Kelly Blandford’s story
At my new school, I focused on two units of work. One was a unit on Dance, and the other was English. At break times I had already noticed my class becoming a dance room, so I wanted to capitalise on the students’ love of dance. For English, we looked at Survival Stories, either from their own lives and families, or from research into other people’s lives. I was looking at how to engage children more because they were very compliant but not really engaging with lessons. Students were just kind of sitting and smiling, so it was more about maximising the engagement side of it.
I have two Indigenous students in the class, but I didn’t track them especially. In the English unit, one of them wrote about coming from Point Pearce, moving down to Alberton and then to our school and how she still doesn’t really fit in here, which was good because it gave me more insight into where her head’s at as well. The other student engaged well with the Dance unit. She likes more theatrical things where she can express herself more, so that was really in her favourite zone. Then in English, for her Survival Story, she shared about almost choking on a coin. I think she engaged well for probably three quarters of the English unit and then probably lost interest at the end a little bit. However, the story she wrote was probably one of her better narratives.
For the non-Indigenous students, the ones who would characterise themselves as Australian, they engaged with the Survival unit quite well and they all shared their own stories. Some of the students who have more traumatic backgrounds were able to share that and then produce much higher quality work. For example, one Liberian student usually writes very basic stories, and he wrote a really detailed story that he was able to share and that it helped him a lot. It probably changed his perception of himself as a learner and he developed better connections with the class and me.
The cultural divide broke down a bit, because originally the students were quite segregated. My African kids would stick together, and the Indian kids would stick together and my Vietnamese kids, whereas now they mix with each other, depending on the task and who they want to work with. Even just starting the Dance unit, when they chose their groups, they kind of split themselves up. I thought the Vietnamese kids would go together to do a Vietnamese dance, but they didn’t. They said, ‘No, we want to learn other people’s dances’. They were really supportive of each other. They were a really supportive group and that’s because we do so much public performance, they do oral presentations all the time. They just got really comfortable with each other and knowing how to give good feedback, which then built their confidence in that as well. My students have bonded a lot more and they’re actually a really tight group. It feels like a real team.
I know them a lot deeper than I would have without CRP. I’ve always known which kids play what sports or instruments and what music they listen to and current things, but it gave me a better understanding of their history and where they are coming from, even where their families are coming from and how to approach things in that way as well.
The key ideas of culturally responsive pedagogy—the high expectations, I’ve always done that anyway, so that’s been right throughout my teaching. I feel that’s already a part of my practice. Looking at students’ life worlds, I probably started to develop last year and then this year especially.
Probably the key idea I didn’t connect with straight away was the socio-political, activist concept, so that was my challenge. It was understanding socio-political consciousness, exactly what it is—it’s the hardest one to define. But I feel like that’s what I’m working on and that’s probably changed my head set the most. This year I was more confident with the other key ideas so I probably did more of that in my classroom structure and how I set up my classroom.
For example, when we did History and the Ancient World, I said, well, here’s the achievement standards you have to hit but these are the content areas you can choose. So one student did things to do with death, one did marriages, one did famous people who made a difference, or how life was different from slaves, or how education changed from then until now. So they really went in different areas but their work was so much better.
My kids will say now if they want to do something or change it or negotiate with me, so I guess there’s that freedom. Next year, I’m going to plan my units with my class, so I’m going to pull out the achievement standards of the curriculum and map it out with the kids, so the kids have ownership over the year. So, ‘What are we doing this term, which topic should we do’? Like in History, ‘We have to do a timeline, which of the topics do you want to do a timeline about’? I would normally have everything planned from January and know what I’m doing for the whole year. Now I want to be more responsive to what the kids want to do and focus more on the achievement standards and capabilities rather than content so much.
