The University of Auckland "Understand Me"

CAN WE TRANSFORM AT-RISK COMMUNITIES?

The Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland: Professor Janet Gaffney and colleagues from the Marie Clay Research Centre have recently launched a small pilot project with $49,399 from Auckland Airport Community Trust involving an early childhood centre and primary school in the West Papatoetoe Kāhui Ako (Community of Learning). The intervention is called “Understand Me: Connecting Families and Teachers of Young Children through Stories”. 
 
The challenge: ECE and primary teachers can’t always “see” the strengths of families and children, who often have experiences and cultural backgrounds different from their own. 

“If they can’t understand me, how can I understand them?” This quote is from a Māori student in the 2018 report, Education Matters to Me: Key Insights, by Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft and the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA) based on 1,534 online and 144 face-toface interviews with students from New Zealand schools. 

Judge Becroft called for a sea change in hearing children’s voices on issues affecting them. The student’s voice in the quote is the pivot point for this study: The Understand Me Project. Family sociocultural knowledge that is distant from school-sanctioned knowledge is often undervalued or goes unrecognised in schools, particularly for families who are culturally and linguistically diverse (Si’ilata, 2014).  

If our stories are ‘us’ and we craft ourselves and worlds in stories, for example, can the teacher better understand where the child is coming from, after hearing their personal story?  

We want to work collaboratively with teachers and leaders in the schools and early childhood centres to create a new listening in which they “see” the strengths of families and children, who often have experiences different from their own. As real partners, teachers and educational leaders will work alongside the university team as co-researchers. In this way, we will build new perspectives and understandings of children and families together that will empower learners. 

The solution: The Understand Me project is designed to connect a culturally diverse group of children, their families and their teachers through stories. We want to examine:  How does sharing memorable stories between a child, parent, or teacher create openings for understanding?  How can the information/understanding gleaned from the stories be used to positively impact the children’s experience of learning at their ECE/school?  Can we create pathways of understanding that shape child-family-teacher interactions and influence how families’ lived experiences and their sociocultural knowledge are positioned in ECEs and schools? 

Professor Gaffney is preparing a Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) grant application to enable her to scale up the project, to raise early literacy levels in one of the most deprived areas of Auckland (and eventually nationally) and to build our partner ECE/school/community’s capacity to lead change. This is just one example of the many projects being led by the Marie Clay Research Centre.