History comes alive at Sylvia Park School

Issue: Volume 100, Number 8

Posted: 30 June 2021
Reference #: 1HAMgh

Education Gazette takes a tour of Sylvia Park School’s artwork-studded history trail, the physical output from its school-wide inquiry into Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories.

Kupe's waka: ākonga proudly sit side by side in one of their installations – a waka depicting the story of Aotearoa.

Kupe's waka: ākonga proudly sit side by side in one of their installations – a waka depicting the story of Aotearoa.

Meeting kunekune pigs, Hettie and Percy, was an unexpected part of our tour of Sylvia Park School. Yet the pigs, along with bees, several mini native forests designed for different bird and insect populations, and around 540 children appeared very much at home at the Auckland school, which presents as a vibrant oasis in the middle of an urban jungle.

The tour begins at Gondwanaland, then leads  us to the dinosaurs, to Kupe’s double-hulled waka, to a child-sized installation depicting thriving Māori communities, and to a series of pou to mark the first encounter.

The trail is effectively a visual representation of the school’s inquiry, ‘Aotearoa, Our Story: Nau Mai, Haere Mai’, with each 10-week cycle of the inquiry delving into a new aspect of Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, and resulting in a new addition to the trail.

Year 6 student Jadynn learned about thriving Māori communities as part of her class’s inquiry.

Year 6 student Jadynn learned about thriving Māori communities as part of her class’s inquiry.

Students guide us along the history trail, describing the learning behind each installation we encounter.

Year 5 student Freddie shares his contribution to Kupe’s waka.

“So, this is the waka that Kupe sailed on from Hawaiki to Aotearoa. And on these panels show the story of Aotearoa. This is my one – it’s about how this is Kupe and he was chasing Te Wheke, a very, very annoying octopus. And while he was chasing, his wife, Kuramārotini was on and so he started the journey, chasing Te Wheke here, then in the middle of the sea.

“And finally, Kuramārotini actually was looking out into the distance and she saw a beautiful piece of land and she said, ‘He Ao, He Ao, He Aotearoa’. And that is how we got the name Aotearoa. And if it wasn’t for Kupe, and Kuramārotini, and maybe even if it wasn’t for Te Wheke, we wouldn’t be standing on this land right now.”

The next 10-week cycle will focus on te Tiriti o Waitangi and staff and students are eager to see what the resulting addition to the history trail will be.

Our shared history

Principal Barbara Ala’alatoa is passionate about this topic of inquiry. “We’re sort of obsessed with it,” she laughs.

“Our kids will never leave this school not knowing the important things about us as a nation. We want really positive things out of it. We want to feel proud about this country. To have a powerful image of what it is to be Māori. And to all feel a sense of belonging, because we all share in these stories.

“So whether you’ve been here five minutes, or you’ve never been anywhere else, the idea that we have a history that is shared by all of us was the thing that we really wanted to emphasise.”

Barbara has been interested to observe the wider conversation around the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum content.

Alexander, Year 6, enjoyed contributing to the AOTEAROA installation project.

Alexander, Year 6, enjoyed contributing to the AOTEAROA installation project.

“There’s a little bit of fear about how some of these stories will land and whether it’s going to start to cause some discomfort. But I think the thing that people don’t talk about enough is the pedagogy – so if you think about the way in which you create a learning context for children to inquire, to think about teasing out different perspectives, if you think about making a connection to ensuring that kids know that there are lessons in there for all of us, then you kind of avoid a lot of that stuff.”

Barbara says the national curriculum is “incredibly permissive” and allows the scope to curate and deliver a rich local curriculum. She expects the refresh of the curriculum – currently underway – will enhance this further.

And as deputy principal Dagmar Dyck says, it also allows the freedom to be agile and responsive in their approach.

“We’re focusing on delivering our localised curriculum, but we’re also really mindful of being able to pivot quickly in terms of what’s happening, what’s current. What are we hearing in the playground? What are the children talking and thinking about? What are they truly interested in?” says Dagmar.

Building teacher knowledge

Before embarking on the inquiry, it was important for teachers to build their own knowledge first.

“As a staff, we are learners. It’s about removing this thing I call ‘teacher disease’ where teachers feel like they should know everything. So the idea that we all buy in as learners and we make no assumptions about knowledge we have or don’t have, has been really critical to that,” says Barbara.

