Māori language alive in Bluestone School, Timaru

Parents get behind students’ drive to bring te reo and tikanga Māori into the community.

The bilingual unit at Bluestone School in Timaru started two and a half years ago and caters to 22 of the school’s 500 students, but its impact reaches across the community.

Unit teacher Justine Reihana says that a few years ago the Year 7s decided they would put Māori words in spelling and they got a lot of backlash from parents about it. “Now we’ve got karakia, we’ve got waiata in all the classrooms, we’ve got spelling words going home and coming in.”

Principal Ian Poulter agrees the attitude has shifted. “It’s moved from resistance to expectation. That’s what you do when you’re at Bluestone and that’s pretty cool.”

“I’ve even heard it at road patrol. One little boy going ‘kei te ngenge ahau” and Mum’s going ‘what does that mean, sweetheart?’ and he goes ‘I’m tired’ and she goes ‘me too!’ Where before someone would have been like ‘What? What? Talk English!’ It’s becoming a natural part of our school without being forced,” says Justine.

“It’s been really interesting to me that now in our third year of operating some of the parents within the bilingual unit are stepping up. So one of the mums said, ‘I actually want to get on the board’. And she’s just moved on to the board and she’s brilliant because she brings that Māori perspective and enthusiasm for things Māori and a bit of a wake-up call for a few which is great,” says Ian.

“You know it’s always a challenge of how can we get more meaningful whānau involvement. One of the things that was quite amazing is when we’ve had hui or meetings of our parents in the past we might struggle in a normal room to have 10–15 parents. If we have it up there we have 90!”

Young leaders

Ian and Justine say that the unit has lifted the confidence of their students and is helping them step out as leaders.

“There’s a richness here and the children in that room are now leading that in many ways. You can see lifts in their academic areas but more important, or as important, is they felt great about who they are and their learning and pride in being uniquely New Zealand.”

Justine is the unit’s teacher and says that the holistic way the class learns is helping foster that leadership.

“I’ve even had a release teacher, it’s been the same release teacher over a number of years, says she’s amazed at the maturity as she forgets that some of my younger ones are that young. But I think it’s that tuakana–teina. They’re learning from each other and supporting each other.”

Starting out and planning for the future

Ian attributes the foundations of the unit to some good old-fashioned navel gazing and a focus on the local community.

Teacher Justine and student Nathaniel speak in te reo Māori

Teacher Justine and student Nathaniel speak in te reo Māori

“I think in a school you’re always looking how can we improve things, how can we engage our learners. And part of our strategic plan around engaging our learners and we just felt we were missing a little bit around all things Māori, we weren’t doing justice to it. We knew we had Justine and who potentially had so much depth and richness there and so we looked at what we could do there.”

The pair visited other Canterbury schools to see what else was being done and ultimately decided they wanted to start small.

“We wanted it for our Bluestone families initially to benefit. Our Bluestone families were telling us initially that’s what they wanted – and we’re zoned. So if we were a true bilingual unit from day one people could skip across zones and come in. And it would have been hard because we would have had people from all over perhaps wanting to join us. This way we’ve grown it from our own whānau. We think that’s important.”

Both Ian and Justine are undertaking further study and hope to use that time to expand the programme both within the school and also with families and potentially the wider community.

“There’s plenty of language here but go home and in many of the families there’s no te reo spoken so one of our challenges this year is to look at can we offer some te reo learnings for our parents because they are very proud of things like kapa haka and our hakas and performances. Can our parents come and join us and learn more?” says Ian.

An opportunity for all

The school thinks that introducing bilingual learning is an opportunity many schools could take up with the right mindset.

“I think it’s realistic for many, many schools because we can’t be the only area where there isn’t a huge depth of whānau understanding and heavy marae involvement. We feel if we can do it here, anywhere in New Zealand can do it. You take it slowly, you don’t rush it,” says Ian.

“It’s really important to involve the local marae and local whānau because it has to grow with their understanding and their support. And I think it’s worth spending a bit of time getting them fully informed and supporting you and helping you. You also need to make sure that the board is supportive both to spend money, if that’s required, but equally to stand up and say this is something we want and we believe in and that’s strong.

So that it’s not an isolated event or unit. I think it’s really important that it’s seen as part of the whole school plan.”

It’s this shared vision and journey that the school attributes it success to and that’s reflected in the unit’s name ‘Tō Mātou Haerenga’ (‘Our Journey’) and whakatauki ‘he waka eke noa’ which means ‘we’re all in this canoe together’.

“As I’ve said to the kids, we can’t all be paddling in different directions, if we want to go anywhere we’ve got to be paddling in the same direction,” says Justine.

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