Ernie Donehower enjoyed teaching cultural enrichment to students at Vaughn Elementary so much for so many years that even after his retirement in 2015, he kept on doing it.
These days, Donehower brings his fun and informative lessons to all three Key Peninsula elementary schools, as well as schools and community organizations across Gig Harbor and the state. Students enjoy a mix of geographical information, cultural artifacts and traditional stories. But what really helps each lesson hit home is a hands-on project based on a traditional craft from the region.
“The best way to have them retain what I teach is to combine different learning styles,” Donehower said. “I like to tell stories. But if I can bring the project they’re going to do into the story, as well as the artifacts, it just sort of sticks.”
Donehower spent a recent Friday afternoon teaching third-graders at Minter Creek Elementary about Polynesian culture. Having lived in Hawaii in the 1970s and 80s, Donehower considers the region among his favorites.
In front of an audience of 75 8- and 9-year-olds, and their teachers, Donehower opened with a brief geography lesson. He then impressed his crowd with trivia: “Did you know Hawaii’s Mauna Kea mountain peak, when measured from the ocean floor, is taller than Mount Everest?” he asked. “Did you know that due to an active underwater volcano, a new Hawaiian island is currently forming 3,000 feet below the surface?”
Donehower displayed and discussed cultural artifacts such as an ipu, a Hawaiian percussion instrument made from a gourd, as well as tapa, a traditional Polynesian bark cloth stamped and decorated with red and orange dyes. He pointed out grooves in a traditional ironwood tool that were carved to channel liquid away from the user.
Knowing that many in his audience were familiar with Hawaiian culture primarily through the recent Disney animated film “Moana,” which features the god Maui, Donehower selected a traditional tale that also included Maui, telling the students the legend of how the ‘alea ‘ula bird, a Hawaiian species, got its red beak.
After a break for recess, the students reconvened and Donehower gave instructions for the bark cloth-rubbing project. Lacking the traditional leaves with strong stiff veins, students used paperboard crisscrossed with dried glue. Using the flat side of peeled orange and brown crayons, students rubbed patterns onto the paper. Stencils and freehand drawing made the students’ tapas complete.
Both students and teachers found Donehower’s visit memorable. “I think it was pretty cool when Mr. Donehower told that story about when the birds were keeping the secret of fire from the Hawaiian people,” said third-grader Mikiyas Arnold.
“It was fun,” said third-grade teacher Laura Stafki. “The artifacts that he brought to share helped make the experience real.”
Learning about the cultures of the world is especially important for children living in rural areas, Donehower said, since they may not get the opportunity to experience the cultural diversity of urban areas.
“I feel deeply the importance of teaching kids about culture, especially in this day and age,” he said. “In our shrinking and interconnected world, understanding others and respecting their culture means less problems among people, as well as more opportunities for all our students. We can learn a lot from each other.”