Case Study:

Kelly’s Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in action at Woodville Gardens School

Teacher: Kelly Blandford
School: Woodville Gardens School
Learning areas: Dance, English
Year: 6/7

Context

This is Kelly’s second year in the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy project. Last year, Kelly collaborated with her colleague Skye to develop a culturally responsive HASS unit for Year 6/7 classes at Lake Windemere B-7 School. Subsequently, Kelly accepted a position at Woodville Gardens School. This is Kelly’s seventh year of teaching and her first year at Woodville Gardens School.

In her early years of teaching Kelly had developed a passion for working with Aboriginal students and improving learning outcomes for students who had become disconnected from education. This passion stemmed from her first teaching post in a regional school in which 85 percent of the students were of Aboriginal heritage. When the opportunity to focus on culturally responsive pedagogies arose, she enthusiastically volunteered to participate. Being accredited in Accelerated Literacy and being a pilot teacher for John Fleming’s I Do, We Do, You Do teaching cycle, she was familiar with trialling new approaches to quality teaching and learning. 

Woodville Gardens School B-7 was formed in 2011 as a ‘Public Private Partnership’ managed by a consortium of private bodies in conjunction with the Department for Education and Child Development (now Department for Education). The school is registered as Category 2 in terms of the Index of Disadvantage. In 2018, 10 percent of enrolments were students of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage, 67 percent were students learning English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EALD), 12 percent of students had special needs, and 60 percent of students were eligible for financial support through the School Card system. A total of 564 students from 40 cultural groups were enrolled in 2018.

Woodville Gardens School is located in an area that has a very high level of cultural diversity. More than 55 percent of residents speak a language other than English in the home, with the most frequent of these languages being Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malayalam (an Indian language) and Khmer. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up 2.5 percent of the population.The area faces significant economic challenges, with unemployment more than 2.5 times the state average. 

At Woodville Gardens School, Kelly is one of five full time Year 6/7 classroom teachers. She teaches in the Blue Building, which operates as a collaborative learning hub for around 140 students. Classes are usually conducted individually, but are sometimes run in mixed groups or with two classes at once. The school community uses Seesaw and Edmodo educational software to facilitate communication among students, teachers and families, with varying levels of interaction on a case-by-case basis. 

In 2018, Kelly had a class of 28 students, including two Aboriginal students and four students on Negotiated Education Plans. A range of cultural groups were represented in the classroom including Anglo-European Australian, Aboriginal Australian, Liberian, Filipino, Indian, Khmer, Congolese, Vietnamese, Māori, Bosnian, Sudanese and Beninese.

The pedagogical challenge

Kelly identified several pedagogical challenges with this Year 6/7 class. Generally, students were compliant but not engaged with the learning. The majority of students were below standards expected for their year level across most subject areas. Students had a tendency to sit with others from a similar cultural group. Kelly wanted to maximise student learning and engagement in a highly diverse and complicated classroom.

For her action research, Kelly developed culturally responsive units in Dance and English. The units were planned before commencing the teaching, but allowing plenty of room to adapt to meet the needs of the students. CRP was firmly embedded not only in these units, but across Kelly’s other classroom practices.

Theoretical Basis

The action research built on Kelly’s experiences from research that she conducted the previous year with her former colleague Skye, and on the learnings she took away from teacher/researcher workshops on Cuturally Responsive Pedagogy conducted by Professor Irabinna Rigney and Professor Robert Hattam at the University of South Australia. She was looking to further embed CRP into her practice. At the workshops, several ‘key ideas’ underpinning CRP were co-constructed with the participants:

  1. High intellectual challenge
  2. Strongly connected to the life-worlds of students
  3. Recognition of cultural difference as an asset
  4. Activist orientation
  5. Multimodal literacies
  6. Public performance

To Kelly’s knowledge, the students at Woodville Gardens School had not previously been taught with the principles of culturally responsive pedagogy explicitly at the forefront, so this was a new approach from their perspective. She wanted to awaken students by engaging them in learning, rather than ‘doing’ learning to them, as is the case with more traditional pedagogies. For Kelly, high expectations, public performance and multimodal delivery were already embedded practices.

