Ngā mihi o te Kirihimete, West London
Team Waitangi got its name five years ago, just before Christmas. I was teaching what the Brits call infants – 4 to 7 years old, specifically Year 1 or 1st Grade – in a deprived suburban corner of West London. Our staff were pretty diverse, with teachers from New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia. The school served a diverse community, too: most kids were from families that didn’t speak English at home, new migrants who had come to us from Somalia, Iraq, Sri Lanka. Celebrations like Ramadan and Diwali were more important to our kids than, say, Easter. Even more than usual, this meant I did as much listening as talking, as much learning as teaching.
There was so much to learn, too. I loved discovering the Sikh festival which coincides with Diwali. It commemorates the release from prison of Guru Hargobind Ji. We reenacted it with the one Sikh boy in my class, other children playing the role of prisoners holding on to the tassels of the Guru’s robe, so that he didn’t feel left out when many others celebrated Diwali.
When Christmas arrived, I was keen that we did something to celebrate that, too. I wanted to show my kids the warm, gift-giving festival which is a part of Britain’s holiday season even in secular families. So, I decided to take the kids carol singing.
Our classrooms each had a back door opening directly onto an enclosed outdoor area, safe for kids to play and learn in. This meant that we could go carolling in a way that would be difficult on the streets of our neighbourhood. We rehearsed singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”, then toured the other classrooms, interrupting their lessons and serenading them from a chilly doorstep.
Part of carolling in the UK is collecting money for a good cause. Again, I wanted my students to experience this tradition with a sense of play, not obligation. We would just collect loose change, and only from the teachers in each class. Unbeknownst to the teachers, I then ploughed that money back into their drinks fund for the end of term celebrations.
I searched for a word that would hint at our secret carol collection plan. It wasn’t strictly a teaching goal, but I wanted our project to have a name that reflected the diversity of our staff. The New Zealanders at our school had already introduced students to everything from the haka to Fred Dagg, poi dancing, and Patea Māori Club, so I was pleased when a bit of Googling revealed that Waitangi Day commemorated the signing of New Zealand’s founding document. Therefore, our carollers would collect money for the “Waitangi Home for Needy Girls” – and Anna and Jen were very happy when some weeks later they realised that their donations to our charity bucket were in fact funding another couple of rounds down at the Grapes.
The Waitangi label stuck as four of us drew together like a secret club within the infant school. Two of Team Waitangi were Kiwis and two of us were Brits. Jen was from Aotearoa’s North Island. She was tall and thoughtful and loved animals; we called her Eliza Thornberry, from the old cartoon about a family of animal lovers. Jen was the most empathetic teacher in the school, brilliant with challenging students – although sometimes she forgot to bring her class to assembly. Sometimes she even forgot it was her turn to take assembly…
Anna was tanned, fit, irrepressible. If she were a Wild Thornberry, she’d be more like Donny the animal boy.
Like me, Jen and Anna were both teachers. The other Brit in Team Waitangi was my teaching assistant, Mrs M. She was crafty and mischievous. Whatever I asked of her, she was willing to give it a go. Make a Chinese dragon and parade the class through the halls in a clashing, manic, kettle drum march? She was in. Make cardboard racing cars and musical instruments for our class to play with? Not a problem.
Once a week, teachers did birthdays for the year group. Each child who had a birthday that week came up to the front of the hall. They’d tell the others what presents they wanted and what celebrations their family had planned.
I got bored with the routines and didn’t waste much time before starting to meddle. If I had to go up before the school and emcee a “birthday assembly”, then I decided I should bring some personality to the affair – and make it a communal celebration, a birthday party of sorts. One week we had Rock Birthday Assembly. Our class lined up with cardboard instruments and mimed to 80s power ballads, then the teachers took the stage and delivered a caterwauling performance of “Alone” by Heart. Then there was Robot Birthday Assembly. We made a Powerpoint that looked like a retro computer screen, green on black, listing the “activation dates” of our birthday kids. The children were taught robot dancing and moves ranging from the “reboot” to the “malfunction”.
Later that day, our school’s head caught one of the year group wandering the corridors and tried to send him back to his classroom. He stood rigid, body slumped over, arms hanging down.
“I-HAVE-MALFUNCTIONED,” he told the head. “I-CANNOT-RETURN-TO-CLASS-UNTIL-I-HAVE-BEEN-RE-BOOTED.”
I was so proud.
In the year of Team Waitangi, the British curriculum was strict and straight, but our business was dance and play and stories. We were unafraid. A dull unit of physical education became an extended dance to Rose Royce’s “Car Wash”. Each group in the class was a different part of the car wash – vertical rollers, horizontal ones, shampoos and wipers – each with their own dance moves. Our Special Educational Needs kids sat in cars made from cardboard boxes. It was their job to pass through the car wash in procession. When the cars had all come through the wash, the dancers turned to the audience and did the dance from “Greased Lightning”. This required deft timing with the volume control, because the lyrics were fresher than I remembered. There’s barely time to fit in a drag race into that song before the lyric spits out one word or other that a teacher didn’t really want to be explaining to an infant school class.
No game was too daft, no lesson plan too daring for Team Waitangi. Performances of Hakuna Matata and mini soap-opera style dramas based on ER (one kid in the George Clooney role with talcum powder to grey his temples); pantomime dress-up when Cinderella was our choice for a special storytelling day.
This might all sound silly or self-indulgent, a distraction from the business of learning. But it made every school day an adventure, education something to be relished. The alternative, tick-box schooling, was too awful to bear: a world where kids were being asked, “How could you ‘up-level’ this piece of writing?” I tried to complain about this term when I spoke at the House of Commons in 2010. A slightly miffed headteacher replied that language is always changing, and we shouldn’t sneer at neologisms just because they’re new. This is true. But to say “up-level” as opposed to “improve” suggests a world where children are not helped to develop their own good judgment about language and learning, only to jump through government-mandated hoops.
