Palmerston North City, New Zealand

First Voice

Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School

April 30, 2018

A storytelling project brings first and second generation migrant school students and mentors together to write stories in their first languages.

How do you build confident and motivated students and an inclusive school environment? The answer is to acknowledge and celebrate the cultures, languages and life stories students bring with them, says Barb Drake, who for the seventeenth year running, has organized Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School’s, First Voice initiative.

In a packed school hall in Palmerston North in New Zealand under the glare of the stage lights, Saim Ahmed, age 12, expertly bowls a tennis ball towards the batsman.

New Zealand and Pakistan remember the 1992 Cricket World Cup for very different reasons. New Zealand, the favourite, remembers being eliminated in a semi-final. Pakistan, which lost four of its first five matches, remembers winning the Cup.

Saim, playing the part of Pakistan’s captain Imran Khan, is reenacting the moment of Pakistan’s victory in the final against England.

Imran Khan is the famous person Saim Ahmed and his fellow Pakistani-background students have chosen to talk about at this year’s Multicultural Assembly.

For 17 years, the annual Multicultural Assembly has been a highlight of the school’s calendar. It marks the publication of the First Voice booklet, which features stories written by the students in the languages they speak at home with their families.

Palmerston North is a provincial city of around 80,000 people in the lower half of New Zealand’s North Island. Historically a farming service town, it is now the country’s seventh largest city, home to one of New Zealand’s eight universities, a number of research institutions, a major hospital and a military camp.

It is a city in the midst of demographic change. According to medium growth projections, by 2043 the city will have added 17,200 people to the population it had in 2013. There will be more jobs, income levels will be higher, and the population will, on average, be slightly older. But the most dramatic change will be in the ethnic mix.

By 2038, according to the projections, the Pacific community will have increased from 3,870 people in 2013 to 8,410, with Pasifika people making up 8.7 per cent of the city’s population. The Asian population will have climbed by 7,950 people, making up 17 per cent of the city’s population. The Maori population will have risen by 10,500, accounting for 25.6 per cent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, the ‘European and other’ category will have fallen from 79.9 per cent to 69.7 per cent of the population.

But you do not have to wait for time to go by to see the new Palmerston North emerging. Teachers like Barb see the evidence everyday

In 2016, around half of the students on the Palmerston North school roll were European Pakeha (non-Maori), with the other half made up of 27 per cent Maori, 5 per cent Pacific Island and 9 per cent Asian.


Global voices, global heroes

Each year the stories in the First Voice publication have a different theme. In 2017 it is ‘Famous People’. The 57 stories in 22 languages cover people most New Zealanders know – Gandhi, Alexander the Great, Jackie Chan – and many they would not.

Rumaan from Pakistan writes in Urdu in Perso-Arabic script. Chamasha from Sri Lanka writes in Sinhalese, which has its own intricately curved alphabet. Emma from China writes in Mandarin using Chinese characters.

For as many as half of the children, the experience of writing in their first language will be new: these are languages they speak, not write. However, they have had help.

When writing their stories, each child works with a migrant mentor.

Together, the student and the mentor write a first draft, which the student then carefully copies and illustrates for publication. It is a time of intense heads-down concentration as they make sure everything is perfect, says Barb Drake, who heads the programme. “You can hear a pin drop.”

Barb, who is a trained primary school teacher, began teaching English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) when approached by a friend who was teaching at her daughter’s school.

“My friend said ‘I have five children that don’t speak English, can you come and help me?’,” says Barb.

For three years Barb taught ESOL part time, “and I just loved it”, before moving to another part-time job with Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School and taking part in the first-ever First Voice in 2000.

Multicultural and multilingual

Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School is highly multicultural and multilingual and very proud to be so.

Collectively, the school’s current roll of approximately 700 students speaks around 36 different languages, and Barbara estimates that there are around 138 children who don’t speak English at home. Which of the non-English languages are most spoken varies year to year. This year the larger part of the 138 students speak Mandarin or Cantonese, she says, but Urdu and Arabic are also well represented.

A few steps away from the school’s reception area there is a language board with the names and photographs of students under the headings of their first languages.

From the moment of their arrival, PNINS wants new students to feel safe, supported and valued, says Barb. The language board is part of this: a place where new students can identify other people who share their language and cultural background.

Most of Barb’s ESOL students are educated and have at least a little preparation in English. But she also sees students with limited schooling who have little or no knowledge of English at all.

New students also see the school’s inclusive culture at work at the weekly Monday-morning school assembly.

“We have two children who stand up and announce the name of the week’s country. This week it is Fiji; next week it’s the Netherlands. And when we ask a question about the country all of the children’s hands go up.”


Formal recognition for the First Voice initiative came in the form of an award from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission in 2009.

Barb has seen how well her students do in later life, achieving academic and professional success. She has seen the how First Voice connects the school with the children’s families and the wider migrant community.

“Every grandparent’s and parent’s dream is for their child to be able to speak and write in their language,” says Barb.

The mentors for First Voice also treasure the experience. “I get the warm fuzzies when I see my children interacting with these adults, there is so much laughter and fun.” says Barb.

Sometimes mentoring leads to other things. A Thai international student who mentored a student and missed Thai food found himself invited to a series of Sunday dinners by the student’s family. Another mentor became a teacher’s aide.

Palmerston North City Library supports First Voice, hosting the workshop where the mentors and students work together, presenting each student with a copy of the finished publication at the school’s multicultural assembly, and holding a public exhibition of the children’s work, which in 2017 featured video interviews.

“I really appreciate the generous long-term support of the Palmerston North City Library and the Manawatu Multicultural Centre,” says Barb. “First Voice is an expression of the values of the Palmerston North community.”

Palmerston North is a pilot community in New Zealand’s Welcoming Community initiative.

Making it Work for You:

  • Go out of your way to celebrate cultural difference
  • Find the key influencers within your school and work with them
  • Create positive customs and traditions and embed them within your institution
  • Reach out to your local community for support; you will be amazed by the goodwill you encounter
  • Publicly acknowledge people’s contributions