Case Study:

Anna’s Homework and Art units

Teacher: Anna
School: Acacia Primary
Learning Area: Art
Year level: 5-7

Context

Anna began her teaching career 19 years ago at an R-9 school in Pt Augusta that primarily served Aboriginal students. After a few years, she accepted a teaching position at Acacia Primary, where she has taught ever since.

Acacia Primary is an innovative school located in Adelaide’s western suburbs. Classes are often multi-aged, and students are involved in several dimensions of leadership including helping to shape the curriculum. At the time Anna joined the CRP project, Acacia Primary had a population of more than 450 students, of whom around 12% were of non-English speaking backgrounds and 20% of Aboriginal heritage. Students with disability accounted for over 10% of the enrolments. Acacia Primary is a Category 2 school according to the Index of Educational Disadvantage for South Australian Government schools.

Acacia Primary serves a socio-economically diverse community, in which cultural diversity is slightly higher than the South Australian average. Apart from English, other languages spoken at home include Greek, Russian, Italian, Croatian and Mandarin.

Anna participated in the CRP action research project across two years. In the first year, she focused on a homework project. In the second year, the focus was on Art as part of a whole-school inquiry.

The Curiosity Project
The pedagogical challenge

In the past, the homework policy for the upper primary years at Acacia Primary had been patchy. Some teaching teams set homework, others didn’t, and the homework that was set often consisted of worksheets that lacked challenge and interest. Given that these students would soon be progressing to high school, some parents had expressed concerns that their children need to be offered homework on a consistent basis. Anna therefore took on ‘homework’ as her pedagogical challenge. Specifically, she wanted to design a unit of homework that:

  • Was inclusive for all students (cultural heritage, language heritage, disability)
  • Allowed for student voice (students involved in the planning/designing of the program)
  • Was collaborative (students learning from each other, sharing knowledge, supporting each other)
  • Was inquiry-based
  • Encouraged self-directed learning
  • Enabled students to express/present their learning in a variety of ways
  • Gave families and caregivers the opportunity to be involved in their child’s learning

The homework activity that emerged from these criteria was the Curiosity Project in which each student selected a topic of particular interest to them to research and develop further over a period of several weeks.

Four upper primary classes across Years 5-7 participated in the Curiosity Project, but the focus of Anna’s data collection was a Year 5/6 class of 20 students (10 boys and 10 girls) who were from a range of heritages including Anglo Australian, Aboriginal Australian, Finnish, Filipino, Spanish and Greek.

Links to the five key ideas

  • Strongly connected to the life-worlds of students
  • High intellectual challenge
  • Activist orientation
  • Multimodal literacies and public performance

The action research questions

  • How does connecting to students’ life-worlds and empowering students with genuine choice and voice improve their engagement in learning, and achievement in English?
  • How does students’ participation and engagement in the ‘Curiosity Project’ (inquiry-based learning) improve students’ ability to develop their literacy skills?

Doing the action research

Anna had previously introduced the Curiosity Project in an earlier term with mixed success. Although most of the 70 upper primary students completed a Curiosity Project, 18 did not. In conversations with these students, it became evident that there was some confusion around the expectations of the Curiosity Project, and uncertainty about how to connect with the tasks. Anna and her colleagues decided to address these barriers by providing more support, scaffolding and modelling to students in school time.

For the second iteration of the Curiosity Project, Anna and her colleagues:

  • Gathered information from the students and parents about their attitudes, beliefs and expectations towards homework.
  • Used an ‘inquiry-based learning’ model (instead of worksheet homework tasks) in order to provide a framework for high intellectual challenge.
  • Provided students with authentic choice and voice about what they wanted to learn and how they were going to learn it.
  • Gave students the freedom to select their own topic to become an ‘expert’ in something that they are curious about.
  • Involved students in all aspects of designing the learning, including the planning, structure and assessment, in order to engage them further with the learning and develop their skill sets.
  • Organised a celebratory evening event at the school (the Curiosity Project Showcase) and invited the school community to attend so that the students could share their learning and receive feedback about their curiosity projects.

