Teaching Peace with Elyse: Maori Concepts, Learning Stories and Documentation!

"In te ao Māori, the concept of ako means both to teach and to learn. It recognizes the knowledge that both teachers and learners bring to learning interactions, and it acknowledges the way that new knowledge and understandings can grow out of shared learning experiences. This powerful concept has been supported by educational research showing that when teachers facilitate reciprocal teaching and learning roles in their classrooms, students’ achievement improves" (Alton-Lee, 2003).

 "Ako: in a reciprocal learning relationship teachers are not expected to know everything. In particular, ako suggests that each member of the classroom or learning setting brings knowledge with them from which all are able to learn." (Keown, Parker, and Tiakiwai, 2005, p.1)

Two of our lead teachers returned from a shared learning conference in New Zealand with an inspiring presentation for staff development day. Highlighted were two thinking lenses featured in the conference that could be used to enrich the documentation of our observations of children. One was from the New Zealand approach to assessment, the other from American early childhood education specialists Margie Carter and Deb Curtis.

Maori Assessment questions were introduced to our staff as a framework for defining learning. The Te Whariki curriculum considers the child’s voice on matters of defining learning and what is to be learned.

  • Belonging: Do you know me?
  • Well-Being: Can I trust you?
  • Exploration: Do you let me fly?
  • Communication: Do you hear me?
  • Contribution: Is this place fair for us?**

Carter and Curtis’ learning stories for documenting our observations of the children were also presented. In this approach you include yourself and what touched your heart and mind. Afterwards, many of our teachers began adapting learning stories into their documentation.

According to Carter and Curtis there are key elements to be included in a learning story:

  • What happened in your observation that you were drawn to, were delighted by or wondered about?
  • What is the meaning? Analyze your notes and photos for all significant learning that occurred.
  • What are the opportunities and possibilities from this experience (new learning to use in your work)?
  • What can you learn from the child’s family?

Connie Huang, my colleague and Yellow Sun School Expressive Arts Specialist, brought her learning story draft over to the Orange Sun School for discussion. She was documenting a reciprocal learning relationship that developed with Nathaniel, one of her young students. Inspired by the Maori concept and the Learning Stories, she wrote a letter to the four-year-old that brought her own feelings and thoughts into the written observations of his art-making.

She used photos and text to capture her astute observations of both Nathaniel’s actions and her own inner process. Her plan is to use the learning story as the hub of a wheel for a documentation panel for parents on resilience. Nathaniel’s innate curiosity was a strong motivating factor in developing his own resilience.


Connie’s writing triggered additional ideas. She was able to categorize resilience into four components: follow-through, developing confidence, managing strong emotions and successfully solving problems.

Her curiosity led her to find examples in other photos of her work with children that fit into these categories. These photos may become the spokes of her documentation wheel; making the documentation panel more inclusive while keeping the learning story on Nathaniel as the central hub.

Connie’s sense of being on fire regarding the reciprocal learning process, the Expressive Arts program itself and finding her own way within it as a young teacher was contagious. I could feel her joy and my own. When I first developed this program 29 years ago it was a personal project. Knowing that others can take what I’ve developed, keeping the core components while claiming and enhancing the program with their own interests and talents, brings me great satisfaction.

I had not planned for the Expressive Arts Program to become a legacy when I first began developing it in 1986. The building of our second preschool made it necessary to test whether the program would fly without my being the only pilot. I feel great inner peace as I continue to see evidence of its taking hold in the creative and responsible hands of young teachers like Connie Huang.

**With gratitude and acknowledgement to Brian Silveira and Nadia Jaboneta for their excellent presentation and handouts.