Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – learning for all

On my way back from EducampBOP yesterday afternoon I listened to the Mixtape on RNZ.  I hadn’t realised that following on from Te Wiki o te Reo Māori there was a Māori Music Month.  I can be forgiven for not knowing about it as this is its inaugural year and there hasn’t been a lot of mainstream media coverage about it.  The guest on the Mixtape was Rob Ruha  who “is from the East Coast, and is recognised as a leader of traditional Māori music. He has a unique style of which has been described as an eclectic mix of soul-roots-reggae with a touch of RnB, rock-blues and jazz” (see Stuff.co.nz article).

This afternoon I listened to the Mixtape of Moana Maniapoto and one of the things she said struck me – she introduced herself as a musician, a songwriter, always learning and she went on to say that her life has been about storytelling whether through music, documentary making or writing in general.

I have talked before about the power of storytelling for learning. Recently I was involved in a Facebook conversation about the relative merits of teaching handwriting in primary school. As usual, there were many opinions and I have written about this before too, so I am not going to revisit it. But one of the comments that was made was that learning how to read and write brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and another said that people will not be able to contribute to society fully if they don’t know how to read and write. It was also said that not knowing how to read and write would seriously hinder a person’s ability to learn.

So this is the nub of this post.  Why do these people think this is the case?  And how does the emphasis reading and writing meet the needs of all our learners?  It is true that up until relatively recently, while reading and writing have been the main ways that we have accessed ‘knowledge’ in educational systems in western societies, there have been people who have struggled to learn and progress.

My contribution to the conversation was that for generations we learned through storytelling and song which developed active listening skills, the ability to communicate orally, articulate ideas and responses to stories and retell them.  They were adapted and embellished on the way, maybe to fit the context of the situation or maybe because some details had been misinterpreted or misunderstood and people filled the gaps to make the story work.  People learned how to craft language and think on the spot and they were creative, they used verse, songs, jokes and prose.  The places we listened, often alongside a  ‘master’ as he/she went about their trade, or around a fire or in the kitchen or in the fields meant that we spent time with our community elders and built connections and relationships, learned respect and shared ideas.  And listening to stories helps our learning because it activates not just the processing language parts of our brains but the sensory and motor aspects too.  And telling stories is just as powerful for learning as we have to articulate what we mean, we have to process our thoughts and organise them.  I know we do that when we write too – I have edited and re-organised the paragraphs and my ideas in this blog post as I have written, but when we speak we have to do that on the go, dynamically as people listen to us and they can question and interrupt and ask for clarification.

Now I am not saying that reading and writing hasn’t enriched learning, it is an essential tool in the education box and we should make the most of what it offers us.  However, the emphasis over the last century or two has been on the written word and the process of writing as a means of learning.  And I think that it has been a barrier to learning in terms of how we measure learning for many people. Their learning in school, the ability to pass exams has been almost entirely predicated on reading and writing. So if we have a child in a class that finds it difficult to read or write,  we make them do more of it so they can catch up. If they don’t reach a certain level of literacy they will not be able to access ‘learning’ across other subjects, even maths because they are all based on reading information and then writing about it.  My boys are creative kids with heaps of ideas, they both struggled with the physical aspect of forming letters and making their writing legible. They were slow at writing so they stopped thinking up big ideas, or at least writing them down because it took too long.  So they never really explored their ideas, articulated them, ordered them and crafted them fully to the satisfaction of their teachers in an essay format.  Fortunately, my boys are ‘good’ readers so they developed a wide vocabulary,  they identified how to form sentences and worked out how language works through the range of genres that they read.  If they had greater access to typing and being able to use a computer for their writing the barrier for them may have been removed. If they had been able to record their voice and speak their ideas out loud rather than writing them, how might that have affected their learning?

20150930_223616Remember that the very first way of communicating was through gesture and voice, through songs and images. The rhymic nature of poetry and songs stimulates the brain but also the body so that we move and sway in time, the words somehow stick in your brain, just think how much easier it is to learn a poem with rhyme and rhythm than one without and how the words of catchy tunes rattle around your head without you even wanting them to!   So my boys also loved listening to stories; we read often to them and they had tapes and CDs which they listened to in the car or at bedtime.  The power of listening and how it impacts on the ability to memorise (I won’t say learn because they are very different)  was reinforced once when I came upon my eldest at the age of 3 ‘reading’ Winnie the Pooh. He had memorised the words from the tapes he listened to regularly and from us reading to him and was ‘reading’ to himself, turning the pages as he went!

