Juliet Small discusses the school's plan to increase teachers' knowledge of Pasifika cultures to better meet the needs of their students.
Clip duration: 3:59
Build Pasifika knowledge
A couple of years ago, the chairperson at the time, the past principal and I were forming the strategic plan. The challenge was around how we were going to better meet the needs of our students. One of the changes that Oranga set was to increase teachers' knowledge about Pasifika cultures.
And flippantly one of us said, "We need to visit other schools", and then it was, "We need to visit other schools in other cities" and then, "We could go to Samoa". So all of a sudden it became quite apparent what our journey was. And the result of that was a trip to Samoa as, at that time, our Samoan population at the school was the greatest at 22 percent.
It's quite hard to find out about Pasifika culture, or specifically about Samoan culture. I've been at Oranga School eight years, and in that time I could never understand (and this is an illustration of how mono-cultural we can be) why the children would come into the classroom in the morning and give me flowers and they'd be little flowers with no stalk. So I always put them in a glass of water or a vase. And it took me four years before I realised that the flower was for behind my ear. It's such a simple illustration of how we all see things so differently. So as a staff, how do you take a step towards someone else's culture?
We went to Samoa, because Samoa is where Samoan culture and language is rich and alive, and we were able to find out about the structure of villages over there and how people react with each other and go back to the roots of the culture.
As part of the planning process, Dr Airini, General Manager of the Faculty Pasifika at the Auckland College of Education, worked with us on a research project. She came in and interviewed teachers before we went, and talked to us about what our expectations were – what we thought we might see and what really was the point of going.
Dr Airini talked to us about our immediate impressions when we returned, then came and talked to us three or four months down the track, asking us what was different in our classrooms and for the students as a result of our visit to Samoa.
Dialogue with parents
One of the biggest impacts about our visit to Samoa was the really positive message it gave our parent community and specifically our Samoan community; your culture is important and we want to find out more. They came in and they brought us clothes to wear in Samoa. They talked at staff meetings about how to be and what we might find, and gave us addresses and contacts of aunties and cousins.
It began a dialogue with parents that we'd never had before. We became the learners and they were the teachers. When we departed, the parents and children came to the airport at 2 o'clock in the morning and gave us lolly necklaces and took photos.
Arriving at the airport in Samoa is a memory that I will never ever forget. I've used the word sensual before and people have sort of raised their eyebrows, but it was a total experience. You walk into the airport and it's the way it smells and the heat and the flowers and the frangipani and all of a sudden, you're not the same person any more and you totally get it. I don't know how else to put that. It's like the penny drops and you can't ever read that in a book.
Each teacher had a curriculum area of their choice to look at while we were in Samoa. Some teachers looked at mathematics, some looked at involvement of parents, others looked at discipline, so everyone had something specific to find out about while they were in schools.
The professional talk that went on amongst the staff in Samoa, I've never heard talking like it. So even when we weren't in schools - even when we were out relaxing doing something as a team together - the talk about curriculum and about culture and about our students at Oranga and what we were doing, or what we could do, was absolutely amazing.
Arriving in Samoan schools was unlike anything we've ever experienced. Hospitality is a key word in my mind. The welcome that the schools gave us resulted in quite immediate changes at Oranga School.
When we arrived at one school they said, "Stay for a heavy lunch." We had roast pigs on the table, and it was humbling. The food they presented was out of this world and, as a result of that, we realised when we say at Oranga, "Come for morning tea", we get out the chocolate biscuits.
We knew that was something that we could make immediate changes to. I won't say that we could say, "Come and have roast pig at Oranga", but I can certainly say that our hospitality has changed as a result of that.
Reflect cultural values
We brought drums back from Samoa and so we had a great idea that instead of having the bell, a child would drum over the microphone. The drumming went all round the neighbourhood and we liked it but a few neighbours complained, so now we only do it for special occasions.
When we came back the whole school did a unit on Samoa, and in every classroom you saw children's cultures reflected in the classroom environment. There was tapa, lavalava, shells and mats. Our Samoan parents came into classrooms and worked with us. They showed us how to split a coconut and how to squeeze out the coconut cream. They shared some of their oral history and legends.
Staff at Oranga have a much stronger cultural awareness and a much clearer idea of what is important to our Pasifika communities, and this understanding is in turn reflected in classroom programmes across the curriculum.
Teachers were suddenly more reflective about the context of learning right down to the choices of reading material, for example, a journal story, or using tapa cloth and shells to help teach the concept of patterning in maths. These choices not only connected with our Samoan students, but they connected with our other Pasifika children as well.
We've seen an improvement in student outcomes – improvements in our literacy and numeracy levels. We measure our running records at the beginning of the year and the end of the year, and we're able to show in the last two years an improvement in reading across every year level. We're currently doing a home school partnership in numeracy with our parents.
We feel it's really important that, when children walk through the door, they see part of themselves reflected in the classroom. So when you walk around classrooms you see beautiful room environments that include tapa and Pasifika borders. You see displays with languages from other cultures, so there is a little part of each child in the room.
One of the ways we felt we could tap into our students' prior learning and knowledge was to have Samoan and Tongan teacher aides in our junior rooms. That's part of what we're working on at the moment. Our bilingual teacher aides are positive role models for our students here at Oranga.
We see more parents at school, in classrooms, at our three-way conferences, parent interviews, more parents in assembly. They feel valued and they feel empowered. Our Samoan parents, particularly, drop their children off in the morning and they all meet under the trees and they talk. Some of those chats are informal chats and some of them look more like formal meetings.
At prize giving and our biannual multicultural festival, I have parents who come in and say, "This is what you're going to wear." And sometimes it's Samoan and sometimes it's Indian, sometimes another culture. And that's really humbling that our parents support us like that.
A couple of years ago one of our Niuean students died (not here at school). As the principal I'd said that the class were not to go round and visit the little boy. A group of Samoan parents arrived at my office to talk with me. There were too many to sit in seats so some of them were on the floor. They said we know you're the principal and we respect your decision, but you're wrong, and they proceeded then to explain to me why it was important that the class went round to see the child, and I changed my mind.
They said that, as principal, I needed to go and see the family and say that I would speak. They talked about what to wear. They collected money and bought lace on behalf of the school. They walked with the class round to visit the child. All the children took a flower and sang a song. Many parents went with their children. The Samoan parents helped us walk in a world that wasn't our world, and it was a very emotional time for all of us and a great time of learning.
We're a caring school and that comes through from me and it comes through from the staff. It's about being utterly passionate about what you're doing. You have these ideas and these visions and you have to keep working every day and you've got to keep pushing. And you aim for the stars and it's about those aspirations, and always, every day trying to do your absolute best.
And that's something that we push here at Oranga. We say we're the best mulitcultural school in New Zealand and every day we've got to work and strive to realise that vision.
Our Pasifika plan is a living document and we are focusing on consultation with our Pasifika communities, in particular trying to involve more Pasifika parents in decision-making and in shaping the future direction of the school.
In the July holidays the staff are going to Tonga. Part of the preparation has included having our Tongan parents in at school and offering them afternoon tea, which involved traditional Tongan dishes. So we had mussels and coconut cream, more than the chocolate biscuits. And we did a lot of talking and a lot of listening to our Tongan parents and they were able to discuss with us some aspects of Tongan culture which we would find interesting and things we'd see.
When children come to Oranga, the family view is that they come to school to learn English and we really are trying to give the message to all our communities that the children's first language is really vitally, vitally important. And at the moment, to a limited extent, you hear children speak in their first language and that is something I would really like to work on as a school.
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