Alistair’s Story

Reflections from year 1

This is my fifth year of teaching. Currently, I am the Aboriginal Education Coordinator at my school; I have just been doing it this year. So originally I was interested in working with Indigenous students because I like the cultural side of it. The professional development I’ve done in the past has been more about cultural awareness or just a better understanding of Aboriginal cultures. And then when this culturally responsive pedagogy action research came about, our deputy principal talked to me about it and I thought it was an interesting concept to look at and to do some research, because there was nothing really around at that time and I really didn’t know anything about culturally responsive pedagogy. So I thought it would probably be a good experience and I’m all for anything to do with culture and trying to understand culture and bringing that to the kids’ lives. So why not see where this goes?

What I’ve learnt is there is a difference between trying to do culturally responsiveness and actually setting yourself up to be culturally responsive. In the past, I would give my students my own personal example. I am Latvian and do a lot of Latvian things, like I speak Latvian, I do Latvian folk dancing, I participate in Latvian events. And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh I’m going to really promote my Latvianness to get kids to engage with their own culture’. I had a very multicultural class, and I remember one of the boys said to me, ‘We always know you are Latvian, you always keep talking about being Latvian’. And I said to them, ‘The reason I do it is that you kids are all from various cultures, and I just want you to be okay that you are from another culture. By me showing that I am really embracing my other culture’. But I think now, reflecting back, I don’t know whether that was me being culturally responsive. I think it was me trying to be culturally responsive, but maybe not doing as well as I could have. I don’t think it worked as well because it didn’t really have any theory behind it. It was just an idea.

But now that I have some understanding and grounding in what the purpose is and how you can best channel that responsiveness. So I think, for me, the CRP action research was very beneficial because it’s something I think about all the time now. You really need to think about the pedagogy you are using to be culturally responsive, that’s what I learnt. So next year how can I be culturally responsive in that class? What pedagogy could I use? I see it works. I see that kids engage, but where and how do I use it? 

Reflections from year 2

In the second year of the action research, I really focused on one class, which was the gifted and talented (G&T) students. I was looking at discussion and discussion-based pedagogy, so how to get kids to discuss with one another to increase, not only their rigour, but their engagement, and looking at that through Year 10 Geography.

I developed a five-week unit around the theme of mapping. So in order to encourage discussion in the classroom, I was specifically structuring the class in a way so they would have to talk to one another. So one lesson would have random groups, and then it’d be a group of my choosing, then a slightly smaller group, then paired. And all the learning activities were discussion-based. So there might be some writing or some creating but it was always done in a group, it was never done individually. That was the idea—that students had to work with one another all the time, there was no option for them just to be by themselves for a long period of time. Because I think my gifted and talented students liked doing lots of independent work and didn’t really want to interact. 

Initially they were very hesitant to discuss with one another. But by the end, because we did it so many times, the students did feel comfortable discussing and when I had feedback from them, they said they actually found it was useful and beneficial. I think all of the students actually learnt a lot from this discussion-based pedagogy, or Harkness pedagogy

There definitely was a fair bit of cultural diversity across the class; I’d say easily over 50% of the students had some cultural background that was not Australian. So I had a girl who was born in Australia but had a strong connection to her Irish culture and she did Irish folk dancing. I had kids from the Middle East, about four from India and Pakistan, a couple from South East Asia and another student who was born in Australia but had a Bosnian Serbian connection.

I didn’t say, ‘What is your culture? What does culture mean to you?’ I just wanted them to think about the aspects of their life and maybe consider different aspects of culture. So right at the start of the unit they did a questionnaire with questions like, What is your religion? Do you practice anywhere in your local community? Do you speak another language at home? What sports teams do you like? So try to prod those students who may consider themselves ‘cultureless’ so they could see they had a whole variety of things in their lives they could talk about. I tried to just let the idea of culture permeate within my class through their discussions, I didn’t want to explicitly teach ‘about’ culture, I didn’t want them to have a definition of culture in their head. I guess for me it’s trying to get them to realise that culture is maybe not just about where you come from, it can be who you participate with and what you believe, all those things. So that was my goal, not to explicitly say ‘this is culture’, but just talk about culture in an everyday way and get kids to make those links back to what they consider to be part of themselves.

I think they did engage with the learning. It was very interesting because, in terms of grades, I don’t think they were as successful in their tasks as they would have been if I had set an essay topic, because I made them do something which was completely different that they were unfamiliar with. But I think they learnt much more.

For example, I had one girl who got a 6 out of 8 in a mapping activity, which is a bit lower than her usual. She was a very academic student but was reluctant to do group work; only wanted to talk to people she was friendly with, loved any kind of writing, didn’t want to do any discussion, visual, multimodal activities. And a lot of this stems from her fear ‘I don’t know if what I’m going to say is right. What will people think if I don’t have the right answer?’ For the mapping assignment I said, ‘You have control of everything’, and that frazzled her a little bit. So she did, really well in the writing component because that was quite structured. But drawing the map I think was a little bit challenging for her because I didn’t tell her what to put on the map. I said, ‘It’s all about you and what you think it is important and why you think it’s important’, and that was a challenge for her.

