Learning history can be “transformative and powerful” for marginalised students when they find their own voice in the narrative.
This was what St Mary’s College, Auckland, teacher Dr Bronwyn Houliston found in her research thesis, “A Lens of Marginalisation: Pacific Learners in Aotearoa/New Zealand and their Understanding of History”. Dr Houliston recently received her doctorate degree from the University of Auckland.
“My thesis basically found that Pacific students engage with history quite differently and in nuanced ways. It argues that history itself, as a discipline, can be really transformative for, especially like Pacific students, towards whom sometimes there are deficit attitudes,” she said.
Dr Houliston explained her thesis is a case study of her students from McAuley High School in Otahuhu where she taught for 10 years. She moved to St Mary’s last year.
Dr Houliston said history can be seen as a “dead subject”, stories about the past that are not really relevant to the students.
“The girls talked a lot about seeing themselves as sort of on the outside of New Zealand society and not having a voice,” she said.
“When we talked about New Zealand history, the girls talked about how they saw this as something that was a little bit foreign to them. They saw it as important and they knew it was important but they didn’t see where they fit in New Zealand history.”
The student population at McAuley High School are predominantly Pacific learners.
Dr Houliston said she used talanoa, the Pacific way of conducting group discussions to talk about dawn raids and the Mau movement in Samoa to engage the students.
She also reframed Maori history and the Treaty of Waitangi from a social justice perspective.
“One of the big things that I argue is that we need to make sure that all of our students with all their different identities can see where they fit in New Zealand’s history so that they can see it’s relevance and engage with it,” she said.
Once she reframed the history lessons, the students began to look at them in a more critical way, often looking for the voices of the marginalised and giving these voices importance in the retelling of history.
“The girls were really articulate at being able to see where history has kind of been ‘whitewashed’ from a European perspective. That was one of the things they were quite critical of,” she said.
Dr Houliston said sometimes, even she was being called out by the students for “whitewashing”.
“They were empowered in the classroom to make really own decisions about how they want to engage with the history and use the history as well to make sense of it,” she said.
When they discussed the dawn raids and Mau movement in Samoa, the students would sometimes bring books about the topic from their parents as well as information that they had gathered from their family.
“It made them feel like their own knowledge was valued and had worth,” she said.
Dr Houliston said it is important to find ways to engage with history because, starting in 2022, New Zealand history will be a compulsory subject in the curriculum.
“I also think when people understand New Zealand history better, especially the Treaty and how the country was settled and formed, then we’ll have a greater appreciation of some of the issues that still affect us today and an understanding of Maori and their ongoing grievances as well. It helps the students become critical and active citizens,” she said.