Sharon Holt: Teaching a taonga

For a number of years now a teacher turned writer named Sharon Holt has been producing a series of te reo Māori singalong books for children. These beautifully illustrated stories show Kiwi kids at play and offer an opportunity for children, teachers and parents to increase their te reo Māori skills through story and music.

Holt is one of a number of children's authors taking part in Family Day at the Auckland Writers Festival, where she'll be giving a bilingual read and singalong session of her popular Matariki book.

I asked her some questions about what got her interested in writing these sorts of books and why te reo Māori is important for New Zealanders to learn.

First off, I love your books. They fill such a gap in terms of what’s available in te reo Māori for kids. Was that part of the motivation in writing them?

Yes, my main motivation was to fill that gap. I was already a children’s author of educational and trade books in English when I started learning te reo Māori at a Te Wānanga o Aotearoa course in 2002. I knew nothing of the Māori language before that first night class, but fell in love with it and started practising my basic sentences on the children in the kindergartens and primary schools where I was a relief teacher.

Cover of Whai maiI quickly found out that most teachers in English medium schools lacked confidence in using te reo beyond a few greetings, commands, colours and numbers. They were unsure of their pronunciation and didn’t know how to move forward with that.

And there were very few resources that were actually easy for them to use to help with learning and teaching te reo – despite the expectation from the Ministry of Education that they be doing that to some degree... So, yes, I spotted a gap, and had a sense that I had the skills and background to work out how to fill that gap.

I really enjoy that fact that your Te Reo Singalong series includes so much extra material including a CD, English translation, guitar chords, and ideas for parents as to how to build on what’s in the book – it’s a whole package deal. I assume that this is where having a background in teaching really pays off?

Yes, your assumption is correct! Once a teacher, always a teacher is a bit of a mantra for me. The reason for the singalong CD in each book is because I had to find a way to help teachers see this as a very easy and fun resource to use – even if they were clueless about te reo pronunciation. So I thought that turning the book into a song would achieve that and make it easy for teachers and children alike. Basically, the teachers wouldn’t have to pronounce the words to start with – they could let the singers do that, and catch on over time, learning alongside the children.

Cover of He aha tēneiWhen I started working on this idea in about 2004, there weren’t anywhere near as many children’s singalong books with CDs as there are now. There were a few, but this genre has really taken off now. I also knew enough about language learning to know that adding song to a language aids the learning process immensely. So it was a no brainer.

The English translation as a separate entity in the book is deliberate. I wanted the English translation there, for sure. However, I didn’t want it on each page...I thought it would spoil the look of the page, having too many words. I wanted the illustrations to tell the story and to be gorgeous.

Also, I know teachers and I knew they would just look at the English if it was there and never really listen and try to sing the Māori words and sentences.

Lastly, there’s no need for the English to be on each page, because the books use repetitive sentence structures. In most books, there’s only one or two change out words on each page. So once you’ve looked at the English translation once or twice, you know what the structure is and you can figure out the meaning from the pictures.

I actually trained as a teacher in the 70s and taught full time for only two years in the early 80s. I then left to train and work as a journalist because writing was what I really wanted to do. However, those early years of training and working with children, as well as having my own two children, certainly helped me to understand what this resource could look like.

I like that your books are about things that kids are genuinely interested in, playing at the park, dressing up, animals, different modes of transport – is it difficult as an adult to get into mindset of a child for the purposes of writing?

Cover of Mahi tahiI guess most children’s authors have a natural connection to their own childhood experiences, although that’s not really where I get my ideas from. I think it’s mainly my memories of the things our children loved when they were young, my memories of what children loved in kindergarten and junior primary from my experience as a teacher, relief teacher and parent and my general knowledge of the things that children enjoy – which is pretty easy to work out if you really think about it. Sometimes the ideas come from things teachers ask me to include in the books i.e wanting something to go with the Waitangi week theme.

