Podcast

Podcast: Place-Based Learning in Hawai‘i with Whitney Aragaki

34 Min Read
Whitney Aragaki Hero Banner

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

Our guest today is the 2022 Hawai'i State Teacher of the Year and one of the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year, Whitney Aragaki. She teaches biology and environmental science at Waiākea High School in Hilo, Hawai‘i, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

You can follow Teachers in America wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or iHeartRadio.

Please consider rating, reviewing, and sharing Teachers in America with your network. We value our listeners' support and feedback. Email us at shaped@hmhco.com.

The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. We see you. We want our listeners to feel not only inspired by the practice, but to also have a renewed sense of community. I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. Each episode, I meet a new teacher friend and learn about the latest lessons and innovations from the classroom.

Today I spoke with the Hawai’i State Teacher of the Year, Whitney Aragaki. She teaches biology and environmental science at Waiākea High School in Hilo on the big island, and has been named one of the four finalists for the 2022 National Teacher of the Year.

She is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Philosophy and is also a National Board certified teacher and a state finalist for the Presidential Awards for Excellence in mathematics and science teaching.

In 2018, Whitney helped form the program Science Buddies, which empowers AP students to create hands-on environmental lessons and activities for elementary students. She also passes her expertise on to others by mentoring with the Warrior Professional Learning Community, a group she assembled to assist new teachers with their professional development.

Whitney takes full advantage of her environment for her place-based pedagogy, and supports learning that honors place, people, and cultures. By partnering with the Hawai‘i Virtual Learning Network, Whitney aims to provide equitable access to environmental science and computer science courses statewide.

Speaking with Whitney was such a privilege, as was learning about how everything from the location of her school to her hobby of open-water swimming informs her teaching.

Now, let’s dive into the episode.

Whitney, thank you so much for joining us on Teachers in America. We're so glad to have you. And you are from Waiākea High School in Hawai‘i. So, let's talk about your teacher journey.

Whitney Aragaki Inline Graphic 3 220504 160234
Whitney has spent the bulk of her life close to (or in) the ocean.

Whitney Aragaki: Oh, my teacher journey. I was raised in a family of educators. My mother is a high school biology teacher. My father taught in the community college system. And quite honestly, I would say that I never intended to be a teacher. I said things like, "I'm not going to go into the family career." I aspired to be in international relations, in environmental sciences, and things that I saw as helping humanity and helping global progress through an environmental lens.

And when I was in college—I went to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania—I quickly saw the world through a different lens. It took me from these engineering, computer science, and foreign language courses to where I found more comfort and solace, which was in biology, environmental science, and education. My parents had convinced me that if I take at least one education course, they'll be happy. So, I did. I actually took Intro to Education and I think that course changed my life.

When I got to see how education is the root of all power in our societies, that whatever pedagogy is being professed in a classroom or even in an informal education environment, it changes how societies learn, think, and grow. And from that point, my professors in college put me on this trajectory of "what is your passion point?" And my passion point always is to help my community, to help children, and to help the environment. And I guess the short and fast of it is that it made me see that teaching would accomplish all the things and all the goals that I had for myself prior to going to college. But then in a way that was very unique and specific to my location and to my community.

Noelle: Thinking about your career, and now you are a National Teacher of the Year finalist, you're one of the top four finalists. What are your parents saying? I would love to know the phone call or the hug. What was their first reaction?

Whitney: They've definitely been with me on the entire journey, and this journey again started from when I was very young. My mother is an amazing teacher. I aspire to be her. I aspire to be what she was for her students. And now what she is for her grandchildren, my own children. She continues to teach every single day in the spheres of her influence. I'm lucky that I get to see her nearly every day because we live in the same town, and she's watching my children a lot of times. And I wanted to tell her in person. I thought that was the most respectful thing to do. And also, I wanted to honor her as my first teacher. And she was doing something, probably taking care of my dog at the same time, and I just looked at her and I said, "Mom, we did it."

