Television changed our day jobs: Part II

Suzy Cato, TVNZ
Shawn Cooper, TVNZ & Avondale College

Welcome to Part II of this two-part blog where we share some of the ‘inside story’ behind the educational television channels broadcast during the COVID lockdowns in Aotearoa New Zealand. This blog builds on Part I, in which Cathy Buntting shares insights from the teams involved in writing and reviewing the scripts for the science episodes.

Filming junior maths and science episodes

Suzy Cato

To begin with, the process was incredibly tight, with scripts arriving only a couple of days before the completed episodes needed to be delivered to TVNZ, ready to air. This occasionally provided extra challenges as props weren’t easily sourced due to the limitations of lockdown. However, the writing teams were very accommodating, allowing presenters to adapt a script to suit the props they had available.

The timing across a script was also something that needed to be taken into consideration – sometimes parts that were ‘scheduled’ for longer were actually much quicker when filmed. Again, the teams at the Science Learning Hub and Educational Technology were fantastic to work with and gave quick turn around responses to queries regarding editing and/or adding examples and activities to adjust the overall duration of an episode.

We all worked all hours of the day and night – there were no weekends, and the learning curve was steep for everyone in a team member’s whānau.  My husband was the perfect example of a “home learner” during this time, as he frantically learnt how to use the camera, lighting and sound equipment that we had only just purchased (intending to tour with, much later in the year), before he learnt how to edit the segments we were recording! The sense of achievement he felt was akin to the joy a young viewer experienced when their carefully made rain gauge actually captured some rain.   

The response via the HLTV Social Media platforms and my own SM was fantastic.  Families were so grateful for the content and the ideas, as well as the way that the television series helped to normalise such an unusual situation. It was truly an honour to be a part of such an incredible team of talented, knowledgeable, passionate and hardworking people.

Filming middle and senior science and maths-science integrated episodes

Shawn ‘The Science Guy’ Cooper

I was first approached through a contact via the Biology Olympiad to participate in the development of the education television channel. As the project was still awaiting final governmental approval, very little additional detail was provided. Within a week, lesson plans started arriving in my inbox written by a group of (at that stage) mystery science educators.

Next, producers from TVNZ contacted me with instructions on how to access the temporary studio that was set up to adhere to COVID restrictions. The Parnell studio turned out to be nearly as empty as the motorway. I quickly learned how to fit myself with a microphone, interact with the whiteboard and television screen on set and read my prepared script from the autocue. With no camera operators in the room, and little time or room for error, the challenge was on: “When we start rolling, there’s no stopping or retakes, so don’t swear if you make a mistake… just carry on.”

Shawn ‘The Science Guy” Cooper

In the weeks to come, I got into a rhythm of preparing presentations and writing scripts to add my experience and voice to detailed lesson plans.  It was a great relief when I finally had a chance to meet the writing team at the Science Learning Hub via a Zoom conference. Connecting with the team, I could feel their passion for science education and appreciate the effort put into creating the lessons for me to deliver. I was overcome with a sense of privilege and responsibility to bring their lessons to life and create a resource that would have value for teachers, students and their wider whānau. Before long, I saw my voice appearing, already written into the scripts. Over time, I began to realise that this project had given me some wonderful gifts.

Re-igniting my science teaching enthusiasm

First, my enthusiasm for teaching science was re-ignited in new and surprising ways. The team at the Science Learning Hub drew on the lives and challenges of kiwi scientists to create contexts for many of the lessons. I began playing and experimenting to see what activities children at home could do to connect with the process of doing science.

Second, I was able to explore critical pedagogy, tackling themes related to human health, climate change, border and food security, and kaitiakitanga. From our historic and present relationships with the endemic flora and fauna of Aotearoa to our special relationship with Antarctica and the Pacific Islands, I was inspired to produce teaching and learning resources to promote science literacy while empowering viewers to take action in the local and global community. I remember thinking that in a strange way, perhaps some viewers would gain a better view of the outside world as a result of being locked down at home.     

