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Papakowhai School – Celebrating Samoa Language Week/Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa

Jo Henderson.

Jo Henderson is a teacher of year 5 and 6 students at Papakowhai School. In this snapshot, Jo describes an integrated art and social sciences project that she planned for her students for Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa/Samoa Language Week. Find out how Jo demonstrated the NZC principles of cultural diversity and community engagement through this sequence of learning activities. 

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.

With Samoa Language Week coming up I decided to plan an art project where my students could learn about the culture and stories of Samoa while developing practical knowledge and ideas in visual art. Two students in my own class have Samoan heritage and we have a number of other Samoan families in our school community. I wanted to plan learning that enabled my Samoan students to see themselves and their culture positively reflected in the subject matter and learning contexts. 

Cultural diversity principle
Jo brings the cultural diversity principle to life in her classroom by affirming her students’ different cultural identities, and incorporating their cultural contexts into her teaching and learning programmes.  

Making lavalava 

I had the idea of exploring and making lavalava with my students to help them learn about traditional Samoan dress, Samoan art patterns, and painting and printmaking techniques. In the weeks leading up to Samoa 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. I also asked if they could share any other cultural artifacts that they had so students could learn more about the culture and traditions of Samoa. 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 a range of cultural artifacts to share – lavalava and other clothing, a woven mat, and jewellery. She explained what each item was used for and where they came from. She also spoke about the meaning behind the different patterns on the clothing. The students got to see and feel the cultural treasures and they were able to ask questions about life in Samoa. 

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. 

Community engagement principle 
Elsie's visit to the classroom is a great example of community engagement. Community engagement is about involving parents, whānau, and communities in students' learning.

Following Elsie's visit, the students came up with designs for their lavalava based on their new knowledge about Samoa art patterns and their associated meanings. Some students created a cardboard stencil so that they could print their design across the fabric. Others sketched their designs straight onto the fabric in pencil then painted over the lines using fine paintbrushes and black fabric paint.

Integration of learning areas 
Jo makes use of the natural connections between the visual arts and social sciences. She supports her students to explore the stories and values behind Samoa art patterns and develop painting and print making skills. 

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

Making lavalava was a fun, exciting, and informative project for all students in my class. It was exciting to learn about another culture while developing knowledge and practical skills in art. 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 to shape our kids into caring, inclusive young people. 

Painting the lavalava.


Students modelling their lavalava.

Jo’s advice to other teachers 

  • 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. 
  • Look for opportunities to integrate learning areas. There are lots of natural connections that can be made. 
  • 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 deepen their learning.

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Updated on: 10 Mar 2020