Isabel Michell

Community and Collaboration: Learning with Kaiako, Robin White, Ebonie Fifita and Workshop Artists

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On 2 and 8 November this year, the Schools and Learning team at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki hosted two professional development (PD) days for over 40 kaiako (teachers) of ākonga (students) from early childhood, primary and secondary schools and kura.

Kaiako were invited to come to the Gallery to explore, develop and share skills in incorporating art, its contexts and art-making practices in teaching and learning across all learning areas. In two separate days, kaiako participated in art education and art-making workshops, enjoyed collegial kōrero (conversation) and kai while overlooking Albert Park’s magnificent pōhutukawa trees, and visited the exhibitions Robin White: Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening HereWalls to Live Beside, Rooms to Own: The Chartwell Show and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Life and Art in Modern Mexico.  

After another challenging year in the teaching profession, in which the ongoing effects of Covid-19 and alert level restrictions have resulted in alarmingly steady ākonga attrition – especially in our already vulnerable communities – it was inspiring to see kaiako come from across Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland and further afield, including Rotorua and Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, to learn and share their experiences.

We were delighted to be able to build the days around artists Dame Robin White and Ebonie Fifita’s generous offer to host Kōrero in the Round – open discussions about creative practice in life, learning and art – and guide tours through Robin White: Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening Here. Tamari Cabeikanacea, one of the artists who collaborates with Robin, also joined us for part of one of the days. It was an honour for the kaiako and the Gallery learning team to spend this time with them.

The artists shared their art-making and collaborative practices, and the ethos underpinning their mahi toi (art). Ebonie explained, for example, that for ngatu, a large Tongan ceremonial barkcloth, to be of a sacred and high quality – intact, strong, lasting, generous, meaningful and beautiful – each relationship of those working and contributing towards the final piece – from the growers to the makers to those who the work is honouring – must be cared for and maintained with the highest intentions.

When asked by one of the kaiako – also a visual artist – how she had managed to ‘stay the course and not self-destruct or become repetitive’, Robin explained how her daily practice is guided by the teachings of the Baha‘í Faith, including its emphasis on humility. For Robin, her creative talent is a ‘gift’, ‘something given to you, not created by you’ – and ‘this awareness leaves no room for self-importance’.

In addition to Robin and Ebonie’s kōrero and tour, practising visual artist Grace Mirams and art historian, curator and maker Dr Bronwyn Lloyd facilitated workshops in the Gallery’s art studio using a range of hands-on printmaking techniques and writing and drawing exercises to make mahi toi and generate ideas for fostering creativity and joy in the classroom. 

Gallery educators also led a number of Schools and Learning programme activities in the exhibition Manpower: Myths of Masculinity to engage critical and creative thinking skills, develop writing prompts, create speaking opportunities and make connections between prior knowledge, personal responses and art historical contexts. These workshops enabled the kaiako to experience the rich and sometimes surprising ideas and insights generated when working directly with artworks within the Gallery spaces.

Some new to the Gallery, kaiako were delighted to learn about what the Schools and Learning team offers, including increasingly bespoke programmes tailored to the visiting group’s learning areas and interests and in relation to the changing exhibitions. In turn, Gallery educators took the opportunity to kōrero with kaiako about their evolving foci and teaching and learning needs as significant changes take place in New Zealand education, including a new histories curriculum officially rolling out to Years 0–10 next year, a refresh of NCEA with an emphasis on mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) underway, and a nation-wide focus on enriching local curriculum (ELC). As a result of this kōrero, Gallery educators can further enhance and customise our programmes to ensure that they continue to be responsive and meaningful in the evolving environment.  

<p>Kaiako in the studio at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.&nbsp;</p>

Kaiako in the studio at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. 

Our overall intention for the PD was to celebrate creativity as central to all and everyday learning, and the workshops focused on building kaiako confidence in cultivating creative engagement, kōrero and art-making practice with young people across the learning areas.

Throughout the two days (some kaiako came to both!) a great deal was learned from one another, with kaiako describing the day as ‘much-need opportunity to refuel’ and a ‘gift at the end of a challenging year’. The feedback we received showed that participants took different learnings from the day, depending on where they were at in their own practice.

‘[U]sing visual artworks as a catalyst for creative writing is an area that I am exploring as I feel it will appeal to tamariki and kaiako’, wrote one kaiako. A primary school kaiako followed up the next day by sending pictures of their ākonga fully engaged in one of the activities we had shared and which she had straight afterwards incorporated in the classroom. Others were excited to learn about (and promptly booked into!) our new outreach programme, where a Gallery educator comes to the school or kura to work with ākonga on developing their art-making practice and confidence.  

‘Thank you for an exceedingly positive experience’, one participant wrote in their evaluation of the day. ‘What a superb team you have of dedicated and proficient educators. What the day underlined was the potential for the Gallery to explore expression at the highest level, and to provide a space where inspiration and creativity are celebrated. Having the artist there to explain their work, process and background further enriched the day.’

Overall, it was an invaluable, uplifting professional development programme. ‘Congratulations on a truly successful event’, one of the kaiako wrote, ‘the impact of this day will remain in my memory for quite some time. Ngā mihi nui!’

And ngā mihi nui from the Schools and Learning team to the kaiako and the artists who brought their experience, goodwill and gifts to share so that we can all continue to teach and learn at the Gallery and in other creative learning classrooms.