English Curriculum for Te Taiao

English Curriculum for Te Taiao

Exploring Environmental Education and the Refreshed Secondary English Curriculum

Written by Nicola Easthope, an English teacher and poet based on the Kāpiti Coast.

October, 2023

The long anticipated Aotearoa New Zealand curriculum refresh, Te Mātaiaho, provides exciting opportunities for the integration of education for sustainability and reconnection with te taiao, our environment, in junior and senior secondary English courses.

Something most teachers are looking forward to is the refocus on “curriculum first and assessment next” (Dr. Rosemary Hipkins) rather than the end-game demands of frequent internal assessments. We’re all familiar with students asking, even at the beginning of a unit, “Is this worth credits, Miss/Sir?”

Changes to NCEA will help shift us back to a focus on curriculum, supporting the development of capabilities for lifelong learning and living as part of our interconnected planet.

Fewer, larger assessments in senior English will enable teachers to introduce a wider range of contexts for learning, including the integration of ecoliteracy, cultural competency and citizenship into our units.

In terms of our environment, the refreshed English curriculum gives space to promote:

  • The primary importance of Te Ao Māori perspectives in our learning about, in and for the environment of Aotearoa
  • Critical and creative thinking, writing, oratory and visual presentations for te taiao
  • Nature connection, protection, restoration and rewilding
  • Participation in community building and politics at local and national levels

This could include protest and protection for land, people and culture, and other ecological beings and habitats under threat.

Empowered Students

What young people need to learn in 21st century classrooms across the curriculum is vastly different to the colonial, production-line models of mass education in the past. The natural world is making it immediately clear that the human pursuit of endless economic growth through global industrialisation and consumerism is putting excessive pressure on Earth’s natural ecological limits. The interlinked crises of biodiversity loss and climate instability present an urgent challenge to educate and activate our rangatahi for positive, regenerative change.

Student work by Liliana Loorparg (L), Ella Giddens (R)

The static images above were produced by Year 11 Kāpiti College students Liliana Loorparg and Ella Giddens in 2022, and gifted to It's Our Future, a campaign from 350 Aotearoa to share stories from rangatahi about climate change. Students combined creativity and critical thinking to produce blackout poetry, speeches, letters to MPs and static images as submissions to central government.

Students at Kāpiti College have also been involved in submission writing workshops for the Choose Clean Water, Climate budget, and Zero Carbon Bill campaigns, building confidence and skills in researching, writing and delivering their submissions orally at local government and Select Committee levels.

Now more than ever, young people understand that decisions made at local and central government levels have direct consequences for the health and survival of te taiao.

Civics education for the environment can be optimised from Year 9 in cross-curricular collaborations with our Social Sciences colleagues, as well as provide a dynamic focus for extracurricular enviro-group activities.

Though most tauira are not yet of voting age, they can be empowered within and outside of the classroom to participate in our democracy. As well as Social Studies, English is a natural home to learn the language and ideas of laws, policies and community action.

With more time spent on the knowledge, skills and action required to sustain life on our planet, students can be better supported to lead and get involved in Civics education, taking their research, writing and oral presentations to the institutional powers that govern the country.

More Time to go Cross-curricular

Te Mātaiaho as a whole encourages the building of relationships between kura and mana whenua, providing rich and enduring environmental and social contexts for learning.

Kāpiti College has a long-standing relationship with the Parihaka community in Taranaki, who extended an invitation for the college to adopt the Parihaka Mai Ai programme and weave the ten values throughout our curriculum learning areas.

As part of this mahi, Kaiako Paora Trim wrote the Parihaka production, which drew on student work from Te Reo Māori, kapa haka, dance, drama, music and English. Enviroschools gives a fuller account of this mahi here.

Mana ōrite mo te Mātauranga Māori in English

One explicit shift in the curriculum refresh as a whole is the overdue promotion and incorporation of mana ōrite mō te Matauranga Māori. This challenges teachers, and wider society, to recognise the equal value of Indigenous systems of knowledge in Aotearoa, in an education system founded on colonial assumptions and structures.