And I share with her not because it was a competitive thing, but she has been there every step of the way for me. And if I can go back to my teaching journey a little bit, my first year teaching, I was hired when I was nine months pregnant with my first child. I was hired a week before the school year started, and she was still working at the time. But the moment that I got hired, she put everything that she was doing on hold to help me get started with my first classroom. And this is me being much larger than I'd ever been in my life, much more exhausted in the heat of summer, and not even knowing what to do as a first-year teacher. Getting thrown into a classroom that barely had anything in it. Like no equipment.

Noelle: Your parents seem to be amazing individuals. One question I have with being a finalist. My understanding is, at both at the state level of being Teacher of the Year and then when you become a finalist, you really think about your platform. What are you going to be focused on, and how do you share that in your conversations and in your presentations that you do? So, have you selected a platform?

Whitney: Yeah, I have something that's really near and dear to my heart that I carry with me whenever I have conversations. So, my passion is in place-based pedagogy. That our places transform us. It's important to know where we come from, but they transform us, and they make us whole. Place has the power to inform not only where we are but who we are and who we are together. This is a nod to how we as humans are taught by our places, our people, and our cultures. And so anything in any curriculum, in any content area, I think that a nod back to place and a reverence to place is important for us to be mindful of.

Whitney Aragaki Quote Cards Blog 4

Noelle: Where would you go to get more information on learning about place-based pedagogy?

Whitney: A foundational text is Smith and Sobel's 2010 work on place-based pedagogies. But also, the beauty about place-based pedagogy beyond the academic terms of it is that it's really organic to the locations that we're in. And if we can really pare it down to asking three questions, "Where am I? Who am I? And who are we together?" If we can answer that, then you've made it, you've made it in this idea of place. Now those questions are not easy to answer. There are layers of where we are, whether we can talk about geolocations or we talk about even the geopolitical location of a place, and we can dig deeper into the histories of what this place has represented for multiple communities.

And then who are the indigenous peoples that are from this place. So all of those things would inform where we are, but who we are is something that we can answer for ourselves. I think that's that sense of belonging. How do I belong to a space? And what does it mean to me? How does it shape my worldview? How does being in Hawai‘i for my students and being able to walk outside into the bright sunlight or the rain and onto grass, how does that shape how I engage with the world? And then also that question of who are we together?

I bring it back to a sense of responsibility that when we have a sense of belonging to a place, we can heighten our sense of responsibility to give back and to give forward. And as we deepen this sense of responsibility, it's cyclical to a sense of belonging that when you feel responsible for a place or a people, you have a sense of belonging and then vice versa. So, while there [are] a lot of academic texts that can talk to us about place, I think that talking to people within our own locations and talking to ourselves and being reflective on that would definitely deepen what we understand it to be. And then how do we draft it into pedagogy is what would we want to learn about these places and ourselves?

Noelle: Thank you for that; that really frames it in a very helpful way and gives a great starting place. So thank you for sharing that. So, science, biology, [and] nature seem like [they’ve] always been a core of your being. How do you approach teaching science, taking advantage of the beautiful location that you are in and who your students are?

Whitney: We are so fortunate to be in Hawai‘i and to be so close in proximity to our natural environment. I think one of the shifts in mindsets between what it looks like to be a student in Hawai‘i and what it looks like to be a student on the continent is that our classrooms are directly open to the outdoors. We don't have necessarily one school building. We have multiple buildings on campus, but doors that open straight onto grassy areas.

Noelle: Wow.

Whitney: And I didn't know that was a difference until I student taught in Pennsylvania.

Noelle: Right, and saw the concrete and the sometimes no windows.

Whitney: And I was just shocked. I would say I was just shocked that it looked exactly like what I saw on television because that's the only perspective that I ever had to the continent was through sitcoms, watching like Boy Meets World. "Oh, that's what high school looks like." But yeah, it shocked me to see that in Hawai‘i, it is very different, and I need to share this. But when I think about my students, that's all they've known. That is a mind shift that because we are so connected to our environment, that we can be talking about weather and we can talk about wind patterns, and we can walk outside, and we can look at wind patterns, and we can feel them, and we can watch how the trees react immediately. And so, my students, whether they know it or not, they are influenced by their place—that our place informs not only where we are but who we are and who we are together.

