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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Stevens Elementary teacher goes to Marshall Islands and Guam to strengthen ties with students

Teacher Shawn Tolley wants to connect with music in a culturally accurate way, including for many of his Stevens Elementary School students whose families came to Spokane from various countries.

The school has more than 30 Marshallese students, he said, a reflection of Spokane County’s Marshallese population of about 5,000 residents.

A bit of history told ahead of playing a Marshallese song wasn’t enough, so Tolley set a goal to travel to the Marshall Islands to learn more about its music, language and culture. COVID mixed up plans a bit, but Tolley got grants to travel first to Oahu and Guam this past summer, and then to the Marshall Islands over spring break, the first week of April .

“We do a cultural night at Stevens every year in May or June, and my priority has always been to teach music within a culturally responsive way, so teaching not only the songs but the culture that associates with that song, teaching where it comes from,” Tolley said.

“I was struggling finding rhythms, music and things for my Micronesia students, so for my Marshallese and Chuuk students. Chuuk is a different island in Micronesia. I wrote a grant with Funds for Teachers specifically to go to Honolulu and the Marshall Islands, because my students come through Hawaii quite frequently.”

A $5,000 grant supported the first trip. After the Marshall Islands reopened for travel this past spring, he applied and got a $4,500 National Education Association Learning in Leadership grant to go there.

Tolley has taught music 14 years in Spokane – 10 of those at Stevens – and he even teaches Japanese Taiko drumming, counting off with students in Japanese. He tries to learn more about other languages and customs to relate music to its origins, but also as a way to communicate better with students.

“I want to grab language, culture, music, dance – anything that would help me better understand them and help me to connect with them in a more meaningful way,” Tolley added.

From both trips, Tolley returned with new language, instruments, songs and other cultural insights that he’s applying in classes and for the school’s performances, including for Stevens’ cultural night May 25.

In the Marshall Islands, he expanded on his research by going to the experts.

“I went to Majuro; it’s the primary atoll within the chain for the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” he said. “I went to the Alele Museum, which is the national repository of Marshallese culture and history. I visited with education professors, and professors in Micronesian and Pacific Island Studies at the College of the Marshall Islands.”

His visits to two schools included a private co-op for elementary and middle grades in Delap, and then Rairok Elementary School, a public school in the town of Rairok.

“At Rairok, they performed a welcome dance for me,” he said. There aren’t any instruments in public schools, so Tolley brought out two ukuleles. “I got a kid to come up and I taught them how to sing a song called ‘Abebe,’ which is from Papua New Guinea, and then we jumped from that into West African-style drumming on their chairs.”

Tolley previously made a connection at the co-op school with a fifth-grade teacher, “Ms. Nova,” so while there, he interviewed her about being a teacher in the islands. He then joined another teacher’s art class.

“We drew coconuts and played ukuleles,” Tolley said.

“Ukuleles are the most popular western instrument in the islands. Every family owns ukuleles. Most kids know how to play them. A lot of my kids know how to play them better than me.”

Now, Tolley intends to share what he learned with other educators who have large Marshallese populations. Spokane has one of the largest population of people from the Marshall Islands, but communities can be found in Oregon, California and Arkansas.

“I have an 80-something page document and counting, covering my two trips that I’m still working on,” he said.

“I have a book of songs that I’m sharing with my students, and with my school district, that was written by Nik Wilson out of the CLLC, which is the Common Law and Language Commission out of the College of the Marshall Islands. He’s a linguist. I met with him and I have ongoing contact.

“I’ve been sending him questions about Marshallese language. I’m going to try to get some of my kids to record some of the songs out of his book, so he can have some new recordings. There are easily over 20 songs.”

One of those songs means pearly shell in English, and it will be performed by Tolley’s students in Marshallese for cultural night.

When Tolley couldn’t at first go to the Marshall Islands, he redirected travel first to Guam and Hawaii at the suggestion of his students. Marshallese families often travel to Guam.

“Now, we have connections with people in Guam and Honolulu for our school, and there are a couple of schools there we’ve been communicating with,” he said.

“I went there to learn something about Micronesia culture, whatever I could, to bring back, so I could enhance my ability to speak with and teach with the students from those areas, and understand them better.”

Tolley met a couple in Guam who built an instrument he returned with, a belembaotuyan. He talks regularly with the couple about playing it and teaching it to students, along with them helping him to build a couple more of the instruments with materials in Spokane.

The belembaotuyan resembles a Brazilian instrument called berimbau. He said some experts think it likely isn’t original to ancient Guam inhabitants but instead is similar to something brought with enslaved people from Africa as the Spanish and Portuguese sailed up into the island and landed in Guam.

“I have some students who are wanting to play the belembaotuyan. The guy who built this for us, he will give me suggestions and hints on how to play it and build it. His wife is the last remaining master player of it.”

Tolley said he’s noticed a difference among students when he uses more of their language, songs and cultural understanding. Some are second- and third-generation among Marshallese living in Spokane. Others arrived in the district from the Marshall Islands within this school year.

He said among Stevens’ students, 19% are English language learners, of which 39% are Marshallese.

“There are 17 different languages spoken in my school,” he said. Tolley also credits support from Sara Shaw, ELL department head, in helping him learn more about culture. He now knows and uses more Marshallese words.

“My community saw this effort to go and learn more about them and try to understand their culture in a personal way,” Tolley said. “The kids have been excited beyond belief.

“One kid, when I started utilizing Marshallese with him, his mannerism changed because I was taking out a step outside of my space into where he was, or at least to try to bring him a little bit my direction. Now, I almost only use Marshallese with him. It makes him smile because he knows I put in that effort.”

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