Over her career, and more specifically in the previous year, Kelly had been developing her pedagogies in working with cultural difference as an asset and linking school to students’ life worlds. Kelly was exploring an activist orientation—particularly in relation to classroom democracy—and wanted to be more responsive and reflective in relation to the diversities that students bring into the classroom. Kelly was prepared to take her students on this journey with her, letting them know what she was doing and why, and inviting them to be researchers as much as she was.

The action research question

How does providing high intellectual challenge, strongly connected to students’ life worlds and showcasing culture as an asset, engage a highly diverse class of students. 

Kelly was hoping that by addressing these ‘key ideas’, and incorporating multimodal literacies and public performance, students’ wellbeing and learning outcomes in English and Dance would improve.

Doing the action research

Dance Unit

At break times, especially when students were confined indoors due to the weather, Kelly noticed that her classroom became an improvised dance floor, with many of the students spontaneously breaking into dance. She wanted to capitalise on the love of dance and extend it by introducing the students to the more technical aspects of choreography and dance movement.

She started by conducting a survey to collect pre-unit data on students’ knowledge and feelings about dance. She then explicitly taught dance terms and skills using PowerPoint and video. There were two assessment tasks: (1) working individually, an analysis of four dances and (2) working in groups, the choreography and performance of a dance

Data collection included:

  • Assessment results 
  • Parent feedback: their observations about student engagement and interest at home
  • Student survey and interviews: their interest in the unit, reflections on their work and effort
  • Teacher reflections/observations

Student outcomes: Dance unit

Students were excited to show their dance skills, but also to learn more about the technical aspects of dance. From a learning perspective, the unit resulted in improved effort, engagement and academic grades. In terms of social and wellbeing outcomes, the students had fun, got to know each other and learnt to take risks. 

Some student reflections on the Dance unit:

I felt embarrassed about it because our dance in India are really weird and I thought everybody would think it was weird, but it was fine. Being able to show our culture is important, because my family is really culture focussed and want me to be more cultural too. I wanted my family to see my dance on SeeSaw.

Culture isn’t just where you come from, it can be if you play footy too. Some cultures weren’t allowed to share their dances, but we all understood why. I didn’t know the Philippines had a cultural dance, which was interesting to me.

I find dance socially embarrassing, so I didn’t connect with this unit. But I learnt Kelly likes 80s music as much as me.

I loved it because we each got to study and learn about each and everyone’s culture. I learnt about where others came from and where they’re coming from. 

I’m usually shy and shame very quick. I hate dance because it sucks and I can’t dance, because I’m really bad at it. But it was interesting because it’s good to learn each other’s cultures.

English unit

The focus of Kelly’s English unit was ‘Survival’. Many of the students had refugee backgrounds, challenging backgrounds, or inspirational family or friends that were significant to the children. This unit privided an opportunity for them to share a personal story or, if they preferred, to research someone else’s story that they felt a connection to.

At the start of the unit, Kelly collected writing samples and pre-unit data, and also conducted a survey of student feelings and perceptions. During the unit she explicitly taught several narrative features including simile/metaphor, imagery and the five senses, and hyperbole. The class explored published examples of survival stories such as ‘I am Malala’ by Malala Yousafzai, ‘The Little Refugee’ by Anh Do and ‘Ride, Ricardo, Ride!’ by Phil Cummings. As an assessment activity, students wrote a short survival story, based either on events from their own family history, or on an event or person of interest to them. Students wrote two versions of their story: one for the teacher as audience and another for a junior primary audience. As an extension activity, students could turn their story into a book, movie or audio-book. 