Our places can tell us so much about our personalities and how we deal with adversity in light of things like natural disasters and our empathy. Because in Hawai‘i, we have such a large population of endangered species, areas in need of protection and observation in light of climate change and invasive species. So our students are naturally inclined to think about larger beings other than just themselves. And in biology, that's the same way. Every single lesson that we do brings it back to, "How does this affect your family—your ohana? How does this affect your community, and how will this affect your environment?" And we are a career academy school. What career are you thinking about that you can make [an] impact and you can make change to come back to support your ohana, your community, and your environment?

Whitneyaragaki Podcast Quotecard

Noelle: I'm trying to just visualize. First of all, I can hear the birds behind you, which is also just something that I'm like, wow. I'm curious [about] the curriculum and the way you approach it. What have you been surprised that your students begin to notice of how the evasive animals or plants make an impact to their community and the projection of how, if it's not controlled within their lifetime, [it] could be an issue for their community, their family, the way they live, and the way they make a living?

Whitney: One of the activities that we do throughout the year in biology is what we call a conservation project. And this conservation project spans the entire year. It's about 15 slides in length that they do a presentation. They take care of one slide a unit. So in every unit, there is an aspect to biology that can be informed by a species. So, for example, you may have heard of the Galapagos finches that Darwin had seen on his journey on the HMS Beagle, but we try not to talk too much about Darwin in that realm.

There's also a saying that says that if Darwin had come to Hawai‘i to see the Hawaiian honeycreepers, his theory of evolution would've been written in a day. And maybe not, that's an exaggeration, but it would've been written much quicker than what he did in the Galapagos. And the reason for that is that we've seen such a beautiful example of adaptive radiation with our Hawai‘i honeycreepers.

It seems like a bird had found its way to Hawai‘i, or at least a set of birds had found their way to Hawai‘i, and then they just radiated out of the different islands to be their own species that, with isolation and location and environment, they've found their niche. They grew different beaks, and they've speciated that way. And there is so much to be learned by these honeycreepers.

And yet there is so much to be learned when in a time where their populations are in peril because of avian malaria, because of rising temperatures, because of invasive species, again like pigs and other ungulates that are in our forests. And also because rapid ohia death in our trees [that] are dying. So there is an urgency to capture the experiences of this biological phenomenon while still working to immediately and directly preserve our natural environment.

And where I go with this conservation project is that each student in the class chooses a different species to study through the year and different native species. So many of them will choose the variety of Hawai'ian honeycreepers. Some of them cannot be used already because they're extinct or so in danger that we don't have enough information about them, or they can choose plant species like the koa or the nau and different others like that. And they see how biology informs every step of this species' life. So from lineage to diet and needs to populations and many different things, every single unit informs our conservation project.

So, at the end of the year, they pull together all of this knowledge that they've been collecting throughout the year, and they create a 10-year conservation plan. So, it's very similar to what our Department of Land and Natural Resources would do. It's very similar to what our Fish and Wildlife Service would do and scientists around the area. But they're pulling it together using cultural background and culture experiences and stories from Hawaiian culture, as well as the science that we understand, the Western science we understand, to create a thoughtful and mindful project and plan for our species so that they can see it like 10 years down the road, what is it going to look like when they're 25 or 26 years old?

Whitney Aragaki Inline Graphic 2
Whitney's students learn about local flora like the koa or the nau, and fauna like the Hawai'ian honeycreeper.

Noelle: What have you started doing to have your students begin to teach others or inform their community leaders or impact younger learners coming in to begin to influence others who will be joining this career academy?

Whitney: Yeah, I'd love to talk about what we do with Science Buddies. So, Science Buddies is a program that I partnered with the AP biology teacher on campus, the advanced placement biology teacher [and] I as the advanced placement environmental science teacher. We got partnered together because the Next Generation Science Standards were coming down the line. And this was back in 2016. We partnered because we were hearing a little bit of trepidation with elementary schools and how they might be adopting and utilizing the Next Generation Science Standards. It had been a little bit of a shift from our state standards before that was more focused on repetition and definitions of science concepts. But now it was like, really, can you show what you know? So, we took those standards, and we read them, and we're like, so what did it look like if we gave this to our high school students?