As a language teacher, I have frequently bemoaned the paucity of listening skills amongst the young people coming through to me in my classroom as well as the unwillingness of students to articulate their ideas orally unless they have had time to craft ideas in written form first.  As we have assigned more emphasis to reading and writing, to decoding words on a page we have neglected to understand the power that the spoken words has on children’s ability to learn.  When children come into a school they have spent 4-5 years listening and developing oral language. They have amazing memories, they can retell stories, they are good active listeners and mimickers. They have learned as they have watched their parents, elder siblings, caregivers, and asked countless Socratic questions about the world, life, and the meaning thereof.  So,what do we do? We put a pencil in their hands, we sit them down, we tell them to be quiet and we teach them to read and write.  I am being harsh.  I know that primary schools do so much more than that and I am well aware of the constraints that schools are under to ‘deliver’ the curriculum and ‘meet the standards’ and I am not going to go into any of that now.  But I think you get my meaning. They get out of the habit of ‘listening’ and speaking and they become over-reliant on reading and writing.

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© Copyright Ewen Rennie and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


From symbols painted on cave walls, on skins, carved into wooden posts and stone pillars to the artistic calligraphy on vellum of the monks, to the printing press and then to typing and word processing, language and, more importantly, communication have informed the way humans have lived, adapted, survived and flourished in an unpredictable world.  But language developed orally, it was honed and refined by people talking to each other. As we have travelled more widely, explored new places, tasted new foods, seen spectacular and interesting new sights and immersed ourselves in different cultures, our vocabulary has grown to reflect those new experiences.  Language absorbs and assimilates new words to represent new inventions forming them from old words, trying to capture the spirit of the object and how we interact with it and the affordance it has with our lives.

When we listen we hear nuances; tone of voice, feeling, volume, accent, we can sense mood and emotion, we can also see the facial changes and the gestures that people use when they speak and we make connections.  When we talk we have to think on our feet, search for words sometimes or explain our way around a word that we can’t quite remember or that we don’t know.  We adapt our own tone for the context, for our audience, and we make eye contact and build connections.  We also have to listen actively so we can recall what has been said, interpret it and respond.  ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ and listening conjures up a million images and feelings and emotions.  So why would we limit ourselves to writing and reading?  Why would we limit our learners to a narrow range of ways of learning?

What is exciting today is that our means of communicating are becoming richer at an exponential rate.  The technological advances that brought us Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s and disrupted the world of learning and acquisition of knowledge have continued apace, and now we have a range of different media that we can use to communicate and be creative.

It is important that we start to ascribe a more equal importance to all means of communicating so that all our children can learn in whatever way works for them. We have a responsibility to provide them with all the tools at our disposal, let them make their own choices and not hinder their learning because we are fearful of change.  Just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t mean that it is the best way. Equally, it is important not to adopt new ways of doing just because they are new.  We should question and reflect, consider what they add to the mix, use them with caution but embrace the opportunities they offer for learning.  It is not the tool alone that helps us learn, it is choosing the right tool at the right time for the right purpose.  But the toolbox needs to be full and it needs to be open and accessible.


So, to go back to the start and Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori – just as with many cultures the habit of storytelling through song, waiata, chants, stories and poetry has been an important way of passing knowledge and cultural ways of being and doing down through the generations.  Language is a key component of the sense of identity because language can never be truly translated word for word into another language.  Māori, like many languages existed for generations only in its oral form, passed on and enriched through song and stories. My strong belief is that it is important that we do not lose our oral languages, or we lose sight of who we are and where we came from.  So embrace storytelling in all its forms –  written, visual and oral and why not listen to a few waiata and find out more about Te Marama Pūoru Waiata Māori.

This waiata called Rariri from Rob Ruha is very powerful and retells historical accounts of the East Coast forces that supported the Kingitanga, the Pai-mārire faith and the people of Tauranga-Moana in the battle of Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) and Te Ranga from the perspective of the families, hapū and iwi that stood against the crown and its Māori allied forces.



#28daysofwriting Day 28 Reflecting on a month of writing

Meme with a picture of hot chocolate and marshmallowsSo it is the final day of Tom Barrett‘s challenge.  I am not sure whether, for me, it has been a challenge I have succeeded in.  Certainly, in terms of writing 28 minutes every day for 28 days, i have not been successful.  I missed out days, I doubled up on days, and I often spent more than 28 minutes writing.

