I’ve been working with Indigenous students since I began as a teacher. My first job, straight out of Uni back in 1999, was at an R-9 Aboriginal school at Pt Augusta. And I was there for almost four years, working with mainly junior/middle primary kids, with 98% Aboriginal enrolment in the school. I got my permanency in Pt Augusta and then transferred to Adelaide. I won a job here at Acacia Primary, where one third of our students are Aboriginal. I’ve been here for 15 years. I’ve probably had some incidental Professional Learning around working with Aboriginal students, but not formally. Probably just different things I’ve done over the years.
So the focus of my action research was the Curiosity Project. I began it the previous year and wanted to keep building on that. When we first started, one of the main things was to get our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students involved in homework and project work, and hoping it would kind of spill into more areas of their learning as well. Also, there was some pressure from parents who were saying that their upper primary kids need to be doing homework as part of getting them ready for high school. And there were other parents saying no, they shouldn’t be doing homework at all.
At Acacia Primary, reading is probably the number one thing that we’d like our students to do outside of school. But, other than that, there’s not a formal structured homework policy as such. For those who wanted it, we were providing worksheets, but it wasn’t anything in context, I don’t think it was very stimulating. Some were doing it, some weren’t, it was very much all over the place.
So that’s why a colleague and I did a little bit of research into homework projects and came across a model that a teacher was using over in America. Their Curiosity Project was all based on YouTube clips. So each week the teacher would talk to parents on YouTube and say where their child’s up to. So you might say, ‘Welcome to Week 4 of the Curiosity Project, this week we’re focusing on XYZ’.
We didn’t do it that way. We developed a 6 to 8 week project. And the first time we ran the Curiosity Project, although we had more Indigenous kids participate, there was still a high number who didn’t. So we thought, okay, we still have a significant group of kids, in fact both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, who are not participating in this. Why aren’t they? And so we really had to look back and think, so what’s going on here? It’s a project that we want parents to be supportive of as well. So we questioned whether maybe the students are not getting that support at home with their project, so maybe we need to provide more support for them in class time and chat with them more regularly, and ask more questions, sort of tease it out of them a little bit more. And so we provided them a lot more support.
The project’s based on an interest. They’ve got free choice over the topic and it’s something that they’re passionate about, something that they’re really curious about. They had that choice of what they’re researching and how they’re going to present it. But they were all expected to be involved, it wasn’t voluntary. It was like, ‘This is what we are doing, and we’re giving you lesson time to do it as well, we’re giving you class support time as well’.
I think in the first year it was almost like there’s that unknown, like ‘Can I really choose anything’? I think it was more like ‘I better pick something that the teachers want me to choose’. The second time around, we had 100%, we got everyone in it. I think the kids who didn’t participate in the first one, when they actually saw it modelled to them, and then they saw the range and the variety and just the amazing things that kids produce, they really got creative. When these kids saw some of the far-out things that people did, Lego and digital games, it was such a variety. We had one student who did a model plane, biplanes and things like that. It’s so varied. And then I think that actually sparked some enthusiasm and some motivation for the kids who weren’t involved to think ‘I can actually do this.’
A small group really had to think ‘Oh what am I going to do’, it didn’t come naturally to them. And that just involved us having more conversations with them. What did you do in the holidays? What do you do with your family? And What TV shows do you watch? Or what music are you in to? So it was just kind of prompting that thinking a little bit more, to go a little bit deeper. I think sometimes they just think surface level, like not too hard or I can’t do it, or there’s nothing I’m interested in.
The big change I noticed is the kids who are highly motivated and really enjoyed it, they take it to another level. They just get free rein and sometimes they just have these crazy ideas and you think ‘Oh my god, where is this going to go’? But I think they really surprise you with some of those things that they come up with and how they plan it, how they organise, and how resourceful they get around the school. They go and seek out people that they know have certain skills ‘Can you help me build this? Or can you tell me about …’? They’ll go to Steve, who works in the Life Science Centre with animals and creatures and all the things over there, and talk with him about things, and get information. It’s not unusual at this school, the kids do work with a wide diversity of staff. But I think they’re just more specific about what they want, they get creative, ‘I need to go and see so and so’. And even interviewing people and things like that. We said, ‘As part of your research getting first-hand information directly from people is often the most valuable information you can get’.
