Educator Spotlight: Uncovering the Importance of Place

Tory Watanabe’s seventh-grade students researched their ancestral lands. As part of the interdisciplinary project, students made artistic maps accompanied by creative writing pieces.

Tory Watanabe is a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Kamehameha Middle School in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Photo by Karen Alamida

What was the goal of your National Geographic Educator Certification capstone project?

My goal was to guide my students through learning about their ahupuaʻa, an ancient Hawaiian term for pieces of land. Students chose the ahupuaʻa they researched, typically selecting where they presently live or where their family is originally from. They investigated the meaning of the name of their ahupuaʻa and described it according to the geographic themes of place, location, and human-environment interaction. Students then created artistic maps of their ahupuaʻa as well as writing pieces modeled after Yann Martel’s “I am…” passage in Life of Pi.

The project was an interdisciplinary one; I teamed up with my school’s English teacher. The driving question was: “How can I show aloha ʻāina, love for the land, for my ahupuaʻa, land division, through a map and writing piece?” Students’ maps creatively communicated aloha ʻāina by showing the personal significance of their ahupuaʻa. All of the students’ maps have been compiled into an atlas showing their ahupuaʻa across the Hawaiian islands.

Students included natural and human-made features on their maps. Photo by Tory Watanabe

What inspired your project?

A quote from historian George Kanahele inspired my project: “For Hawaiians, a person’s identity is inseparable from place, particularly their ancestral homelands.” This quote demonstrates the importance of understanding the place where one lives and the place one comes from. Ultimately, if my students gain a deeper understanding of the place they come from, they are also developing their own personal identity. Our school’s learner outcomes include the development of our learners’ Native Hawaiian identity.

How did this project impact students?

My students expressed their love for their ahupuaʻa through their words and the maps they created. Students chose what to feature on their map. No map features 100 percent of what is actually present in a particular ahupuaʻa but rather shows what the student deemed important to share with his or her audience.

This project also helped me connect with my students. I learned more about them through their work. I was delighted to see they authentically expressed their thoughts through vivid writing. For example, one student wrote: “I am Hauʻula… because of the smooth waters of Fireman’s Beach cut by the sharp edges of paddleboards, because of the well-strung lei of ginger sent from Molokai that wraps the necks of my kūpuna, because of the taste of the hand-pounded paiai that sweetens the inside of my mouth, because of the fireworks that light up the smoke-stained sky indicating the start of a new year…”

Students personalized their maps of their ahupuaʻa. Photo by Tory Watanabe

Educators: Download full lesson plan here

What advice do you have for teachers looking to lead an interdisciplinary project?

Just go for it! I think educators are often nervous to fail, so we avoid taking risks. Implementing a new type of project is a risk, but finding interdisciplinary connections increases learning and engagement for students.

Before beginning an interdisciplinary project, I recommend making sure that all teachers involved in the project have a strong understanding of the standards being met across content areas. This helps everyone get on the same page as you discuss the best direction to take the project. Finally, know that the first time you lead an interdisciplinary project there will likely be speed bumps, but the beauty is that you and your colleagues can find ways to improve the project in future iterations.

What is your teaching mission?

My personal teaching mission is to create and build the next generation of informed citizens who can make or influence positive change for their community and world. I am passionate about my mission because I know that young people are the future and will soon be the leaders. To create positive change, students need to be knowledgeable about both history and the current state of affairs.

Currently, I believed we are experiencing increased interest and pride in the native Hawaiian culture throughout our islands, whether it be through the language, hula, or other cultural practices. This research project required students to dig into cultural significances of place. I see this as doing my part to make sure our native Hawaiian culture continues to thrive.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

Interested in joining Tory as a National Geographic Certified Educator? Learn more at

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