I teach English.  I am a very new teacher of English. This is my second year teaching English to Year 9 students after teaching French and Spanish for over 25 years.  I still teach Spanish.  For some reason, the fact that I speak English, means that I am qualified to teach it.  I have had a very steep learning curve and have spent many evenings and holidays researching how to teach English, how to teach students how to analyse a film or a piece of poetry or a novel, or how to write an essay and give a speech and how to create the wonderful artefacts that are “Static Images”.

One of the things that is always suggested to develop students’ writing skills is to write something every day.  We are encouraged to get the students to keep a journal and write for a short time every lesson.  The problem then is, how do I assess that?  How do I find time to read 30 pieces of writing every day and give feedback?  Anyway, I tried.  I asked them to write for ten minutes each lesson.  “What about?” they asked.  “Anything,” I said.  “But we can’t think of what to write about,” they said.  “It doesn’t matter,” I replied.  And they sat, and sat.  Some wrote frantically, scribbling madly to get their ideas down on the paper.  Some wrote bland descriptions of their day; what time they got up, what they ate for breakfast, what they watched on the TV.  Some wrote complete nonsense and some, well, they wrote nothing.

I didn’t find the exercise a very positive one, and most of my students didn’t either.  So I abandoned it and looked for different strategies to encourage writing.  One thing I came across when I googled “encouraging writing” was the idea of Story Bursts.  These entail writing from a visual or written prompt and rather than limiting the students to ten minutes (which those with ideas found frustrating and those with no ideas found an eternity) I let them have all lesson if they wanted.  I also allowed them to write in any form they wanted – they could create memes, write haiku, poems or stories. Different activities were available for those who finished earlier such as reading each other’s stories and commenting on them, reading their chosen book or article, or “Fast Finisher” games such as Boggle, Scrabble or Pictionary.

We would have a lesson like this once every month or so and it also became a “Fast Finisher” for those who enjoyed writing.  My girls rose to the challenge and although some still struggled with ideas, having a starting point helped get them on their way.  They even started bringing in their own prompts!

So what has this to do with #28daysofwriting?  I think I have understood more fully the difficulties some of my learners had in terms of getting started, thinking of a topic and maintaining a time limitation.  Some days the idea of my blog was clear, on others I really had to search for it.  When I was tired, it was hard to write coherently (I am not sure I always did!)  There were times when the subject about which I was writing was so absorbing that I ran way over my allocated 28 minutes.  But I have also had to push myself and found that sometimes the imperative of fulfilling a challenge actually focusses you to do it and if that imperative isn’t there, then it is much easier to give up.  I have also learned that it may sometimes be better to not write at all than to write a load of rubbish!  So, I apologise for any of my posts that seemed rambly and pointless, but I think they have all been part of my writing journey.  Thank you, Tom Barrett for putting out the challenge.

Poetry – a lot of fun and heaps of talent

ImageI have acquired a new subject to teach this year and I am loving it!  Too add to the French, German, Spanish, Phys Ed, Health, Outdoor Ed and Food & Nutrition that I have had the pleasure to teach over my career as a teacher, I am now adding English!  We have been writing poetry this term and I have loved the poems that my students have written either on their own or in groups. I thought that this poem from John Hegley was a great way to get the students writing.

“I need you..” 

I need you like a bully needs to boast

I need you like an ocean needs a coast

I need you like a dog needs a lamppost

Their additions were fantastic!

I need you like peanut needs butter

I need you like speakers need not to stutter

I need you like I need my mother

I need you like how babies need to cry

I need you like birds need to fly

I need you like I need wi-fi.

I need you like an ant needs a nest

I need you like east needs west

I need you like a nerd needs a test

I need you like an athlete needs his toe

I need you like a clown needs a show

I need you like an old man needs his mo

I need you like a princess needs her tower

I need you like a bee needs its flower

I need you like an engine needs power

I need you like a magnet needs metal

I need you like a flower needs a petal

I need you like Hansel needs Gretel

I need you like a backpacker needs rest

I need you like Kanye needs North West

I need you like a lemon needs zest.

