Hands-on to learn history

By Gary Farrow

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On the grounds of Crawshaw School in Hamilton stands a pouwhenua (literally meaning 'land post'), watching over the school and its students.

It has always fascinated them, but Mary Kelleher's project, Handmade Histories, aims to make it into an even greater tool to enrich the children's tactile learning. The idea came a long way to reach the school, and all through a fortuitous meeting.

"From Mangawhai to Hamilton doesn't look like a likely connection, does it?" said Kelleher.

"But based in Mangawhai over the summer, not only do I make large murals about history but I'm also interested old technologies like retro kitchenware and things like that. While I'm there I have a little shop open where I just sort of sell odd bits and pieces, and people wander in, and one of those was a supposedly part-time teacher, but she's still working pretty much full time, Christine Charteris."

Charteris was instantly taken with Kelleher's children's book about a truck driver named Bert, thinking it would give a great opportunity for junior students to learn about history.

"Christine said this would be amazing to engage kids who don't understand the importance of history, and how it continues to have an influence on us in the present," said Kelleher. "Also, she liked the fact that I use a lot of very simple handcraft skills which she thought she could see the kids really need to invest in their learning."

Working with paper and pencil can become tedious and boring, said Kelleher, whereas crafting something teaches children a lot of life skill lessons, at the same time as they are having fun.

As part of the Handmade Histories: Tactile Learning Pathways programme in Crawshaw School, Kelleher and Charteris decided to enlist the help of Jason Puata, the artist behind the school's pouwhenua.

"I did a school carving - a totem, a pouwhenua - for the school and it's been there about 15 years," he said.

"Mary started working there a few months ago and the kids wanted to do an artpiece involving the pouwhenua that I had carved. She asked the school who carved the pou and she looked me up, tracked me down, gave me a call and asked if I would come into the school and give a brief korero on what I had carved, what it meant, and what it meant to the school."

Puata said he was "blown away" with how Kelleher was using "hands-on" as such a different style of teaching for the children. He was impressed, asked if he could come back, and he is now regularly visiting the school on Tactile Tuesdays to help the students with their artwork.

"I've been working with them with clay and natural things - - wood and moss and just creating stuff with our hands, rather than drawing on a laptop," he said.

"It makes them feel good. I've seen a difference at lunch time. They don't want to go to lunch - they want to eat their lunch at the table and continue making their art. It's definitely triggering them to want to create things with their hands.

"Some kids express themselves totally differently. We'll give them a crayon and a blank piece of paper and it's amazing to see the different expressions of their feelings, what they're putting down on paper."

Puata found school a struggle himself. He had great trouble with literacy and numeracy, but found he enjoyed social studies and geography because he got to look at a lot of pictures which made what he was learning more tangible. He recognised that not all children learn the same way, and that is what has led him to be such a supporter of Handmade Histories.

"We all believe that this is different, it's fresh in the school, and the kids really enjoy it. I didn't think I was going to get lunch the other day. I had to tell the kids, 'Hey, you need to go and have some lunch, because I want some lunch,' because they were so involved they just don't want to leave their art," he said.

"To me that shows that they don't really get the opportunity to learn in that aspect, and they don't get to create as much as they'd like to."

Charteris, who introduced Kelleher's Handmade Histories, said the programme is important because children with fewer opportunities do not get to visit libraries and do not learn to create or express the histories of themselves or their families.

"In teaching in the primary school sector, you try to make it all hands-on so they get an understanding of it, and Handmade Histories was a very good way for kids to understand history, because we don't actually do a lot of history teaching," said Charteris.

"We've met a lot of challenges along the way, because the children haven't experienced a lot of the skills. Children these days don't knit, they don't sew, and a lot of those things have disappeared from the curriculum."

One of the distinct advantages of tactile learning over purely academic learning is that the children receive a tangible result after all their effort - a piece of art that has context, that they can attach personal historic meanings to, and they can also explain to people how they made it.

Charteris said that they will most often forget the hard slog they may have put into a piece of work, and instead recall the skills that they learned and used.

"For children to really remember information, it's got to be hung on something that's meaningful to them, especially at the junior level," she commented.

"So we've done a lot of work, a lot of talking, and now they're going to do their own pou, based on the school's pou, which tells a story starting with their whakapapa."

- Hamilton News

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