This is my first year teaching. I worked with Melissa as my mentor last year at Wattle Secondary School, and she had a lot of Indigenous students in her classes. She’s very passionate about Aboriginal education, and it sort of just rubbed off on me. That led me to an Aboriginal Education Teacher role that continued to build my interest and then, when this Culturally Responsive Pedagogy project came up, I jumped at the opportunity. So I went from being an AET last year at Wattle Secondary to being a teacher here at Paralowie R-12 School. I am currently teaching Year 11 Tourism Studies. My contract ends at the end of this term and then next term will hopefully pick back up.
For our action research, my colleague Mark and I worked together, but we each had our separate classes. Basically we were focusing on building students’ media literacy. We started with gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes and then moved into how they are reflected in the media, and then students’ perspectives on that. So it’s building up their understanding of how to look at something in the media and come up with their own interpretation instead of being, I guess, told what to think.
In my Year 11 Tourism class, I looked at how can we make and analyse our own culturally responsive media in the discipline of Tourism.
The learning was pretty significant in Mark’s Stage 1 Essential English class. Many of his students, being from an EALD background, have spent maybe five years at most in Australia. Some students were born here, but a majority were quite recent arrivals. So the idea was to focus on racial stereotypes, particularly focusing on Indigenous Australians. Usually Mark asks the students to focus on their own identification with their nationality, and how that is stereotyped. And they still did that, but then they took it in another direction and looked at Aboriginal Australians in particular to see if they could relate to their experiences. And it had a pretty good impact, so they related to being the ‘other’. And that was really powerful, they all brought their own dialogue to the class which was really good.
In my Tourism class, I noticed that the students who wanted to engage in it engaged well, and then for other students the engagement just wasn’t there. And that didn’t change at all. Unfortunately, a lot of my students were placed in Tourism because it fits on the line structure, or because they don’t want to do Maths. But for the people who were actually interested in Tourism, I think it was very beneficial. They took it and they just ran with it until the very end.
I had one Aboriginal student in my class. In terms of the learning during this unit of work, I found him to be quite disengaged. I think he’s just over the whole idea of ‘Aboriginal perspectives’ in every subject. So he actually disengaged with the work as soon as it came to discussions. He piped up a few times and said what he was thinking, but apart from that, he sort of withdrew from the content.
Attendance is the biggest issue. Mark and I looked at the attendance data before and after our units, and there wasn’t much of a trend. I dare say if we had done this unit of work in Term 1 or 2 our attendance would be much higher. But with Year 11s, as it gets later in the year, a lot of the students seem to drop out and a lot seem to lose their direction, what their aims are next year. And a couple of students were about to go away for apprenticeships just as the assessment task was due and they thought, ‘Well I’m not going to be here, what’s the point in finishing it?’ With Tourism, which is not a compulsory Year 11 subject, there can be an attitude, ‘Oh we get 10 credits if we fail, so who cares if we fail, we still get the credits’. And to have that constant competition with other subjects as well. The number of times that I lost kids who were in a music performance or a drama performance, or all these other things.
So I wouldn’t mind doing the unit in Year 10 because they know they’re going to be here next year. I think if we were to do it with Year 10s it would be a different scenario completely.
My usual practice and the way it I’ve taught so far this year is that I’m very discussion-based, very interactive. I’d prefer them to be engaging in conversation than writing notes to reflect on later, because they’re not going to reflect on them. Whereas with this Year 11 group, they were focused on transmission, ‘Give me a task, talk to me and tell me the stuff’. So I think breaking them into ‘facilitation of learning’, rather than ‘transmission of knowledge’ was quite difficult. With Mark’s EALD classes, they are like a little community, so there is this whole team-based approach. Whereas, the students that come to me, they’re very disconnected from each other, so class discussions can quite easily become dead silence.
Mark and I ran a combined excursion to the Barossa Valley. So that was quite a good drawcard because basically we said, ‘Well if this isn’t done or if you’re mucking up you’re not coming’. And one of the students who missed the excursion because he was unwell, he actually took it on himself to go to the places we visited, plus a few extra ones. He does like tourism for a start, so he’s very passionate about it, and he is very passionate about media. Creativity, tourism, media—it all went together, and he took it and ran. His video was really good, but his oral presentation let him down because the analysis wasn’t there. But even from his first task where the analysis wasn’t there at all, compared to a second task where there was some analysis because he could talk about something he created and why he created it, it speaks volumes.
I think it comes back to what you focus on, and how relatable it is, and how much of the students’ lives you can bring to the class. Whether that be their cultural background, or their personal interests, and the importance of building relationships with these students before you try to tackle something. You can’t do it unless you know them.
I don’t think the action research changed my practice, I think it’s just emphasised what was already there, so it’s reinforced my ideas around being a teacher. Out of my four Stage 1 Tourism units across the year, I think this one was probably the most successful.
