History comes alive as Nelson school celebrates 175 years

Issue: Volume 97, Number 22

Posted: 6 December 2018
Reference #: 1H9pXb

A single photo has lit a fire in the minds of primary students at the country’s oldest school and connected them with their community’s history in a burst of co-constructed learning that took centre stage at its 175th anniversary celebrations.

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Hannah Galvin taking part in the festivities by wearing pioneer clothing.

History can seem a dry topic for children – even their own school’s history. But not always. Recently, Wakefield School near Nelson, the oldest school in the country, found that planning for its 175th anniversary led to an explosion of learning and engagement by students excited by their self-directed inquiry.

It all began with a single photograph, and a challenge. Earlier this year, with the school’s historic celebrations coming up in November, the teachers wanted the school’s history to be the theme of their inquiry in term 3. “But we weren’t sure what that would look like,” Principal Peter Verstappen says.

“So we decided to show the students a class photo of a group of former students, with no names on it, and tasked them each with tracking down, identifying and talking to someone in the photo.”

They achieved their goal with the help of social media such as Facebook and also their families, other schools and local archival sources.

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Rylie Delaney in a cap from days of old.

That was the spark the teaching team needed. The children were both fascinated and inspired by what they discovered, and then chose a focus for their inquiry, based around the history of their school. The result was high motivation, engagement and scaffolded learning across literacy, social science, science and arts areas of the curriculum.

Peter says, “Our school is very much a hub of the community, with generations of children in many families having studied there. One family’s links go back seven generations, so there is a strong bond with the school, which led to strong support for the students’ project from families eager to tell their stories.”

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Kick Sohl creates an artwork based on a theme he chose from the past during Wakefield School's 175th anniversary commemorations.

The students documented a collective recalling of the community’s past, with historic photos, film and videos a valuable tool.

There used to be a railway line and a train service in the region, and examining a mural painted on the wall of a building in the township was inspirational as the students found the idea of steam trains in their town fascinating. History had been all around them but now it was coming alive.

They researched subjects and created artworks based on themes from the past of their own choosing and created the content for an elaborate timeline, showing events and developments that took place during the school’s existence, and where school history fitted into world history. The timeline presentations and an artwork gallery were on show during the recent anniversary celebrations on November 9 and 10.

The children learnt the pioneers’ folk dances, tried traditional games their peers would have played in the past, such as knuckle bones, hoops and quoits, and tried out 19th-century children’s clothing.


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Student Junts Lam built an impressive model of a penny farthing bicycle out of number 8 wire and a hula hoop. “I got the idea from watching a video of the past with a penny farthing in it, and my teacher Scott [Mackenzie] helped me research how to make the model, and another student, Jacob Skurr, helped me paint it.”

From local to global

Some chose subjects close to home; for others their focus was far reaching. One decided to research bungy jumping, as a late 20th-century development, and created an artwork based on that. Others embraced subjects far away in time and place, such as the role of concrete in building the pyramids of ancient Egypt, and why the Titanic sank.

Photos of ‘swags’ from olden days were compelling for new entrants, and in presentations they explored how people used diverse ways of carrying food around the globe – all very different from their own plastic lunchboxes.

Students put on a multimedia live concert, hosted and scripted by Year 4 children, shaping the show around a TV news bulletin, with ‘throws’ to the reporter in the audience. The show also had ‘ad breaks’, performed by the students, with ads for products from the past that were uncovered during their inquiry research.

Historical figures were interviewed during the performance, including Sir Edmund Hillary. And when the student playing Sir Ed quoted his most famous saying, “We knocked the bastard off,” it brought the house down.

Principal Peter Verstappen says, “For their inquiry, our students used their own community as a rich learning opportunity, and in doing so connected with their heritage. But they have a global awareness too, so their explorations have gone well beyond just New Zealand.

“Their embracing of the learning opportunity has been amazing. We often assume that history is boring for young children, so we were surprised at how engaged they were. However, our challenge as teachers is how to continue to foster authentic collaborations like this.

“Anniversary events like our 175th only come around every 25 years, but we aim to support them to replicate their achievement constantly. So, our next challenge to them is, “Where do you want to go now?”.

Learnings for teachers

  • Link with things that students can relate to.
  • Involve your community as much as possible.
  • Foster student agency.
  • Engage in learning with social action outcomes. 


Students gather oral history

Recording oral history was part of the inquiry project. At the two-day anniversary event, pairs of students sat down with many former students to record audio of their recollections of their former school days, including Allen Walker, now 86.

Allen told of how he used to get the strap, as did many boys, and on the last day of school for the year the boys aimed to get hold of the teacher’s strap and cut it up into pieces, in revenge.

He had to wade through a stream to get to classes, and the students were given an apple a day by teachers but did not eat the core. “We had to present the core to the teacher the next day to get another apple. No core, no apple,” he told student recorders Tyler Bradley and Brooke Robinson.

There was a lot of making-do. “We had a cricket pitch but no roller, so a strong boy would tie a rope around his waist and pull a lawnmower behind him to flatten the pitch,” he said.  

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Brooke Robinson interviewing ex-student Allen Walker.

Unravelling a fascinating past

Year 3 student Hunter Grooby was among those fascinated by the changes the school has been through, and that sparked his inquiry learning. There used to be a train tunnel close by, and children would hide in it, he discovered.

The students created themed artwork and timeline presentations, and there was a lot of research, and multiple sources, involved in Hunter’s project. He says, “I spoke to a lot of people, and found out facts online and then applied them to the process of doing my work.”

Amongst those involved in his research were his father and grandfather, who also went to the school in earlier decades, when it was much smaller.

Hunter created a Wakefield School Facts presentation for the timeline, complete with information sources. “I have good ideas, but they get better when I talk about them with Mary [his teacher] and Christine [his teacher aide]”, he says. 

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Hunter Grooby with his Wakefield School Facts presentation

Guest of honour recalls school days

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Marie Baigent.

Marie Baigent cut the cake as part of the anniversary celebrations, which drew hundreds of people, many of them former students. She is a relative by marriage of the school’s founder, Mary Ann Baigent, and was a student at the school from 1933 to 1942.

She says in those days the school had only three buildings and limited facilities, compared with now. “We had to sit at our desks all day, without moving, of course, unlike today. But we were satisfied with what we had. We just got on with it.”

New Zealand’s oldest school

Wakefield School in Nelson believes it is the oldest continuously operating school in the country.(external link)

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

Posted: 1:57 pm, 6 December 2018

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