How does this relate to English as a subject? One of the Big Ideas in the renewed English curriculum explores the role of language in identity and wellbeing. When Māori students feel welcome as Māori in an English-medium classroom, mana ōrite can begin to be restored. The use of te reo Māori, inextricably tied in with tikanga Māori, is integral to mana ōrite mō te matauranga Māori. This section explores a few ways te reo me ona tikanga can be upheld in an English classroom.

Setting up your class culture at the start of the year

Learn and share pepeha. No matter where we and our ancestors come from, sharing our identities through pepeha is fundamental for tauira and kaiako to be able to establish relationships and meet as equals in the classroom, “kanohi ki te kanohi”.

It is important to understand that tauira who whakapapa Māori will express their kinship links to maunga, awa, moana, waka, etc. in a way that honours their indigeneity.

For non-Māori students, this pepeha article and template is a great place to start.

Choosing your texts and local contexts 

For over 20 years now, the English curriculum has allowed for flexibility and responsiveness with the texts teachers choose to provide students. Many English teachers give equal time and energy to the diverse works of Māori and Pasifika writers, as well as the canonical classics and other contemporary texts.

Our rangatahi deserve to be exposed to a wide range of texts that both reflect and reach beyond their cultural identities in accessible, relevant and stimulating ways.

Ko te reo tōku tuakiri, ko te reo tōku ahurei, ko te reo te ora.

Language is my identity; language is my uniqueness;
language is life.

                   - Purpose statement, refreshed English curriculum

“Language is my identity”, contains echoes of “land is my identity”—whether that be the whenua in Aotearoa for Tangata Whenua, the connections Pākehā and Tauiwi have to this land by way of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, as well as the ancestral lands most of us have in other parts of the world.

As part of getting to know the students in front of you and co-creating local contexts for learning, set them a task to find out (more) about the pūrākau of their iwi and hapū, and/or the ancestral stories from other lands. Who are the published and unpublished, written and oratorical, ancestral and living storytellers of their whānau, hapū and iwi?

We are fortunate to have an abundance of quality literature that recognises that the state of our environment cannot be separated from the history of colonisation, Māori land loss, and commercial development in Aotearoa.

Below are just a few suggestions from my experience that invite analysis and discussion through Indigenous, ‘post’-colonial, ecological lenses.

The short stories of Patricia Grace

"Journey" tells the story of a 71-year old man taking the train from his home to the city to attend a meeting with officials about the future development of his tribal land. English teachers can make the connection with the Grace whānau and their fight to protect their ancestral land when the Kāpiti expressway was being designed, and winning their case.
Here’s a task for the new Level 1 writing standard.

“Matariki All Stars contains themes of aroha, whānau, fatherhood, grief and resilience. Students can examine the way the characters mirror the Matariki constellation and celebrate indigenous cosmology and kinship. Please contact the author for a 4-week unit plan for this short story. 

“Butterflies” is a great story for junior English classes that highlights the difference of values within mātauranga Māori and settler-colonial approaches to growing and maintaining a vegetable garden.

Whales and Dolphins literature unit

This is an engaging way for students to explore and make connections between the local and global issues of our marine megafauna and the way human beings relate to them. 

The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera is an enduring classic about 8-year-old Kahu, a descendant of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whale rider who brought her ancestors on the back of Paikea to Whāngārā on the East Coast of the North Island.

Studying this novel supports mana ōrite mo te matauranga Māori and learning about the environment "through the lenses of kaitiakitanga, whanaungatanga, manaakitanga as well as tangatawhenuatanga" (Mere Meha-Uelese, from kōrero on Secondary English TKI e-list).

Often taught at a junior level, The Whale Rider can be successfully developed at the right level of challenge to Year 11-13 tauira as well.

Sophisticated themes senior students can analyse include:

  • pre- contrasted with post-colonial gender roles and perspectives
  • the way colonisation has fractured communities
  • the relationships different cultures have with whales and dolphins, on spiritual, social, ecological, and economic levels
  • the change that empowered young people bring to the world
  • the way different hapū around the motu follow different tikanga, especially with regards to mana wāhine on the marae

Singing Home the Whale is an award winning novel by Mandy Hager that resonates well with The Whale Rider. This tender and exciting story is set in the Marlborough Sounds and is about the relationship between a teenage boy and a baby orca that the fish farming locals fear is threatening their livelihoods.

