Embracing the identity of Pacific learners

Issue: Volume 100, Number 1

Posted: 4 February 2021
Reference #: 1HAG_W

An increasing awareness of learner identity is helping teachers respond to the diverse strengths and needs of Pacific learners.

Visiting the Pacific Islands is high on Brittany Wilson-Connal’s wishlist. She is of Cook Island Māori and Samoan descent and was born in New Zealand. Her parents were born in New Zealand. Her five-year-old daughter was born in New Zealand.

“We don’t do much with my daughter around her culture at home,” says Brittany. “But she gets exposed to her cultures at school – and not just her cultures, but a wide range.”

Brittany’s daughter has just started at Rowandale School in Manurewa, where Brittany also works as a learning support assistant.

“Sometimes she’s coming home and she’s teaching me how to say ‘hello’ in Indian and Chinese and her own language, Samoan. She’s also part-Māori from her dad’s side so she’s teaching me some Māori words that I didn’t know before. It’s amazing – she’s teaching us, and her Nana. Which is good.

“The language weeks are a bit OTT, but we love it,” Brittany laughs. “But the good thing is we’re not just waiting for the language weeks – cultures are recognised here on a day-to-day basis.”

Brittany and her daughter are typical of many of the families at Rowandale School in that they were born in New Zealand and can trace their heritage to several ethnicities.

Late last year, Education Gazette met some of the school’s children such as classmates Malynda and Heleina who are both Niuean and Māori.

Heleina loves the arts. “We did all sorts of art this year, including cubism and mosaic.”

Meanwhile Malynda enjoyed their class project on water. “We learned about tsunamis through that.”

Aorangi is Māori and Samoan and loves sports, especially league and basketball.

“I got to perform the haka for the kindergarten visit this year,” he says, looking visibly proud as he recalls the occasion.

Kaedyn is Cook Island Māori and Samoan.

“My favourite thing this year was a project where we got to build rocket ships with bottles and paint.”

It’s all about visibility

With such a wide range of cultures and ethnicities, such a wide range of interests, strengths and needs, are we doing right by our Pacific learners in New Zealand?

Things have certainly improved since her schooldays, says Roberta Hunter, who is Professor of Pasifika Education Studies at Massey University. Roberta is of Cook Islands and European heritage and recalls that there was no Pacific education in New Zealand when she was at school.

“There was no visibility in any of my schooling in the ’50s and ’60s. Right through to the 1990s we were still saying ‘Pacific Islanders’ as one homogenised group and we were teaching children about them as people who lived on an island and climbed coconut trees. It was about ‘this is how they live’. We didn’t see them as people who lived in New Zealand,” says Roberta.

“In this century we’ve started looking at the identity of Pacific learners in New Zealand, not just that they came from the islands, but looking at first, second and third generation Pacific people living in New Zealand.”

Rowandale School principal Karl Vasau fits this profile. He is of Niuean, Samoan, Tongan and European ancestry, and was born and bred in Grey Lynn, Auckland.

“Seventy per cent of Pacific children were born here. Most have never seen a coconut tree. This is their life – right here,” he says.

Shifting the focus

Roberta’s daughter Dr Jodie Hunter says the focus is now shifting to how to make children’s identity central to their learning.

“There’s a lot more basic awareness needed around valuing children’s cultural identity. But the missing piece for me in terms of where we need to head is: how to do that in the classroom?

“I finished teaching in 2008 and there’s been huge progress since then. I think that critical consciousness has become much more apparent. And that’s a huge first step,” she says.

The celebrated Massey researcher says it’s about authenticity.

“I think we do things that we think are drawing on cultural heritage, but then when you look at it critically, they’re not really.”

Jodie gives an example of a school she visited recently where the teacher was using an exercise using tapa cloth patterns.

“The teacher was doing all the right things. But then she asked, ‘How do you make tapa cloth?’ and one of the kids said, ‘We made them in school. You get a piece of paper, and then you soak it in tea and then you draw patterns on it.’ It made me really think. That’s so tokenistic and not at all how you make tapa.

“Twenty years ago, I guess we would have been celebrating the fact that we were using tapa cloth in the classroom without really critically looking at how. It’s a tricky one because I think teachers do the best they can but we’ve still got a way to go.

“I think the point where we need to keep moving is, that you don’t appropriate something like that, that you keep the cultural context as a really important aspect of it, and you show that you value that, so that it becomes integral in our teaching.”

Valuing children’s experiences

Jodie says it’s important to recognise that children have much to contribute to their learning from their own lives.

“I feel like 20 years ago the main approach was to give kids experiences. Now teachers are thinking more about ‘what are the kids’ experiences that we can draw on?’”

Dr Lesieli Togatio, who has been influential in the development of five Pasifika Education Plans up until 2012, says language, culture and identity has become increasingly valued as an integral part of learning.

