Culture eats strategy for breakfast: Rhonda’s Eisenhower Fellowship

I’ve visited four elementary schools in Auckland and at each one, was blown away by the strength of their school culture—for students, parents, and staff. In schools, you know you’re in the presence of deeply embedded culture when the response to your question is “That’s just what we do here, because we value x.” In education reform and character-focused schools in the US we are obsessed with building culture. Schools establish community values and then produce signage and chants/songs about said values. We honor learners, big and small, who demonstrate our agreed upon values, and chastise those who are slower to embody them. At Stonefields (see: Land of Inquiry), the leadership team uses very intentional language that embodies their values. They have the related signage for all community members and you can hear teachers and students using this language to process. All of the Auckland schools that I visited shared a commitment to Positive Behavior For Learning (close cousin to Positive Behaviour Intervention Support) and had their related values posted. In all of the schools, students engaged in self-directed, small group, and full group learning activities. They had agency and autonomy and were eager to describe their current projects to me.

In terms of instructional models, the schools shared similar commitments to circle time, center work, student guided work and stated inquiry. Other than Stonefields, teachers didn’t necessarily talk about student inquiry as a discrete study and each school organized teacher collaboration differently within their programs. The schools’ commitment to inquiry and voice (teacher, student, and parent voice) is very evident in their organizational design and decision-making. The adults in the school community are committed to inquiry for their work and that influences group and individual action. I found myself taking pictures of staff inquiries and student inquiries. How would our adult decision-making be different if we began with a public or team inquiry into our needs ?

Finlayson Park : All teachers need training in bilingual education
Thursday I visited Finlayson Park, the largest primary school in New Zealand. Finlayson Park is a lower decile neighborhood school with 1100 students in five different learning sections: English, Māori immersion, Māori bilingual, Sa’moan bilingual, and Tongan bilingual. Shirley Maihi has been principal at Finlayson Park for 25 years and was inspired to start their immersion program after her first year there. The immersion and bilingual model in New Zealand is designed to support mother tongue languages. In the English section at Finlayson Park are students from all of these cultures and other less represented Polynesian islands. Shirley strives to hire staff who represent all of the different cultures of her students, to help support everyone’s integration. The home culture and values of each language directly influence the culture of each bilingual section. Shirley speaks Māori and Sa ‘moan and addressed those classes in te reo, she addressed the Tongan section in English. In Māori sections, each class gave me a visitor welcome with a student speaker followed by a waita. Students and sometimes teachers in these sections were typically barefoot. Sa’moan and Tongan sections didn’t have the same visitor welcome expectations and just continued working purposefully. Fa Shirley (Sa’moan title for women) did something that I had never seen before. In each class that we visited, she complimented the students and their teachers on what great learners the students were. Sometimes she asked the class questions about their lesson, but mostly she gave them all very sincere praise.

In addition to having clear culture expectations for students, Shirley is unwavering in her expectations for teachers. Although New Zealand officially recognizes Māori as a national language, teacher candidates are not required to have any coursework in bilingual education or supporting English Language Learners. At Finlayson Park, however, all teachers have to demonstrate from the time of hire, their commitment to coursework in bilingual education. From Shirley’s perspective, this requirement has different benefits for teachers in English-medium sections and bilingual sections. Locally-trained teachers may be registered for their grade level or may have been trained as enrichment language teachers,, but may not have any specific pedagogy in supporting bilingual students or supporting L2 language acquisition. For the teachers in her English-medium section, Shirley experiences that they support all student learners and multilingual school culture better when they understand the pedagogy and purpose of bilingualism and culturally responsive teaching.

Newton School: Walking with others
I spent Halloween visiting one of the oldest schools in Auckland that is now home to a very engaged middle-class multicultural Māori immersion program. We began the visit with preparation for a pōwhiri. John McCaffery, from University of Auckland, is one of my school guides and he gave me all of the cues and expectations for roles in the ceremony. Newton hosts a pōwhiri for visits for national leaders and international guests and the entire school participates in the tradition. Newton teaches students leadership and participatory roles in pōwhiri so that they develop in the practice. Three female students led our visitor delegation in with a song and senior female leaders from the school sang a response to welcome us. In Māori tradition, after a speaker presents their talk, their community stands with them in song, a waiata. In pōwhiris the speakers are traditionally male and the waiata is traditionally led by females. After the senior male leaders in the community addressed everyone in Māori to declare the intention of my visit, we had a hōngi with all members of the delegations. Following the hōngi, I addressed the school community in French and English about my family inspiration, my learning aspirations in their school and gave thanks for my grandparents and theirs who had this dream for all of us. And then, to my surprise, I offered them a song. Those of you who’ve heard me sing know that I am not singer, but I was so moved by the community that I shared my grandmother’s favorite hymn “His eye is on the sparrow.”

