Earlier this term, I was asked to be a part of the Rehu Tai Festival of Oral Language. This was initiated by the Papakura Principals’ Association and developed by primary and secondary school principals. The event itself was hosted by Hingaia Peninsula school, and led by principal, Jane Danielson. The intention of the day was ‘to embrace and celebrate the diversity of oral language within our community, both culturally and generationally.’
The event was open to students in years 5–8 in the categories of speech, rap, flash talk, and spoken word poetry. Each category or stream had its own rubric, but were all loosely based on speech construction, presentation and delivery, content, language, and vocal inclination.
Prior to this event, participating schools held their own internal competitions in order to select their top student entrants.
What followed on the day was a variety of powerful and engaging presentations exploring the theme of, ‘Who I am’. As a judge, it was a challenge to select an eventual ‘winner’ from a group of such talented and committed individuals. It was clear that all participants had prepared and worked diligently to be at the event, and I felt privileged just to be in their company, let alone a member of a judging panel. The lead teachers from each school provided their support and guidance, which ranged from helping students to prepare their item leading up to the event, to giving them direction and cues on the actual day.
I arrived at Hingaia Peninsula School feeling confident for our four students. I said to them on arrival, “Let's be proud and confident for what we can achieve this afternoon. When you take the stage be proud of who you are; you are representing our school, our community, and your whanau. We have set our goals to do well today.”
– Colin Webster, Deputy Principal, Mansell Senior School
The idea of representing one’s community got me thinking about how our young people today might interpret and experience the idea of a ‘community’ in a modern connected world. (I tend to ponder the effect of digital technologies in all learning settings these days, even when their use may be peripheral.) In so many ways, making meaningful connections between individuals, their school, and whānau hasn’t really changed. For millennia, we’ve longed for a sense of connection and community. Just as the need for physical nourishment prompts a quest for food, so does the need to reach out to others to nurture and support our own social development. But I also wanted to find out how much the ubiquity of digital technologies might play a role in the kind of event so dependent on face-to-face interaction. Would it play a significant role in this kind of event? If the new multi-channels of communication and access to people and ideas could open up new possibilities, how much would these connections have on how people come together in a physical environment? Social psychologists McMillan & Chavis developed the ‘Sense of Community’ theory. They identified four factors that play a major role including:
- Membership — the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness;
- Influence — members must feel like like they have influence on the community and the community has an influence on them;
- Integration and fulfillment of needs — the community must meet the needs of individuals in some way;
- Shared emotional connection — there will be a history of shared experiences with an expectation of future connections made.
It’s my opinion that in a digital space, it’s possible to meet the three of the above criteria. But, I wasn’t so sure about the last one. One of the limitations of meeting in a digital space is that emotional connections are more challenging to form and sustain. Yes, you can make some emotional connections, but the nuances and lasting effects may not be as pronounced as they would in a face-to-face environment.
I wondered how much this sense of community would be evident if the Oral Language festival had been delivered in a purely online or digital forum. I also wondered how digital technologies might simply be an extension of the suite of resources available to the students.
In speaking with them, I discovered that several of the students prepared for their speeches by engaging with digital technologies in a variety of ways. They would first seek out other speeches and presentations from individuals online whom they respected and admired. Some of the participants also explored some of the beats and rhythms used by different rap artists. Many of these same individuals then used digital cameras or recording software to record their own early renditions of their chosen item. The students could then review their own work, play it back and record the item again until they felt it reflected the level of performance they would strive for on the day of the actual event. The use of digital technologies enabled and extended their learning, but it was not central to the main event itself — it was a tool to facilitate their ability to prepare. On the actual day, apart from a screen and microphone, the presentations were driven by the same kind of human interactions and dynamics you’d see in any age and/or across many cultures.
What was interesting about the behaviour of the finalists, and ultimately, the winners in each category, was how important the shared sense of community was, right up until the final award was handed out. While this was a competition, I never once had a sense that individual egos would overshadow the sense of community at the festival. ‘I will show myself that winners have an attitude’, as one participant described it, demonstrated a willingness to be better, but that it was only necessary that individuals proved it to themselves, rather than in comparison to someone else. This attitude, I am sure, inspired others to work to improve their own strengths, and strengthened a shared sense of pride and determination of the many unique speeches and presentations shared throughout the day.
“People who acknowledge that others’ needs, values, and opinions matter to them are often the most influential group members, while those who always push to influence, try to dominate others, and ignore the wishes and opinions of others are often the least powerful members.”
– McMillan & Chavis
Indeed, there was a growing sense of mutual respect that all participants had, which seemed to grow as the day unfolded. It was also clear that the participating schools emphasised to their students a strong sense of belonging and identity in representing their school. This approach would go far beyond the accomplishments of just one person, but rather reflect the spirit and culture of their community and whānau.
In learning more about how the students had prepared for their speeches, I could also see just how much the school, family and whānau played a role in inspiring the students to elevate their sense of identity within the collective of a larger group.
‘On arrival at Hingaia Peninsula School I felt over excited. I was proud to be representing Mansell Senior School. I thought about how I would deliver my speech, I had to be confident and not show my nerves; I told myself this is my time to shine. I wrote the speech on a school day in between finishing my work. I write in my Written Language book any spare time I have during a school day. My speech was my message to others to think about their future; to be respectful to others; engage yourself and achieve at school; to set goals and work towards achieving them.’
– Rehu Tai Participant, Year 7
The theme of ‘Who I am’ resonated in eclectic and entertaining ways through all of the speeches and presentations. As much as they have such prominence in our lives today, digital technologies still only play a supporting role to a community coming together in a shared physical space. No matter how many tools, screens, and devices we may have at our fingertips, the real essence of human interaction is developed and strengthened by people sharing stories together. What makes us unique as individuals also binds us to a greater collective. This has never been so clear to me as it was at the Rehu Tai festival.
‘When I told my family that I won the Spoken Word at the Festival – there were roars of celebrations. My family were so excited as there are oratory traditions in my family.’
– Year 7 Winner of Spoken Word
Indeed, some connections are timeless.
Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory – David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis