Aina on the Mainland

Sahtiya Hosoda Hammell

Feature story: Mainland examples of ‘Aina in Education

The purpose of this article is to acknowledge what is already being done in the field of sustainability education and begin to think about what next steps could help operatize sustainability education on a broader scale. As such, the article begins with current efforts on the continental US that are focusing on sustainability education that the author has been involved with. Though most of the mainland groups have never heard of ‘aina or the principles of Native Hawaiians, there are many ways that environmental and sustainability education align closely with what is beginning to thrive in Oahu.

Unit-based educational programs use experiences of the surrounding environment to help students understand the impact of doing harm to others  first hand are the most common form of environmental education programs in the United States. For example, Bob Gilmer’s 2012 documentary, Schools that Change Communities, follows Crellin Elementary School as they built a science unit around a nearby stream that had been polluted by coal mining. By expanding their classroom beyond the walls of the school building, students learned about the impact that the coal mining industry had had on the environment, and began the Trout in the Classroom project to test the stream to determine its safety for local fauna, while analyzing the state of the stream’s ecosystem.  Analyzing the Ph balance of the local stream and counting the number of plants and checking the diversity of the fauna found within the stream gave students context for the signs of a healthy ecosystem that they learned about in their textbook. After working to help rebalance the ecosystem by introducing native flora and fauna, the class was able to release native trout species into a healthy stream.

These types of unit-based programs also teach students that the benign neglect of our environment in its current critical state is just as harmful as intentional degradation. To go beyond the environmental aspect of this sort of activity, it is important to consider the broader systemic, ethical implications of misusing resources in this way and thinking about who must take responsibility (hint: not just individuals in a classroom). Students must recognize that this environmental disaster resulted in a decrease in the fish who live in the stream which in turn impacts fishermen who rely on fish for their livelihood, which would cause financial constraints on fishing families, which could ultimately result in the failures of businesses, etc. However, more holistic, long-term programs are needed to truly integrate environmental education into the systemic understanding required for peace education.

Gardening programs, particularly, are well suited to the principles of helping and caring for others as the act of gardening promotes a sense of interconnectedness and recognizing the impact one’s actions can have on the environment. Students learn to understand the effects of pruning and fertilizer on plant growth, as well as how neglect has repercussions. When classroom conflict takes attention away from tasks in the garden, they can see the effects of not getting things done as actively harming their environment and each other.

Students are amazed at the progress of the garden over time, and they take a tremendous sense of pride and ownership in their ability to affect their environment. Students clamor to be able to take leadership roles in the garden and are thrilled at their ability to grow their own competencies and engage in unsupervised work that matters, like repotting growing plants, as opposed to the busy work that has become a regular part of their educational experiences in the traditional classroom. From class projects as small as sprouting seeds to district-wide gardening programs, students learn about the ways that they can engage in environmental stewardship as individuals.  This concept of interconnectedness can be actively tied to lessons about basic scientific principles like the Krebs cycle, to broader issues like local foods.

City Schoolyard Garden (CSG) in Charlottesville, Virginia offers a prime example of integrating gardening into a whole school curriculum while connecting to ethical frameworks. The program creates garden space for classes that range from science to physical education at gardening sites at every elementary school and one middle school in Charlottesville City Schools, or 7 out of 9 schools in the district. Each garden is uniquely designed to capitalize on the space available. At a school that can see Monticello in the distance, students used Thomas Jefferson’s historic garden blueprints to build math and spatial skills while planting and designing flowerbeds, while another has an “owl habitat” meadow in the midst of a fruit orchard. They also maintain the gardens for summer and afterschool program use.

  • Bringing in socio-cultural context: City Schoolyard Garden began from an environmental ethos of healthy food and gardening. However, garden educators noticed that those goals did not address the impacts of systemic inequalities or barriers to access that exist in the city of Charlottesville. Charlottesville, Virginia, with its colonial heritage, is ripe for unpacking systemic inequality. Disparities are only heightened by its designation as a refugee resettlement site by the International Rescue Committee. As a result, over 40 languages are spoken in local schools and there are significant racial and economic disparities. Although recent Census data shows that the city is 70% White, the school system is only 39% White due to parents opting for private schooling. While the median household income is $63,934, Charlottesville has a 27% poverty rate, doubling the rest of Virginia, and all of Charlottesville’s schools qualify for Title I funding.[1][1] Beyond ensuring diverse books on the curriculum to help respect the diversity of our world, in is important to recognize how these factors impact which h students are able to take advantage of programming. Though the garden is built into six disparate curricular units that create mandatory interaction with all of the students in CSG schools, much of the most intensive interactions are predicted by enrollment in an elective that only meets before school. If parents are unable to provide transportation before the normal bus routes, then students were not allowed to be garden aides. There is a similar barrier to attendance in the afterschool clubs that are associated with CSG. Working to circumnavigate accessibility limitations are important to ensuring inclusivity and equity in programming.
  • Showing connectedness: Peace and justice issues are inextricable from environmental education because of the way that the environmental abuses disproportionately affect people of color and the poor. City Schoolyard Garden uses theRootEd Educational Frameworkto link socio-cultural, health and fitness, and experiential learning into the growth that students work to foster in the garden. By creating developmentally appropriate benchmarks that enable educators to engage in whole student learning, CSG begins to address some of the justice issues inherent in the school system as well as in the ecosystem. CSG’s program also incorporates every aspect of an educational curriculum; using food grown in the garden in cooking lessons can be extended to use social studies, reading, writing, and math skills. Learning to read stories that are oriented around food and the recipes that accompany them, like The Story of Noodles by Ying Chang Compestine and A La Carte by Tanita Davis, is followed by actually executing a recipe (math and reading skills), and doing oral histories with student families (social studies and writing skills).

Their framework is called the RootEd Framework, and it is intended to cultivate gardening skills through experiential learning opportunities that intentionally promote health & fitness and nurture social & cultural development. [2]



Food education should be inextricable from efforts at sustainable education and agriculture because people have to understand how to incorporate the new knowledge into their everyday lives and shift their frame of reference to centralize sustainable practices. Brainfood was an after-school program that is based in DC and centers nutrition awareness as the lynchpin to teach reading, math, and cooperation skills to “cooks-in-training” in DC area high schools. The program has grown to become a tripartate program that teaches cooking skills to high school students, trains those students to give cooking classes themselves, and then potentially hires students in their social entrepreneurship venture, Brainfood Homegrown, that is a growing snack business. From their website, as the author was unable to reach staff, it seems as though the nutritional component of the program has been minimized in favor of chef de cuisine and business skills.


The programs reviewed over the course of this article are just examples of efforts on the mainland that parallel or model works that are happening in Hawaii. As the Island business elective progresses, we hope to add more insight into what is happening on Hawaii to create a more sustainable, resilient island.

[1] American Community Survey, U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, 2013.