I was far happier when I saw kids reading and forming friendships outside of those uncomfortable pigeonholes. I remember a new boy from Iraq starting midway through the year, without a word of English. On his first day, we made our weekly trip to the school library. He tagged along in amiable but wary silence. Another boy, from a Somali family, found the Encyclopedia of DC Superheroes on the shelf – way beyond either of their reading abilities. He hauled the heavy hardback over to our new class member and rummaged through the pages intently. Finally he found the page he was looking for, jabbed with his finger, and looked up at the other boy.
“Batman? Superman? Batman?”
The new boy looked from the Caped Crusader to the Man of Steel and back again. He chewed his lip and then pointed at one figure.
The first boy smiled in agreement. “Batman, yeah, Batman!”
It was a gateway to friendship through books and the transnational reach of pop culture.
The Great Lie of Rock Week
Perhaps our finest hour was the Great Lie of Rock Week. A lie that might have gone too far, but produced incredible literacy work.
It began when I noticed that Mrs M. looked like Debbie Harry, or rather, like a person the young Debbie Harry might have become. When we decided to theme a week of lessons around rock music, dressing in leather jackets and bandannas and cranking out our Bonnie Tyler-esque school assembly, I tested the waters by telling the children they were going to see a video of Mrs. M. when she was younger. I slipped the Best of Blondie DVD into the player and gave them a bit of “Heart of Glass”.
They were utterly convinced. “You look so pretty!” “Why don’t you wear lipstick that colour any more?” “Do you still sing in the band?”
Dancing to Blondie became our reward at the end of successful lessons. “Brain breaks” were trendy back then, fun physical activities as rewards for five and six year olds forced to work at their desks for great chunks of time. “If you work really hard, we’ll watch another one of Mrs M’s pop videos!”
Our students’ fascination with Mrs M’s secret past stretched their speaking and listening skills. She went “on tour”, giving Q&A sessions with other classes. She’d tell them about her time on the road with the band; they asked her about her fashion sense, the feel of performing on stage, and what it might be like to be famous. All of which then inspired incredible written recounts from them.
We did start to wonder if it had gone too far when a parent started asking Mrs M about her singing career. By then, we’d moved on from Rock Week to Rap Week, the seasons had changed, and we were outside in the playground, classes challenging one another to dance-offs. The concrete was warm from summer sun and the walls echoed to the sounds of “Hear the Drummer Get Wicked”.
One day, Anna’s class collected armfuls of newly mown grass from the school lawns and brought them into my classroom, where they promptly launched a grassfight. Peals of laughter threatened to draw the senior managers from their offices – we had to quickly rout the intruders and get the place tidied up before someone could call a halt to the fun.
Sure, that time spent throwing grass could have been spent drilling the kids through their phonics – but we found that enthusing the children with a passion for learning and talking about their experiences helped them get good grades. We wanted kids to feel that coming to school was an enjoyable experience. Part of our job was to encourage their natural curiosity and desire for self-expression. They were here to actively learn and explore, to recognize themselves as a community of peers. School was not just a place where you would be “taught at” or put through the hoops of a preexisting system. And the greater their desire to express themselves, the more surprising and exciting the adventures they had, the harder they worked to develop exactly the skills which the school system wanted to test.
The fact that Team Waitangi was half-Kiwi surely helped with our unconventional mission. At the time, the NZ curriculum was a lot freer than the one we struggled with in the UK. The practical Kiwi attitude, plus the fact that these teachers were wanderers, only teaching in London as part of their Overseas Experience, meant that they were more willing to get playful and practical.
Towards the very end of the year, we ran a series of activities based around Bugsy Malone. The school’s neighbourhood was tough. When the first gun appeared in the opening sequence some of our children were scared – only to burst out in relieved laughter when the weapons shot shaving cream. We learned songs from the movie, singing that we were best at being friends. And we learned other, less sentimental lessons too. When students came to the front of the class to practice grammar – we still found time for grammar amid the grass-throwing! – the child at the front of the sentence wore a gangster’s black fedora to mark them as the capital letter. And when we got to the very end of term, as a treat, we watched the whole movie.
At the end of the screening, one of the boys turned to me. We’d got him a little late in the school year. He had left his old school after fighting with all and sundry. When he came to us, he flipped chairs and tables, and kicked you under the kneecap, or grabbed your fingers and bent them back, because he knew these were ways he could hurt an adult. He had a speech and language disorder that was difficult to diagnose, because English was not his first language and very little of it was spoken at home. So while the special needs people and the translators did their best to help him, we concentrated on including him within the class and sharing every activity with him. We found a way to include him in everything, whether a drive through the dancefloor carwash or a keyboard solo on the Rock Week stage. Gradually he learned to write his own name, and the word “TESCO”, which he saw every day as he walked past the supermarket on the way to school. When the credits rolled on Bugsy Malone that summer, he turned to me with a big grin, and said, “Mr. Finch, when I grow up, I’m gonna shoot you!”
I nodded and smiled. Daft as it seems, I thought: brilliant. The fact that you’ve made a verbal threat. That you’ve made that sentence. It’s a world away from a kick in the kneecaps and a flipped over table. I’d rather your aggression came out by pretending to be a gangster than hurting yourself and those around you.
Team Waitangi was a special bond of camaraderie; born under faraway stars, but brought together to make fun amid the gears of an unlovely education system. That time is done now – and life set us all spinning off in very different directions. But, staff and students alike, we were always best at being friends.