Mark and I continued the same focus for the second year of action research. We wanted to look at critical literacy and particularly media literacy as well. I had a Year 9 Geography class, and Mark had a Year 9 EALD English class. My class was very culturally diverse—I’d say I had at least 10 different cultures across my students. We ended up with no Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students in our classes.
We both started our units with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation in mainstream media. Students who have come to Australia from other countries, they see representations of Indigenous people in the media, and they’re going to think that’s how it is. And that’s why we decided to debunk that, let’s actually say, ‘No, that’s one perspective. Here’s all the facts, you create your own opinion’.
When you have discussions with the students in class and you say, ‘Who was brought up in a somewhat stereotypically racist household’? A lot of hands go up. And I’ll say, ‘Oh, what are some examples? Let’s all be very honest’. I talked about how I was impacted by a family that wasn’t necessarily culturally sensitive. So you sort of have to expose something about yourself and then they begin opening up. Previously, I probably wouldn’t have felt as comfortable doing it. And Mark spoke about his cultural background, ‘If I’m Italian, what’s some of my favourite foods?’ And they responded, ‘Oh, you like pizza’, and he said, ‘Well, what if I don’t?’ And that started the conversation. Whereas the discussion in my class was based on some stereotypically racist comments or portrayals. And then by the end of it, because they learnt about each other’s cultures, there’s a bit more of an understanding, ‘Oh, maybe that is not how your culture is’. Building empathy through that critical lens I think is very important. That’s one of the big things that came out of our action research.
So we started with a broad overview at first of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge around geography and history-based content, the importance of place and space and how that can connect to cultures. And then we related that connection in the students’ own culture of origin. So while Mark focused on media perspectives, I looked at the idea of how important places are to culture, as well as how these places can be sustained: What’s some important places for your family or your particular culture? Why are they important? And how can we maintain and preserve those places for future generations? And some of my students who said, ‘I don’t actually know anything about my culture because Mum and Dad don’t like to talk about it’, were actually going home and doing their own primary research by interviewing their family members to find out.
Mark and I took our classes on the Kaurna Trail Walk as a joint excursion, although we had different assessment tasks. It was actually probably good timing. They were redeveloping the Festival Centre and we discussed the idea that there was a landmark that had been removed from the trail because of the new development and we had a good discussion about, ‘Do you think this is appropriate? Do you think it’s okay that it has been taken away? Should the original landmark be put back?’ So that connection to place and the significance of place in culture came up a lot for both of our cohorts.
But the knowledge of an Elder for an excursion like that would have been ideal. I think over the last two years of the project, the hardest part for us has been to find a guest speaker to provide that authentic learning experience for the students. We tried to keep that focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, and there were guest speakers we could have employed, but we’re talking $400, $500 for an hour and a half talk, and obviously some of the kids can’t afford it. The school doesn’t have that kind of money, so the budgets aren’t enough to provide those authentic learning experiences across multiple disciplines, unless you do a school fundraiser. Maybe we need to organise something like a GoFundMe if the faculties can’t afford to pay?
I actually signed up for this project in my second year of teaching, so I was still fresh from uni where we were given all these ideas around cultural sensitivity. And I’d been working with Melissa who was very heavily into culturally responsiveness, so I came out of my training with a headset that this is what I do in everyday practice. But I think doing the project actually provides an outside look, so being required to actually plan and say, ‘This is how I’m going to be incorporating cultural responsiveness’. It has actually made me go, ‘Okay, I’ve incorporated cultural responsiveness in this unit, I can actually incorporate it across my other teaching areas as well’. So whereas I use CRP a lot in HASS areas, tourism, history, geography, now I’m finding I’m also making those connections to other subjects like English and Research Project.
I think what was the most valuable in this project was those opportunities to get together at the workshops and just discuss with other people what our projects were about and bounce ideas off each other—what’s your research question, how are you going to approach it, what’s your summative task? Working with likeminded people allowed us to get really good ideas and really good feedback too.
During the project, we came up with those ‘five key ideas’ of culturally responsive pedagogy. Any teacher should be able to pick up those criteria and say, ‘Have I got all five?’ I think incorporating some of those five foci, even into task design to start with, would be a good segue into how we teach in the classroom. And having Melissa as a role model when I was finishing uni, I think it showed me how easy it is to incorporate high intellectual challenge across any unit or across any subject. So you’re not only stretching the students who are at that top A end, but you’re also stretching the kids who are struggling to get to a C level. And even if they’re not capable of producing that A-grade work yet, stretching them to a C- is going to do wonders, not only to their confidence but to their engagement in the subject itself. And looking at the knowledge that the students bring to the classroom, actually tapping into that knowledge and using it in planning is good practice and it should be happening in all classes anyway, so for me, it reaffirmed my practice. And I think connecting culturally responsive pedagogy with critical and creative thinking has fostered some discussion with our colleagues about how the two pedagogical practices can be combined.