My wife and I are both elementary school teachers from Dubuque, Iowa. When we started teaching 9 years ago we had no Marshallese students. We can’t remember there being Marshallese students in our classes as little as 5 years ago. Last year, we each taught nearly 40 Marshallese students in our classrooms. They are some of the warmest and kindest students we have ever taught, and yet we knew very little about their culture. We began asking around our schools and community and found there was generally very little knowledge of their culture and people. So we traveled to the Marshall Islands to learn more about how they live, work, learn, and play. This website gives an overview of what we learned while on island and gives our perspective on their culture.
We spent a total of 12 days in the Marshall Islands. This gave us the opportunity to meet with teachers, professors, students, shop owners, museum curators and anyone else who would talk to us about the Marshall Islands and their place in it. We started at the COOP school, a private school widely regarded as the best in the Marshall Islands. While there we were able to sit in on summer school classes, talk with students and instructors, and get a feel for the Marshall Island school setting. Next we spent time at a Majuro public school. This allowed us to compare the two school settings while we discussed the status of Marshallese education with its principal.
In a small nation where school is mandatory and a student’s high school graduation is celebrated like a first birthday, there are still students who struggle with education and fall behind. We toured a local trade school called WAM where they teach in six month intervals. Over 125 students apply for the program but it can only hold a maximum of 25 students. The purpose of WAM is not only to teach the students a trade, in this case woodworking, but also to give them lifelong skills that will hopefully help them find a job or start their own business.
We were fortunate enough to also be allowed to sit in on classes at the College of the Marshall Islands. The students there were presenting cultures and traditions from their families. These student presentations were a great way to not only learn firsthand about the Marshall Islands but also talk to each student after their presentations and build bridges between their culture and ours. We also attended a painting class at the college. In this class, the instructor was discussing Marshall Island folklore translated through painted imagery, and then the students sketched out their folk tales.
Walking around the atoll gave us information about the mindset and lifestyle of the people. Kids were always outside playing while the mothers were doing laundry or enjoying gossip with the others in the community. Shop owners were sitting at their cash registers eager to talk to those who walked in. Taxis were always speeding by, and if you had the $.75 needed to get to your destination they would give you a ride. For a sleepy little atoll in the middle off the Pacific Ocean things never really seemed to stop moving.
Some of our last stops in the Marshall Islands were at the Alele Museum, Tobolar Coconut Processing Plant, and the U.S. Ambassador’s office. The museum housed artifacts that chronicled the history of the people on the Marshall Islands. The curator was very kind and gave us a tour of the exhibits with information spanning the thousands of years of history on these small pacific islands. The coconut processing plant was just awesome! We grew up in a small Iowa town and coconuts were not raised as crops on the farms around us. While we were there, we found many similarities between the Marshallese methods of cultivating, growing, harvesting and processing the coconut and the way we do all of these things with our crops in Iowa. This comparing and contrasting of farming technique will make a great lesson for our students. We were also fortunate to meet with the U.S. Ambassador and his staff. We discussed the United States role in the Marshall Islands and its impact on the local economy. This is a country that emerged from a developing country to a self-sustaining Republic.
Something we noticed during our visit was the clashing cultures on the Marshall Islands; traditional island vs. Americana. The people, especially the teenagers, were struggling to choose which culture to follow while still being respectful of the others subtle nuances. People on the Marshall Islands once dressed in grass skirts, traded with rival clans and hunted/gathered for their food. Now they wear t-shirts with American slogans, buy their goods at the local grocery store and let fruits fall to the ground and rot. They are not unlike many other cultures in the world, struggling to hang onto the past while enjoying the luxuries of a modern lifestyle. We also fell prey to this struggle by walking past coconuts that had just fallen on the ground only to purchase coconut juice in the can in the grocery store. We made that decision because it was easier than husking the coconuts ourselves.