A shared lexicon and organizational language is the foundation of an educational program's culture.” -David Dunbar
Students and faculty sailing a traditional Hawaiian canoe off the coast of Mahukona

“Push the bubbles under the canoe,” Pualani (Pua) Lincoln said to me as we pointed out into the ocean, paddling as the wind had died down. A few moments later the wind picked up, filled our sail, and drove us further from shore. The power and beauty of nature was overwhelming, and what made it deeply meaningful was that I was sharing the experience with a dear friend Pua and the 10 students in her senior Capstone course. We spent an entire week out on the water, off of Mahukona near Kawaihae harbor, learning how to sail in the traditions and protocols of Native Hawaiians. This shared experience was the culminating event for all of the training students had done throughout the year, from knot tying to ocean safety. It also served as inspiration for students’ individual Capstone products, and it allowed each student to understand what they were creating in the context of Hawaiian culture and migrations. That week further instilled in me the importance of creating and living a shared lexicon and organizational language.

The Foundation: The Importance of a Shared Lexicon and Language

A shared lexicon and language creates a common way of understanding purpose, the learning process, and how to collaborate with others. From the beginning of the school year we created shared definitions of words vital to our program. This common language formed the foundation of our programmatic culture. We defined ideation in a way that was unique to our program. 

Ideation: the act of connecting your passions, life experiences, and background to your evolving skills and personal network.

The structure and journey of HPA’s 2020 and 2021 Capstone Program

We defined methodologies like lean startup and design thinking through the language and protocols of Native Hawaiians. Instead of minimum viable product, we used the term ma ka hana ka ‘ike (by doing one learns) to define iterative product development. Activities, assessments, and experiences reinforced those definitions. Pua did a fantastic job of utilizing place based learning to create unique and shared definitions. She defined research, ideation, project management, product development, and presentation in Hawaiian vocabulary and ethos. We thus created a programmatic language.

Step 1: Start with Values

In talking about living our values Brene Brown writes, “It means that we do more than profess our values, we practice them. We walk our talk—we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we take care that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors align with those beliefs.” Classroom culture starts with your organization's core values. Study them as a class and discuss the elements that you can live throughout the year. Hone in on one, and make it the hyper-focus of everything you do as a class. Find synonyms or phrases that are rooted in that word and plan out how you will embody them in process and outcomes. 

We, as a program, chose the word integrity from our school’s core values, and focused on the concept of trust. Our goal each week and month was to have trust drive our work and our interactions with each other. It became something teachers and students alike could reference. It became the foundation of our program's culture. Whether out on the canoe or in her classroom Pua was able to reference trustworthiness throughout the school year. It became the base of how her students interacted with each other. This allowed for less micromanagement and greater student agency.

Step 2: Shared Milestones Lead to a Shared Journey

Every program has a natural set of shared milestones. For our Senior Capstone program these included presentations throughout the year: a formal proposal, plan of implementation, the launch of their venture, the rescoping of their product based on feedback and data, and a school wide exhibition of learning. When students collaborated on their milestones via feedback, presentations, and group discussions, this created a shared experience and journey. 

In any long term project, milestones become a part of your program's lexicon and allow your students to strive for shared goals, which increases collaboration. This is how students embark on a voyage together. They use the same terminology and speak the same technical language. By making milestones a communal experience, they become not just practical deadlines, but also moments for celebration and feedback.

Tying it Together

In a previous blog post I wrote about the importance of partnering students with diverse skill sets into teams. In this collaboration, students learn interpersonal and project management skills through action and iteration. When you multiply this skill growth by creating communal class goals, projects, and experiences, you create makawalu, which literally translates to eight eyes. Our shared definition of makawalu was a team of learners embarking on a learning journey together. 

Out on the water, Pua’s students were successful because they started the year focusing on the core value of trust. They lived this value in their work and their interactions with each other, and it became a tool for accountability.  The ethos of trust gave them a reference point which allowed them to ask each other: Does this represent trust? Does this embody trustworthiness?

With trust as the cornerstone, Pua and her students formed the shared definitions of values, skills, and protocols necessary for the voyage. A shared set of milestones created a structure, moments for celebration, and a public display of learned skills. Voyaging across the ocean, I saw the result of this shared journey as paddles entered the water and sails caught the wind.