For this unit, the students explored the concept and contexts of survival , spoke to their families about possible stories they could use (whether from family history or elsewhere), researched for further information, drafted and refined their text, shared their drafts with each other and exchanged feedback, and adapted their writing for the two audiences. Each student also had individual time with Kelly. At the end of the unit, students reflected on the unit in a survey.

It is important to stress that, prior to this unit, Kelly had already built significant trust both with and between her students, so that those who chose to write a survival story from their own experiences or family histories felt safe and supported. All students had the option to research an event or person documented in the public domain if, for whatever reason, they preferred to do so. In fact, many students valued the opportunity to tell a real story, and particularly one they had experienced or that was important to their family, as evidenced in some of the student reflections in the post-unit survey:

I felt great sharing my grandfathers story, and he would be proud of me. I felt good sharing the story with other people.

I shared it with my mates, so they know what happened in my past.

I wanted people to know more about me

Once I shared my story, I wasn’t worried about people knowing anymore. I felt proud of what I wrote and my story.

I wrote about my mum being trapped in an office during the flood. I wanted to share with people how I felt during the flood.

Student outcomes from the Dance and English units

Through these two units, the students bonded as a group and became more like a team. Not only did they improve their engagement in these learning areas, but in other curriculum areas areas as well. Students felt a stronger connection to Kelly and continued to share more of themselves with each other. Students involved their families more in the learning, talking about what they were doing and engaging more so than unsual. Overall, these units led to:

  • Improved academic grades
  • Improved effort from students
  • A sense of fun and engagement
  • Taking risks in a supportive, safe environment
  • Family-like cohesion: working together, supporting each other,  making genuine connections to each other, developing empathy and a deeper level of understanding

Student case studies

Dance unit: A Māori student with a history of disengagement from classroom learning and who struggled to complete workwas particularly engaged by the Dance unit. He chose to work with three students of Bosnian, Filipino and Liberian heritage. These students wanted to represent their cultural dances, and to explore the different meanings behind them. Despite quite different prior levels of academic success and engagement, this unit really allowed them to work at the same level. They researched, collaborated and created a combined performance that was powerful and informative. The Māori student initially didn’t want to perform the Haka live. He even filmed himself in a cupboard to avoid being seen by others. By the end of the unit he proudly performed the Haka in front of the whole class. The reception from his classmates was very moving and it was clear that they had a new appreciation for his culture. He later went on to focus his personal inquiry on Māori culture, inviting his parents into class to show them what he had learned independently without their knowledge.

English unit: A Liberian student who had been in Australia for two years chose to write about his own survival story of fleeing war in his home country. He documented having to leave his house with neighbours because, as a Christian, he was at risk from Muslim groups who had started to shoot people in nearby villages. He told the story of hearing the gunfire, almost drowning in mud, crossing a waterfall and finally sheltering in a village with people armed with machine guns. This student dictated his story, with Kelly typing as he spoke. The depth of the story was truly powerful. The student chose to share his story with his class, and again with leaders at the site. Significantly, as a result of this, the Principal realised why this student—who is typically very well behaved—had been previously suspended for a fight with a Muslim student. After reading the story it was immediately apparent what may have contributed to the fight. Having this deeper understanding of the student was helpful for both the other students and the leadership, as they gained greater empathy those who had experienced really extreme, traumatic events. One student with racist tendencies was clearly moved when this student shared his story, and was able to verbalise to Kelly that he realised he had been a ‘real idiot’ judging African students, because he had no idea of their story.

