Friday 23 June 2017

Cultural advocates

SARAH FELTHAM reports on an Auckland kohanga reo that was selected as one of New Zealand's flagship early childhood centres


A Maori kuia and researcher walks into an Auckland kohanga reo and centre of innovation, O Puau Te Moananui-a-Kiwa kohanga reo, for the first time and is approached by a child curious about her moko.

"He aha tena?" asks the mokopuna as she traces the design, and allows the kuia to draw with her finger a moko on her own chin.

The researcher, Hariata Pohatu, says such curiosity and courage to happily converse with a kuia is an indication of the child's ability and confidence, and confirmation to staff and whanau that their mokopuna are being well prepared and supported for success in their life's journey.

Furthermore, the interaction illustrates the inter-generational transmission of matauranga Maori which is integral to kohanga, says Hariata.

"The mokopuna was engaging in her quest for cultural knowledge and taking responsibility for her own learning."

Te Kohanga Reo o Püau te Moananui a Kiwa was selected by the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust and the Ministry of Education to be one of six centres of innovation in early childhood education that were named in 2003. The centres are distinguished for their uniqueness and innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

The kohanga's teaching methods are grounded in Matauranga Maori and Tikanga Maori on the principles of Te Korowai, the charter of Te Kohanga Reo.

The kohanga's aspirations for its tamariki/children are summed up by one of its teachers, Hereraina Eketone: "To instil in our tamariki what our kaumatua wanted them to know. For them [children] to be the next generation that carry our language and customs and that they stand firm and strong as a Maori in Aotearoa."

A key part of being a centre of innovation is to participate in research and in keeping with its focus on recapturing and advancing the Maori culture, the kohanga reo named its research project 'Te Ohonga Ake O Te Reo' – the Awakening of the Language. The title originated from stories about the beginning of creation.

Kaupapa Maori methodology approach informs the research. "This approach enables the kohanga to re-examine itself on its own terms, not someone else's. It’s about effectiveness," says researcher Kanewa Stokes.

Staff say participation in the centre of innovation project has enabled them to reflect on what the kaupapa (philosophy) means and provides for today. They also consider what is needed to improve the teaching and learning environment for mokopuna.

Administrator, Mere Austin, says reflection and taking stock of the community's situation are central to strengthening Maori identity and making mokopuna feel whole.

"Part of that reflection is simply looking at the realities of this day and age, in terms of whanau, and looking at their needs as well as realising the different situations compound on the development of the child," she says.

Kanewa says such reflection is increasingly important when so many Maori communities have lost their elders who were the guardians of traditional practices and knowledge.

She says a positive trend is whanau who missed out on receiving te reo me ona tikanga (Maori language and cultural ways) within their formal education are increasingly sending their children to kohanga to ensure their tamariki connect with their cultural roots and learn te reo.

"I think it's a given that all Maori know their whakapapa and cultural practices but the reality is this is not the situation for all [Maori]. The research identifies the complexities of the cultural capacity of whanau and staff in the delivery of Te Korowai."

Hariata says because so many adult Maori know little about their culture, the tamariki provide an important link between the kohanga and whanau because they are the advocates of their culture.

"Placing responsibility on a child to be the educator has never been done in my memory; but because of where we are today, where many adults have never experienced going to a marae or hui, the children are taking on the role of the elders. The kohanga looks for ways to inculcate our mokopuna into cultural practices in a safe environment.

Being part of a COI enables us to have these discussions," she says.

Staff and researchers say the kohanga reo is developing strategies that reinforce the Maori world view.

Hereraina says integral to the kohanga is its loving environment, akin to that found in a secure and loving home. She says whanau are encouraged to visit at any time, and the teachers work closely with whanau, both within and outside kohanga.

She says whakawhanaungatanga (establishing respectful relationships) from a mokopuna point of view is an ongoing focus for the kohanga. Exploring and understanding what they like to learn about and how they do things is integral to teaching and learning.

"Maybe it's the child in me that comes and initiates a lot of the interactions but the interactions encourage the children to lead and be the teachers because they teach me as much as I teach them.

Examples of Maori world-view strategies being implemented by the kohanga include:

  • tamariki are taught the concepts behind powhiri
  • staff and tamariki are focusing on ahuatanga within karakia
  • staff and tamariki are exploring whakawhanaungatanga.
  • staff are exploring whakawhanaungatanga further with whanau and other staff.

Kaumatua are regular guests at the kohanga and are considered to be the repository and depositors of matauranga Maori. Mere says they are fundamental to support the delivery of a matauranga Maori curriculum to mokopuna and to promote the cultural development of staff and whanau.

"You see from the expressions on the children's faces, when the kaumatua speak to them, that they are captivated. Sometimes it's not even about the kaumatua sharing information – it's about them just being there," says Mere.

Kanewa says, because of the kaupapa of kohanga reo, the role of teacher extends beyond teaching and learning within the context of the classroom and mokopuna. A research priority is to develop effective strategies that are inclusive of tamariki, teacher and whanau.

Such interconnectedness between teaching and learning among children, staff and whanau within kohanga is reflected in the proverb "E kore e ngaro te kakano rangatira" – our ancestors will never die. They live on in each one of us, says Kanewa.

Hereraina says, despite the around the clock nature of her work, there is no greater reward than hearing about the life-changing impact the kohanga has had on individuals, communities and future generations.

"I have past whanau say to me: 'I will never forget, and I will always have the fullest respect, for you and the kohanga reo, for what you have done, not only for my own tamariki but for myself and family.'"