And these are our advanced placements. So, this is our 17-year-olds, our 18-year-olds ready to make moves in college. They're our future doctors, our future lawyers, future engineers. And we gave those standards to the students. And we said, "Here, this is the one that we're going to focus on, what do you know?" And it kind of came to a brainstorming thing, and our students are so varied in their interests. So when we talk about food chains, they immediately went to the food chain that they see in the ocean. That they can see the producers, the seaweed, and the phytoplankton, but they see that the smaller fish eat that. And then a larger fish eats that. And that's a pretty universal concept for food chains, but they were able to bring in their native species. So, talking about the ulua, which is a large game fish in Hawai‘i and one that nearly everyone knows.

And they're able to just create these activities and these fun activities that they're like, "Hey, this is how I think students would take in that knowledge." So they created a food chain game and another set of standards focused on watersheds and how water cycles through our environment. And on Hawai‘i, we have beautiful watersheds. We can see exactly where water flows from the mountains, all the way down to the oceans. From Mauna Kea from Mauna Loa and understanding how water etches into our land and creates these streams and creates this flow and also how it disperses nutrients throughout forests and the soil, and how it serves its purpose to support the entire ahupua'a or land division system that goes again from mountain to the sea.

So all of these activities stemmed from what our students observed in their natural life or their daily life. And then they're like, we just helped them put it together as activities. As teachers, we knew how to write the lesson plans. But the reason why we turned to the students is because who has been in elementary school more recently, and it's definitely them, not us. And they had this connection to the students. We brought them in to teach the lessons in elementary school, and it was beautiful. We brought them in to teach lessons to fifth graders, fourth graders, third graders, I think even also some first graders.

And you just saw the elementary kids light up. You saw the cycle of learning that there was a sense of responsibility in our high school students to impart thoughtful, meaningful knowledge bases to the elementary students. But you saw the elementary students also increase that sense of belonging in a science community. Now they were part of this too. So just beautiful partnerships. And something that really sat with me the most was that these high school students when they walked into the classrooms, they saw their former elementary school teachers, and they just hugged them.

And they said, "Thank you so much for what you do." And I think they would say thank you even more after the whole experience, because working with elementary school students can be a journey as well. But it was beautiful to see that connection that they were able to come back to say thank you to their elementary teachers.

Whitney Aragaki Inline Graphic 6 220504 160339
Whitney's place-based pedagogy teaches students to respect their surroundings, and actively think about the future of their home.

Noelle: And that they wanted to say, "Thank you." It's an interesting take on project-based learning and not having just AP students study [and] take a test, but actually impact. Did the students have a favorite lesson that they created, or did you see a favorite lesson at the elementary level?

Whitney: Yeah, I think there [were] two different ones. I think that, again, bringing up the food chains, I think that was one of the favorite lessons for the elementary school students because they were able to run around on the field. It was almost like a relay race that they had created, and that's really engaging. So, we learned from that kids like to be outside, obviously. And they like to do competitive games.

The favorite one for my students was the watershed one because they had put down a shower curtain and made some colored water with food coloring and got to spray it to show how water falls from or flows from mountain to the sea in elevation and different crevices. And then they just started spraying each other. So, we got to see a lot of our kids having fun, and sometimes it's just nice to see older students and younger students having fun together—that's the beauty of it.

Noelle: And now, let's come back to Whitney. You said your first teacher was your mom, who you talked a lot about just recognizing the importance of connecting to people, seeing people, and what it meant for you to have your mom stop everything and help you recognize, okay, here's a first-year teacher. So when I bottle all of that into how you approach mentoring, because I know that's an important part, that's your passion. So let's talk about that and break down how you began to really think about learning communities.