I had one particular student who comes to mind. I actually thought I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t have anything. And I’d check in with him regularly, ‘Can I help you? How are you going’? And he’d almost reject my help, and say, ‘Nope, I’m fine. Leave me alone, I’m on it. Mum’s helping me at home’. He has a slight autism. And so I didn’t get to see a lot of what he was doing, really, he was very secretive about it. And when the presentations were coming up, I said, ‘Are you going to be ready to present’? And he said, ‘Yep’. All the other students I’d done editing with and had discussions, but he was very closed. And then on his presentation day—his was all about drones—and 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 yeah, 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 as well, that was probably the most I’ve seen him talk in front of a group of people, and he was so calm and relaxed and just knew his information and was happy to share it. It was fantastic. And some of my Indigenous kids came up to me and said, ‘I’m a bit worried about this or I’m not sure if I’m doing this right’, but it’s great that they come and talk to me and they have that conversation and then I can discuss it with them and scaffold them through that.
And when you actually hear the feedback that I got from my kids of how proud they felt of their project and how proud they felt of actually presenting and then getting feedback. When we had our community open night, they were getting feedback from parents and grandparents and people that they don’t even know. We were overwhelmed by how many people actually came. And I think it made it a more genuine experience for them too, more real life, that they’re actually presenting to people they don’t know, people are interested in their topics and what they want to say. So I think that really validated them, with their research and their presentations. And the kids were so excited about it. And even when we had finished and debriefed, they were still saying ‘So when do we do our next one’? They’re actually looking forward to doing it again. I want to continue it again next year and keep building and establishing it.
I think for me, it just reinforced the importance of connecting with children’s life worlds, with their learning. And it made me think, too, I need to do this more in other areas of the curriculum and other areas of learning as well. I need to incorporate it more into my maths lessons and science and things like that. It’s that connection. When the kids are connected, they can see meaning, and how it’s relevant to them in their context, in their world. I think it just makes the biggest difference with their learning.
And the activism as well, that was one thing we talked about through the Curiosity Project. It’s great to do this project but what are you going to do with this research and how are you making people aware of this? Is there something that you want to change? I think that’s a goal for us next year to do that more, to make that learning really visible in the school and have that activist approach. It’s great to go and do all this research and gather all this information and share it, but what’s the next step? So I think we want to head down that direction a bit more next year.
I guess my teaching practice has changed. I’m thinking about CRP, just trying to be mindful of that in other areas of the curriculum and my learning, and seeing how I can adapt more or to have more cultural perspectives in other areas as well. And it can be applied to any content, the content can fit. In this school, I think we do a good job already, because we are so diverse. But you just reflect more on your own practice and think there’s always room for improvement. I would love to share it with my colleagues because I think that culturally responsive pedagogy is pretty aligned to what we do here already. So I think it just reinforces what we’re doing and helps build the future, keep us thinking in the right direction. I love just how inclusive the learning is. For me it’s about inclusion and getting everyone involved in learning and feeling good about learning. And I’ll continue to put those principles more into my practice. I think it’s fantastic.
Year 2 (with colleague Shannon)
So this term, our main focus was on engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I think engagement is an issue generally across the class, because our observations earlier in the year were, they do a little bit and then it’s, ‘Can I go get a drink, can I leave the room, can I …’? The Aboriginal students were probably a bit more a target, but there are a few other students who have pretty low engagement as well. But also attendance, which links to that engagement. Some of our students are very low attenders.
We tried to make our Art inquiry hands-on and engaging, with high-interest activities that the kids had a lot of input into. I think the engagement increased to start with, but we felt it did drop off towards the end. I think it was the initial the excitement of an excursion to the State Art Gallery and getting out of the school and playing with art, doing their own thing. And then it got a bit more into the research and the rigour, that’s when we noticed a little bit of a change. But we also think the unit went too long—we probably should have condensed it. But Art was a whole school-focus across several weeks, so you sort of had to fit into that framework. If we could have changed that and worked on our own timeline I think that would have made a difference.
And it was a really big unit, there was a lot involved in it. So some of these students don’t usually finish one piece of work but they managed to finish all of the pieces. We did have a couple who didn’t complete all of the tasks, but more than what they normally would. And attendance improved for all our Aboriginal students. One of our students is a chronic non-attender and he attended the most out of the whole year when we did that unit of work. That student is mentored by an Art teacher at school as well. So I think it was the topic of Art that actually inspired him and drew him in. But also the hands-on. He was able to just get paint and paint whatever kind of style we were trying at that time.