Hager is a Pākehā writer who has recognised the importance of respectful consultation with mana whenua in the process of writing Māori characters and perspectives in this work. It contains themes of healing from the trauma of bullying, interspecies communication and connectedness, the power of song, and forging bicultural community partnerships for conflict resolution. 

This Whales and Dolphins in literature unit can be supplemented with the local histories of whaling around Aotearoa, for example, at Kāpiti Island, now a totally protected Marine Reserve, and Tory Channel at the top of Te Waipounamu, which is the setting for another exquisite work of historic fiction, The Blue, a novel by Mary McCallum.

Another engrossing novel, suited to Years 12-13, is Aukati, by Michalia Arathimos. Set in Taranaki, the protagonists are Alexia, a Greek law student escaping the expectations of her family and Isaiah, a young Māori man who returns to his tūrangawaewae to reconnect with his people. Together, they fight to stop fracking on Taranaki iwi land and waterways by fossil fuel companies.

This book presents morally complex questions about local people working in an extractive industry that damages land and waterways, and the most ethical and effective way to protest. Arathimos is another non-Māori fiction writer who models the importance of maintaining relationships with mana whenua in the telling of her story.

Poetry, Essays and Film

Pasifika poetry that weaves Indigenous and ecological concerns include, amongst others, these spoken word gems:

  • Dear Matafele Peinam by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
  • Matariki by Te Kahu Rolleston
  • Waiting Water and Samoa Asks by Aigagalefili Fepulea’i Tapua’i

Spoken word poetry for secondary school students has a vibrant and nurturing hub in the work of Action Education. Some of this work is available online, including Remember Your Atuatanga, written and performed by Kaiya, Ava, Arahi, Piremina, Koromiko, Matariki and Manaia, for Verses in Vision: Truths of Tāmaki.

Tangata Whenua poetry—J.C. Sturm, Hone Tuwhare, Hinemoana Baker, Robert Sullivan,Tayi Tibble—there are too many great poets to name here! As a starting point, seek out these anthologies:

  • Puna Wai Kōrero
  • Te Rito o te Harakeke: a collection of writing for Ihumātao.
  • Te Awa o Kupu (newly published poetry and short fiction; its non-fiction companion is Ngā Kupu Wero)

Tame Iti’sMana – The power in knowing who you areis a spellbinding TEDx talk about identity, dignity, sovereignty and land justice that is perfect for a study of persuasive language and oratory.

The bestselling essay collection, Imagining Decolonisation, published by Bridget Williams Books, offers clearly written, profound and passionate essays about the impacts of colonisation on the present day, and transformational visions for our shared future.

Further afield, for a planetary perspective, Don't Look Up, the Netflix sensation of 2021 set in America, can provoke students to think about the way satire illuminates the global issues of our time. It offers a wider relevance to social and ecological issues in Aotearoa including themes of multinational corporate and political corruption, misinformation, denial, and the manipulation of the truth. The film provides a metaphorical parallel with the climate crisis and Covid-19 pandemic.

Get Extra with Extracurricular: Eco Action Group

English as a subject can also flow from and into environmental action in an extracurricular capacity. College envirogroups, supported by organisations like Enviroschools, are places to meet like minds and develop student leadership, language and communication skills as well as a critical awareness of the health of te taiao.

The Eco Action Group at Kāpiti College is in its eleventh year, meeting at lunchtimes and after hours to take informed action on issues such as climate change and energy use, freshwater quality, marine pollution and biodiversity.

The multilevel age group gets involved in school recycling, the māra kai, beach clean ups, native tree planting and has also assisted advocacy groups such as Low Carbon Kāpiti, Choose Clean Water and 350 Aotearoa.

In 2019, a Year 9 student, Bee Veale, organised a Day of Action for Ihumātao, site of the original food basket of Tāmaki Makaurau which was under threat from a proposed housing development.

Members of the Eco Action Group supported this initiative, attending a lunchtime demonstration and a wānanga with the then Mayor, K Gurunathan, at the college marae.

