Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Tūtūtarakihi: The school where the moon dictates what you learn

With the public holiday for Matariki fast approaching, many of us have been learning more about the Maramataka Māori - the Māori lunar calendar.

But for pupils at a kura kaupapa in the Far North, it's second nature. The entire school year at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Tūtūtarakihi - including all their lessons -  is organised in relation to the phases of the moon, emphasising the connection between the moon and well-being.

So the 30 students or tauira are having their long school holiday now and in August they'll be back at their school based in Kaitaia.

"At our school, there's no such thing as term 1, 2, 3 and 4. We run according to the signs and movement of the environment. So during the summer, for example, school is running as normal," kura principal Rangimarie Pomare explained.

"There isn't a summer break. Summer is only short so we make the most of it. We do, however, have our extended school holiday during the winter season, and that break will be four weeks long."

Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Tūtūtarakihi has set out to be one of the first kura to utilise Te Taiao, the natural environment, as the foundation of the curriculum - like doing maths by counting pipi or reading stories about phases of the moon.

So that means that 80 percent of the time, the outdoors is their classroom and only 20 percent of school time is spent inside.

"The children will read and learn about the phases of the moon," Kaiako Wikatana Popata said.

And when the children focus on holiday activities, it's not Christmas or the January New Year.  Instead, following the Maramataka Māori, they're marking the end of the year now.

"For some schools, the main strategy of learning is through paper and pen. But for us here at Tūtūtarakihi, [the children] can learn all sorts through environmental activities," Pomare said.

Popata said people have judged the school because pupils are often at the beach.

"People assumed we were a bunch of hippies."

But he said when the children gather shellfish, they're also learning to analyse the waves and currents. They learn how to keep themselves safe and also learn the ancestral stories related to Tangaroa and Hinemoana.

Seven years ago, for Popata and wife Rangimarie, this kura was only a dream.

Setting it up wasn't straightforward. They say that initially, the Ministry of Education wasn't keen on a school that followed the maramataka and wanted to hold lessons on Waitangi Day.

"When we set out to establish this kura, we were told that 'This school does not belong in the modern day'.

"There was a clash between Māori thinking and the flaws of the educational framework."

Initially, the kura started as a satellite school in 2018. Their original buildings were a shed on their property. The roof leaked and rats occasionally ran through it.

"When it was torrential rain we'd hold our breath and wonder if we'd be okay."

Fast-forward three years and Tūtūtarakihi became a stand-alone approved kura in its own right with purpose-built classrooms.

And longer term, Rangimarie has a goal to not only change the curriculum to reflect the lunar phase but also adapt the school's hours and even the days that it is open.

"It's one thing to change what to do during the day, but I want to change the concept of our hours during school. When we are in the Ohoata moon phase, the kids can come to school earlier, and when we're in the Korekore moon phase the learning intentions need to be adjusted. So it's trying to change the mindset from 9 to 3, Monday to Friday, that's my long-term goal."

The success of Tūtūtarakihi School has created a ripple effect. Mainstream schools are now asking if they can share in some of the knowledge.

Because the school has only been a stand-alone kura for a few years, it hasn't yet been assessed by the Education Review Office.

The Ministry of Education told The Hui: "The establishment of Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Tūtūtarakihi delivers on education objectives for ākonga Māori, tamariki, and rangatahi to be able to access kaupapa Māori learning where they and their whanau are connected and engaged."

It added: "Kura Kaupapa Māori settings deliver great educational achievement and wellbeing outcomes for their akonga Māori, and their whanau."

Rangimarie said the children and their whanau benefit through the revival of lost customs.

"If we truly seek well-being through that path, we can continue. There is no well-being for the Māori people living in poverty and illness. Therefore, this is one way to restore well-being to our people."

Made with support from Te Mangai Pāho and New Zealand On Air.