Whitney: Yep, absolutely. Mentoring is near and dear to my heart. I think that teaching is just another extension of mentoring, and I guess for the first five years of my career, I didn't have too many mentors except for my mom. And that was a little bit difficult for me, but I saw it in terms of, "Oh, I should just turn around and mentor my students," because they're going to go to college. And [I was] still in my twenties, still reveling in the experiences that I had at Swarthmore College and even in my master's degree at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. And so, I just threw myself into mentoring students, preparing them for that next step, and being there for them in their first year of college. And then, as I started getting a little bit older and realizing that my experiences in college weren't very similar to what they're experiencing now with the changes in technology.

I didn't even know that there was a new app to navigate laundry service in college. And that just blew my mind. And I realized that my college experience wouldn't really serve me in helping these kids as much anymore. So shifting that direct, I thought to myself, what did I need when I was in my early twenties? And quite honestly, I needed more mentorship. I needed someone that was like on the ground with me, seeing what I saw every day and then being able to respond to that. So I was given the opportunity to create some kind of leadership initiative through the Teacher Leader Institute with the NEA. And I thought of what does it look like to mentor teachers on campus and through a lens of sense of place because there are mentoring opportunities across the district, across the state, but then what it looked like directly in my own community.

That year that I created the mentoring program, there was a kind of a drastic shift in how many teachers we had leave our campus and then those who were new to our campus. What I was also observing is that when you teach at a campus like mine, where it's a little bit of an older population of teachers because teachers don't necessarily leave very often, which is that new teachers maybe ask a question or don't know the school, the assumed school culture. And then our products are like our recipients of this misguided frustration by more veteran teachers. "What do you mean you don't know that? Didn't you know that homecoming has a different bell schedule?" Things that are just like, what? Why would we lord that over someone?

And I thought that this would be a wonderful opportunity. So, I asked my principal for at least just a meeting time once a month to meet with new teachers. My definition of new teachers was new to the profession for the first three years or new to the school for the first year. So it's not just brand new teachers street out of teacher ed programs, but it's any teacher that's new to the school because we do have a lot of initiatives that we push. We have our own system of what we do when we open the school day. What happens, how we open every class, how do we close every class, all of these things are very specific to the school, and there's really not an opportunity except a department head were to sit down with a new teacher and go over these things that we could just do this in one fell swoop. Let's have one meeting, let's go over all of these things, and you can ask the questions that you want.

We're a career academy school. So, vetting our teachers in the understanding of career academy is very important as well, and getting them to assume their role as preparers of our future career people. So all these things came together in one year. My principal had given us a little bit of money, which was beautiful because we were able to buy food, and I think food in Hawai'i, more than anywhere else, brings people together. We had teachers that were coming in from the continent. So, what I would do was I would go to some local eateries and buy things that our students typically eat. So that if there was a conversation that came up, that new teacher wouldn't be like, "Oh, what is that? What are you eating? Where did you get that from?" They'd be like, "Oh, I've had that before." And it kind of makes a connection for our teachers and the students.

So, then we saw that I just tried it one time, and I was like, "Oh, it really worked." And it brought more people to the table. I was able to convince my veteran teacher friends, "Hey, I have food. Why don't you come through too?" And so, it became this tradition that every second Friday of the month, we're going to come together. We're going to do this. We're going to eat food. Someone's going to share. We're going to have some veteran teachers share. We're going to have the new teachers share. And it just became a beautiful collegial environment that we're able to continue on now for four years. And through that, the first year was a lot of fun, a lot of getting to know the processes, but then at that time, it clicked to me that our new teachers are also very much underpaid, for sure.

And teachers, in general, are underpaid, but new teachers, I saw what they're coming in with. And it's hard to live in Hawai'i, especially if you moved here to afford that if you live on your own. So, I started creating professional development courses for our new teachers so that they could get credit for their learning and what they are doing in this professional learning community. And it really elevated it to that idea of a professional learning community when there was a portfolio that was due at the end of it. When there was credit that could be awarded for reclassification for moving up the pay scale. And we were able to offer enough credit. In addition to other credits that the union had advocated for statewide, that our teachers could move off an entire pay scale prior to even earning tenure in the department of education.

