One Question Quiz
Why are there so few indigenous texts being taught in high schools? 
 (Image: Archi Banal)?
Why are there so few indigenous texts being taught in high schools? (Image: Archi Banal)?

BooksOctober 25, 2023

99 Problems – text choice ain’t one 

Why are there so few indigenous texts being taught in high schools? 
 (Image: Archi Banal)?
Why are there so few indigenous texts being taught in high schools? (Image: Archi Banal)?

English teacher and wahine Māori, Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, responds to last month’s investigation into what books are being taught in Aotearoa classrooms.

Last month The Spinoff published a piece called The English department reading lists of Aotearoa, investigated and reviewed. The list is full of classic novels, many of which were published far before my own parents were even born – shockingly, only one text from the list was written in this millennium. How many of the texts are from Aotearoa? To quote the great local poet  and prophet Scribe, “not many, if any”. In fact, there wasn’t a single text on the list by a local writer, not a single novel written by Māori or Pasifika writers and only two by women.

While the initial investigative piece offered some hints as to why the extended texts our students are reading are so pale and stale (and mostly male), there’s a big brown elephant in the room that needs addressing. As a wahine Māori who is also an English teacher, I’d like to debunk some excuses and offer some thoughts as to why our students should be studying How To Loiter In a Turf War by Coco Solid and Mutuwhenua by Patricia Grace over Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies. 

Money ain’t a thang 

You have to understand that English departments, at their best, are collaborative, full of critical thinking and student centred. At their worst, they are highly political, competitive hierarchical hellscapes, particularly if you’re a new and/or minority teacher.

It can be very difficult to have new ideas accepted by a more experienced department. I have worked in a handful of schools in my decade of teaching, across a range of deciles. Each school presents unique obstacles in terms of implementing change. Budget, while still an important factor, has not once been the biggest hurdle, even at lower decile schools. If a stalwart in your department has been eyeing up a new text for their Y13’s, and you’re fresh out of training and want to experiment with a new text they’ve never heard of, you’re not going to win that budget battle. More often than not, this is more about power than it is about money.

This could be why the initial list explains that there is more diversity in the text choices for short stories and poetry, where the only hits are against the photocopy allocation, not egos. 

Until the end of time 

There’s that ancient Pākehā whakatauākī that goes, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. If what you’ve always got by teaching texts like The Great Gatsby has been decent exam results, then why mess with a winning plan? Especially if a new plan is going to take hours and hours to prepare. 

One answer is that even classic texts can age poorly. I once was really proud to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and The Help and Freedom Writers. Now when I see a teacher suggest these on the English Teacher’s Facebook page, I cringe. Texts that I used to think of as being great vehicles for discussion on racism are now so obviously dripping with white saviourism, I feel embarrassed. Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimised by the teaching of The Blindside in an English classroom? I want to apologise to my past black and brown students for the harm I’ve caused them. You should not have had to sit through lessons in my classroom where a white protagonist was celebrated for quite simply not being a super shit human being. Aroha atu ki a koutou kātoa. Continuing to teach texts where white people are championed for not being racist reinforces the values of white supremacy. As English teachers we need to carefully consider why we continue to teach some of these texts and further to that, who is benefitting from us doing what we’ve always done? A text does not need to have performed well in past exams, to perform well for the first time. The safeguard against the fear of texts not performing well is in fact – in the teaching (surprise!). 

I have worked with teachers who are teaching the exact same texts that I was taught 20 years ago. When I teach the same thing year in, year out, I’m doing it because I think that they are solid choices. If I’m being completely honest, I’m also teaching those same texts because in the thick of a teaching term I don’t always have gas in the tank to prepare new units of work and resources. You don’t have to work too hard to imagine the wealth of learning resources that are available online for a book written in the 1920s. You can also imagine the amount of “model essays” also available to our students for these text choices. Now with the very real threat of robots writing our kids’ essays for them, I can’t think of a better time to diversify and localise our text choices. 

You can see how some teachers get caught peddling the same thing over and over, especially when the results look safe. Teachers are under-valued, under-paid and overworked across the board. We aren’t supposed to be in the business of making sure students pass exams, we are in the classroom for teaching and learning. So what are we teaching our students about trying new things and taking calculated risks when we teach the same thing over and over? 

The 2023 Ockham Book Awards longlist (Image: Archi Banal)

Empire state of mind 

I am a huge fan of our local lit scene: it is thriving. Whatever measures you use to count success, we have it here in Aotearoa in abundance. We have fantastic writers doing big, fancy things too, like winning competitions across the globe, being accepted to international writer’s residencies and being published by The New Yorker. Half of the titles on the 2023 Ockhams longlist were written by Māori. Despite these successes, many classrooms are still confining their local texts to short forms, like short stories and poetry, and are ignoring the novel. What message does this send to students about how much we value Māori and Pasifika writers?

I refuse to accept that Aotearoa has not produced any novels in the last 20 years that can stand up to those on the list. So, what is the blockage here?

One reason why Māori and Pasifika writing is often confined to short text choices lies in prejudiced attitudes. A teacher based in Pōneke explained to me how “shocking” it was to her when older, Pākehā teachers would make comments regarding the lack of quality in New Zealand literature. They heard one teacher in particular state that, “younger writers don’t write properly” and when faced with writing by non-Pākehā poets, even went as far to profess, “that’s not a proper poem”. In our education system, designed by and for non-Māori, it is too easy for Pākehā teachers to consider themselves the gatekeepers of what counts as quality. 

