Teaching the teachers of te reo Maori

Saturday 9 January 2021 | Written by Emmanuel Samoglou | Published in Features, Weekend


Teaching the teachers of te reo Maori
Teacher and USP Cook Islands student Ana Andrew. 20210815

Deploying an effective academic programme is challenging in the best of times, but it took a pandemic to bring together an all-star roster of Cook Islands academics that are helping a group of local University students to revitilise te reo o te Kuki Airani.

At a time when so much has been lost for so many, a small group of university students in Rarotonga are the beneficiaries of what could be an unprecedented initiative in Cook Islands academia.

This month, students completing a course that aims to play a role in revitalising Cook Islands Maori will have the opportunity to hear directly from a collection of indigenous academics through a series of one-hour lectures.

The course is part of a University of the South Pacific diploma in Pacific Vernacular Languages: Cook Islands Maori, which is a very academic-sounding name for a programme that has an all-too important goal: to preserve, teach, promote, and encourage the use of Maori.

The primary outcome for the course is to provide the students – who are all experienced local education professionals – with the skills and resources to engage and provide instruction for youth who have the will to learn Maori as a second language.

The origins of this drive to lay a solid foundation for the teaching of Cook Islands Maori goes back many years, says University of the South Pacific Cook Islands campus director Dr Debi Futter-Puati.

She recounts of an evening many years ago attended by elected officials, citizens, and academics in support of the Confucius Institute, which promotes the learning of the Chinese language – specifically Mandarin.

Mama Marjorie Crocombe – the first female Cook Islander to be awarded a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) by USP – was in attendance, and she questioned why there were lessons being offered to learn Mandarin, but not Maori.

“It was a very good question to ask, and that was the catalyst for a discussion about getting a diploma in Cook Islands Maori off the ground,” she says.

In 2017, the diploma programme commenced with its first cohort of students. Most are school teachers or principals and are already proficient Cook Islands Maori speakers.

But what makes this month’s Kimi Kiteanga Kuki Airani Research Methods course truly unique is the pool of academics that have gathered to offer their expertise to the students. And they’re all Cook Islanders.

The presenters are either PhDs, professors, associate professors, or renowned researchers and are talking about their own research, their data gathering methods, and how they’ve taken an indigenous, localised approach to their work.

Futter-Puati says such a collection of academics coming together could be a first, and the students stand to benefit from learning about indigenous research methods in their quest to learn what needs to be done to revitalise Cook Islands Maori.

“There is a little bit of research that has been done about the status of the language, but not a lot,” she says.

“It was a very good question to ask, and that was the catalyst for a discussion about getting a diploma in Cook Islands Maori off the ground."

The first lecture occurred earlier this week, when Dr Ake Nicholas from Massey University appeared via Zoom.

“She’s done a huge amount of work around language revitalisation and Cook Islands Maori,” says Futter-Puati. “She’s an incredible academic.”

As the coronavirus began throwing challenges in the delivery of higher education, Futter-Puati and Nicholas began discussing how they could run the course in the midst of a pandemic, and eventually came up with the alternate method for instruction.

“That’s one of the fantastic things about Covid-19, it’s made people rethink and reimagine,” says Futter-Puati.

In the last 18 months, she has been on a mission to discover as many Cook Islands academics as possible.

“I just think there hadn’t been a mechanism to bring us all together, and so that was when we decided to see if we can pull this off and get a different Cook Islands academic to talk to this group each day.”

In addition to Nicholas, lecturers participating in the course also include Futter-Puati, University of Auckland PhD candidate Eliza Puna, Te Marae Ora clinical psychologist Dr Evangelene Wong, marine biologist Dr Teina Rongo and Dr Ali Glasgow from Victoria University of Wellington.

On Friday morning, Dr Christina Newport, post-doctoral research fellow at Auckland University, stood in front of the classroom at USP’s Rarotonga campus.

She describes the course as “vitally important”.

Dr Christina Newport. 20210816

“If we are able to take this particular course with this group of students and put in front of them Cook Islanders who are researchers, that is only going to add to the type of research they are undertaking, but also the way in which they carry it out, and really, privileging our own local language and our own perspectives to come up with solutions that work for here,” says Newport.

This month’s academic programme provides an opportunity for students to approach Maori language-related questions and gaps in linguistic understanding of it with confidence, she says.

“It’s making use of their perspectives as Cook Islanders, as people living, breathing, teaching Cook Islands languages in a way that hasn’t been done before,” she says.

Another aim for Futter-Puati is to normalise the use of Cook Islands Maori in an academic setting, and break away from the idea that it’s only suitable for casual settings. To that end, some of the lecturers will be speaking in Maori, English, and sometimes in both languages.

“We certainly want to encourage as much Maori as possible, and that Maori is not just for everyday conversations, but we can also talk about deep, interesting and complex ideas in Maori as well,” she says.

The students participating in the Pacific Vernacular Languages: Cook Islands Maori programme are all professionals currently involved in the education system, either in Rarotonga or the Pa Enua.

One of them is Ana Andrew, a long time teacher with decades of experience at both primary and secondary school level.

Andrew says she is concerned about the decline of Cook Islands Maori, and wants to see additional support from the government.

“I really want the inclusion of the government, the education ministry, and our teachers to commit to upgrading the way we teach Maori,” she says. “Why? Because our children are now firstly English speakers, and what’s happening in our schools is that our children find it difficult to learn the Maori language properly.”

After this month’s schedule of lectures, Andrew and her colleagues will be undertaking a research project to investigate the current status of Cook Islands Maori and its role in society.

“This will give us some findings that we can then look at what needs to happen next,” says Futter-Puati. “To be able to revitalise the language you need to have data.”

University of the South Pacific's Cook Islands campus director Dr Debi Futter-Puati. 20041407.

The student’s findings will be presented during a symposium in late July.

“What I’m hoping is, from this, they will consider going further and maybe doing a Master’s degree. I think learning the language as a first-language speaker is very different from having the tools as a second-language learner,” she says.

“That’s what this course is about, it’s about language revitalisation and teachers having the skills to teach second language learners.”


5 January Dr Ake Nicholas (Massey)

6 January 9am Eliza Puna PhD candidate (UoA)         

7 January Dr Evangelene Daniela-Wong (Te Marae Ora)          

8 January Dr Christina Newport (UoA)    

11 January Professor Tania Ka’ai (AUT)        

12 January 9am Dr Teina Rongo    

13 January Makiuti Tongia

14 January Professor Bobbie Hunter (Massey)             

15 January Dr Neti Herman (UoA)   

18 January Associate Professor Jodie Hunter (Massey)             

19 January Associate Professor Yvonne Underhill-Sem (UoA) 

20 January Dr Debi vFutter-Puati (USP)        

21 January Dr Ali Glasgow (Victoria, Wellington)