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Inspiration, Intention, and Innovation from New Zealand

Inspiration, Intention, and Innovation from New Zealand

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Here is a message from Hilltop educator Becky Krueger, who recently participated in the 2018 Study Tour of early childhood programs in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Registration for the New Zealand Study Tour opens in June every year! 

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Returning from an incredible experience in Aotearoa New Zealand, I’m excited to share a bit about my journey there, highlighting some of the inspiration and insights I’m bringing back with me to my work at Hilltop.

As a preface, here are some helpful facts to know about the country and what early education looks like there:

Population – 4.6 million people: 69% Pakeha (European descent), 14.5% Maori (indigenous peoples), and 6.9% Pacifica; also a fast growing population of Chinese immigrants over the past five years

Beginning in the 1980’s, the federal government began the work of reparations for social injustices inflicted upon the Maori people as a result of European colonization in the late 1800’s. Due in part to this political shift, Maori language and culture has become very visible throughout the country and many children of all ethnic backgrounds grow up speaking Maori and learning about Maori customs and beliefs. This ongoing restorative justice work also contributed to the creation of Te Whāriki, the country’s official early childhood curriculum that was created in 1996 with the input of families, educators, and Maori tribal members, and with the support of the Ministry of Education. The ministry covers about 20% of families’ dues for all early childhood services, including in-home care and play centers (which are run by parents and families). Much of the rich work going on today in Aotearoa New Zealand is thanks to the banding together and advocacy efforts of educators and families over several decades. Te Whāriki, which translates to “the mat we all stand on,” emphasizes the principles of Empowerment, Holistic Development, Family & Community, and Relationships, and focuses on five strands in children’s development: Well-Being, Belonging, Contribution, Communication, and Exploration.

The “Learning Story” model of documentation that we use at Hilltop is inspired by and adapted from the same model created by leaders in Aotearoa New Zealand’s ECE community and being used today in centers throughout the country.

The Beginning…

We arrived on a sunny morning at the beautiful Vaughan Park Retreat Center, overlooking Longs Bay, north of Auckland. There we were welcomed with a warm ‘Kia ora’ and ‘Harere mai ra’ (Maori greetings) from our American facilitators, Eliana Elias and Ijumaa Jordan, and two leaders in New Zealand’s ECE field, Lorraine Manuela and Chris Bayes. As we talked about opening up our perspectives and setting our personal goals for the study tour, two messages really stuck with me:

“Our ordinary is your extra-ordinary…seeing ourselves through your eyes enriches our ordinary” – Chris Bayes
This confirmed for me that we were really there to learn from each other, and helped me better reflect on and appreciate the deep work we do at Hilltop that I sometimes take for granted as being “ordinary.”

“The goal (of this tour) is to help you make a big shift in your thinking and teaching…allow yourself to linger in discomfort and uncertainty as you see examples of things (being done differently).”  – Margie Carter (in a video message to our group)
I would indeed find myself in a state of discombobulation as the week progressed! While much of what I saw felt similar to our work at Hilltop, I was struck by many examples of doing it differently. Rather than jumping immediately to, “How can I do this at Hilltop?”, I challenged myself to really absorb and reflect on the examples of beautiful environments and collaborative teaching practices I would come to observe every day, to ask myself what the values and intentions were behind them and how they supported and valued children, families, and educators.

The Middle…
Throughout the week, we visited two Maori immersion schools (where children and staff speak almost entirely in Maori) for children birth-5, two centers for children ages 3-5, one center for children 2-5, and four centers for children birth-6. As we arrived at the immersion centers, we were welcomed with a ‘powhiri,’ a traditional Maori welcoming ceremony in which an educator sang to us from the doorway and invited us to enter by removing our shoes and gathering in front of the children. We were greeted by the children and staff with ‘wiatas,’ or traditional songs, which we in turn reciprocated as a thank you for letting us be their guests. I learned more about Maori culture and history in a very moving presentation from Brenda Soutar, the ‘Tumuaki’, or acting principal, of a full immersion school birth-age 18 in northern Aotearoa New Zealand. Two of the biggest pieces from that learning that I find myself returning to are these:

“In Maori culture we believe that there are ‘multiple truths'” – There are many ways of doing and being with children. I’m thinking about ways that I can better embrace and value multiple perspectives in my work with children, families, and co-teachers (not to mention as a human striving to communicate with others who think and live differently than I do). 

If it’s going to enhance the power and well-being of the ‘whanau’ (family), then it’s worth doing.” – How do our Hilltop families feel honored, seen, and included in our community? How do we reflect children’s lives back to them in their daily experiences at Hilltop? How are we building an extended ‘family’ between school and home? 

In addition to visiting centers and hearing from many presenters, I had the opportunity to facilitate a Community of Practice (something we do here often at Hilltop), which involved meeting with the same small group of attendees to reflect on specific questions and translate our learning throughout the week. Here are a just a few of the Big Ideas that my CofP mates and I saw in action that really resonated with us:

  • The act of gathering documentation as something to study together and learn from about our children
  • Using documentation to honor the process of learning and having patience as we explore WITH children
  • Making documentation accessible to children, families, and teachers, and making it a real and everyday component of the classroom…using lots of photographs and fewer words (yet valuing high-level language) to capture learning moments and experiences
  • The importance of connecting children to the natural world, and valuing both the classroom and the outdoor play space as ‘learning places’
  • We must ‘know ourselves first’ in order to successfully work together and show up as our best selves for each other and our kids
  • Seeing ourselves as leaders in the field
  • Always uphold our image of children as capable, competent, and trustworthy…keep bringing the conversation back to what children CAN do, and strive to seek the child’s point of view

The End…(or just the beginning?)
As we wrapped up the week, we turned our thoughts to some of the many ways we had seen “Inspiration, Intention, and Innovation” in action at these incredible centers. And we spent some time setting our intentions for when we returned to our classrooms by considering some questions…

  • Who am I going to be?
  • How am I going to change?
  • How am I going to think differently? 

In answer to these questions, I’ve made it my goal to work on my state of PRESENCE…how can I slow down and be in the moment with the children, my teaching team, and the families in my classroom? Where can I take more risks and let go of perfection? How can I linger in and trust the process of learning, documenting & collaborative planning with my team, and not jump too quickly into wanting a finished product?

I am so grateful to have had this life-changing experience in Aoteaora New Zealand.

With ‘aroha’ (love & compassion),