When I came to Wakaaranga Primary School, I expected it to be different than any other school I’ve taught at before. That was, after all, one of my main reasons for coming here to New Zealand: to see a different kind of school and different teaching methods that I can bring home and adapt to my own future classroom. That being said, I did not expect one of the first things I learned about my new school to be that they kept bees.
Wakaaranga (wah-kah-RAN-ga), despite being an elementary school, is actually a campus with many buildings, typically one little building for each grade level. There are multiple fields and playgrounds designated for different age groups, a sensory garden, and a life-size chess board. And in the corner of one field, right next to the back parking lot, is a small wooden enclosure covered in painted flowers and filled with bees. Students as young as first graders put on protective suits and go in with the hives! The honey produced is harvested (by brought-in professionals) and sold in the school’s front office for twelve dollars a jar. As intriguing as I find the notion of such locally-produced food, I’m not quite used to getting directions around the school that include the phrase “by the bees.”
Another thing I didn’t anticipate was language being an issue here. My last experience teaching abroad was in China; I taught beginning English and for the most part could not communicate with my students. I was very excited on this trip to teach somewhere that I spoke the language and could enjoy all the funny little things that elementary schoolers say. Most of the time, that’s been true – I hear everything from weekend adventures to which relatives are coming to visit to exactly how wiggly so-and-so’s tooth has gotten. But it turns out language is more of a consideration in my classroom than I thought, what with accents and different vocabulary for things. In general I make an effort to say everything the way the students expect to hear it (telling them to get out a “rubber” with their pencil rather than an “eraser,” for instance), but every now and then I’ll tell them they can find the word “zebra” under “z” in the dictionary, and they look at me like I don’t know how to speak. (Everyone knows, of course, that it’s a “zeh-bra” you can find under “zed.”)
Obviously language differences pop up the most when I’m helping to teach Reading and Writing, which is unfortunate because that takes up so much of our day. One of the first things I did in my classroom was help administer spelling assessments for my mentor teacher. The students will be placed in different groups for the year based on spelling ability, and this important initial spelling test consisted of a few hundred words tested over multiple days. I was happy to do this; it was a great introduction activity for me that didn’t require planning or knowing anything about the students. It was decided, however, after an unfortunate incident involving me saying the word “been” like “bin” instead of like “bean,” that I would not be doing spelling tests anymore.
I completely understood, of course, but after the removal of my spelling duties I was even more anxious to find a Language Arts activity where I could help. Writing seemed safe, since the students mostly just needed encouragement to persevere and stay on topic. That, and the occasional reminder to put a finger-space between their words. Spelling found me again, though, in the form of the little personal dictionaries all the students use. The booklets contain common words sorted alphabetically, with blank spaces for the kids to add words they personally want to learn or that they use a lot. I hear “How do you spell…” constantly, and while I’m able to manage most of the second-grade requests I still spend a lot of time yelling across the room to my mentor teacher, “‘Favorite’ has a ‘u,’ right?”