Being Safe to Make Mistakes

I’ve just got back from a weekend noho with my class, as part of our TWOA course. During the weekend, I was thinking a little about how important it is to have a class where you feel “safe”. Its hard to really define what is meant by “safe” in this context, but basically its a class where you really feel comfortable. It’s also one of those things where you might feel “safe” in a class, but then later you have another class where you feel it even more and you realise your previous class wasn’t really getting there. I think that although a lot of it is obviously about the other people in the class, it’s also a bit about yourself.

There are a lot of times where I’ve had classes which were perfectly fine, but they didn’t reach the same level of comfort as this one. And I can see also that there is a way to go beyond this comfort level before I got to the ultimate level of perfect comfort (probably unobtainable, like most perfection). So there are degrees of comfort/safety.

But in this class, I feel much less reluctance to do things that I normally wouldn’t want to do. I might not want to do some particular speaking task in front of the class, or participate in a skit to illustrate a whakatauki (proverb), but I don’t feel the same fear and anxiety as I would normally.  Its like – I don’t want to do it but its not bad. It doesn’t make me feel bad or scared or upset. It doesn’t come back to haunt me when I’m trying to get to sleep. Instead, it’s generally positive.

There are multiple reasons for this. One is that everyone is always really supportive. And not in the half-assed, reserved British way we seem to have inherited. Properly. Everyone claps, cheers, thanks people – and it’s all genuine. Another is that laughter is never mean-spirited. Teasing and ribbing always seems to go to those able to receive it and respond to it. I’ve also never heard a bad word spoken about anyone.

But I think the biggest one for me is actually that people are allowed to do a bad job. If your group skit is a pretty poor effort, or your 1 minute impromptu speech is mostly umms, then no one comments or probably even cares. The point is that you did it. The point of the whole class is to try, and to speak te reo Māori. If you do that then everything else is ok (and if you don’t try, then you are your own judge and jury). So it is ok to do a bad job. It is ok to be so nervous you forget everything. It is ok to do something embarrassing. Literally no one cares. Everyone will still clap and cheer. You get socially rewarded for trying. Why be nervous or avoid something if you know that the result is everyone being positive towards you because you gave it a go?

So for me, what I noticed is that the class is “safe” to make mistakes in. I have been in other environments where people say that, but it doesn’t feel like it. I think this safety is the biggest factor in encouraging participation from the class – and in a language class, participation is probably the biggest factor in successful learning.




Noho Marae – Why Stay on Marae?

A big part of the course I am currently doing is the 10 noho marae, which is where you go and stay (noho) on the marae from Friday evening through to Sunday after lunch, approximately every 4 weeks. Although our noho marae is held at a place which is technically not a marae, it’s effectively the same. We all sleep on mattresses on the floor in the wharenui (meeting house, main building), we all eat meals together prepared by the ringa wera (the workers in the kitchen, lit. hot hands) – but we do the dishes and clean up the whare kai (dining room). We say karakia (prayers) in the morning, evening and before meals, and there are a lot of waiata (songs/singing).

Since this is for the purpose of our course, we spend most of the time doing lessons (when not eating or talking!). Since it is an immersion course, we are theoretically speaking Māori i ngā wā katoa (all the time). In reality there are times when people just really want to have a conversation in English and then pretend that they didn’t… 🙂

As far as I know, noho marae are almost always a part of learning te reo Māori, and they are generally considered the best way. At least part of the reasoning is that you can’t very well separate language from culture, and the marae is the main place where Māori culture is preserved and practised. Although you can practice Māori culture in other spaces, for example in a classroom, the marae is simply the natural space. It also provides an unbroken immersion in language and culture, rather than everyone going back out into the world of te reo Pākehā (English, lit. the Pākehā language) at the end of each day. It’s always annoying when you have to go back to te ao Pākehā (the Pākehā world) afterwards and no one’s speaking te reo Māori and you can’t even practice the most basic of sentences!

At the noho marae, as well as the lessons, you get the opportunity to practice conversational language with your hoa (friends), and to learn and use the type of language you only encounter in a living situation – about showers, and cleaning, and cooking, and passing the salt. You also get to practice a lot of basic sentences, like where is so-and-so, how was your sleep, who’s is this pen, and so on. In a normal academic learning situation, you tend to keep moving up and on, and learning new and more complex structures, and using those more complex structures in your work, rather than consolidating the myriad of basic, everyday sentences.

For me, I really wanted to do this course specifically for the noho marae, in order to fill in the gaps I have in my basic reo (language) and to develop a fluency – flow and immediacy – in that basic level of language which is used for the majority of communication between individuals.