First-year principal Chris Derbidge was up at 6.30am getting ready for work when the phone rang. “Look at the Dompost, and get down to school,” said a shaken voice at the other end of the phone.
A project by a group of year 7 and 8 girls at Otaki School, north of Wellington, had hit the headlines.
All day the school phones ran hot as tv, radio and print journalists hunted for a new angle on the Dominion Post’s front page story about the level one Maori immersion students.
They had written letters in Maori to the Mayor of Whanganui about the ‘H’ debate (see box), and a copy of the mayor’s extraordinarily irate reply had been given to the Dominion Post by a parent.
Unfortunately, a word used by the girls, pukuriri, had been translated for the mayor as “angry” rather than the intended “concerned”— and the mayor had reacted, well, angrily.

Protect the students

“We weren’t worried about sharing our story,” says Chris, “because we had done nothing wrong. But our number one was to protect the students.
“Luckily we had a BoT member at school—her daughter was one of the students involved. So we let the children speak to the media with their parents’ permission. We made sure they had a copy of the questions. For radio interviews, we had the phone on speaker so we could interrupt at any time.”
The upside, says Chris, is that it all turned into a great learning opportunity. The letters had originally been written as part of the revised English curriculum (processes and strategies; purposes and audiences) and, during a brainstorming session, the students decided to send a letter to the mayor.
“One of the strengths of the New Zealand Curriculum is when something happens—say, a whale washes up on the beach, or something like this—that’s your context, and you work with it.”
The students embarked on a media studies unit (Level 4 as above, but also with ideas and language features). The students drafted up lists of questions and interviewed the media. As on student puts it, “I want to be a journalist now.”
They also responded to some of the dozens of emails that flooded into the school in support of the students. “We opened it up to ICT and visual language,” says Chris. “You couldn’t have got more motivated or interested students.”
After a couple of days, school leaders decided to close down the debate and get back to normal. Parents though had contacted the Children’s Commssioner and the Race Relations Commissioner, who visited the school to hand out certificates, which attracted a few more headlines.

Be prepared

“If the media is involved you have to be wary. But in our particular activity they were supportive. But a school has to have a media policy—who’s your spokesperson, who’s the back-up if they’re away? You need to be aware of the dangers of putting children in the public eye. Be prepared!”
The episode also strengthened the school’s ties with its community. Parents were very involved, MPs Tariana Turia and Nathan Guy sent letters, and phone calls and emails came from other teachers, principals and concerned individuals in the area.
It also helped with the development of the school’s vision statement. Chris and the board had been working on a draft idea—Learners today, leaders tomorrow—“and this idea sat pretty well through the whole episode. We’re about 99 percent decided now to adopt it.”

Whanganui

Wanganui is a mis-spelling of Whanganui (whanga – harbour, nui – big: big harbour). Whanganui iwi pronounce their ‘wh’ as in ‘where’ rather than the more usual ‘ph’. This may account for the original spelling mistake, which first gained currency in the nineteenth century. The New Zealand Geographic Board agrees that the mistake should be corrected, but the final decision lies with the Minister of Land Information, Maurice Williamson.