As a staff they listened to Radio New Zealand’s podcast series on Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories, they did their own reading, and studied resources shared by the inquiry team.

One of the school’s five deputy principals, Tessa Leona, says this was invaluable for her.

“I learned heaps of new things along the way about our history, about Polynesian arrivals, the settlers, the Māori thriving communities. And then once I had built my content knowledge, it was much easier to share with the tamariki and get them motivated and excited to learn about their own history.”

The inquiry process

The school’s 10-week inquiry cycles begins with ‘Ignite’, which aims to get the children excited and wondering what’s coming. Inquiry learning is pitched to suit every child, whether they are in Year 1 or Year 8, but the integral question remains the same throughout the school.

“We try to think up fantastical ideas that provoke them and sort of disrupt everything they know about in relation to a question. Then the next part of the inquiry is exploring the question,” says Barbara.

Sylvia Park School principal Barbara Ala’alatoa.

Sylvia Park School principal Barbara Ala’alatoa.

“We are exploring te Tiriti o Waitangi at the moment and the kids are looking at agreements, travelling back in time, they’re trying to put their feet in the shoes of people who were involved in the events leading up to the signing and what happened afterwards.

“And then after a couple of weeks of researching around that, they’ll sort and synthesise information, and then start to think about, ‘So what? You’ve learned all that stuff – what are you going do with it?’”

That’s where the physical manifestation of the learning comes into it.

“How do I create something with my peers, that ends up creating a better context, whether it be a tangible thing, or whether it be an action, that improves the lives of myself, my friends, my whānau, our community, the world?”

The inquiry cycle ends with a celebration – usually a big reveal of what they’ve created – and then evaluation.

“Did we answer that question? Did we do a good job? What do we take forward in terms of making it better next time we start to enquire?” says Barbara.

The strategic plan

The history trail ends at a magnificent colourful artwork on an outside wall. It is Sylvia Park School’s strategic plan and it underpins everything they do here, including the inquiry process.

“So it was time to review our strategic plan and create our new plan for 2020 to 2022. And we thought, why would we do it when we’ve got all these amazing kids who could do it for us?”

Using their approach to inquiry learning, they posed the question to their students: Sylvia Park School into the future – what does ‘amazing’ look like?

“The first part of the process was to get them curious, and to ignite that wonder in them. So on the first day back, they went into all different classes, and they did weird and wonderful things. It was disruptive and it allowed us that opportunity to ask, what could learning look like?”

The next couple of weeks were about exploring what learning could look like. They researched what learning looked like in different contexts: around the world, in a kaupapa Māori setting, in a forest, historically. Then they started to sort and synthesise the information into what appealed to them.

The students then made symbols based on the things they thought were important on the basis of their research. Each symbol, depending on its importance to the student and their whānau, was then divided accordingly into groups – these formed the school’s aspirations.

The five deputy principals are champions for each of the aspirations.

“For us, it’s about having an absolutely clear line of sight from these things to everything that we do in school. We have plans, we have priorities for the year, that are all linked back to this, to make sure you actually do what you said you’re going do,” says Barbara. 

Silvia Park School

Listen to the podcast!

Staff and students from Sylvia Park School talk about their inquiry, Our Aotearoa, as they give Education Gazette a tour of their history trail.

Listen to the Education Gazette podcast(external link) 


When will the Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories curriculum updates be introduced?

Teaching Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories will be part of The New Zealand Curriculum and Te Marautanga o Aotearoa from 2022 onwards.

Will this mean Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories will become a compulsory subject?

Histories is already part of the social sciences in The New Zealand Curriculum and Tikanga ā-Iwi in Te Marautanga o Aotearoa. It’s expected that Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories will be taught as part of the local curriculum and marau ā-kura at every level of the curriculum, and be available as an option from Year 11. Both learning areas will be refreshed to accommodate the new curriculum content.

What can schools do to start getting ready now?

Schools can start planning by using this guide: Supporting school leaders to understand and plan for Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories in social sciences (external link)– this features the useful ‘Poutama’ of stages of readiness (page 5). 

The AOTEAROA installation project is one of many as part of the school’s ‘Aotearoa: Our Story: Nau Mai, Haere Mai’ inquiry.

The AOTEAROA installation project is one of many as part of the school’s ‘Aotearoa: Our Story: Nau Mai, Haere Mai’ inquiry.


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

Posted: 12:59 pm, 30 June 2021

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