On the island of Pohnpei, in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), a pilot education program is returning culturally relevant learning back into classrooms, and reinstituting traditional elders as formal teachers.
Since November of 2020, 10 traditional teachers have been teaching 3 days a week. Classes being taught are: canoe making, weaving, carving, traditional farming, Pohnpeian language, and traditional song and chants. There has also been an emphasis on eating healthy local foods as a way to combat a rise in non-communicable diseases.
Pohnpei’s governor, Reed Oliver, has worked closely with the island’s Director of Education to support the pilot project’s school during this past school year. Community engagement has increased significantly, as well as youth interest in traditional ways and means. This will all culminate in a large Traditional Skills Fair is being planned for April, which will take place in the home of the territorial Nahnmwarki (or “king”) and be attended by the President of FSM and other dignitaries.
This project is in response to the gradual loss of traditional skills amongst the youth of Pohnpei – a topic that Jasmine Mendiola and Yolanda Joab brought up in last year’s Pasifika Peoples Forum that was hosted by Nia Tero in Hawaii. For the last 30 years, education in FSM has focused solely on improving English, Math and preparing students for college. Funding restrictions from the US Government (which continues to support most island nations in the Northern Pacific) require all classroom teachers to have college degrees. This has resulted in vocational and traditional skills teachers to be designated as “non-essential” and thus not considered for jobs or funding. The gradual erosion of traditional values and learning from formal education in these islands has contributed to a staggering rise in student absenteeism and a drop in parental engagement within the education realm, as many see the current system as irrelevant to their daily lives.
Looking ahead, Governor Reed Oliver has repeatedly exclaimed his intentions to expand this project into other schools around Pohnpei for the next school year, 2021-22.
Paul A. Hadik is the President and CEO of Pacific Resources for Education and Learning (PREL) a nonprofit organization with staff and programs located throughout the Pacific Islands, that collaborates with schools and school systems, families, community organizations, and government agencies to transform education and promote dynamic reciprocal learning communities built on strong social and cultural capital.