Anna and Evan’s story
Evan: I’ve been working at Acacia Early Learning Centre for six years now, most of that time as a full-time co-educator. Here, we always work with cultural and other types of diversity; it’s always been a part of the site. I can’t remember doing any professional development around Reggio Emilia or CRP outside of this site. Three or four years ago there was a Department-wide upgrading of early years co-educators and supporting staff, and everyone had to have a minimum of a Certificate Three qualification at that stage. And part of the qualification was cultural competency. They talked about diversity a fair bit; it was a module of the course. I’ve not got a lot of memory of what I learned from it, but I do remember being alerted to the importance of being sensitive to the existence of other people’s cultural values and the caution that’s necessary to be respectful. That’s about all I remember about it.
Anna: This is my first year at Acacia Early Learning Centre. So I did my final year uni placement here the year before. The Reggio Emilia approach is already pretty embedded here, but I think this project would be the first culturally responsive PD I have had. As part of my university degree I didn’t do cultural competency, but we had Aboriginal Education, which went for a semester.
The whole school site, including Acacia Early Learning Centre, is broken up into communities. In the early learning centre each child has a home group. So each educator has a group of kids that we’re their ‘go to’ and they come to us for group times and I’ve got responsibility to report on and assess those kids. But we also interact with all the kids from the other groups.
Evan: For the project, we focused on the distribution of voices heard during our community group times. Does the distribution seem fair? Why we were hearing some voices and not others, and what was causing that?
Anna: And what we could do to flip it? What we could do to make the people we were hearing all the time listen, and for the people who didn’t want to talk or couldn’t talk feel like they could be heard, even if it wasn’t through talking?
So we decided to reduce the group size significantly. We had two educators and six kids, whereas normally we have two of us and twenty-one kids. And then we worked with that small group in fifteen-minute bursts weekly, for six or seven weeks. We did an audio recording of conversation and then we did a video recording of someone in the group teaching us a monkey bar trick in the playground, and we played that back to the kids.
Evan: The talkers recognised their dominance. Now, I don’t think that the experience of them recognising it will be enough on its own for them to change. They don’t have the presence of mind or the ability to alter that on their own I don’t think. We haven’t seen that yet.
Anna: But they have started. A couple of times they’ve said things that have stuck with me. For example, everyone was talking and one of the kids that talked a lot said, ‘Oh maybe Anna could choose the people to talk’. And then the other day when we were writing a letter, and we were talking about what do we want to put in it, one child said, ‘Why don’t we go around in a circle so everyone can say their question’? That hadn’t happened before. And when I did this child’s Statement of Learning, because there’s a section where we ask, ‘What do you want to see in your classroom next year’, he said, ‘I don’t want everyone to talk over each other’. He’s the one that talks over everyone but it’s interesting that he’s actually recognised that that’s what happens.
Evan: I think, because of the smaller groups, it allows us to interact more deeply with each child and to feed back to each child what we notice about them. More time to notice and more time to talk individually with children as well. So we have one Aboriginal child, Millie, in our focus group. Because of the time that is liberated, because of the small number of children we have, you have more time to dedicate to individuals. So I think I became more aware of Millie’s willingness and her ability to look after younger people, recognising what she’s picked up through her family culture. And when I noticed that, she certainly seemed happy.
Anna: And one of the other children, Francis, never used to share at sharing time, didn’t share items, ideas, theories, he didn’t participate in a group. He used to hate it, he used to say ‘Nah’. Now, since the small group work, he will stand up with the microphone and say ‘I made a hamburger, comments and questions’. He would never have done that before we did this, ever.
Evan: And the small group gave him the confidence to teach the other kids something. He was the one who taught us about the monkey bars. And having the opportunity to demonstrate what he’s learned and with actions. It’s given him the confidence to share verbally.
Anna: The other day we had all twenty of them, and people were talking and Francis was there with his hand up. We don’t make them put their hand up here, and I said to him ‘You don’t have to put your hand up Francis, you can just talk’, and he went ‘Oh, but someone else is talking’. I said, ‘That’s alright, I’ll help you’. And then when the other person finished I said, ‘Go now Francis’. I think putting his hand up is his way of saying, ‘I need help, I want to say something but I need help to’, and I don’t think he would have done that before either.
Evan: The experience in the small group appears to have helped him to participate more in the larger community. There’s been a definite change. Who knows what else has happened in his private life that’s helped him to grow as well, but you can’t predict what else has happened or account for that, but the indication is that he’s become more confident.
The other day Luke was trying to express something and another student was talking over the top of him and I was mindful enough to say ‘Stop’, as we have always done. But Luke actually beat me to it three or four times. I think children are encouraged not to interrupt when other people are talking as, generally in our society and culture, you’re not supposed to interrupt. So when someone’s giving a monologue, others probably feel some reluctance because they have been told not to interrupt.
Anna: I think we’ve got more ways of interrupting or challenging the dominant people and the dominant cultures. Because we noticed that we were letting it happen and we’d had conversations about how frustrated we were that they wouldn’t stop talking. But I think now we’ve also been role modelling more about inviting people to talk who haven’t talked. And before we were interrupting on a content level. For example, if we were talking about sorting in Maths and they were off track, then we would interrupt and bring them back on track. But we weren’t necessarily interrupting with, ‘Do you think you’ve spoken for too long’, or ‘You’re facing that way, but everybody else is here’. We were doing that a bit, but I don’t think we were doing it enough. I would feel much more confident now to say, ‘I think you need to ask somebody else what they think’. And we are definitely going to do more filming. In the past I played with it a little bit, but not to the extent that we did with for this.
Evan: I think what the project has done for me personally is it’s helped me to see the potential of what we can do in group time. And I think it’s made me more conscious of the value that Anna and I can bring as a team. As a result of the research project I’ve started to come into the team environment to speak to Anna daily in the morning, whereas previously my responsibilities have been outdoors.
Anna: And I think the process of action research came naturally to us because we would do it all the time. But I think we’ve gotten better at the timing of it. Before, when Evan wasn’t coming in first thing in the morning, we’d catch each other up at group time, while we were doing the roll. I think maybe we’re better at timing when we talk. We plan it and we watch and then we talk about it. I think we’ve got better at that process. And I think now we are much more articulate and clearer about what we’ve done and what difference it has made. Whereas, before, they were just conversations and we didn’t actually record anything, or have the time that we had for this project to actually talk about it.
Evan: Researching is part of our site pedagogy, to be observers and researchers, observing children’s behaviour and observing ourselves. To reflect upon outcomes and alter our approaches and our behaviours as educators to alter the outcomes for children. That’s always been part of what the Acacia Early Learning Centre has done. But I’m now seeing each day as a refinement of an ongoing action research project. Our whole term, our whole year is a research project. Previously we were researchers and observers and data gatherers, but I think now we’re maybe a little bit more intentional about each day as part of a bigger picture.
The project definitely has reinforced our existing practice actually. I’d like to think that the video and audio recording could continue to help people to be heard, it could also help to silence everybody else because there’s two things going on there. Rather than us physically silencing everybody by being dominant as adults, the screen does the job for us.
Anna: I think one of the things that I’ve walked away with is knowing that I don’t need to know everything about everyone’s culture. I think I’m probably more accepting of that now than I was before. I like learning about people and their cultures and their stories and I was frustrated that I couldn’t learn as much as I wanted to learn. Whereas now I recognise that I don’t need to.
Evan: And knowing how to respectfully and effectively engage with the people to learn. It’s okay to not know, as long as we know how to approach that family and ask. And it is okay to ask, actually it’s a huge compliment to people when you do ask.