Data collected included:

  • Pre/post student interviews
  • Feedback/reflections from parents, teachers and peers
  • Student data: Participation in the project and changes in reading/writing levels

Student Outcomes

The second time around, with the additional scaffolding provided, every upper primary student completed a project and presented it to the school community at the Curiosity Project Showcase. Anna reports that students’ planning and organisation skills improved and many students were quite proactive in seeking out other school staff who they knew had the skills to help them develop their projects.

On the evening of the showcase, the staff were overwhelmed by the number of parents, grandparents and other community members who attended (standing room only!), and the students felt validated by such keen interest in their projects. Topics covered by the students were highly varied and included bee-keeping, Lego, digital games, drones, civil rights, an aviation safety incident (QF32) and atoms. Some students chose to research aspects of their own cultural heritage which they proudly presented to the audience. Presentation formats varied and included models, practical demonstrations, posters and diagrams.

Student feedback included:

I enjoy working on the Curiosity Project because I like having the choice of choosing our topic and being able to present it in our own way, we own this project and [are] not being told what to do. (Aboriginal student)

I am proud of it! This is my best work! I have never done this before. (Aboriginal student)

Anna talks about the success of one student who lives with a mild disability:

One particular student comes to mind. I have to say I was expecting him not to have a project. I’d check in with him regularly and say, ‘Can I help you? How are you going’? And he’d almost reject my help, and say, ‘No, I’m fine. Mum’s helping me at home’. And I didn’t get to see a lot of what he was doing, he was very secretive about it. Then on the day of the showcase, his project was all about drones. He brought his drone in, he had a poster and he hand-wrote all these facts about drones and how they use them, and what they’re used for, then he demonstrated his drone flying around the classroom and talked to the kids about how it worked and what it was.

And I just thought, this is brilliant. So you get little surprises, and that goes to show, you just can’t assume anything. He did really well, and the pride that he got from doing that … And that was probably the most I’ve seen him talk in front of a group of people, and he was so calm and relaxed, just knew his information and was happy to share it.

Teacher Outcomes

For Anna, participating in the CRP project provided an opportunity for her to be more reflective about her pedagogy, especially the importance of connecting to students’ life-worlds. Not only does this encourage increased engagement and participation in learning (which can be expected to lead to improved learning outcomes), it also has an impact on student self-confidence and self-direction. Participating in classroom action research helped Anna to understand how her students learn best. Gathering data about students’ learning helped her to identify their pedagogical needs, successes and areas for future improvement.

The broader picture

Anna identifies the following links to Acacia Primary’s ethos:

  • Developing student choice and voice
  • Inclusive for all students to be actively involved in their learning.
  • An opportunity for families to be involved in their child’s learning and also involving the school community at the showcase event.
  • Improving student learning outcomes, in particular reading and writing skills.

Conclusions

​In future, Anna plans to continue to develop and apply each of the key ideas of CRP across all areas of her teaching to benefit all students. She also plans to continue implementing and building on the Curiosity Project and adapt it to other learning areas.

Visual Arts and English

In the second year of the action research, organisational changes drew Anna into an acting leadership role. For the classroom research, she collaborated with Shannon, and together they developed a unit of work for a combined Year 5/6/7 class that is taught by a team of four teachers and one co-educator. The focus of this unit was Visual Arts and English. Shannon was involved in most of the teaching, and Anna came in when she could and also collected a lot of the data.

There were 43 students in the mixed-age class., including six Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students who were the primary focus of the research, seven students who speak English as an additional language and six students who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

The pedagogical challenge

At Acacia Primary, Art was selected as an inquiry topic across the whole school for all of Term 3, so Anna and Shannon aligned their action research with this topic. Given the success of the previous year’s action research, which made strong connections with students’ life-worlds, Anna and Shannon wanted to develop this connection in the context of Visual Arts. They also wanted to incorporate an English focus to support oral literacy as a precursor for written literacy.