We spent the balance of the day in classroom visits and conversation with teachers and administrators about their professional learning, teacher as inquirer, and social justice vision for their community. Like SLLIS, Newton has a significant number of teachers who are parents in the school, a very engaged parent community and an expectation of shared leadership. Their cultural concept of whana, family, explodes our notion of parent voice and creates an environment that has more critical input from families. For example, when a specialist teacher wanted to give up her dedicated classroom and push in to regular classrooms instead, she ran the idea past her principal and then took it to her whana. If parents hadn’t supported the change, she would have kept her dedicated classroom.

Hoana Pearson was called by her elders to become a leader in the Māori immersion movement. She was one of the first graduates of bilingual education programs in Auckland, and was a classroom teacher before becoming Head of Newton. Hoana embraces adult inquiry and action, thinking that everything is possible if you have data to support it. When teachers or parents have a bright idea, her typical response is “That sounds awesome. Let’s see if/how we can do it.” Her perspective on leading through inquiry is grounded in her social justice perspective. She sees her role as facilitator who understands power and redistributes it. The language immersion movement here was built on critical mass of whana who wanted te reo for their children. Parent voice will be the primary driver for growing Newton community and te reo Māori into its next era.

Richmond Road: Looking forward
Monday morning we traveled to Richmond Road, another longstanding Auckland school tradition. Richmond Road has four primary learning sections: Māori immersion, Sa’moan bilingual, French bilingual, and English medium, a Sa’moan immersion preschool (separate leadership, but on campus) and a Māori kura, immersion preschool across the street. Each of these sections is targeted to mother tongue speakers of the language. During the school day, the language sections remain very separate for all of their activities, but they come together for pōwhiris. For this pōwhiri, a teacher accompanied us to sing our welcome. A pakeha student, a non-Māori in the Māori bilingual section, presented himself in te reo Māori and the entire school community erupted in their waiata response. Richmond Road has a kapa haka club and those students lead the room in the most animated waiatas that I’ve seen yet. They sang several times during the pōwhiri and even had a commissioned waiata that was their official school song.

During my classroom visits at Richmond Road, I saw a very common immersion school need : published/print materials in the target language. The Ministry of Education officially recognizes and supports Māori-medium materials and provides many free text to schools for Māori immersion in all of its forms. They’ve started doing the same in Sa’moan and Tongan is next in the queue. Even though schools receive so many no-cost materials, it’s never really enough for diverse student needs. In one Sa’moan class students were in various phases of publishing their books. The teacher explained that this creates a more robust in-class library for student fluency readers. There are no locally-produced materials for French bilingual section, so there teachers and families source most pedagogical materials from France and, as a result, are more aligned to French national curriculum than New Zealand.

Like all New Zealand schools, Richmond Road has a parent-led Board and then each language section has additional parent voice for instructional practices in their section. Each language section of Richmond Road has a head teacher who organizes the instructional leadership for their language. As in the other schools I’ve visited, the cultural background of the parents and teachers have great impact on how each section at Richmond Road operates. Teachers follow the national curriculum and within their language sections collaborate on planning and resources. There is no expectation of collaboration across the language sections. Richmond Road is under new leadership at the Board and Head of School level. Jonathan Ramsey is at the helm of the ship and is balancing instructional leadership with operational leadership (he had to leave our talk and learn how to operate the heating and cooling units). With his Board and local consultants, he is preparing for a new strategic plan process, construction needs, and program design. Unlike Shirley and Hoana, Jonathan is a young educator who didn’t grow up with minority culture or exposure to language immersion movement. He is facing a classic question about leadership in language immersion environments. How can he engender culturally responsive practices and deepen bilingual experiences for all students as an « outsider. » I look forward to seeing what the future holds for Richmond Road.


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