A taste of Hawaiian culture

Centennial Lane Elementary School PTA shifts arts programs' emphasis to the Americas

Education Beat


Several pupils, in kindergarten through second grade, stood on the stage at Centennial Lane Elementary School trying to twirl "poi balls," just as they had seen Kathleen Haller demonstrate.

Haller, who was giving a presentation Thursday at the school on Hawaiian culture, dance and music, made it look so easy. She simply held one poi ball by the string in each hand and twirled them at her sides and even over her head.

Her son, Tom Haller, 20, who was helping out with the show, did an even faster and more elaborate demonstration with the poi balls, which are used in Hawaii for dance and exercise, Haller explained.

The pupils who tried to copy the Hallers quickly learned that spinning the poi balls is a skill that requires plenty of practice. A few seemed to get the rhythm, but most found that the strings kept getting tangled and that they couldn't control the direction of the spinning.

Learning about poi balls was just part of the presentation, the first program of the school year organized by the PTA's cultural arts committee. Each year, the committee brings about one program a month to the school.

"It gives them a lot of opportunity to see and experience cultures," said Barbara White, the assistant principal.

Programs in the past have tended to focus on cultures from all over the world. This year the emphasis is on the music and culture of the Americas, said Veronica Simpson, who chairs the committee with fellow parent Laura Balcom.

Other programs this year will teach children about American Sign Language and the story of Ruby Bridges, one of the first black pupils in a formerly all-white New Orleans elementary school in 1960.

"They always do such a great job scheduling programs for us," Principal Bob Bruce said of the PTA committee. "But this year is really exciting."

Two assemblies, each about 45 minutes long, were held, one for pupils in kindergarten through second grade, the other for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. The assemblies were held in the cafeteria, and the pupils sat on the floor.

The performers, generally local, are chosen during the county's performing arts showcase, held for two days each spring. During that time, performers and other artists showcase their work for PTAs, libraries, senior centers and other organizations that might want to hire them.

Haller, who is from Baltimore, performs frequently at schools, senior centers and other places in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Though she wasn't born in Hawaii, she has been there. "Hawaii has been an inborn love of mine," she said.

"A lot of children just don't know a lot about Hawaii, even though it's our 50th state," she said. "A lot of them just think of it as an island and a palm tree."

Haller's program may have changed that. Though there was much music and dancing, she gave a lot of specific information, too.

Barefoot, wearing a bright orange, red and yellow dress, a lei around her neck and a yellow hibiscus tucked behind her ear, Haller made sure to involve the kids in the audience as she told them about Hawaii.

She started by asking how many had been to Hawaii, and about a dozen raised their hand. Then she asked how many would like to go to Hawaii, and everyone's arms shot up.

Haller had the kids wave their hands in the air as she taught them about hula dancing and explained that it is a form of storytelling. She had them clap in various patterns as she demonstrated instruments.

She told them that Hawaii is made up of eight major islands and that it is in the Pacific Ocean. The children seemed amazed when she told them that Honolulu is a major city with Burger King, McDonald's and other familiar restaurants and stores.

Haller also asked for volunteers to come on stage and try out the instruments and the poi balls.

"You can tell they're enjoying it," said Tiffani Smith, who teaches second grade.

Smith said teachers were given materials to discuss with the pupils before the assembly and were given age-appropriate follow-up exercises.

"It really brings everything full circle," she said. "When we go back, we discuss what we have learned."

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