Whitney Aragaki Inline Graphic 7 220504 160550
Whitney's teaching style is one that honors place, people, and cultures.

Noelle: What island were you raised on?

Whitney: I was born and raised on Hawai‘i Island. So, the big island of Hawai‘i. That's the large one with the volcano.

Noelle: Being from the big island and traveling to Oahu or Maui, what was that like as a teenager, getting that experience and beginning to see how you can be from a community influence and still have those opportunities but be comfortable and love where you live?

Whitney: Oh, great questions. It would be very similar to coming from a rural town to a larger city; however, we can't drive. So we'd have to take airplanes. I would liken it much more to the experiences of Alaska, where if you're in like small Northern towns, you'll have to fly down to Anchorage or Fairbanks. So, the flights for Hawai‘i are between, if I were to fly to Maui, it's about 35–40 minutes flying to Oahu, maybe 50 minutes to an hour. And when I was growing up, when I was younger, it was very easy. I remember handwriting my name on a ticket. Things have definitely changed since then with the advent of the TSA, Transportation Security Administration and 9/11, and many things that have changed and radicalized how we travel in this world.

But nonetheless, I understand that I've experienced that level of privilege that my parents were able to support me and allow me to travel, allow me to travel on my own as well. And I think that is a huge difference between what I saw in my own experience and those of my counterparts on the continent. I started traveling by myself on airplanes from a very young age. Yes, I had chaperones for swimming, but without my parents, I went to Alaska to do science research in Nome, Alaska, at the end of eighth grade. I got put on a plane to go to swim camp in seventh grade.

Noelle: I read in your bio that you did open water swimming, which I'm fascinated to hear that. Keep going on the swimming connection because it was one of the things that I had highlighted as intriguing about you.

Whitney: Oh, of course. Yeah, swimming was my passion from very young. I think I learned how to swim before I could walk. And this is again all very much in gratitude of my parents who thought that when they saw this kind of lanky, awkward kid, it's better to put her in the water than on land. And for sure still can't run a 5K, but I can swim a 5K. So it's been a great journey. I grew up swimming. I grew up competitive swimming. And the way that you compete is that you have to travel to the different islands if you're really going to get that competition. So I spent nearly every weekend on a different island, swimming, getting to know different people. And that's what really helped me in my education journey as well is just engaging with the larger Hawai‘i, with who were my classmates, who I consider my peers, my colleagues, and just great friends.

Whitney Aragaki Quote Cards Blog 3

Noelle: How did you decide as a kid, "Hey, I want to do open water swimming," and your parents, were they comfortable with this? Because I get nervous with my 16-year-old boogie boarding and going past three sets of waves.

Whitney: I think swimming for me has been very cathartic in the sense where I'm really just in my thoughts, and when I was younger, in maybe sixth grade or so, I kind of passed the time swimming laps in a pool by just doing long division in my head. And that's a weird thing to share.

Noelle: I know.

Whitney: I used to do that.

Noelle: Did you decide on a pattern?

Whitney: Yeah, I just kind of decide on a pattern. I get two numbers in my head and see if I could divide them. And, of course, I'd never check it because I didn't have a calculator with me, but it'd be something to pass the time. And my coaches would notice this—that I was zoning out. What are you doing? You seem to be going a little bit slower at these places. I was like, oh, maybe that was when I was struggling with my divisions of sevens. But anyway, what I realized is that I do like to kind of zone out in swimming, and my coaches had suggested, "Why don't you try longer swims?" So, I started competing in the longer lens of swimming.

And so, these are the 800s, the 1000s, the 1650s. So the mile swims, whatever you see Katie Ledecky doing in the Olympics, that was where I thought was my jam. I had got caught wind that there [were] these open water swims, and they're called rough water swims in Hawai‘i because it's just really getting out of the surf and then swimming in a little bit more calm environment. And I started doing swims around the island, just swimming in oceans. And it was just so much more fun to swim in the ocean than it was in a pool. Whether it's for fear of there's like living organisms and species swimming around you or the waves crashing. It was just something that I really enjoyed doing.