“What’s important is who you are and what knowledge you have to bring into the system. Half the trouble was, in those days – and it still happens now – is that educators think, ‘Here’s an empty vessel, I can fill that up’, instead of thinking, ‘There’s somebody there – who are they? What do they bring into their learning?’”

Culture and curriculum

Jodie says that by drawing on what children know – their identity, language and culture – teachers can tap into many curriculum areas, including maths, science, art and literacy.

“Twenty years ago, we were thinking of art, art, art – we’re now able to see the multitude of different connections we can make. And then you’ve got the processes which you can link to the key competencies in terms of: How do you work together? How do you develop leadership? What roles do people take? What are the values of these sorts of things? And then how do we use these in the classroom?”

Both Roberta and Jodie have done a lot of research into mathematics teaching and learning for Pacific students. Roberta explains that the fundamental basis of their work is recognising the social and cultural elements of mathematics and allow children to see themselves in the maths.

“So the mathematics they do in their home life should be reflected in what they are asked to do in school,” says Roberta.

“For instance, you start to look at tapa and you can see very strong algebraic patterns. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to the islands either – and that’s really important – it’s also about reflecting their popular culture, from their daily lives in New Zealand.

 “Children can start to realise the absolute cleverness that’s involved with constructing those. When they start to see that, they can start to identify mathematically and start to see themselves.

“After doing that, the children shift from the familiar to the unfamiliar. So if we can see that patterning and we can work out the algebra involved with that, then we can actually do it in any other setting.

“Suddenly they can do a whole lot of things that teachers thought they couldn’t do and it’s all because they were struggling with the context of the problem, not actually the maths. And through that they can get a very good sense of identity: ‘Actually as a group of people, aren’t we clever at mathematics?’”

Planting seeds

Karl Vasau believes in encouraging kids to dream big.

“The curriculum asks us to provide an education where children can come into a school and see themselves, hear themselves. It’s about building the confidence and pride of these kids in themselves. We’re building global citizens and if you want to be a global citizen you have to know where you stand in this world.”

Rowandale School is planning a careers expo, getting their learners as young as five to start dreaming of their future.

“It’s about planting the seeds so that our kids firmly believe they can achieve excellence – the top level of what they want, past these gates and past this community.”

Karl says an important part of this is for kids to see Pacific people in leadership roles.

“There are so many Pacific people in ministerial roles. I could never have imagined that as a kid. There was no such thing.”

Lesieli Togatio says we still need more Pacific teachers and leaders in our schools. She wants to see people valued for who they are, and their language not viewed as a barrier to success.

“I’m Tongan, my first language is Tongan and I speak English as a second language and I can do well,” she says.

In the school context, Karl recalls his experience as a young principal at Holy Family School.

“I would be sitting at my desk, and have people come to my door and say, ‘I’m here to see the principal’. People’s bias is real.”

Through what he’s seeing as part of his involvement with the New Zealand Pasifika Principals’ Association, he’s pleased to see this is changing.

At Rowandale, 60 per cent of the staff are Māori or Pacific.

“The rest are really caring, very proud Pākehā, Indians, Muslim – and all different types of people. I firmly believe, too, that love is love. You don’t have to wear a lava lava and put a flower in your hair to love Pacific kids. They’ll know. They don’t care what you wear. It’s not that surface stuff.”

Partnership with family

Karl says having a diverse staff helps build parent engagement, particularly when staff members can speak parents’ first languages.

“But if you understand certain cultures in the Pacific there is real structure between teachers and everyone else. There is a relationship where the teacher has the knowledge and the power. Sometimes that’s a barrier.”

 Karl says they have tried really hard to incorporate talanoa into everything they do at Rowandale as a way of addressing this barrier.

“There are four key aspects of talanoa; any good conversation has to have love, warmth, humour and respect. If you have those four things you can solve the problems of the world. So we’ve incorporated that into our staff meetings, into our team meetings, our appraisal system.

“We do the same with parent engagement. Usually at a school, the parents turn up and the school already knows what they want the parents to say. And parents know exactly what to say. But with talanoa – talk about nothing, see where it goes.

Parent voice

“Every school in New Zealand should consult with parents, getting their voices on the table. Ask them, ‘What are your dreams and aspirations for your Pasifika children?’ Ask them, ‘How would you like to see your language, identity and culture valued at school?’ Don’t assume.”

Karl says a good relationship with parents cannot flourish if there is any blame or deficit thinking at its heart.

“It’s about giving their parents the resources, and as a school pulling up our sleeves and getting on with the work. Not worrying about the deficit stuff that we can’t control, but staying focused on the things we can. A child turns up hungry – feed him, who cares? A child turns up without a jacket? Give her a jacket. Who cares? Don’t ask questions, just sort it. Because the moment we start going down that track, it’s someone else’s fault.”

Jodie says she has seen a move towards more genuine partnerships between schools and Pacific communities.

