Denise Binderup with New Zealand countryside behind her.

Exploring dark caves for glow worms, listening to the loud chants of dragon boat rowers as they pound through the water, eating and sleeping Maori ritual, slowing down for penguins, and doing professional development with a capital PD are just a few of the remarkable highlights currently filling the days of one of our own district staff.

Wade King Elementary teacher Denise Binderup is one of only 43 U.S. citizens traveling abroad this school year through a grant with the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries.

Late in 2013, Binderup put together the intensive Fulbright application and chose New Zealand as the focus of her travel because of the strong literacy curriculum developed there. In The Bellingham Promise, we ask students to ‘continuously challenge themselves.’  As a role model for this, Binderup derived the courage, the sense of adventure, and the confidence to move forward through the numerous steps of the application process. She states that the application process itself was enough of a learning experience that even if she hadn’t gotten the Fulbright, it would have been worth it. After receiving the award, she spent a week in the summer of 2014 in Washington, D.C. together with the other Fulbright scholars preparing for study abroad. Binderup says that the summer meeting proved to be a deep learning experience, too. “We were busy every minute, learning from speakers, and more importantly, from each other,” she writes.  “When else do you have the opportunity to compare experiences and ideas with teachers from so many different countries? Talk about energizing!”

We caught up with Binderup in March 2015. She was at the midway point in her February through April placement in Wellington, New Zealand. As an educational and cultural exchange, the Fulbright experience does not disappoint.

The Fulbright

What is the nature of your Fulbright? 

Well, I think for anyone who has been a Reading Recovery teacher like I was, New Zealand is an educational mecca. It’s the birthplace of arguably the best reading instruction on the planet. I am here doing research pertaining to training teachers through inquiry to analyze, interpret and diagnose from Running Records beyond just recording levels and percentages.

Being in New Zealand has been exciting for someone interested in literacy instruction. I have been to schools where the entire primary teams have been trained in Reading Recovery. I have met and been able to discuss reading instruction at length with Beverley Randell and visited her vast home/library/museum. She is my favorite author and founder of the best books on the planet I have found for teaching early reading in brilliant, small, incremental steps within fully engaging storylines.

I am here with other Fulbrighters in New Zealand and we refer to each other as “family” because that is exactly what it feels like. We became very close very fast, and we help each other with everything, such as struggling with the University’s ethics applications, babysitting each other’s kids, figuring out how to catch busses to far away schools that we want to visit together, going over project ideas, celebrating family events, lining up interviews with administrators and teachers, and going on weekend backpacking trips.  Sometimes it’s just a relief to have people to help you keep your sense of humor under hard conditions.

Being Abroad

What has been the most mind-blowing travel experience?  Have you experienced the Maori culture?

These two questions go right together under the category of peak life experiences that will never be forgotten! Our group of Fulbrighters was honored to receive a pōwhiri welcoming ritual to the Maori marae (sacred space). This is a strict and formal ceremony of encounter in a sacred meeting area, where at night we all sleep together side by side inside the “sacred ancestor.” We were coached very thoroughly in protocol beforehand on how to enter and conduct ourselves in the meetinghouse where we would spend that day and the next.

Strangers have to wait outside the gate to be invited in. The signal to enter is a woman’s high pitched call to the ancestors, called the Karanga.  The women sang and called to exchange information, built imagery, and established the purpose of our visit while assuring our friendly intent.  Experiencing this sent shivers down my spine!

There was an exchange of greetings by both sides. We learned that speech-giving skills are much prized. During speechmaking (whaikorero) links between the ancestors and the living are made. The speeches were so vivid that many times I felt like I was actually understanding the Maori!  The speakers’ voices are deep and song-like.

Speeches were followed by songs (waiata). The quality of performance is said to be “a matter of critical concern,” reflecting on the orator and group, so we were nervous about accurately singing the old Maori songs that we had learned and practiced as our part of this ceremony. I know that for the rest of my life, hearing or singing those beautiful songs is going to bring tears to my eyes. I can’t wait to teach them to my students the moment I get back.

After the last speech, we were to lay a gift on the ground. Then the hosts move across the sacred space to ‘hongi’ with the guests. The hongi is a pressing of noses, which signifies the mingling together of the sacred breath of life, and the two sides become one. At first you think this will be uncomfortable or odd, touching noses and foreheads with everyone and spending a moment breathing his or her air, but it quickly becomes a comfortable and powerful connecting gesture.

After the sharing of food (hakari) to bind us together, we listened to more lectures on Maori history, stories, and culture given by Maori professors and elders.

It was interesting that the House is acknowledged as a person. Its rafters are its ribs and the ridge beam its spine. About forty of us stayed overnight together in the meetinghouse, sleeping within the ancestor. It was amazing. Forty of us in basically in one bed that wrapped around the walls of the great house, side by side. So much reminded me of Pacific Northwest native longhouses, weavings, canoes and totems. And as I slept inside the body of this great house, looking at its ribs from the inside, listening to all of us breathing together, I actually truly felt that the house itself was alive and breathing.

The next day, we gave our final songs and formal hongi, then back to the outside world! Truly, I do not believe anything I do in New Zealand or most of my life will top this experience!

What do you miss most about home, your classroom at Wade King, or American culture, if anything?

Being here without my family is very difficult for me at times. I miss my family and my daily contact with my wonderful students and teaching cohorts.  Learning to deal with this is one of the main personal lessons I am trying to (forced to!) learn from this experience.  To quote Louisa May Alcott, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship.”

I’m not all there yet, but I am trying!  Sometimes it is very tiring, always having to figure out busses, fighting the rain and extreme wind, getting lost, and figuring how to get groceries home. And you may think the language here would be easy, and that Kiwis speak English, but sometimes you can be looking right at them thinking, “I know that is my language, but I did not understand a word you said!”  I still can’t figure out when and where and why, and in what context, they constantly use the phrase “Sweet As!”

Binderup will be back in her classroom before the end of the school year, sharing more of her experiences with her students and colleagues.




  1. Way to go Denise!
    Thanks for sharing some of your experiences with us back home!
    I loved New Zealand when I visited and your stories make me so happy for you.
    The country and people, not too mention the amazing flora and fauna, seem so “with it”,
    despite their remote location and sense of isolation.
    I too, enjoyed the similarities in NZ to our own Pacific Northwest, and felt a sense of connection there.
    I trust the rest of your time there will continue to be spectacular and I can’t wait for you to return and hear more about it.
    Thanks, Den’!

  2. Wow! Thanks for describing your experiences to us. Your naming New Zealand a world literacy leader reminded me of my time in Acadia University School of Education, where I had the privilege of studying literacy education under New Zealander David Doake before he was forced to retire by age rules (we organized a protest, which was respectfully heard, but did not prevail). One of the things he shared was a series of videos of his son learning to read naturally without basal reader and formal phonics (which Dr. Doake scorned). He was also the only professor in my up-to-then six years of university study who acknowledged the value of my own literacy education and writing skills (I was a science major, but still…), and his encouragement helped me keep writing all these years.

  3. Denise – I am a Bellinghamster (SHS ’75, WWU ’98) and I used to teach at Fairhaven Middle School (98-2001), but moved to NZ 10 years ago and am a teacher-librarian here in Auckland. Contact me if you want some insight/experience on NZ education. I work at Westlake Girls High School on the North Shore and we have a roll of 2200 students Y9-13.

  4. hi Denise! The story of your Maori experience and reflections on New Zealand literacy education excited me. We spent 6 months in Wanganui in 2008. It was a life altering opportunity for us too. I would love to swap stories when you return and catch your breath!

    Cheers! Sue

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