Making “A Place in the Middle” in Every Classroom

Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Dean Hamer shares how his documentary A Place in the Middle, co-directed with Joe Wilson, can help students see the value of inclusion, the power of cultural heritage and their ability to create a more positive school climate.

Many U.S. schools serve groups of kids who are diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, age, religious or non-religious belief, national origin, family situation, ability, sexual orientation and gender identity. This diversity is especially vibrant here in Hawai'i, where many people describe their ethnic background as “chop suey,” Christians are in a minority and gender-nonconforming individuals are not only accepted but are respected and admired for their important role in perpetuating cultural knowledge and traditions.

For two years, we were given the opportunity to film a remarkable māhū (transgender) native Hawaiian teacher, Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu, as she created a “place in the middle” where every student at her small Honolulu charter school felt welcome, included and ready to learn to the best of their ability. Hina's story is portrayed in our PBS feature documentary Kumu Hina, which is being nationally broadcast on Independent Lens as of May 4, 2015.

But we also wanted to bring Hina's teaching to K-12 schools, which led us to produce a youth-friendly, short version of the film called A Place in the Middle that has been excerpted for Teaching Tolerance's Student Texts Library. Here are some ways these video clips can be used to help students appreciate the value of inclusion, the strengths they inherit from their cultural heritage and their own power to create a school climate of honor and respect.


Celebrate Difference.

In the scene “Welcome to Hawai'i,” Kumu Hina is preparing the students for a hula performance by handing out lei necklaces, yellow for boys and white for girls. But 11-year-old Ho'onani decides that she wants to wear both colors—a decision that her classmates meet with envy rather than scorn. In a later scene, Kāne-Wahine and Wahine-Kāne (Boy-Girls and Girl-Boys), Hina explains that she has created this “place in the middle” so that gender-creative students have a specific space they can call their own.

These clips are a reminder to teachers that students who are perceived to be different, in one way or another, deserve to be celebrated precisely because of those differences, not simply tolerated despite them. And it's a jumping off place for students to think and talk about how every person's identity is comprised of multiple interacting facets. A good discussion prompt is to note that Ho'onani is in the middle between male and female, then ask how many other ways people can be “in the middle”; for example, being more than one race or bilingual, being part of two households after a divorce and so on.


Use the Power of Heritage.

In “Hawai'i Poniʻī,” the principal of the school urges her students to take seriously their lessons on Hawaiian culture because, “We didn't get to sing ‘Hawai'i Poniʻī’ (the Hawaiian national anthem) in our schools. We had to pledge allegiance to the flag that took over Hawai'i.” Her approach works: By the end of the film, even the students who began the year with little enthusiasm have become full participants in the school's activities.

You can use this clip to inspire students to inquire into their own heritage, starting with well-known aspects, such as food, holidays, etc., and progressing to a deeper conversation that incorporates social, cultural, political and historical contexts. Ask students to bring in food dishes typical of their heritage, and after the Smorgasbord is consumed, ask what ideas, values or practices their home cultures could contribute to their classroom or school.

Another clip, “Hawaiians Live in Aloha,” uses Polynesian-style animated figures to tell the history of how early Hawaiians respected and admired people with both male and female spirits, giving them the special name of māhū. Asking students to interpret images from this animated portrayal of Hawaiian history prior to and after viewing the film is a good ice-breaker for what some consider a sensitive topic. You can follow up by asking them to draw their own interpretation of what it means to be “in the middle.”


Teach With Aloha.

Many people think of “aloha” as just a cute way to say hello or goodbye, but as Kumu Hina explains in a clip about her transition, the deeper meaning is to have love, honor and respect for everyone. Ask students how the characters in the film demonstrate aloha, and then how they do (or could) demonstrate it themselves. Most important, how do you rate your own classroom and school on living up to this standard?

You can help spread the concept of aloha by hanging a Pledge of Aloha poster in your classroom or by handing out Pledge of Aloha postcards that can be signed and returned to Kumu Hina in Hawai'i. The module can be considered a success if students use this opportunity to share what they've learned about Hawai'i and its uniquely inclusive approach to gender and many other types of diversity.

Hamer is a National Institutes of Science scientist emeritus, a New York Times book-of-the-year author and Emmy Award-winning filmmaker with a long history of communicating complex and controversial ideas to diverse audiences.