Anna and Shannon wanted to frame their pedagogical challenge around an Art inquiry that:

  • Is inclusive of all students (cultural heritage, language heritage, disability)
  • Provides opportunities to connect to children’s life-worlds
  • Enables students to express/present their learning in a variety of ways
  • Culminates in a celebration of learning through a community event (Art Exhibition)

They particularly wanted to support the attendance and participation of the six Aboriginal students in the class. So their more specific pedagogical challenge was to:

  • Improve the attendance and engagement of Aboriginal students
  • Improve the confidence of Aboriginal students to participate in class discussions and contribute their ideas

It should be noted that, from the outset, the school’s Art inquiry was not popular with some of the students, so part of Anna and Shannon’s pedagogical challenge was to ‘sell’ the topic, engage a number of reluctant students, and maintain this engagement across a ten week school term.

Theoretical basis

The concept of ‘Funds of Knowledge’ (Luis Moll and colleagues) particularly resonated with Anna and Shannon’s thinking.

Links to the five key ideas

  • Strongly connected to the life-worlds of students
  • High intellectual challenge
  • View cultural difference as an asset
  • Activist orientation

The action research questions

How does sharing personal stories through visual art forms improve literacy skills, engagement and participation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students?

How can we get students to make a connection between their culture and learning in the classroom?

Doing the action research

Across the whole school, the Art inquiry began with an excursion to the Art Gallery of South Australia. Anna and Shannon’s class saw an Impressionist exhibition and took part in a NAIDOC Week tour. The excursion was framed as a provocation through ‘real world’ art.

Back in class, students were asked to respond with their first impressions of particular art styles and works. A range of genres and artists were discussed (e.g. Impressionism Cubism, Abstract art, traditional and contemporary Indigenous Australian art, Keith Haring, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock). Students experimented with these styles, and explored the influences and motivations behind art, such as culture, relationships, emotions and significant events.

In order to promote student voice and to make a connections to their own life-worlds and ‘funds of knowledge’, students were tasked with developing a written story about a personal experience that may be related to their culture, gender, age, socio-economic background, history, or so forth. Each student chose an artist to research and, using a style inspired by that artist, transformed their personal story into a visual art piece. Students also planned, drafted, edited, revised and published a biography of their chosen artist.

Knowing that many of the students struggle with refining and editing their written work, students were encouraged to first develop their personal story orally by re-telling the story to others several times. This provided opportunities for students to self-edit and expand their story orally before the written stage.

Data collection included:

  • Regular conversations and team meetings between the educators
  • Classroom observations by Anna of lessons conducted by Shannon or the other class teachers
  • Audio-recorded interviews with students (pre- and post-unit)
  • Evidence of student learning: attendance data, samples of student work
  • Assessment plans and rubrics

Student Outcomes

Anna and Shannon tracked the progress of the six Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander students in the combined class. In the summaries below, assessment outcomes are reported at Acacia Primary on a descriptive scale: minimal→partial→satisfactory→good→excellent.

Student Z

Attendance: Much more regular attendance, absent only 4 days across term

Engagement: Focus and concentration improved. Completed tasks on time, improved confidence to seek help when required and also to share ideas in group discussions.

Assessment: Good. Improved writing skills and stamina. Improved confidence in speaking in front of others to share information and ideas.

Comments: Usually a very quiet student, reluctant to share talk, ideas, discuss learning with others. Artwork inspired by a family trip to Central Australia. Chosen artist: Albert Namatjira.

Student AL

Attendance: Improved attendance, absent only 3 days across term

Engagement: Improved engagement throughout the inquiry as they learned more about chosen artist.

Assessment: Satisfactory

Comments: Completed all tasks with teacher support. Made improvements in writing stamina. Initially did not transfer skills or make connections with own cultural background, but did so after researching their chosen artist. Represented the concept of ‘Country’ through the use of colour. Chosen artist: Jackson Pollock

Student R

Attendance: Regular attendance. Absent only 4 days across term

Engagement: Increased participation and engagement in learning. Increased confidence in talking in front of class to share ideas. Increasing learning stamina; not looking for distractions to read books during learning time.

