheryl Ka’uhane Lupenui is president of the Kohala Center on the north end of the Big Island, and Puni Jackson is director of Hoʻoulu ʻĀina, a nature preserve and education center on Oahu. All three were instrumental in the development of the HĀ framework and the relationship with Assessment for Learning.

Kau'i Sang (top left), Gary Chapin (top right), Cheryl Lupenui, and Puni Jackson (bottom center) have a conversation over Zoom about belonging.

The HĀ Framework was not the first time we’d heard of the concept of belonging—I hope that’s obvious—nor the first time we considered its importance in learning. But it was the first time we’d seen it expressed in such vital, powerful, and non-negotiable terms. The phrase used by HĀ for “Belonging” is He pili wehena ‘ole, literally meaning, “The relationship that can’t be undone.” The level of commitment expressed in that phrase is extraordinary, especially considering that it is, and must be, a voluntary commitment.

Belonging is an invitation, not an order.

I had a conversation with Cheryl Lupenui, Puni Jackson, and Kau’i Sang, drivers in the HĀ work for the past seven years, about how the idea of Belonging has grown and been embodied during their time with Assessment for Learning. It was a wide ranging discussion that I’ll share over the next weeks. One small part of it, though, focused on how individual schools are making the HĀ work their own.

This freedom to interpret is built into the design, Sang reiterates, is part of “the intention of this framework. There isn't a prescription. It would be difficult to suggest that you could just package the BREATH framework, and then deliver it and expect that you'd see indicators of change overnight. The practice and process of allowing for people to discover their sense of belonging and then strengthen it and the process that they go through are critical to its growth.”

How does this discovery work at the school level, for teachers and administrators?

“I can share a local example in our elementary school, here,” says Jackson. “So, in our local school, we had one teacher who was really living it, really doing belonging all day long. And when her kids came up, you could feel the difference.”

It showed in the circles with the kids, “in how they chanted, how they entered the space. They understood the protocol. They felt their [HĀ] outcomes themselves.” The other teachers felt it. “There was a slow trickle into the same grade levels, the other teachers, and they started to do cohorts so this teacher could influence the other teachers.”

It’s important that the other teachers weren’t ordered to do this.

“That sense of belonging,” continues Jackson, “and connection and land were so important that the other teachers were hungry for that.”

And they had the support of the administration.

“There was one other element: they had a principal leadership that was sort of liberated into these values. He was not a Hawaiian. He wasn't raised here, wasn't grown up here, but the framework liberated him to lead in a way where belonging and aloha were very important. That prompted him to move her into a new position. She's a music teacher now, which means that not only her own classroom is benefiting from her practice. Every single kid in the whole campus is benefiting from her practice. We're witnessing how that impact is spreading out. And it is I feel like it's more of a liberation into belonging and an extension of belonging. And so that's just our little elementary school example.”

The idea of being liberated into belonging stops me in my tracks. Are we liberated into these values. I think we are. And the liberation comes from the structured invitation mixed with the lived passion of the teacher and the clever moves of the Principal.

Next installment coming soon. Talking to Cheryl, Puni, and Kau’i about the tension of assessment and accountability, qualitative and quantitative, and static and dynamic measures—all in relation to belonging.


About the Storyteller

Gary is the co-author of 126 Falsehoods We Believe About Education (2021). He has been working in education since 2000, first as a teacher, then as a curriculum director, then as a Dept. of Ed. researcher, and most recently as an advocate and supporter of equity based practices such as competency-based learning, performance assessment, adaptive leadership, and collaborative cultures. He is deeply fascinated by questions like: What should kids learn? How do we decide what kids should learn? How do we learn what they learned? How can learning what they learned help them learn more? Also: systems!

Gary has provided support to schools and districts trying to work with performance-based practices, competency-based cultures, fundamental assumptions, portrait of a graduate, assessment audits, competency development, change management, teacher-leader sanity, etc. He’s especially proud of his ability to bring comfort to teachers by easing their stress around rubrics.

He has written dozens of articles and blog posts over the years and presented at many education conferences around the nation. To see his resume, click here.

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