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How hitting the Sandpit helped me think about Mātauranga Māori in the English Classroom.



I went to the NZATE 2021 conference and found a magic sandpit.


I’d already read up on the NCEA review and incorporating Mātauranga Māori into the English classroom, but keynote speakers and workshop presenters got me itching to make sense of it all from my own starting point and to begin playing around from there. I could see some people were over-whelmed, maybe even a little bit scared. Perhaps they’d missed the sandpit with its built-in fountain, super-diggers and glitter-filled sand.


Learning through play is my my thing. Learning is the sub-conscious reward for playing with the right toys in the right environment. It's what turns change and challenge into adventure! If you’re a beginner like me, I invite you to embrace the toddler metaphor (yes, seriously) when it comes to thinking about Mātauranga Māori and how you can adopt this wider perspective in your English classroom. I’ve had to - I’m pākehā.


Toddler Training

A toddler:

· Gets grubby

· Falls, crashes

· Causes a bit of damage

· Doesn’t always realise the consequences

· Cries, and

· Can be annoying!

But a toddler is also:

· Curious

· Fearless (naivety can be a good thing)

· Optimistic

· Open-minded – a sponge

· Determined

· Resilient, and

· Enthusiastic


Remember learning to ride a bike? To drive? Or that first teaching section? How many behaviours from the lists above could you have ticked during those experiences?! With a few hugs and some well-timed nudges in the right direction, you made it though.


The foundation of Te Whāriki, New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, is play-based learning. TKI discusses this as a time for children to “explore, experiment, discover, and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways”. It goes on to explain that “An effective learning through play programme enables children to engage in self-directed play that is internally motivated. Teachers can support children in play-based learning by providing an enabling environment and sensitive interaction. There is a role for the teacher to discuss, embed and extend the learning with students.”


Apply this to yourself and your colleagues. I’ll rewrite it:

Teachers! Let’sexplore, experiment, discover, and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways” as we learn to incorporate Mātauranga Māori into our classrooms!

I mentioned the need for hugs and nudges in the right direction so I'll edit the second TKI quote for your department:

An effective learning through play programme enables [teachers] to engage in self-directed play that is internally motivated. Teachers can support [each other] in play-based learning by providing an enabling environment and sensitive interaction. There is a role for the teacher[s] to discuss, embed and extend the learning with [each other].

I’ll leave it to you to unpack that; it might be worth taking to your next faculty meeting. Suffice to say, if the supportive environment – an air of excitement over trial and error isn’t there… well, that’d be stink.


Practice what you preach

Worse than behaving like a toddler is behaving like a hypocritical adult, too scared to look sideways, but happy to preach to their students that, “it’s okay, making mistakes is part of learning…If you’re not sure, just ask…Just give it a go…Laugh at your mistakes, because everyone makes them!” Preach it buddy and give yourself a break by following your own advice. Do not be afraid of being the stupidest in the room!


Only two

I look forward to playing with the big diggers one day – maybe when I’m ‘three’. I’m only ‘two’, enjoying wriggling my toes in the glitter-filled sand in the meantime. These have been my wobbly steps so far:

1. I’ve played around with planning a unit – working concepts of Mātauranga Māori into Lord of the Flies to see if I could turn it on its head. I chose six angles through which to study aspects the novel. It worked! (You can read about that initial hot mess here – makes a sandpit look organised!)

2. I’ve discussed what I’m doing extensively with my Te Wananga o Aotearoa kaiako who’s happy with where I’m at. (He also suggested I look at teaching and learning through ngā Atua (the Gods) and through whakatauki, so I’m keen to think more about that. Maybe when I’m three!)

3. I’ve created some resources to use with students. I shared these ‘finger-paintings’ with teachers at our local Accord Day. (I mean, look at Jack – totally lost sight of his tūrangawaewae, and his whakapapa, ran off and created his own tikanga... and look what happens when you do that! Piggy on the other hand, looked to ‘home’... Just sayin’ – BOOM!) Some of my resources feels ‘forced’ but they're a start.

4. I’ve been thinking about a new name for our subject because Alice te Punga Somerville’s article, English has broken my heart gave me the courage to do something about it, even if I’m the only one that uses the new name. The best I can come up with is “Voices” by the way but feel free to weigh in! (It explains the subtitle of my growing resource collection here.)

