New Zealand: Culture and Pride

For the past few days, school visits in Auckland have focused on two questions:

  1. What’s working?
  2. What is each school doing to improve? 

Authentic answers to both questions are long, and complex. What follows are limited soundbites–but hopefully they are enough to spark some interest, or to seed some curiosity.


— In a bi-cultural school system, and a multi-cultural society, a key goal is to help students feel a sense of connection, belonging, and pride. One way this is explored, practiced, and expressed is through cultural groups. The most prominent of these, at many New Zealand schools, is the “Kapa Haka” group. Kapa Haka groups vary in their membership and repertoire, but essentially they are cultural performance groups, sharing songs, dances, and rituals associated with the Maori whanau or iwi that is closest to the school.

Kapa Haka groups also lead the powhiria complex, highly ritualized traditional welcome. When our group first arrived at Blockhouse Bay Intermediate School, we were met by two sets of three 13-year old girls, dressed in ceremonial costume. Our welcome to the school community was saturated with ritual and meaning. Over the course of 30 minutes, we were awash with wailing call and response, the sharing of waita (symbolic speeches), a medley of traditional songs, a beautifully violent haka dance, and a public hongi (a nose-to-nose greeting, based on the sharing of breath).


The original purpose of the powhiri was to ensure peace between warring tribes. Today, it is used to build unity, and cultural continuity. The entire school witnessed the ritual, and offered their support to the Maori and non-Maori students who performed. Through the kapa haka, the performers were channelling a deep spirit, reaching back hundreds and hundreds of years. The energy in the space was palpable. We were told to remain stone-faced, out of respect for the performance, and the relationship it represents–but it was everything we could do not to grin with pride, or to tear up.


“We have to make people feel proud, to feel good.”
                                  – Bruce Dale, Principal of Henderson Intermediate

–At Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, Isaac, one of our 13-year-old student tour guides pointed out across the playing fields. His finger stretched as far as it could go, he said “Look out there, at those bushes. We planted those.” We soon discovered far  more than a few plantings. As part of a group called Kaitiaki (“guardians”), students had partnered with teachers and administrators to convert an industrial wasteland–complete with a polluted stream–into a nature trail, carefully planted with native species. Each signature plant was marked with an interpretive sign. Isaac led us along the length of the trail, teaching us about the native flora. We walked slowly. At one point, he turned around and said “We built this.”



 Students at Blockhouse Bay earn stars for acts of service, courage, perseverance, and effort. But these are not the star-stickers familiar to many from American elementary schools. Sewn onto school uniforms, these are closer to “badges.” Trophy pins are displayed once enough stars are collected. Middle level students took these very seriously–so seriously that Manav, showing off his stars below, didn’t smile or expect us to smile. His stars were a reason for us to take him seriously.


While “stars” may not work for American high schoolers, is there a relevant analogy to play with (e.g., digital badges, credentialing, etc.)?

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