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    Schools are being encouraged to develop localised teaching units now that national standards have been abolished. Simon Collins reports in the final of a five-part series.

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Milan Muller, an 8-year-old writer at St Joseph's School in Ōtāhuhu, writes poetry from his own life experience.

"My family members all tell me stuff," he says.

"They taught me how to play soccer. My cousin taught me about cars. And my great-great-grandfather was an astronaut and he used to go into space and we still tell stories about him at home."

Not many Kiwi 8-year-olds have an astronaut in the family, but Milan is one of a growing number who are learning to read and write about things that are relevant to them and their community, rather than from standardised textbooks.

For the past four years, St Joseph's and four other Ōtāhuhu primary and intermediate schools have brought in local writers through the NZ Book Council to help their children to write and publish their own books.

Vasanti Unka, a children's author and illustrator who worked with the budding writers at St Joseph's, grew up in Pukekohe and says, "Most of us are South Auckland grown up."

"I was blown away," she says. "When you walk in, the kids are excited about writing."

The plan, which she developed with St Joseph's teacher Anne Kulik, was to encourage the children to write about their hopes and dreams for themselves, their families, their community and the world.

"Many of the hopes that were expressed were things that were very personal to them," Kulik says.

Motiana Pasa Finau, 8, wrote:

I just love my hero mum
Who dreams of flying in the sky
and touching the glowing
yellow moon.

Gabby Neho (right) says writer Vasanti Unka (left) gave her some
Gabby Neho (right) says writer Vasanti Unka (left) gave her some "interesting words". Photo / Greg Bowker

Others like Gabby Neho, 9, wrote for the world. Inspired by the clear ocean waters where she grew up in the Far North, she wrote:

Waves
Powerful, majestic
Splashing, gushing, flowing
Sibling of the ocean
Tides.

I hope the water doesn't get polluted so that sea life can swim in clean, fresh water.

"I thought about what makes me happy," she says. "Vasanti gave me some other, interesting words."

Milan says: "I wrote it by myself and she helped me correct it and use adjectives."

Kulik says: "It's a very authentic process. The children get to work with a writer, and they get to publish their writing. We write for an audience. This provides a powerful vehicle."

St Joseph's principal Liz Horgan says the scheme grew out of the Reading Together programme, which encourages parents to support their children's reading, in their own language if necessary. English is a second language for a third of the school's children.

Parents attend the annual launch of books written by students at all five schools in the scheme, held last November at Ōtāhuhu Primary School. Milan's mum came to the launch because "she's the closest to that school".

Vasanti Unka (left) says working with young writers like Milan Muller (right)
Vasanti Unka (left) says working with young writers like Milan Muller (right) "has made me think a lot". Photo / Greg Bowker

Unka, who now lives in Ellerslie, says the scheme was also useful for her own writing.

"You read a story about houses and rooms, and the kids were like, 'I don't have a room, I sleep in the garage with my family,'" she says.

"As a writer, I think, who am I writing for, just the monocultural NZ middle class?

"I have always aimed at putting more multicultural people in my stories, and in my illustrations, but I'll definitely do that more now. It's just changing the language a bit so it's more universal. It has made me think a lot."

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