Diving deeper into the cultures our students carry into the classrooms.
Last year, I was fortunate to go back to my home island of Atiu, in the Cook Islands. It is the place where my father was born, before the Cook Islands even became a nation (the nation of the Cook Islands is only about 50 years old plus change). I went there with Pounamu Media as the focus of a documentary where they were looking at Māori (my mother is a Ngāpuhi) who also had whakapapa connections elsewhere, and, in my case, Pasifika. The focus is on the connection to a tīpuna. I chose my grandfather, so, not someone who had passed a long time ago, but within living memory — I figure you become a tīpuna once you’ve passed on. You can still view the documentary here.
The journey there made me think of how being Pasifika is different depending on where you are and changes over time. As a semi-frequent visitor to the Cook Islands, like many, I try and go back when I can. We refer to the specific islands where our parents were born as our home island and, although I spent some time there in my childhood on Rarotonga (the main island), my experience of being Pasifika has been through the lens of our migrant community here in Aotearoa. Between the 1960s–1980s, being Pasifika meant you were one of the people who got off the boat or plane from the islands. We were relatively easily definable with our common community experiences of seeking employment and education opportunities. In the 1980s I did not know many kids who had both Māori and Pasifika whakapapa, however, today — in 2018 — you’re Pasifika if you got off the plane five minutes ago from the islands or you are the culmination of decades of cross-cultural interactions in melting pots like South Auckland or Porirua. What that diversity of experience means is that my experience of being raised as Pasifika minority in a predominately Palagi population, I could have more in common with say a Niuean kid from Otahuhu than, say, my own relatives born and raised on our home islands, despite our close affinity. (I say Niuean kid in Otahuhu because, yeah, I’ve had this conversation with some Niueans about my age from Otahuhu.)
What does this mean for educators?
So, what does all this mean for educators here in Aotearoa?
It means we shouldn’t pigeonhole Pasifika students. We shouldn’t assume they all go to church or like sports. Cultures are organic, so our shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices as Pasifika peoples also change over time and context. Because of this, we can assume that each student will have his or her own singular experience about what it means to be Pasifika. There is a rich diversity in what it means to be Pasifika.
I had the privilege over a number of years to work with Ruta Mackenzie, and she would often start her workshops with the following saying:
O tu, aganu’u, ma agaifanua a le tamititi o le a le mafai ona ulufale atu i le potuaoga sei vagana ua fa’atauaina ma faaulufaleina muamua I le loto ma le agaga o le faiaoga.
The culture of the child cannot enter the classroom until it has entered the consciousness of the teacher.
A perfect reminder to have an open mind when working with our Pasifika students, and that we have to go beyond merely pronouncing names properly (this is the basics, guys!). We can take a closer look at how we are meeting our learners’ needs by developing further inquiry into best cultural, inclusive practice. While most schools acknowledge cultural responsiveness in their school charters and strategic plans, this doesn’t always translate well into practice.
This is also what the research tells us:
Alton-Lee (2003) stated “that effective teaching requires teachers to take responsibility for every student’s achievement, to value diversity, have high expectations, and build on students’ experiences. For Pasifika students this requires teachers to understand their day-to-day experiences, their cultural background and the dimensions that make this up including language and cultural values”. (Education Counts: Quality teaching for diverse students in schooling)1.
It’s about creating environments with students at the centre, where Pasifika students have the focus and learning support they need to lift their academic achievement patterns.
In an earlier blog post, Anthony Faitaua showed it like this:
We need to appreciate our students with the fullness of cultural diversity that they bring with them when they step into the classroom. It is a cultural diversity that encompasses Aotearoa as a Pacific nation where Pasifika identities continue to grow as they did back in our island homes.
1 Ministry of Education Te Tāhuhu o Te Mātauranga. Education Counts. (2003). Quality Teaching for Diverse Students In Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES). Wellington, New Zealand: Author.
Photos taken from video of author: Pounamu Media
Photo of island beach scene: the author.