My senior year of high school, right after senior year, I was preparing for an open water competition. It was a mile swim. And I was preparing so much that I started mapping out the corals in the opening of the swim. So, this location, this beach is called Richardson Beach Park. And I would just swim to get out of the surf, but I'd have to know exactly where the currents were hitting. At what time of the day it was. I started mapping the corals. I started almost getting to know the fish that were living within the coral so much, every single day, that when I actually did the swim, I actually did the competition, I swam in a different direction than everyone else, but I was able to get out much quicker.

And I was very fortunate that year to win the race. But I think that my learning of my natural environment was the win for myself long term. So now, whenever I swim that location, coral doesn't move very much, if at all, if it's a healthy coral. So, I'm still able to know my maps, and I'm now able to teach my own children how to swim in those regions.

So that's been a really fun generational thing for me. But also, when you ask, how do my parents handle that when they just watch me? My mom just stands in the sand and watches me swim out, but she's been doing this kind of her whole life or her whole adult life. My dad is a surfer. And so he used to go out in much bigger waves than any swim that I ever did. And in my first few years of swimming, he would swim with me, not necessarily right alongside me, but just being the race with me to take part in that experience. I was also fortunate to swim in the Waikiki rough water a few years, where that's a 2.4-mile swim across the beaches of Waikiki. And my mom's my biggest supporter, so she dropped me off at one side, drove to the other side of Waikiki, and just waited for me. And those were really fun times because my dad would do it too, but he has a little bit behind. And so we just kind of together wait for him as well.

Whitney Aragaki Inline Graphic 4
A love of the ocean runs in the family – and Whitney's children are no exception.

Noelle: I have to ask what are your children experiencing? And are they loving it as much as you did?

Whitney: Yeah, my children love to swim. I didn't know if I wanted them to be swimmers or not, but they've recently, during the pandemic, convinced me that they would like to be joining the swim team. And during the pandemic, my older son had found a passion for spearfishing and diving. His father's a fisherman, and now that he can see the fish, it's so much more engaging for him, but being in action in the water for him has been super fun. I don't get in the water with him. I think that's his jam. I kind of stay on the side watching, but he's improved so much in his swimming that I feel much more comfortable with him being in the water and going out with friends while we're there. So yeah, I think my whole family has really just, we're just in love with the water.

Noelle: It sounds divine. I just think everything about who you are and what you are doing, and what you're doing with and for others. I can definitely understand why you would be one of the finalists for Teacher of the Year, but I also can see that you recognize and appreciate what that means and that you are basically representing not just you but everything that has been a part of your experience to date. One of the questions Whitney I ask every teacher is, what's your walk-up song? What's the song playing in your head or on your phone as you are walking into school ready to teach?

Whitney: So, the walk-up song that I had in college, and this is very indicative of the times, and this is a song that brings me back to a very competitive stage of my life, and everything that the early that the 2000s was for me was "Mr. Brightside," like for sure if I'm going to get pumped up to anything, I'm going to play "Mr. Brightside." But if I were to walk up to anything now as a teacher, I walk up with a little bit more reverence than just a competitive view of myself and reverence for the process and the experiences that I've had. So, I'm going to share ‘A‘ali‘i by Ka‘ikena Scanlan, and that is someone who is a local artist, and it just talks about what's going to happen when we are gone and what is the legacy that we live that lives on with us. So, I just want to share those two songs.

Noelle: I'm going to have to look that up because I feel like that song represents my whole since turning 50, what I'm focused on. Whitney, thank you for being you. Thank you for being willing to share. And on behalf of HMH and all of Teachers in America, we appreciate you, and we wish you the best for the rest of your school year.

Whitney: Mahalo.

Noelle: Mahalo.

If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

Whitney Aragaki Quote Cards Blo

***

Hear new episodes of Teachers in America on Shaped, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

We want you to feel confident teaching with our programs—and that comes with ongoing support. Teacher’s Corner gives you the support you want with an ever-growing library of professional learning resources from authentic classroom videos to tips from other teachers and our team of experienced coaches.

Related Reading