But then some of the students who were not as strong in writing did fantastic in their maps because they could express themselves a bit more and they weren’t boxed in by a set formula that they may not always understand completely. And again, when I asked them to do their maps, originally there was this huge worry about, ‘What type of map do I have to use?’ And I said, ‘You can do whatever you want, we’ve studied all these types, it’s all up to you’. And that was, I think, exciting for the kids but also challenging for those who really liked structure. And I think the kids who usually had lower level grades actually went up, the kids with very high-level grades but who feared the freedom went down a little bit. And the kids who were always high level but like that creativity also improved. So I think the kids who really wanted structure in their final assessment didn’t do as well but I think they learnt more than they probably have in the whole year by me requiring them to do that.

I had three Indigenous students in that class and two of them attended mostly. I did find that the more I challenged my Aboriginal students the more they responded. I had one girl who, even before doing this unit, had shown improvement, wanting to be at school more. And making her interact with other people—because she wasn’t a strong communicator with others—she was very happy to do that. And she was actually quite successful and got a quite successful grade as well at the end. So I was really happy with her.

And another Indigenous student attended mostly. We had Geography in the first lesson on Monday and she was usually a bit late. But she was able to come in and really quickly engage with the group. So if she came in late she could just slot into a group and it wasn’t like she had to learn from the start. And she was also quite successful in her assessment task.

So for those two Indigenous students, they actually were quite successful and I think they did engage with the topic. There wasn’t like a huge ‘I want to do something specific to my Aboriginality’, but they were happy to talk about it more. And we watched a short 50 minute documentary about the Aboriginal rock art petroglyphs up in WA and they were very interested in that and talked about that and why that was important. So I did introduce some aspects of Aboriginal Perspectives in my teaching and they were interested in that as well. So I think that was important.

I think for some of the kids in that class, grades are the most important thing, and I wanted them to challenge that. ‘You don’t always have to get an A. You can do a lot of learning yet maybe not demonstrate the best learning in the piece that I mark at the end’. But if I was to mark holistically, not just the assignment but the whole unit, all my kids would have easily got Bs or higher, because they were always participating, they were always interacting, they were always willing to give stuff a go. They did a lot of learning, probably more than they’d done in any unit I’ve taught this year. Learning in a broader sense, not only with the topic but that ability to interact with others.

And for those students who were not great on the academic side—and I’m not saying CRP doesn’t lead to academic outcomes—it let them be creative and it gave them an opportunity to reflect more on themselves. So there’s kids who maybe weren’t strong in the subject of Geography, but it could branch into their own lives and make connections. And every kid who did the assignment, all of them passed. Even the kids who had low literacy or were usually disengaged or low attenders, all of them passed.

I do think that some of my kids, if I didn’t do a task like this, they would never do any group work at all. So I think it really supported them into working with people they wouldn’t usually work with and could feel comfortable doing that. And I’m pretty certain that next year they’d be okay to work with somebody who wasn’t necessarily a friend and still get a good mark, whereas prior to this unit I don’t know if that would have been true.

Meeting up with the research team and all the teachers who were part of the action research project was hugely beneficial—that twice a term get together—because we could talk and consult with one another. Lots of other teachers in the project gave me ideas. I think some of the readings were really beneficial as well because they did solidify what I was doing. So it was just a good foundation generally for me.

The biggest thing is it made you reflect on your practice—that’s the one thing that teachers don’t do very well because everyone is time poor. But it made me go, ‘Stop, what do I actually want to do? I want to do Geography mapping. No, no, no. I want them to discuss, that was the key’. So I had to really think about that and then consider how am I going to get them to do that. I’ll have to do all this structuring, I’ll have to talk to them about how to ask good questions, I have to break all that down. And then once I had that idea, ‘Now I can find some readings to help support the idea?’ So it broadens the idea of teaching as part of an academic process as well. And I think out of all my units I’ve taught this year, this was my best unit, because I had to be really focussed, had to have an insight, a goal, but also really structure where I wanted my students to go. And talking that through with other teachers and even with the researchers, those things really help me. And when one of the researchers came and observed about four of my classes, that was also really beneficial. She gave me some of the recordings of my class and that was fantastic because that also made me reflect on what I was doing.

So CRP just naturally informs my practice now. I’ve just seen so many benefits from it. In terms of my teaching, I’ve reflected more, I’ve realised that I have to be really specific about what I want students to do to make sure they achieve. I learnt that it was good for students to talk about themselves and for me to ask questions, challenge them on their own thoughts. I think sometimes we don’t challenge kids enough. And I’ve realised that I can actually be a really good teacher when I have those outcomes in place.

I do think, especially now schools are highly diverse, CRP is extremely beneficial not only for the students, but for the staff and the families. I think it’s one of those things that really connects all those three together. We usually look at CRP for kids who might not be able to achieve in the curriculum to get them engaged. Well what it does it mean for kids who are already highly engaged, for example my G&T kids? What are the implications for those students as well? For all students?

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