Assessment: Satisfactory

Comments: Made cultural connections to the learning, but did not bring this to the forefront in the artwork of the artist chosen. Did share cultural connections with other students who were focusing on Aboriginal art. Chosen artist: Edgar Mueller.

Student AZ

Attendance: Improved with only 2 days absent across term.

Engagement: AZ read a lot about the chosen artist and made strong connections. Student was engaged and did not leave the room for drink and toilet breaks. Made strong cultural connections to learning, and final artwork featured an Aboriginal symbol. During interview, shared information about grandmother who is an artist. For this student, achieving a final piece of artwork to display and share was a significant achievement.

Assessment: Satisfactory

Comments: AZ connected with this learning and experienced a strong sense of achievement and success. Although the writing component was difficult for this student, the research was shared orally. 

Student I

Attendance: Regular attendance has been an issue for this student throughout the year. Attendance improved during Term 3 with 19 days absent.

Engagement: Student I did not make cultural connections to this learning despite being encouraged as are mentored by a successful Aboriginal artist. Engagement and participation in class initially improved but dropped off. Engagement may have been sustained with a shorter project.

Assessment: Minimal

Comments: Student I found it difficult to engage and participate in learning activities. Was provided with extra teacher support to complete activities and engage in dialogue to encourage participation. Unable to complete their artwork or present at the whole school exhibition. Chosen artist: Salvador Dali

Student T

Attendance: Regular attendance, absent only 3 days across term

Engagement: Although encouraged to explore Aboriginal culture, Student T connected with popular culture (digital animation and gaming – Fortnite). Stamina with research and participation in learning activities increased. Was less distracted during learning time. Stayed in at break times to continue artwork.

Assessment: Satisfactory

Comments: Due to high interest in the topic, Student T was committed to learning new drawing techniques and dedicated extra time to learning new skills. Strong willingness to share their learning with the class. Chosen artist: Tim Sweeney (founder of Fortnite)

Other students

Overall, Anna and Shannon noticed higher levels of engagement in the early stages of the unit, but for many students, engagement tapered off over time. On reflection, they believe that a shorter timeframe for the project would have supported more sustained engagement.

Anna and Shannon observe that students, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, are now more willing and/or able to:

  • acknowledge that they have a culture and that it is a resource for their learning
  • express their emotions through art
  • participate in visual art learning
  • notice cultural influences in art
  • take risks in art: experiment, make mistakes, start again
  • respond to and express opinions about art
  • listen to each other
  • see themselves as successful learners
  • acknowledge the importance and value of oral literacy

Teacher Outcomes

Through this research, Anna and Shannon have learnt that:

  • they need to provide more opportunities for children to recognise that their culture is a valued aspect of their learning in all curriculum areas,
  • students may not spontaneously make connections between their culture and school learning – as teachers they may need to role model this
  • even when encouraged to do so, some students may not choose to bring their cultural heritage into a learning activity; however they may make connections with other aspects of their life-worlds
  • as teachers, they need to develop a repertoire of strategies to engage with students’ funds of knowledge

Challenges

The action research was not without some challenges. These included:

  • letting go of planned teaching experiences and allowing student voice and choice to lead the learning; taking a pedagogical risk
  • staffing and role changes that impacted on the research plans
  • collecting data was complicated when multiple teachers are in the learning space
  • when collecting data in pre-and post-unit interviews, some students gave the answers that they thought the teacher wanted to hear

Conclusions

This second year of action research confirmed Anna’s belief, expressed at the end of the first year, that culturally responsive pedagogy can and should be practiced across all curriculum areas. Rather than rush through the curriculum, a slower pace of learning provides time and opportunities for students to make connections between their school lives and their out-of-school life-worlds, and thus make learning more personally meaningful. Focusing on the learning journey, rather than just the end product (such as an artwork), provides multiple opportunities for the acknowledgement and celebration of student success.

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