Janet’s Story

I teach an English as an Additional Language class. The class is highly multicultural and there is a high level of diversity on different levels. I have been working with a trans-languaging, multilingual research group, and culturally responsive pedagogy just seemed like an obvious connection. So I decided that I would focus on students connecting to their life worlds through their cultural or linguistic connections.

For the task, each student needed to find someone they have a cultural or language connection with and who works somewhere in their local community―a ‘community contact’. The students organised a face-to-face visit with their community contact, interviewed them, and then wrote a biographical recount of that person from the notes they took at the interiview. They then created a poster telling the story of their community contact, and all of the posters were published to a Google site that their contact could access using a QR code. Finally, they wrote a thank you note to their contact.

We have three SSOs[1] at our school―one who is Vietnamese, another fromTanzania, who uses Swahili when she is talking with African parents, but she probably has other languages. And then there’s a Bosnian-speaking SSO. They helped some of my students find community contacts. I think working with the bilingual SSOs, which I have not done so much in the past, was fantastic, so helpful. It was really good because they do know our school communities and their extended communities. For example, our Vietnamese SSO said to me, ‘You will need me to broker this because your international students will be going home to Vietnam. The students need to be aware that the stories of their community contacts might be sensitive when they get home to Vietnam’. I appreciated his guidance in an area I had never thought about.

There was quite a bit of negotiation between the students and me. One student of Somalian heritage worked with the bilingual SSO to connect with a shop owner who sells African groceries and goods. His mum goes to that shop. He went to the shop with his mum, met the man and then he came back to school and said ‘Do I have to talk in Somalian to that man?’ I said ‘You can talk in any language you like. It’s just about going and meeting someone new who you actually do have that cultural connection with’. But he was too shy―he said ‘I can’t do it’. I said, ‘Well that’s all right, what do you think would work? You went there with your mum, why don’t you interview your mum’? He said ‘Actually I will interview my dad because his English is better’. And then it came out that the student came to Australia when he was 18 months and he doesn’t speak Somalian but everyone else in his house does, so clearly he has receptive skills in the language. And his thank you card went to his father. Initially he had said ‘I don’t think my father will do it because he’s too busy’, and in his thank you letter he offers ‘If there is anything I can do to help you then let me know’. I thought, okay well there was a connection there.

But some of the connections that developed between students and their community contacts remained invisible to me. I found out only by chance about one of my international students from Vietnam. She lives with a non-Vietnamese family and didn’t have a lot of connection with the Vietnamese community in Adelaide, but she does work part-time for someone who is of refugee background who is Vietnamese. So she asked him if she could interview him, and then she produced her work and presented it back to him, and he was so touched by that. His whole extended family invited her to dinner―the grandmother was there and the nieces and nephews.

To thank the community contacts, I asked my class, ‘How many of you have actually written a letter or a card to anybody, handwritten it, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, address it, and sent it’? And two people had done that. So it was like this ancient technology in their minds. And so I showed them a few examples of thank you cards and we talked about the structure. I asked ‘Well does anyone want to do it?’ and about 20 of them put their hands up. I said, ‘Somewhere in your card I want you to pick out the most important sentence, the one that you think the reader is going to go “Oh wow, that’s so nice” and translate that into your home language because that’s that connection that you had with that person’.

As a teacher, what worked for me was saying to my students that your languages and cultures are not my area of expertise. The students and the families and the bilingual SSOs have the expertise and I have to use that expertise because it’s not mine. ‘You can use me – I’m an expert on these things. If you want to know about English text, I’ve got that covered. And if you want to know about managing a classroom, I’ve got that. If you want to know about getting schoolwork done for marking, I’m an expert on that so don’t worry about it. What are you an expert on? Maybe your home language? Maybe you know people in the community? If you don’t, your parents will. Use them, they’re experts on this’.

So that actually worked really well and is something I’ve been becoming a bit more explicit about. What are the areas of expertise that are needed for success? If we imagine that a unit of work is a little bit like a project, I don’t have all of that expertise, I don’t need to, and I think the days where teachers needed to think that they’re experts on everything are over.

My approach to expertise is a consequence of doing this project. I think I would have been aware of it in the past, for example, when I worked on the APY Lands I was very aware that my students were experts in so many areas that I am not. But since coming to Wattle Secondary, it’s been less obvious to me, and connecting with the students’ life worlds has been less obvious to me and the huge diversity has been more complex to think through. So having the ‘key ideas’ there and the concept of deliberately connecting with students life worlds, and hearing some of the examples from the researchers and other teachers, has been a catalyst for my thinking on ‘Well how am I going to do that?’ I might be doing it accidentally. But to make it explicit and to bring that in, in a really deliberate way.

I think I am a little bit more confident in focussing on the whole student in terms of their linguistic resources, which is an area that I have been exploring with a different research group. And I can just see that it works, I can see that it’s worth doing. It’s actually an area that I have some expertise in and I am feeling confident about moving into that area.

In terms of student outcomes, I would say that usually these students are compliant, but not always engaged. Really passive. Whereas, for this unit of work, there was a high level of engagement. There was a lot more desire to have better quality work because that work was going back to their community contact. All the students were just really, really engaged with it. I think it was successful―not for everyone, but predominantly I would call it a success. I also had improved attendance. One of the students, something is going on that’s complex in his life that means he doesn’t come to school very often, but he made sure he came for these lessons.

I think one very specific thing I focussed on was high expectations. So I really carefully thought that through, because we don’t often define it. I guess we all presume we know what that means but I wanted to unpack that a bit myself and make up my own definition to work within it. I decided that it would be that every student is going to go up one grade band as a consequence of doing this unit of work. I also decided that I would probably be able to double the number of Australian Curriculum achievement standards. It’s a complex unit and I could reflect that complexity by actually itemising each of the achievement standards.

Using my measurement of high expectations, everyone actually went up a grade band. There were two or three who I really had to pull along, but they passed. Did I double the number of Australian curriculum standards that they achieved? Yes I did.

I think I am already fairly successful at creating a safe feeling classroom, a safe space, but I’ve had a lot of students over the years who have trauma-related behaviours and who need to know they can walk into a class at any time and feel that no one is going to reprimand them. So when you create a safe space―I mean culturally safe, and also linguistically safe―you have to be consistent, and I think that when you are tapping into students’ life worlds you need to be respectful and predictable.

When I start a lesson I quite often stand near the door because I will be opening it a few times for students who are late. So this semester, I actually put it to the group, ‘You have seen me stand there―you have seen some of your classmates are late. It doesn’t annoy me to open and shut a door. I don’t care about that, but I like to have a tidy start and a tidy finish to a lesson’. And we decided that if a student was late three times then they would have an after-school detention. But it didn’t have an impact on those late students at all. So I went back to the class and we agreed to extend the rule to five rather than three, and that still didn’t change things. So finally, I phoned their homes and I said ‘Look, this is happening’. And then they started coming on time. So although the democratic approach wasn’t successful in achieving the immediate goal of getting those students there on time, it was successful in creating a sense of democracy and I think it acknowledges the students who are on time. I don’t know what’s going on in these kids’ lives and quite often there is a lot of stuff going on. Sometimes people are late and we don’t always know why. It’s actually to do with creating a safe space. So the project is reminding me about being perhaps more democratic and being aware that there is a lot going on outside the classroom. So it’s still connected to their life worlds.

I will keep CRP in mind for every unit of work that I write now. I will have the five key ideas sitting there as my checklist.

[1] School Services Officer

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