The next poem was a little more complex; “I want you…”

I want you like my crumpled trousers want a


I want you like Rumpelstiltskin

wanted the princess

to guess

I want you like a naked somnambulist

out walking on a cold winter’s night

on waking wants to dress

But we looked at the poetic elements and they commented on the offset rhymes and the lengthening lines, they also noticed how the poem was laid out and how it sounded when we read it out loud  I asked them to have a go at writing their own poems in the same sort of style and they had a really good go.  Here are some of the best ones.

i want you like the sheriff wanted the thieves
i want you like a tree wants its leaves
to cover the breeze
i want you like the dog that receives the bone
likes to tease                                                              Steph G

I want you like a heart full of love
I want you like the bully wants to shove

the kid wearing the black leather glove 
I want you like the magician wants its dove

to appear out of nowhere from above                        Katie M

I want you like a brother wants a sister
I want you like a quiet person wants to whisper
I want you like a Mrs needs her Mr

who can tell her a tongue twister.                              Alyssa B

I want you like a damsel wants her hero
I want you like a Roman 
used to dream 
of being ‘Nero’
I want you like a nerd 
dreams of no longer 
being a zero                                                               Kate W

I want you like a bee needs a flower 
i want you like a princess needs power 
to rule a tower 
I want you to show my heart how not to cower      Emily W

I want you like an athlete wants to run 
I want you like the sunset needs the sun 
I want you like a father needs a son but sometimes more than one     Jaime B

I want you like a fire needs a spark
I want you like a jandal likes to leave a tan mark

when you come out of the dark

I want you like the oven needs to start
to bake the Apple tart
when you come back from the park.                               Jess W

Deep Learning – writing or typing?

infographic which talks about the way our brain works when we are writing

This is the second article I have read recently that talks about writing being a key component to more effective learning.  I have looked to see if there are alternative articles to refute this stance but so far have found none.  However, I wonder whether this premise is true for people of my generation (so-called digital immigrants) but not necessarily true for the present generation of “digital natives” who are growing up with tablets, phones and all things digital in their hands.  Despite being pretty handy with my laptop, “swyping” on my tablet, texting on my smart phone, I have to confess that I still find it easier to make notes on paper than on a digital document.  Having said that I do like reading via my kindle app especially whilst travelling, even if I also love the actual turning of real paper pages when reading “real” books.

So will digital reading and writing stimulate the same areas of the brain for the children of the 21st century that putting pen to paper does for the baby boomers?

This video suggests that already our brains are hard-wired differently.

I showed an infographic today to a group of colleagues for them to “read” and comment on as part of our Professional Development programme.  One of them said she found it really difficult to focus on because it was too bright and distracting; she would prefer an article with more text.  That gave rise to some discussion about styles of learning, reading, and how what we as teachers prefer and what our students find easier to access.  The general view was that although we find colours, images, symbols, bold and italic font difficult to decode our students do not.

We talked about turning the tables and thinking about how our students who have grown up in an audio-visual world feel when we confront them with a heap of text. Should we be providing more material for our students that is more in keeping with their experiences and their competencies?

Does this represent a “dumbing down” as some educators suggest? Do our students have a lower level of literacy because they prefer visual explanations rather than tracts of wordy text?

One of the Key Competencies in the NZ Curriculum is “Using language, symbols and texts“.  This recognises that information is given in more than one way and that our young people need to be able to decipher and interpret information in all sorts of forms. This means that for thousands of people, there is now greater opportunity to succeed. There have always been people who can “read” images more easily than text, who can watch and listen and learn from visual and auditory stimuli more easily than text. In the past when all learning happened through the media of text those people “failed”.

It is great that we are much more cognisant of “learning styles” and cater for them in our classrooms through using differentiated activities for our students. However, we still tend towards teaching and planning activities that lean towards our own preferred learning style; it is an effort to put ourselves in the shoes of people who learn differently to us, it takes time (that teachers with full-time workloads often do not have) and it is hard. Nevertheless, we must try so that we can enable all of our learners to succeed.

My experience is that whatever stimulus or resource we use to engage our students we have to think of why we are using it? What is the end-game? Is it going to enhance learning and achievement? If infographics, videos, podcasts, text lead to deeper thinking and deeper learning then use them.

So back to my original question; can typing lead to deeper thinking in the same way that writing with a pen is purported to?  I don’t know what the answer to that question is, but I suspect that however you are putting ideas and thoughts into hard copy it is important to focus solely on the topic you are writing about.  Russell Poldrack said that “… humans are not built to work this way.  We’re really built to focus.”  He suggests that  “multitasking adversely affects how you learn.” (See Christine Rosen’s article “The Myth of Multi-tasking”) So if you are typing or writing with a pen, switch off your phone, close your email, close all tabs on a browser and if you need to do some research as you write, try to keep your open tabs to a minimum, and focus!