Teacher learnings from the Dance and English units

  • Kelly was able to understand the students on a far deeper level, learning about cultural practices, family histories and the real-world experiences of students
  • An early challenge was helping students to understand this new approach to their learning and building the sense of trust needed for them to open themselvesup to Kelly and their peers. To overcome this, Kelly was up front with students about what she was doing and why. She took her students with her on the journey and the research, gathering their opinions and welcoming their ideas. Not all teachers are comfortable with honest feedback, but Kelly learnt that to be truly responsive, she needed to open up herself and her practice. 
  • Sharing personal stories and details can be confronting, and must always be voluntary. Kelly therefore had to be willing to share from her own life experiences in order to build trust and to role model the process. For example, at the start of the year Kelly sent an introductory letter to her class, sharing that her best friend had died a few weeks earlier, and talking about her hopes and fears. She then invited the students to write to her. Kelly found that by opening up about herself, her students felt comfortable reciprocating. This trust only increased as the year progressed.
  • Having a researcher observe the lessons in action gave another perspective and encouraged Kelly to reflect on the observations provided.
  • Undertaking classroom research added another level of depth and credibility to the theoretical readings on CRP. Enacting CRP in a real-world classroom cemented Kelly’s understanding of, and commitment to, the theory. Until she saw CRP in action it was hard to understand its full impact. 

Links to the key ideas

Looking back over the two units, Kelly made links to all of the key ideas:

  • High intellectual challenge

Both units required high intellectual challenge. In the Dance unit, students were tasked with learning and using choreographic terms, which stretched their knowledge significantly. The English unit required the use of historical narrative, assessed against the Language and Literacy criteria, offering stretch at every level.

  • Strongly connected to the life-worlds of students

The units allowed students to connect to the work in their own way. The Dance unit encouraged sharing of culture and meaning in dance. The English unit encouraged the optional sharing of personal family stories that were deeply connected to students’ out-of-school lives. 

  • Recognition of cultural difference as an asset

Both units built on students’ culture and heritage, rather than working around it. Students were able to capitalise on their culture if they wanted to, while those who did not feel strong connections to their culture were not disadvantaged. 

  • Activist orientation

Throughout the two units, Kelly gave students the opportunity to contribute to decision-making and knowledge generation, thus moving towards a more democratic classroom. Students began to question how the classroom was structured and had more say in work, assessment and feedback. They seemed empowered and knew Kelly was advocating for them and wanting the best for them on a genuine level.

The English unit gave those students who wished to do so the opportunity to share events of significance to them or their families with their peers. This had the potential to challenge stereotypes or misinformation and instead foster empathy and understanding.

  • Multimodal literacies 

Both units incorporated multimodal literacies. In the Dance unit students watched videos, listened to music, read about techniques and then either pre-recorded or performed their dance live. The English unit exposed students to a range of example texts, videos, readings, and audio books and then challenged them to write their own short stories, presenting them in print, digitally or orally recorded on iPads.

  • Public performance

Public performance was a key element of both units. The Dance unit required performing for peers, teachers and parents. The survival stories were shared with peers, teachers and younger students. Those who desired could also share with staff and the whole school at assembly.

The broader picture

The Woodville Gardens School Site Improvement Plan focuses on a vision to create a community of lifelong learners, fostering curiosity and creativity. Both units were designed to contribute to this vision, with students encouraged to explore, challenge, create and problem solve. The three site goals of improving oral language skills, writing skills and student self-efficacy were closely linked to the units.

Kelly also carefully mapped both the Dance unit and the English unit to the Australian curriculum.

Conclusions

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy gave Kelly confidence in teaching a highly diverse classroom successfully. It helped her engage students more and also engaged Kelly more in her practice. This pedagogy improved outcomes from an academic and wellbeing perspective, and also helped parents connect with their child about learning.

Kelly will continue to embed CRP in her classroom across all curriculum areas. She will try to lead others to use CRP. She already ran an information session at the school to share her findings after the Dance unit and some staff have already seen its benefits and want to trial it in the future. Kelly will continue to reflect on her practice and adapt to the needs of the individuals in her class. She will continue to build a student-centred curriculum and maximize genuine democracy in the learning space. Understanding that diversity is only going to increase, teachers need to find ways to use that to their advantage, rather than trying to work around it. Engagement brings real results, not compliance and Kelly will continue to build engagement in her class. She strongly believes that CRP improves student outcomes, but is also rewarding for teachers too.

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