Finally, and most significantly, I was challenged to incorporate te reo and tikanga into each lesson as part of my commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi.  The inclusion of te reo, whakataukī, pūrākau and tikanga into the lessons was the best professional learning a Canadian/Kiwi could have asked for. Incorporating mātauranga Māori, giving a voice to Māori knowledge, traditions, beliefs and understanding was an authentic endeavour in ako. I was both student and teacher, working hard to model to other teachers how to embrace the vulnerability that many of our learners face each day, and I needed to trust that my humility and effort would transmit through the screen.

Challenges of the project

Herein, I found one of the most challenging aspects of the project. The target audience for Papa Kāinga (Home Learning TV) was the least connected community in the country. Despite some friends sending me pictures of their children holding up drawings and creations they had made while watching Shawn the Science Guy, there was very little feedback coming in from our target community. For a teacher fuelled by the in-person interactions with my students, The camera lens provided very little feedback with which to engage. As a writing and production team, there was also very little time to watch and reflect on already recorded episodes. It was unbelievably humbling to later return to Avondale College and hear some stories of how Papa Kāinga touched the learners in my community.

Strangely, following lockdown, my year 9 class which is primarily made up of priority learners kept requesting that we watch some of the episodes in class. At first, I protested, asking why they would want to watch me on TV rather than have a live performance, and I persisted with the prescribed school learning program.  However, with time, I was able to incorporate some of the TV lessons into the subsequent unit of work. I realised quickly that the novelty of multimedia, along with them asking me about what it was like to work in a TV studio helped build connections between me and my class. They also found it quite novel to see me speaking more te reo than I typically use in class, understanding that I too had to learn during lockdown.

Humbling experiences

The most humbling of experiences came after our first whole-school assembly following the Aotearoa-wide lock-down. The Head Girl stopped to talk. She said that seeing one of the teachers in her living room during lockdown had been comforting. Then she added, “You can’t understand how happy it made me seeing you speaking my reo.” In that one moment, all of the time and effort was rewarded.

“You can’t understand how happy it made me seeing you speaking my reo.”

It’s hard to believe that four months and a second Auckland regional lock-down have passed, and that we’re quickly heading towards the end of the school year. My family and friends have been reassured that any delusions Shawn the Science Guy may have had of rivalling Suzy Cato’s celebrity status have faded away as I find myself back in my usual role as Mr Cooper – Science Teacher.

Looking back at my participation in Papa Kāinga TV, I trust that tamariki across New Zealand were able to connect to the contexts, concepts and content of each lesson. Moreover, it is my hope that we realised an overarching goal of creating a teaching and learning resource that uniquely represents Aotearoa, features the work of kiwi scientists, and responds to the global issues facing kiwi kids. As a team, it has been an honour to contribute to something that was truly bigger than what any of us could have done on our own. 

To read Cathy Buntting’s Part I of this blog, click here.

Suzy Cato has been a household name in NZ for several decades and is best known as the much loved friend of whānau nationwide with the preschool programme You & Me. Her radio kids show is shared by 25 radio stations across Aotearoa every weekend and her songs and storybooks light up a ‘Mat-time” session. Suzy was reacquainted with her young friends, via DWTS in 2018 and more recently when she joined forces and talents with the Science Learning Hub and Education Technology to provide Math and Science segments for young learners on Home Learning TV during Lockdown. Suzy says, “she loved every minute of the learning fun”!

Shawn Cooper Head ShouldersShawn Cooper is the Specialist Classroom Teacher and Teacher of Senior Biology and Science at Avondale College in Auckland. He is passionate about engaging students in critical issues through science education, earning a Masters degree while exploring community service-learning. During the Covid-19 response, Shawn participated in the development and delivery of middle and senior science lessons for Papa Kainga TV. Shawn serves as an Environmental Council Leader and coaches the Boys’ Volleyball teams at Avondale College. He is a member of the New Zealand International Biology Olympiad Executive and educator with the Whakapikia Ake programme. Shawn has previously worked as an educator in the LENScience Programme and he was the HOD Biology at St. Mary’s College in Auckland. 



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