One of the best parts of doing this Fulbright project in a different country and culture is that I receive daily lessons on what I do not yet know. Having been an adult, a parent, a naturalist, and a teacher for most of my life now, I have become accustomed to knowing certain things, and to sharing them with assurance that I have some level of authority.
Here, I have been transported back into a state of personal uncertainty and often downright ignorance. Schooled by 7 year olds in the names and characteristics of plants, I find myself watching and listening to them closely for other clues about nature here. Would you touch a bee? Is it safe to play in streams? Can you go barefoot? When you find a feather, can you keep it? The answer to all these, by the way, seems to be yes. The Maori have a term – tuakana/teina – for the learning relationship that occurs between older and younger people. It is also “where the notion of learning/teaching is shared, and where the tutor is also learning in the programme.” (Te Puni Kōkiri 2001). It is the reason for mixed-age groupings in schools, and for other kinds of community mentoring that happens between children, youth, and adults.
I had another opportunity to learn from and with children at Zealandia last week. It was a mixed age group, ranging from 5 to 12. We started off in the indoor classroom with a Smartboard exercise in matching birds to their names – “just to see what you know” said the leader, Ann.
At first, there was considerable hesitation, and then one brave girl marched up and slid a picture over to a name. Others followed reluctantly. Meanwhile, other kids in the audience were murmuring in dissent. Ann then invited them to come up with a friend, and to fix anything they thought wasn’t correct. This brought a flurry of action, and soon all of the birds – with a little coaching – were matched with the correct names. This exercise was a precursor to heading out into the valley with a checklist of the same birds. So, it was not so much about “what you know” as it was “what you can know together.”
We broke into small groups, the school principal Lynda and I joining one led by a fellow named George. George and I had spoken before the school group arrived; he is an enthusiastic birder who volunteers several days a week at Zealandia guiding groups of visitors. I asked him where I might go to see kiwi in the wild. “Well,” he replied thoughtfully, “What do you mean by wild?” I received a long and detailed explanation of the different species of kiwi and their status in different locations. George was deep into the history of Zealandia’s kiwi management when the school group arrived and we had to put that subject on hold.
Walking down into the Valley, George showed the kids the protective fence and answered their questions directly. “What if someone threw a cat over the fence?” It would be caught and taken to a shelter. “What if a tiny, tiny mouse crept in?” It would probably get caught in a trap (he showed them several different types, including poison bait). “What if a bird got sick from eating poison?” Birds can’t get to the poison. “Why don’t you like possums?” I like all animals, but possums don’t belong in here.
We continued on, finding tuatara by their burrows. “Why are they wearing beads?” To identify them. “Do only boys get to wear blue beads?” I don’t know, but we can find out when we get back.
Then George got very excited: “Look beside that burrow! See that lizard? It’s a spotted skink! They are very rare on the mainland, but that is one that I helped bring over from Somes Island, where they have a healthy colony. This one is pretty far from where we put them. Oh, I wish I had my camera!” he sighed, as he pointed to the skink. A group of adults nearby saw his enthusiasm and came over to look and exclaim. George beamed.
The students were not having much luck finding the birds on their checklist, so George whispered, “I know a place,” and led us down into the bush toward the lake. There, we spotted not only the takahe feeding, but also pied and little black shags. Curving around to return, George paused beside a bush, picked a leaf, and asked, “What do you think this smells like?” Several of the kids said lemon, and George nodded. “Yes, and if you said toilet cleaner, you would also be right!”
A bit further on, he asked, “Anyone like spicy food?” Assuming it was the kawakawa I had tasted before, I tried some and found it much hotter. “Horopito,” said George, laughing at our expressions. “Otherwise known as hot pepper tree. Sorry, I forgot to tell you that before.”
Around the next corner, he paused and pointed out two birds flitting around in the brush – a saddleback and a NZ robin – and when we came into a clearing, showed us the Australasian harrier soaring overhead. On the way back, one of the boys found several feathers on the ground, which George identified as tui, and said he could keep.
This day at Zealandia was the embodiment of the tuakana/teina learning/teaching relationship, thanks to George, a 12 year old home-schooled nature enthusiast with a talent for teaching. When I said goodbye after the tour, George’s mother was waiting to pick him up. “Did you learn a lot?” she asked, when I told her what an amazing job he had done. Yes, I did, and I also extended an open invitation for George to come check out the wildlife in Maryland. So be on the lookout for the guy in the bird shirt and Zealandia hat; he can teach you a thing or two.