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Celebrating Samoan culture and identity


Jo Henderson.

Jo Henderson is a teacher of year 5 and 6 students at Papakowhai School. In this blog, Jo explains how she and her students recently celebrated Samoan Language Week.

I think that a child’s culture is incredibly important. It’s who they are. It’s not something that stops when they walk into the classroom. It is part of them and it shapes the way that they learn and the knowledge that they have. To know a student, you need to know their cultural identity and heritage. I try to make sure that my classroom curriculum reflects the cultures, languages, and customs of all of my students.

I always knew that I would plan some kind of learning activity for Samoan Language Week but I was challenged to take this further after a series of staff meetings where we explored ways to better support our Pasifika students. 

During these staff meetings we:

  • looked at the different Pacific cultures represented at our school and talked about the traditions, values, and celebrations that were important to each group
  • took part in a Samoan art workshop facilitated by Catherine Collins, an across schools' teacher from our Porirua North Kāhui Ako
  • explored some of the competencies listed in Tapasā – Cultural Competencies Framework for Teachers of Pacific Learners and identified things that we are doing well and areas for development
  • watched several videos of Pasifika secondary students sharing what helps them learn
  • wrote down teaching strategies that will support our own Pasifika students and created a staff room wall display. 

The staff meetings made me want to create a more culturally responsive classroom curriculum. Instead of just a one off activity during Samoan Language Week, I wanted to spend more time exploring Fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way.

Making lavalava 

I had the idea of making lavalava with my students to help them learn about traditional Samoan dress and Samoan art patterns. In the weeks leading up to Samoan Language Week I messaged my parents and the wider school community to ask for old sheets that we could cut up for our lavalava. 

One of my student’s grandmothers cut the sheets up into child sized lavalava and hemmed them all. The students dyed the lavalava using dye from the art room because fabric dye was way too expensive. Then they hung them outside to dry.

Drying the lavalava.

Zemirah is one of two students in my class who have Samoan heritage and I approached her parents to see if they would be willing to come to our class to share information about their culture. I asked if they could bring in lavalava so that the students could learn how they are worn and study the patterns on them. Elsie, Zemirah’s mum, was keen to help and her visit turned out to be the highlight of the week.

Elsie's visit.

Elsie brought in so many cultural artifacts to share – lavalava and other clothes, a woven mat, and jewellery. She talked through the different items, explaining what they were for and where they came from. The students passed the artifacts around and tried the clothes on. Elsie pointed out the different patterns on the clothes and told the class what the patterns meant. 

Elsie's visit added so much value to the students’ learning. The cultural knowledge was coming from a real person who was sharing pieces of her life, identity, and stories. The students got to see and feel real things and were able to ask questions. They were so engaged. It was much better than learning about Samoa through a book or a video.

Zemirah loved having her mum visit. She is often quiet in class but she spoke excitedly about her mum coming in and was so proud to see her traditional clothing being shared around the class. 

Following Elsie's visit, the students came up with designs for their lavalava based on their new knowledge about Samoan art patterns. Some students decided to create a cardboard stencil so that they could repeat their design across the fabric. Others decided to sketch their designs straight onto the fabric in pencil then paint over the pencil lines. We used black fabric paint to create our designs. 

The students shared their lavalava at our school assembly on Friday which was a wonderful way to celebrate our learning with other classes and a nice close to Samoan Language Week. All the students wore their lavalava to the assembly and paraded up and down the hall while Zemirah and another student explained how we made them. Zemirah’s mum came along to the assembly to see the completed lavalava along with Zemirah's grandmother. 

Samoan Language Week was a fun, exciting, and informative week for all students in my class. It was exciting to learn about another culture in an authentic, hands-on way, and the students thoroughly enjoyed being able to create something special to take home as a keepsake. Their motivation and persistence was at an all time high!

I will continue to look for ways to bring culture and understanding into my classroom teaching practice as I believe these experiences help shape our kids into caring, inclusive young people. 

Painting the lavalava.


Jo’s advice to other teachers 

  • Students modelling their lavalava.
    Make sure that you find out the ethnicities of all of your students and work hard to learn more about their cultural beliefs, practices, and traditions. 
  • Create a culturally diverse classroom curriculum. Help your students learn about the languages, cultures, and customs of other groups of people, especially those represented in your classroom and school. 
  • Reach out to your parents and whānau for support. They are the cultural experts and can add so much value to your programme. It doesn’t have to be parents of your students, draw on connections across the school and in your community. 
  • Take part in celebrating Pasifika language weeks and other national events. There are great resources out there to support these special weeks and your students might go to a weekend event with their families which will extend their learning.

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