In terms of our practice, CRP is quite embedded now. We have used it a lot for our inquiry and project work but, for me, next year I’m thinking I’ve got to tie this more to Maths. And I’ve already talked to my new teaching team for next year and we’re going to start doing language maps (D’warte 2014). I’ve been asked to share what I’ve been doing during staff PD early next year.
There’s still a lot of things I can do better to draw out culture. Even just making better connections with families and drawing families into the classroom and making them understand that their culture’s valued in our classroom. So I think I’ve still got more work to do there. While I was in a non-teaching role and Shannon was backfilling my teaching, I was able to make more contact with families. I can see how this is a really good thing to be making those phone calls more regularly to families and the information I got and the relationship building from speaking to so many families, some quite regularly. And breaking down a few barriers. I need to do more of this back in the classroom. Not just Indigenous families—all families. I think we just have to find more effective ways to communicate. I guess in the past I’ve either thought ‘Well that family, they just don’t want to know or they don’t want to come in’. But I guess not having that assumption as well. What else can we do and what other strategies?
We’re already making some plans with my new teaching team for next year. We’re looking at organising a morning tea for families in week one or week two. We do already have an Acquaintance Night, so when the AGM is on we have an open classroom and the parents can just wander in and we’ll give a short presentation about the year and the set-up. But I think we don’t get a lot of families in because it’s too formal and it’s in an evening, and families are busy. Whereas I suggested we might do something different—why don’t we just have a morning tea at the start of the year, just casual, even out in the garden. So we thought that might be a good way to bring families in, a nice informal way where people don’t feel threatened to come into the school and actually just meet us.
As far as our students are concerned, I think I’m just a bit more open to hearing them. An interesting thing happened with a student in our room; she has Indian background. She became Australian Citizen two days ago but didn’t even tell us about it. So she was away two days in a row and yesterday I said, ‘Are you okay, how come you’ve been away’? And she said ‘Oh yeah it was just because on Monday I got my citizenship’. Just like that. Then she did open up—she doesn’t speak a lot, she doesn’t tell us much at all about her home life—and she told us about the ceremony. ‘Yeah you didn’t really have to do anything, you just had to say a few things and then you got a certificate’. We didn’t even know; we had no idea at all. And it makes me wonder, well how many other things like this are happening in our kids’ lives that we don’t know about? And I guess some of it is because they don’t want that attention. Some people don’t want to be singled out. It started making me think, how do we make this a broad thing with our kids that these events are important, whether they’re small things or big things, come and share? But then there are some students that’ll literally share every detail of their life.
In my Aboriginal Education Teacher role, I organised an excursion to local Aboriginal sites with another group of students. That was brilliant. The kids really connected with that. We had a mixture of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal kids. I was looking for ways for them to connect to the local area. Because in the past, for Sorry Day, we’d go to Victoria Square. And I sort of felt we’ve been going there for quite a few years with our upper primary kids but they weren’t really understanding why they were there—it didn’t mean anything for them. And I thought, well let’s have a look at our local area. Many places they were already familiar with but didn’t know there was an Aboriginal connection. But it was great, we went down to Pelican Point and the kids all got out. There’s this beautiful big playground but instead they’re all playing with rocks and dirt—it was fantastic. One of our Aboriginal boys—he does Indigenous dance and things like that—he just started painting himself—and then they’re all painting. And he was teaching the other kids how to paint. And then at another stop, we were looking at a monument and it was a sculpture about the local area and local history. It went across time with little Aboriginal artefacts right up to Port Power and modern stuff. In the garden behind there were all these native plants and one of the boys who grew up on the Coorong, he started picking one of the plants and started eating it and sucking it. So he was sharing his knowledge of these plants and then they were all chewing on them. It was really good just how that naturally happened. He felt comfortable with sharing his knowledge and there was a lot of learning and sharing.
The action research workshops are great, I love the workshops. They were so useful and I loved hearing what other schools are doing, particularly high schools, because we don’t get to hear what high schools are doing. It was just great to hear from so many other educators, and what they’re doing and how they do it, because some of those situations for some of the teachers, I thought that would be quite challenging. I’m just going to miss the project. I’m going to miss the workshops. I really enjoyed it.
D’warte, J (2014) Exploring linguistic repertoires: Multiple language use and multimodal literacy activity in five classrooms. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37(1), 21.