Boys and writing

In a bid to get my youngest son to be more motivated with his writing homework I decided to try out a couple of tools. He is happy to sit at his computer and play games and he hates writing with a vengeance. His older brother is the same and I feel that we have let him down somewhat by not helping him to find another way to approach someting that he hates. He struggled through his examination English not because he can’t understand the concepts or argue his case but because he doesn’t like writing. It has been the case for both of them since they were little and consistent comments from teachers “He has loads of ideas in class that he articulates beautifully but as soon as he is asked to write them down, I get a few short sentences with no development”.  They just don’t like writing and find essay writing for any subjects a chore. Unfortunately the whole examination system at the moment is predicated on writing so we need to do something to help. I am sure that we will not be able to get either of them to atually enjoy writing, but if we can offer different approaches to make it more bearable for our youngest then maybe that will help avoid the stress in the house every time there is written homework to do!

Tools to help
I have used 5 card flickr with my classes at school as a stimulus for writing in French and found that the random nature of the images allows for imagination and creativity and leads to some fascinating stories. At uLearn at the beginning of October I was at a breakout with Kevin Honeycutt who talked about the power of publication to motivate students to write – the rise in self-esteem and pride when something a kid has written is published and handed to them.  He uses Lulu.com as his book publishing tool. Reading Interface magazine last week I saw a snippet about an app called CBB (creative book builder) and decided that it would be interesting to see how they work.

Working together
So, my son came home this week with some homework; he had to write a story or poem that he could read out to his class that would be a minimum of 2 minutes long and not more than 3 minutes – on any topic. The usual avoidance tactics started, the arguments why he could do it later, “I’ll just do….first”, he even decided he needed to shower!  A couple of weeks ago we had had a session prompted by him when he had come home from school saying that he was way behind some other kids in his class with some writing they were doing because he couldn’ t think of what to write about and,  when he did have an idea, he didnt know how to write it down “in order”.  At that point we sat down and used a grid system with headings; who, what, why, how, where, when, problem, solution, outcome and then looked at some of his early childhood storybooks to see if we could identify all those elements. We ended up having a real trip down Memory Lane and a lovely time sitting reading stories to each other. It is easy to forget that thirteen year olds are still children – on that awkward cusp where they belong to no real group, neither teenagers, children or adults – and sitting down with him, curled up on the sofa reading together was a reminder to me that he is still a little boy.  But, I digress….

Using the tools
So, 5 card flickr; he chose his five pictures from the sets of five randomly generated photographs from flickr and then using Google Docs to craft his work, inserted the five pictures and a table for the grid.  I was doing my own work on the computer at his side and after few questions and a couple of prompts to keep at it, I sort of forgot he was there, he was so quiet. I looked to my side to see a boy engrossed, concentrating and tapping away at the keys.  About fifteen minutes later he sat up, pushed his chair back and announced he was finished. I glanced across at his screen to see a whole page of typing. He asked if he could go on his game and so I said that that was fine as soon as he had shared the google doc with me so that I could look at it and comment later.
When I looked at the document a few minutes later, intrigued to see what he had written, I was amazed. A story with lots of action and ideas, all the elements we had talked about but hardly any punctuation apart from the odd full stop!  It was as if the ideas had just come flooding out without time for him to breathe and they had just been regurgutated on to the page! This is where Google Docs comes into its own; I made a couple of comments, praising the story and the ideas, asked some questions for clarification and suggested that he re-read it and added some punctuation.
Now, I could have stopped him playing his game to talk to him (which is what I would normally do, being a bit of a control freak)  but I didn’t. Why? Because, I think he had already worked quite hard and was feeling pleased with himself that he had written the story, now he was rewarding himself! He was already in another world and would have been resistant to coming back to the real one at that stage. So, I left him. But curiosity about what I thought got the better of him and the prompt of an email informing him that somebody had commented on his document made him open it up again and have a look. That was when I talked to him and we worked through the revisions together. Once he had finished his story he printed it out ready to take to school the next day. He was pleased, I was pleased – finally a writing homework done with relatively little grief!

But where does the ebook come into this? Well, I was keen to try out CBB to see how it worked and decided to trial it using Aonghas’ story. I won’t go into the details of how it works except to say that it is not intuitive but I managed to do enough to produce a book which now resides in my elibrary on my Galaxy.  What did Aonghas think? Well he was quite impressed but not as over the moon as Kevin Honeycutt suggested his students were. But then he uses lulu.com which is a way of creating and publishing books taht people then pay for.  This morning, I used the same story to create a book using lulu.com. Aonghas’ book is now listed on a website and you can pay the princely sum of 99c to buy it to download. He is away at Scout camp just now but I am looking forward to seeing whether when he sees that his book is actually for sale will have a different effect on him. The power of money might be the difference!