Hearts and minds

Summit + ‘Iolani School

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place Mōʻiliʻili
Text Meredith Enos
Thread School of the Future

Academic excellence and personal growth flourish in an atmosphere that is challenging and competitive, yet caring and nurturing. Through dynamic and personalized instruction in a multitude of disciplines, 'Iolani develops liberally educated, well-rounded individuals who are well prepared for college and ready to assume their responsibilities as active, moral citizens.

“Life is all about relationships, and we look at how dying affects those relationships, and how relationships affect the process of death,” says ‘Iolani teacher Robert Kane. These might seem like unusual topics for a high school course, but in Kane’s hospice class they form the basis for the curriculum.

“When people first hear about our Hospice class, they don’t think hospice is something that high school students can do.” says Allison Blankenship, director of ‘Iolani’s Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership, where the ‘Iolani Hospice Program is based. “But we have seen how impactful the hospice class is on our students. It prompts them to think about who they are as young adults, and how they relate to others in our community around them.

“The school recognizes that the world is changing,” continues Blankenship. “Parents and teachers hope for transformational experiences that create intrinsic motivation—young adults who want to do good for others, not just get a grade for themselves.”

For 2015 graduate Lamala Lopes, the class played a key role in her personal growth and development. The summer before her senior year, her great-grandmother passed away. “To this day, the hardest thing I’ve had to experience,” Lopes wrote in a letter to her school that was shared with Summit. “I was the only person in the room at the time besides one of my uncles. I was also the first person to check her pulse and verify that she had actually passed. My first hands-on experience with death, literally,” Lopes writes that the hospice class helped her to grow and mature.

“When you are constantly surrounded by people that see time as their most prized possession, you begin to appreciate it more, and not care as much about the little things in life. I could honestly write an entire speech on what I’ve learned alone in hospice—patience, appreciation and awareness were three of the biggest lessons.”

For junior Kelli Kimura, experiences around death have led to unexpected discoveries. “It can be awkward to engage with patients,” she told Summit. “But if you don’t try, you miss out on an incredible opportunity to meet, talk to, and get to know someone special.”

Nearly two decades ago, as an English teacher, Kane started a similar program in Rochester, New York, at the Norman Howard School, a small private school that focused specifically on students with complex learning challenges. “I had been, and still am, a hospice nursing assistant and thought, if my students went to the hospice unit, encountered the dying, and offered something to the residents as simple as a sip of water, these young people might begin to see their own gifts unfold,” Kane reflects.

Kane's class visits the Manoa Cottage, a dementia care facility. | All photos by Ikaika Hussey

When Kane moved to the Harley School in Rochester, he brought hospice as part of his curriculum. Two years later, Dr. Timothy Cottrell became the Head of School at Harley prior to taking on the Head of School position at ‘Iolani. In early 2014, Cottrell asked Kane if he would consider moving to Hawai‘i. Kane and the hospice class started at ‘Iolani with the 2014–15 school year.

The course is a year-long elective, and meets daily, like a regularly scheduled class. The curriculum provides the students with the caregiving skills required of a hospice nursing assistant: repositioning in the bed, comfort care, feeding, bathing and being present. The class also discusses the social, emotional and cultural norms around dying and death. “Socially, we discuss the impact of dying on an individual, whether it be the dying person or his or her family,” Kane continues. “We talk about the stages of dying, and what that might mean to the dying person, a spouse, and loved ones. How can we listen, off er solace and do so in a meaningful, compassionate way?” Before the first quarter comes to a close, students begin applying their skills at various hospice facilities under the supervision of the local hospice agencies, and at Manoa Cottage, a dementia care facility.

The impact is felt by both the students and those they visit. “Often, those in hospice will tell the students that it means a lot to them, and they’ll share stories with the students,” Kane says. “I tell those students, ‘You have received that story and it’s now a part of you. Part of them is in you.’ That’s the power of storytelling; the power of end-of-life encounters.”

Robert Kane

Hospice has proven to be a foundational class and, in July 2015, ‘Iolani School received the 2015 Intergenerational Award at the Generations United Conference at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Generations United focuses on policies that promote intergenerational collaboration. For Kane, this award echoes his own motivations. “I seek positive intergenerational encounters, and I hope the kids see that those encounters have value. Before modern times, youth were a big part of caregiving.”

And for students like Lopes, it’s given her a foundation for an adulthood of appreciation and respect. “I love waking up early in the morning knowing that me being awake is really helping someone else’s life.” Lopes writes that she is now considering becoming a nurse, “or doing something else that helps people.”

“These young people have been able to do a tremendous amount of good. They have unique gifts that must be opened, and shared with others,” says Kane.


Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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