5. I’ve gone public – I’m happy to share my mess, injuries and maybe a few tears along the way, but I’m also hoping others will jump on the curious, optimistic, open-minded and resilient band-wagon too and springboard from my learnings and prototypes as well as those of others.


What’s next?

I’ll see where the learning takes me. I know it’s not just about how we approach texts, it’s about how we deliver that content and our relationships too. I know and love the theories of Te Kotahitanga so maybe I’ll begin there. I’m also keen to look into the Gods and whakatauki to see what I can come up with there. The toddler in me is excited!


Where could you begin?

You could:

  • Begin by learning about key concepts such as the ones I looked at Lord of the Flies through:

o Whakapapa

o Tūrangawaewae

o Mana Motuhake

o Kaitiakitanga

o Whanaungatanga

o Other aspects such as rangatiratanga, whāngai, manaakitanga, tikanga…

It’s important to understand as much as you can about the context of these aspects before working with them. Yes, you’ll get it wrong, misunderstand along the way, but that’s okay. You’ve made a start. Go you!

  • Begin by learning whakatauki and taking these into your classroom, incorporating them into expectations, behaviours, texts.

  • Begin learning about the Gods. There are many, but here’s a good starting point.

  • Think carefully about the toddler metaphor and embrace it. It gives you a good excuse to both make mistakes and be annoyingly excited!


Taking it to the students

Some teachers worry about how to introduce a Mātauranga Māori approach to ‘reluctant’ students. You’re probably familiar with Simon Sinek’s “Why” theory. Similarly, Steve Jobs stated, You’ve gotta start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology…. [Begin by asking,] what incredible benefits can we give to the customer?”


Now edit it:

“You’ve gotta start with the [student experience] and work backwards to [designing methods, lessons and resources]…. [Begin by asking,] what incredible benefits can we give to the [student]?

What “experience” do students want? Seniors want to show markers they can think critically, consider different perspectives. Students want learning to be exciting, to include “Far out, Miss, that’s so cool!” moments. They want to run with their own lines of thinking … and they want to feel brave enough to do it (although I doubt they'd tell you that!) They want there to be no wrong answers. They want a teacher who works with them (cue violins). They want multimedia, free time, music, food, dance… (now we're getting real). You could probably create a better list. Perhaps a faculty brainstorming activity.


Now, work backwards. How are you going to give them those experiences, not with the Apple phone you design, but with the lessons, incorporating Mātauranga Māori, you create?


On a practical note, how about these ‘sentence starters’ to use with your students?

a. “Let’s try a different angle…”

b. “Let’s look through a number of different lenses beginning with this…”

c. “Hey, I’ve been learning about this and wonder how you think it will fly with our discussion about...”

d. “Let’s look at this from a different perspective that I’m sure will blow your mind.”

e. “Bet you didn’t realise the key to thinking critically lies right here in Aotearoa!”

f. “Are you ready for this? Cos it’s amazing.”

g. “Can you help me with this idea? I’ll show you what I’m thinking about…”

h. “I’ve been thinking about how this character struggles because he’s lost his…”


Teaching is a great way of learning! Why should you know all the answers? The “hey, let’s try this and see where it takes us” - as you investigate a setting through a whakatauki for example - could be your way in.


By the way, if you’re a manager and want to take Jobs’ quote to your teachers, here it is edited again: “You’ve gotta start with the teacher experience and work backwards to [design methods, workshops and resources] … [Begin by asking,] what incredible benefits can we give to the teacher?”

You got all shivery then didn’t ya!?


Join me in the sandpit

Mā mua ka kite a muri, mā muri ka ora a mua - Those who lead give sight to those who follow, those who follow give life to those who lead. Be a leader – make a start, experiment, talk. Be a follower too - springboard from others, help them trial new ideas. Toddlers are both!


Put on your comfy clothes, crank some beats and, if collaboration is your thing, grab some buddies. Join me in the sandpit. You might break a nail, get sand in your eyes or even get ‘a growl’. But you might find, as Jobs also said, that there is a “lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It [frees you] to begin one of the most creative periods of [your] life.”

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