I have a file of ideas for future books and sometimes I talk to teachers about the ideas to see which ones the children they work with will enjoy the most. In terms of the mindset of children, it’s also largely to do with the colourful and realistic illustrations that help to tell the story, as well as the catchy tunes to help them learn the words – and the sound effects in some of the books help that too!

Why is it important, do you think, for Kiwis, young and old, to have some te reo Māori skills?

  1. Te reo is an official language of New Zealand.
  2. Te reo is a taonga.
  3. It’s a matter of showing respect for the people, the language and the land.
  4. If we live here, we are immersed in things Māori whether we like it or not, because it’s a spiritual language and culture and they were here before us.
  5. Many of our place names, flora and fauna are Māori words which deserve to be pronounced correctly.
  6. If all New Zealanders pronounced our place names correctly, I absolutely believe that this nation would be a hugely different place. The land would flourish, the language would flourish, the Māori culture and people would flourish – and people who currently feel at odds with society would feel they belong and that their heritage is respected as a taonga.
  7. I’m not talking about a call for everyone to be fluent – I’m not! I’m talking about respecting the reo enough to pronounce it correctly, instead of harking back to old habits. As an example, in our classrooms, almost all teachers will make huge efforts to pronounce the name of a Māori child correctly. However, if that Māori name is also the name of a place, they would inevitably pronounce it incorrectly. That’s ridiculous.
  8. I believe we are one government decision and one generation away from having a bilingual nation. I absolutely hope I see that decision made in my lifetime. Why wouldn’t you do that? Look at at the rest of the world and the number of languages children grow up with.
  9. It’s common knowledge that children have the capacity to learn another language from a very young age. I believe we are doing our Kiwi children an immense disservice by not bringing them up bilingual.
  10. It’s also common knowledge that being bilingual or multi-lingual increases the brain’s capacity in numerous other ways. I can’t think of any reason for New Zealand to not embrace bilingualism – apart from the government saying there wouldn’t be enough teachers who could teach it. Well, hello! They’ve been saying that for umpteen years. During those years, they could have trained all the teachers they needed and given a whole lot of Māori young people a purpose and a goal and a reason to love being Māori. Here endeth the sermon.

Have you ever wanted to write a book aimed at an adult audience, and if so what would it be about?

I am planning to write a couple of adult books when I find the time. One will be about my story (sort of a memoir perhaps). The other will be about my thoughts and views on why New Zealand should be bilingual. *see the previous rant!!!!

How have libraries featured in your life?

Cover of Kōrero maiAs a child I spent many many happy hours in the public library where I grew up in Glen Innes, Auckland. I also loved our school library. We were a relatively poor family so we didn’t have very many books of our own in the house. However, I loved the fact that by being a member of my local library I had access to every book I could ever want or need.

I loved reading from a young age, and taught myself to read before I ever went to school. In the school holidays, I was quite a geeky person throughout my childhood as the library was my haven. From the moment my first child was born, I would always have the maximum number of books out from the local library!

We read and read all the time. Reading aloud to children is crucial and I thoroughly enjoyed reading aloud to my children, from library books and the books our family and friends gave them as gifts. As a result, my two children are very good natural writers, because their vocabulary and sentence structure has been gifted to them from a love of reading books.

As an adult, from time to time I wished I had trained as a librarian. When we moved to Hamilton so our children could go to high schools there, I started working part time at Hillcrest Library which was 5 minutes walk from our home! I didn’t train as a librarian but I loved my time there, surrounded by books.

A library is my favourite place to be. I feel safe and surrounded by happiness when I am in a library. When we bought our house in Te Aroha I joined the library before we had actually moved here! If I could choose any fantasy place to live in the world, it would be in a library!

What was the last book you really enjoyed or what book would you recommend as a good read?

Cover of The miraculous journey of Edward TulaneMy favourite children’s book is The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate Di Camillo and I would recommend it to any child or adult. As far as adult books go, I really only read biographies now. I have read a lot of great biographies and one of my favourites is The Oarsome Adventures of a Fat Boy Rower by Kevin Biggar. It’s hilarious.

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