With CRP, you don’t want to focus just on race. That could be a trap you could fall into easily and I feel like I dodged it this year. Last year, I kept focusing on Indigenous only. Whereas this year, having a broader group of kids in my class meant I focused on all cultures and different aspects, so it wasn’t always race. For example, we were talking about food and different practices that people do. Being careful of the kids going, ‘Well, I’m Australian so I don’t have a culture’, ‘We don’t have any cultural food’, and not alienating them by focusing so much on other people’s backgrounds when they don’t necessarily think that they bring a background with them. I had to unpack that in the Dance unit because some of them were like, ‘Well, we’re Australian, what are we going to do’? They came up with ‘Land Downunder’ and that’s the only thing they could think of as a song. I said ‘But there’s different stories and there’s layers to Australia’s history, lots of different songs, dances, styles and reasons’. I think because the White Australian kids are in a minority in my class, if I hadn’t unpacked that, they would have thought, ‘Oh, she doesn’t care about us’, it probably would have gone too far the other way as opposed to making sure it’s for everyone.
I guess it’s just making sure you don’t think of it from a race point of view all the time and bringing in the different things that culture can embody and not forcing it on kids. To give natural ‘ins’ where they can share without having to whack them over the head with it. And if a kid who is Aboriginal wants to do a dance that’s K-Pop, not thinking, ‘Damn it, that’s not what I wanted’. They might have come to school with a different head set that day; the way they’re feeling on a particular day, or wanting to present themself.
I started Genius Hour at the start of the year where the kids could work on their own topic and by the end of the year it became a personal inquiry where they could choose any topic. I told them the English skills I was going to assess on, but they could choose where to take it. It actually showed me what they can do in English when it’s a topic that they choose.
One student, in his last presentation, invited his Mum and Dad in and he didn’t tell them what for. So they just came to the Front Office and they were like,’ I have to go to his classroom but I don’t know what for’, and I didn’t know they were coming either. His presentation was why he’s a proud Māori. Both his parents are Māori, and they just loved it. His Mum stayed for another half an hour talking about her culture and explaining to the rest of the class. It was really significant, because I had just assumed that this student knew a lot of the information because he is Māori, but he’d actually researched a whole lot of information, and his Mum said, ‘He didn’t even ask me anything about it’. So he’d investigated it all himself. He’d also talked about why his family left New Zealand and the gang violence his Dad had been in, so it was just really personal. The kids can tell when someone’s putting something out there and I haven’t heard anyone repeat anything to kids in other classes. They’re quite mature when you give them the chance to be. It was really good with Mum coming in and being so willing to share Māori culture. Some of the African families seem a bit more hesitant to come in, they’re not sure.
My approach has caused a few awkward conversations with parents who don’t quite get it, but then once I talk to them about it, they are all on board with it. This year has been more positive because I’ve got supportive parents and they have been really interested in the use of their culture.
CRP makes sense from all the research I’ve done, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t use it. I’m more open to trying new things now. I feel like I’ve embedded CRP into my practice now so it’s in my head whenever I’m doing something and I’m trying now to infiltrate to other people in my building and the school. Some of the other teachers use their more familiar worksheets and things they have done for a long time, which I get. Now that I’m trying to respond to the kids individually, I find it easier to start fresh and work forward that way, which is probably more work, but it’s more quality work.
If other teachers got on board with it, there could definitely be an impact school-wide because the whole school is very multicultural. I feel like it’s something that’s kind of lost a little bit here. We did Harmony Day and the kids cut out orange strips of paper, joined them altogether and formed a big chain out on the oval, but I feel like that’s very tokenistic. What does that mean, why do we chop up so many bits of paper? We also have lots of performers come in and do shows but again, it feels like there’s not a lot of learning in the build-up or after. I think it would be nice to see the kids sharing more of themselves and teachers responding more to that. Responding to cultural difference at a deeper level.
I’m just trying to embed CRP now in my practice. It’s really already in my head set so I’m not thinking of which units next year are going to be culturally responsive, it will just be throughout. I’m more of an advocate now for Aboriginal education and trying to find ways to better address Aboriginal education. It has given me more big picture questions about what’s next.