Some English teachers brought this kaupapa back to the classroom, supplemented by a collection of writing for Ihumātao, Te Rito o te Harakeke, as a context for learning.

Of course, there are many more texts and contexts available beyond the scope of this article, and national networks of English teachers, including the NZ Association for the Teaching of English (NZATE), the Secondary English TKI email list, and the NZ English Teachers Facebook group remain lively, generous spaces to discuss and share curriculum ideas and resources.

Ultimately, the curriculum refresh means we can reorientate ourselves and our tauira to the purpose and “Big Ideas” for learning within and from English, underpinned by the guiding kaupapa and vision for young people in Te Mātaiaho, which complement the values within the diverse and versatile field of environmental education.

With the refreshed curriculum, English as a subject, in collaboration with other learning areas, mana whenua and extracurricular communities, can further foster student agency in the present and future of our world.

Reference List

Aoake, Hana Pera, Overbye, Sinead, Ranapiri, Essa May, Rahurahu, Michelle, (editors). Te Rito o te Harakeke: a collection of writing for Ihumātao, Rangatahi o te Pene, 2019.

Arathimos, Michalia. Aukati, Mākaro Press, 2017.

Grace, Patricia. “Butterflies”, Electric City and other stories, Penguin Books, 1987.

Grace, Patricia. “Journey”, Collected Stories, Penguin Books, 2001.

Grace, Patricia. “Matariki All Stars”, published in the excellent anthology, Black Marks on the White Page (ed. Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti, Penguin Books, 2017).

Hager, Mandy. Singing home the whale, Penguin Books, 2014.

Ihimaera, Witi. The Whale Rider, Penguin Books, 1987.

Kiddle, Rebecca (ed). Imagining Decolonisation, Bridget William Books, 2020.

McCallum, Mary. The Blue, Penguin Books, 2007.

McKay, Adam. Don’t Look Up, Hyperobject Industries and Bluegrass Films, 2021.

Rapatahana, Vaughan and Piahana-Wong, Kiri. Te Awa o Kupu, Penguin Books, 2023.

Whaitiri, Reina and Sullivan, Robert (eds). Puna Wai Kōrero: An anthology of Māori poetry in English, Auckland University Press, 2014.

Useful Links

Aotearoa New Zealand Review of Books

English | Curriculum Refresh (education.govt.nz)


It’s Our Future 2022 (350.org.nz) – art and writing by rangatahi for fossil fuel free schools

E-Tangata – for insightful interviews, analysis, opinion pieces, memoir and a great source for non-fiction articles for the classroom.

Māori Literature Trust

New Zealand Geographic – for richly written environmental and societal essays.

Writers in Schools through ReadNZ - Te Pou Muramura

About the Author

Nicola Easthope (Pākehā, Tangata Tiriti) taught English for 16 years (as well as several years of Social Studies and Psychology) at Paraparaumu and Kāpiti colleges. She has been an environmental educator and activist since high school in the ‘80s and has worked for Greenpeace and Enviroschools.

Nicola is currently studying full time for a Master of Creative Writing through Massey University. Her poetry project examines Pākehā identities and the assimilative attitudes and practices of the church and Native Schools, drawing on the memoirs and letters of her Scottish missionary-teacher ancestors as well as 40+ years of her own journaling. Nicola has two collections of poetry, leaving my arms free to fly around you (Steele Roberts, 2011) and Working the tang (The Cuba Press, 2018). She has appeared as a guest at poetry festivals in Queensland, Tasmania, Wellington and the Manawatū.

You can contact Nicola by email: nicolaeasthopeful@gmail.com

Nicola would like to acknowledge her editors: Lauren Sharpe (Ngā Puhi) and Miriama Gemmell (Ngāti Pāhuwera, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka).

Article Images: Nicola Easthope, used with permission from Kāpiti College and students.

Main Image Caption: L-R: Amanda Dobson, Enviroschools facilitator for Porirua and Kāpiti, Nicola Easthope (author), Fraser Stone (Year 13, 2022) and Pyper Adams (Year 13, 2023).

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