When I spoke  to some English teachers about this kaupapa, issues of both invalidation and avoidance were raised. One English HOD, based in Te Waipounamu, commented that she found it to be an interesting conundrum when Pākehā teachers made comments about feeling that they “are not in a position of knowledge to teach Māori texts”. These same teachers have no issue teaching texts by other ethnic groups and minorities with presumably less knowledge. 

No doubt, there will be English teachers all over the country with painfully similar anecdotes. These anecdotes highlight the influence of white guilt on our text choices by our Pākehādominated teacher workforce. It can be easy for teachers to be critical about other oppressive systems in other countries when we are further removed. It is much harder to confront ideas of racism when they come from the lived experiences of our neighbours and students, and when we as teachers are often beneficiaries of the oppressive system upon the page.

When we keep racism “over there” as something that happens in other countries and between other cultures – through prejudiced beliefs, withdrawing or avoiding – we keep ourselves comfortably blind to the harm we contribute. How is it that we are leaders on the world stage in so many ways, yet we have normalised colonial hierarchies, to the extent that it seems acceptable to only choose extended texts that prop up western ways of thinking and being?

Nice for what 

It’s widely accepted that Taika Waititi is one of our best filmmakers, and who am I to argue with the Academy? With this in mind, you can imagine the shock I got when starting at a new school, where 50% of the students were Māori, when I was told I could not teach the film Boy. I wanted to teach it to my low level (yes, they streamed) Year 12 class, but my Pākehā Head of Department told me that it wasn’t sophisticated enough. 

For some, Boy is a comical story about a drop-kick dad and Boy’s struggle to decide whether to follow in his absent father’s footsteps or not. Others will see the complex layers in the characters of Boy. I’ve read stunning essays by students on the responsibility of being a mataamua, the fragility of childhood innocence, the power of healing as a whānau and the intergenerational effects of trauma on our men. I shudder to think about what my Pākehā Head of Department made from Once Were Warriors, when she went on to teach it to our only Year 13 English class later in the year. 

I saw a similar attitude mirrored in an essay I once marked, written by a Māori student at a different school, who had been taught that the main themes of Boy were about making better choices to avoid poverty. It broke my Māori heart. This teacher had not only missed an opportunity to look through that Māori lens we hear so much about in education, but they had unknowingly weaponised a Māori text to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Māori people, simply because they could not meet the work culturally. 

Perhaps our teachers are choosing such old, white texts because they don’t have the necessary know-how to do indigenous texts justice? I wholeheartedly think we should be teaching more indigenous texts. Do I want those texts taught by people who have not yet undertaken the necessary decolonisation mahi? Absolutely not. Improving the cultural competency of our teachers is vital and the buck stops with every English curriculum leader in the country, to ensure our ākonga experience the richness and vitality of indigenous literature.

It isn’t just about choosing any text by Māori either. We need to be more mindful about choosing texts which speak to the breadth of tangata whenua experience, from hāngī to tangi, maunga to moana, and protest to performance. The forthcoming changes to the curriculum support teaching a range of Māori voices in our texts, so very soon it is not going to be acceptable to teach a single poem with its “nice” imagery and “pleasant” vibes (or only Once Were Warriors). These “nice” text choices contribute to what Dr Liana MacDonald describes as an epistemology of ignorance, which underpins our education system. Teachers feel comfortable selecting texts by Māori writers which are “lovely” and don’t demand any critique of the system many of us benefit from. Choosing such texts reinforces a narrative that our bicultural identity is harmonious and always has been. These ways of thinking can get in the bin, alongside comments you may have overheard during professional development workshops, like “I treat all my students exactly the same” and “we are all one race”. 

There is power in our words, and if we are only choosing to teach the words that don’t make some of us uncomfortable we are invalidating not just indigenous writing, but ideas and cultural values too. While many teachers would not admit to this behaviour, we must confront it as an act of silencing. Teachers may feel good (even heroic) about teaching Māori and other minority voices in short texts, but they don’t seem so confident in the same voices to teach a novel. If indigenous writers are writing their lived experiences, we need to ensure our ākonga have the opportunity to read and examine them without a silent insistence on reinforcing settler colonial ideals. 


Aotearoa Histories is about to become prescribed across the Social Sciences Curriculum. The curriculum has always allowed History Departments and their teachers the autonomy to choose to teach Aotearoa Histories. Either the knowledge base wasn’t there, or the willingness has been lacking and now we have to prescribe its inclusion. On reading the list of most popular exam texts, many would argue it is time we do the same for English. Changes to NCEA are just around the corner. Units will need to be revised, some will be scrapped completely in favour of fresher content. Kua tae te wā, kaiako mā. 

There are so many novels written by a vast range of people who call Aotearoa home. For most of our teaching workforce, the Māori lens is something you can pick up and look through when considering what and how to teach, but we cannot forget that for our Māori students, there is no taking those tino rangatiratanga tinted glasses off. For our Māori students, there is no lens at all, just a Māori way of being. Each day, we provide these students a 9am-3pm window into what the world thinks of them. What do you want them to see?

Let’s do the mahi now and ensure that we are giving our students the opportunities to read indigenous stories, to know that they are valid, of a high quality and to be empowered by novels that they might be able to see themselves in.

Keep going!