Celebrating Tongan language | Fakakoloa ‘o Aotearoa ‘aki ‘a e ‘ofa fonua

Lecturer and researcher Dr ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki discusses how teachers can support Tongan students throughout their educational journeys.

Dr ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki, draws on the Tongan metaphor ‘ko e hala kuo papa’ or ‘a well-trodden pathway’ to explain how although we may come from different learning contexts and acquire knowledge in different ways, we can all still succeed.

‘Ema used this Tongan metaphor as a framework for her doctoral research, which explored the pathways Tongan pre-school children take to acquire literacy. Based on this research and on her own personal experiences, she discusses how teachers can support Tongan students in their learning.

Dr ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki

Dr ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki

“In Aotearoa the majority of our Pasifika learners are immersed in classrooms whereby certain forms of knowledge and values are privileged over others and where the English language is the medium of instruction. Success is dependent on one’s ability to be competent in both written and spoken English. In this context, the majority of our Pasifika learners are excluded from what is considered as valued knowledge.”

Know your students

The first step is for teachers to have knowledge of where their students come from – including previous learning contexts and which languages and cultures they bring to the classroom. Students’ cultural knowledge, language and identities need to be part of what is valued in the classroom. Teachers can then use this knowledge to build on what students already know, ‘Ema says.

“It’s using and embedding values (and that includes my Tongan values) and knowledge that our students bring to conceptualise how we can help them succeed. By privileging students’ cultural knowledge and languages and ways of being in our classrooms we help our Pasifika learners succeed as Pasifika.”

She talks about the storytelling skills of students who attended a Tongan language nest before beginning primary school as an example.

“These kids were experienced storytellers, it’s just that their learning took place in a different context using a different language and talking about different topics and points of reference. That’s the difference between the setting of where these kids have come from and school, so it’s crucial for the teacher to get an understanding and to know where this child has come out of,” she says.

“Bilingual children succeed at school; being bilingual is a strength.”

Embed cultural values

Through ‘Ema’s work as a Pasifika Academic Developer, she also works with staff to help them understand how to make their teaching relevant to Pacific students.

“Some of those things will include using examples that are culturally relevant, this includes talking about Pacific scholars in the area if there are any, but also being quite mindful. Some of the examples that are used in the classroom can come across as talking negatively about a particular community so it isn’t as straightforward as it may sound,” she says.

“Students talk about this idea of feeling at a crossroads of ‘well, this is quite different, will my culture fit in here? Do I need to take on or embody a different person or culture in order to succeed?’.”

By understanding how cultural knowledge can contribute to student achievement and thinking carefully about how to include some of this in their teaching practice, teachers can make a meaningful connection with their students.

Be courageous

Instead of being afraid of getting it wrong, ‘Ema says teachers should talk to others including students and staff members who are of Pacific descent, to understand what may or may not be appropriate.

“I often say that it takes courage. Sometimes we as teachers quickly forget what it was like for us to be in the classroom as learners.”

She recently attended an event about embedding cultural values to teaching. During this event an attendee discussed how she found it difficult to learn when a lecturer was presenting religious examples in a negative light.

“She found that quite hard to deal with, having come out of a Christian home and where they believe in God and go to church, so for teachers it’s getting an understanding of what will work and what might not work. Often we find that what will work for our Pasifika learners will also work for most learners.”

Students appreciate having a lecturer or teacher who is not afraid to try and make a connection with them, ‘Ema says.

Share your story

Another way to connect with students is by letting them get to know your background and culture.

“One of the things that you can do is simply introduce yourself and tell your story to students so that they get an understanding of who you are and where you’ve come from.

“We often talk about the hidden curriculum that students don’t know and we expect them to know or we expect them to come and ask us, but, in actual fact, they think that you will tell them.”

Students who feel connected to their teachers will not feel discouraged from asking questions to aid their learning, ‘Ema says.

Don’t assume

‘Ema’s doctoral research found that Tongan preschool children were growing up in a rich and resource-filled context, which she believes is contrary to assumptions held about Pacific students.

“The kids were arriving at school with multiple literacy skills that teachers just need to work with and to look at. Kids who were arriving at primary school and were fluent in their home language, they have had access to different types of literacy activities at Sunday school and at the nest and home,” she says.

Making assumptions can be harmful at any level of the education system.

“There’s a huge population of students in higher education that are first in their families to study at university and there’s quite different levels of the complexities that students face. On the other hand, there is also a growing number of Pasifika students who are actually not first in their family, they’re second or even third generation to be here, so being very careful that you’re not assuming that they‘re [Pasifika]all the same is quite important.”

By investing the time to listen and learn from students, teachers can help all students to travel successfully along their learning pathway.

Dr ‘Ema Wolfgramm-Foliaki is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Learning & Research in Higher Education (CleaR), University of Auckland. She currently
co-leads one of Ako Aotearoa’s National Fund Projects (He Vaka Moana: Navigating Maori & Pasifika Student Success Through a Collaborative Research Fellowship).

A new resource is now available for teachers of Pacific learners

Tapasā is a resource developed by the Ministry of Education to support teachers to work more confidently with Pacific learners and aid culturally responsive teaching.

Teachers of Pacific learners can use Tapasā as a guide and make use of the variety of case studies that demonstrate different scenarios where Pacific culture and practices can be included in classroom lessons.

An e-copy of Tapasā can be downloaded from Te Kete Ipurangi
Additional copies can be ordered from Down the Back of the Chair
Email orders@thechair.minedu.govt.nz or freephone 0800 660 662

This article originally appeared in the Education Gazette

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