“We’re moving away from a model where we think our role as educators is to invite parents into the schools and tell them what to do with their kids. I think schools are moving towards this idea that parents and communities can be partners in developing schools’ curriculum and localised contexts,” she says.

Jodie is currently working on a research project at Mangere Bridge School, which is where she began her teaching career in the early 2000s.

“And there are the families of the children I taught, who are all grown up now. We’ve been working with the parents as key partners in the project and it’s a different sense from 20 years ago. I think the parents feel more like they’ve got a voice to offer and they’re more likely to be heard.”

Language is part of identity

Valuing parents’ and students’ languages helps build relationships, says Georgina Manuele, Year 2 Team Leader at Rowandale.

“I think the biggest problem is that our parents and whānau aren’t encouraged to use their first language. When they attend school, they just think English is the default.”

Karl reflects on why this might be.

“It’s hard because our languages have become languages of correction, growlings. Sometimes in some families you don’t hear the poetry, romance, love songs. The system we were in didn’t value the language, so why use it?”

Roberta says while the renaissance of te reo Māori has helped inspire the revitalisation of Pacific languages, there are different factors at play.

“You get a kind of resistance, still, to learning and speaking Cook Island Māori for instance, or going to a school where you’re immersed in speaking this language because you’ve still got the people who say, ‘But we came to this country to learn English’. I think that’s still pervasive.”

Pride in language and culture

Georgine Manuele is eager to develop within her students and their whānau a confidence and pride in their language and culture.

“Language is really important. It defines identity and who each child is. As a teacher I need to understand everyone and what they bring, as a whole, rather than Jane from down the road. Jane comes with a lot of things that make her Jane. And my job is how can I improve and encourage her to develop and progress throughout the year,” she says.

Georgina has been involved in the Pacific Early Literacy Programme (PELP) and rolling out the use of dual language books. And she also uses lots of small but effective ways to encourage learning and engagement in people’s first language.

In class, she uses simple commands in a range of languages; for example, ‘come here’ is ‘sau ii’ in Samoan, ‘ha’u o’ in Tongan and ‘haere mai’ in Māori. They’ve also held parent fono, encouraging parents to speak their first language.

Georgina says her students teach her their languages.

“I let the students know that I’m still learning as well, and that it’s okay to take risks.”

And alongside language, it’s important to know each individual child, building on his or her interests. Everything the children bring in is valued, she says.

“Children come to us with different learning abilities and disabilities. So it’s important that we create a classroom culture where we understand differences. Difference relates to language, the way we look and how we interpret different things.”

Hopes and fears

Georgina is keen to see more resources made available to help her achieve this vision for her learners.

“It’s great to see that the dual texts are being made available, but there’s still not enough.”

She also thinks it’s good to see children being given the opportunity to speak, read and write in their first language, and then introduce English when they are comfortable, but she wishes this could be better reflected in the curriculum progressions frameworks.

Roberta’s concerns run deeper; she cites “high-level institutional racism” in New Zealand’s education system. This is reflected in the way many schools collect student data, she says.

“Whatever you put down first on a form is what they’re classified as. So if you’ve got a Māori Niuean Tongan student, if they enter Māori first on a form, they’ve lost the Tongan and Niuean.

“Even the collection and comparing of achievement data is really assimilation, saying you have to achieve the same, when achievement might really mean something different for different people.”

Pacific and Māori values

Roberta Hunter’s ideal for the future is for schools to be run on the principle and values of Pacific and Māori learners, which are all about collectivism and working together as one. She points to Koru School in Mangere as a shining example of a school where every child has a voice but they all work together, with strong parental involvement.

Roberta thinks the Pacific Education Action Plan, released in 2020, amplifies these principles of collectivism and is a good start. But for her, the key word in the plan is ‘action’.

“It’s all very well to have these initiatives but we’ve got to work on ‘the how’ for teachers. We’ve got to give them space to learn and that’s a big journey that takes a long time.”

Karl is also eager to see action.

“It’s not mandated; the risk is that it will sit on the shelf,” he says of the plan. However, he is pleased to see money attached to the implementation of the plan, and he points to the funding earmarked for Pacific wellbeing and the $2.5 million that has been granted for a project run by New Zealand Pasifika Principals’ Association to build leadership competence among Pacific school leaders.

“The plan acknowledges so many things that we’ve known about for ages – racism is there, engagement with boys, co-construction with your community. It’s about building critical mass of Pacific leadership and teachers. It’s about supporting those who are there.

“All along the way I’ve had Pacific and non-Pacific people champion the way for me. They’re still fighting the cause. It’s a great step and with funding attached, we’ve got a good shot at seeing it actually work,” he says.

To read more about Professor Roberta Hunter and Dr Jodie Hunter's work in action, see the Gazette article: Taking maths into the hearts of communities(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 1:05 pm, 4 February 2021

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts