Writing takes flight at Te Aroha school

Issue: Volume 97, Number 20

Posted: 12 November 2018
Reference #: 1H9o1R

Boys are often reluctant writers but a primary school is starting to see improvements in literacy, writing and maths by taking an approach that connects with nature – particularly the wind.

Over the past six months, the school leaders at Elstow-Waihou School in Te Aroha have seen a marked acceleration in creative writing amongst a group of students who were underachieving.

Artworks of the students blowing were inspired by them imagining themselves as Tawhirimātea, the Māori god of wind and storms. Stories they wrote on the same theme were highly creative, with strong narratives.

The key was to find something that excited their imaginations, and the answer involved balloons, science experiments, and the children’s interest in the Māori god of wind, weather, thunder, lightning, rain and storms, Tāwhirimātea.

On the walls of a classroom are pictures the students have drawn of Tāwhirimātea. He is the son of Papatuanuku (earth mother) and Ranginui (sky father). They also wrote vivid stories imagining themselves as Tāwhirimātea himself – a process that involved art and science knowledge and the use of rich vocabulary.

Rich connections accelerate learning

Students Jayden Darby and Abbie Collins take measurements as part of their STEM studies that focus on wind.

The school has a focus on tūrangawaewae, and its rich connections to place are helping to accelerate learning, as the wind plays a big part in the students’ everyday life. Not only is the school in a high wind zone, but the various forces of nature at play, and the maths involved in them, are at the heart of what the children are doing every day.

Student Tyler McKellar uses a power drill to make a windmill as part of science studies.

There’s now less structure and more play, creativity, curiosity and experimentation. Principal Sandy Stirling is aiming for improved numeracy and literacy through combining science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM), in a practical and interactive way.

The centre of their learning is STEAM HQ, a multi-dimensional learning environment in a classroom at the heart of the school. It’s a space that’s fun, exciting and is sparking learning, with the learning direction led by the students. Sandy says, “The new skill-based approach puts the teachers as guides rather than the font of all knowledge.”

One day’s learning could involve carpentry to make a wind turbine (they know how to use an electric drill), examining why things can fly (as part of their wind studies), or learning how to create a dam and funnel water (which requires project management, water engineering and collaborative planning).

Making subjects relevant

Recently, junior students studied the four forces of flight – drag, thrust, lift and weight – and the seniors studied the science around heat by inflating and then deflating a balloon. Year 8 student Abbie Collins says, “It’s a lot more fun learning through STEAM HQ, as it’s easier to understand things. I really enjoy science and the cool experiments we do.”

Sandy says the school still has structured teaching of maths, reading and writing but aims to make the subjects more relevant to the children’s lives and their environment. “Experimentation and play inspires their writing,” he says. “Many who may have been reluctant in a traditional writing programme are now more motivated.”

The school’s Reading Recovery room has been redesigned by the students, and changes are also visible in the playgrounds. An area that used to be concrete is now a furnished creative play area with a large sandpit. A group of students have used the sandpit to experiment with creating a reservoir and a dam, and to learn how to channel water.

The students develop their own technologies based on the principle that maths is everywhere in nature.

Their learning progress is showing up as art. On the outside wall of HQ is a large and sophisticated mural illustrating the school’s environment and the ecological systems it is part of, painted by the students and local artist and school parent Elise Parmar.
The mural illustrates the principle that science, maths and technology are everywhere in nature. It is interactive through the use of QR Codes and is updated regularly to reflect new learnings.

Tuakana teina is strong at the school, and seniors share knowledge and assist with juniors’ learning. Year 3 children are being given challenging work that would normally be suited for Years 6 and 7. 

The upswing has been a team effort. Sandy says teacher Laura Gregory’s passion for maths has been pivotal, and is a key to unlocking the learning opportunities the students are taking to with gusto. “Her student-led focus on collaborative teaching makes a huge contribution,” he says.

Elstow-Waihou School is part of the Te Aroha Kāhui Ako.

When senior students leave, they all paint a pouwhenua, with their name on it, as a permanent mark in the ground.

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

Posted: 9:36 am, 12 November 2018

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