Case Study:

Melissa’s Global Civil Rights unit

Teacher: Melissa
School: Wattle Secondary
Learning area: History
Year Level: 10


Melissa was in her 12th year of teaching when she joined the Culturally Responsive Pedagogy project. Growing up in regional South Australia, Melissa had always had a passion for Indigneous cultures―and in fact all cultures―so the project fitted well with her own perspectives and interests.  After stints of both on-site and off-site teaching,  as well as working outside the education sector, Melissa accepted  a teaching role at Wattle Secondary, where she particularly enjoys the multicultural character of the student population.

Located in western metropolitan Adelaide, Wattle Secondary serves a community that has a long history of cultural diversity. More than 75 cultural groups are represented in the student enrolment, and more than 400 of the 900+ students speak English as an additional language or dialect. Approximately 12 per cent of students are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage across a variety of South Australian or Northern Territory  language groups. The school is rated Category 2 on the Department for Education’s Index of Disadvantage. 

Melissa’s focus for her action research was a double class of 43 Year 10 History students that she was team teaching with a colleague. There were 21 cultural heritages represented in the class: Australian (Aboriginal), Australian (Anglo-Celtic), Bosnian, British, Cambodian, Chinese, Croatian, Finnish, German, Greek, Indian, Irish, Macedonian, Papua New Guinean, Philipino, Scottish, Somalian, Syrian, Thai, Togo and Vietnamese.

The pedagogical challenge

After reflecting on her classroom, Melissa identified the need to:

  • Create a curriculum that is negotiated and connects to students’ life worlds and identity in order to make students feel included and represented in both the classroom and curriculum and provide a voice for them.
  • Help students to understand the role that Human Rights play in upholding their rights and the rights of other. Create globally conscious students and raise their understanding of Human Rights violations and the fight for equality around the world. 
  • Plant the seed for students to question and think critically about world events, both past and present, and how they relate to Human Rights and their own beliefs and values. 

Links to the five key ideas

Melissa prioritised the concept of building relationships with and between students in order to build cultural understanding (teacher-student, student-student). She  incorporated elements of all the five key ideas in her unit design:

  • High intellectual challenge 
  • High expectations of students and of themselves
  • Strongly connected to students’ life worlds
  • Recognition of cultural difference as an asset
  • Activist oriented

She particularly wanted to:

  • Create challenging curriculum and pedagogies that cultivate cultural competencies
  • Increase student creativity, research practices and use of digital technologies
  • Respond to the diversity in the class
  • Incorporate and explicitly teach the use of iMovie
  • Evoke a sense of awe and wonder, with a critical lens
  • Create a sense of pride in one’s own cultural identity
  • Create a sense of purpose as a global citizen

The action research questions

  • How does creating an engaging culturally responsive unit with a negotiated curriculum and challenging learning tasks develop students’ empathy and social consciousness with connections to their life worlds?
  • Do students become more engaged in the classroom when they feel challenged and represented in the curriculum? Has this changed or challenged their view of the world?

Doing the action research

To introduce the unit, Melissa created highly interactive presentations  on Human Rights and the United Nations including definitions, overviews, videos and activities (both individual and group). This generated a lot of class discussion, debate and research.

There were two assessment tasks:

Global Civil Rights Timeline: This was an individual assignment where students could choose a country to research. Each student created a civil rights timeline with a minimum of 10 significant events. The countries that students chose to research included Australia, America, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Rwanda, Papua New Guinea, Northern Ireland, Cambodia, The Baltic states and India.  Sitting in a communal circle the students then shared their research findings. As a class, the students  worked through years with each student contributing when they had an event on their timeline. The class then discussed and noticed similarities and connections between countries, and any influences between different movements.

Civil Rights iMovie Project: Students individually researched one significant event from the Civil Rights movements the class learnt about  in the first assessment task. They then produced a multimodal presentation in the form of an iMovie and developed an interactive component for all students. Eg: Kahoot social learning platform , Q and A worksheet, questionnaire or quiz. The students shared their iMovies and class activities in a Civil Rights Film Festival. Civil Rights themes covered in this assignment included The White Australia policy, the lynching of Emmett Till, the LGBTQI movement and the plebiscite, Maralinga, chemical warfare in Syria, the Stolen Generations and the Togo Debout.

Action research data collected included:

  • Assessment tasks
  • Student feedback
  • Teacher feedback
  • Student survey

Student outcomes

Melissa conducted a student survey to investigate the impact of this unit of work. 95% of students felt that they developed more understanding of their classmates’ cultural background. Student responses included:

Yes I did feel culturally included in the civil right topic as I got to research my own country’s civil rights movement which is currently occurring and it made me feel happy, appreciated and glad to share my people’s struggles with my class mates.

I believe that it has taught me so much about others culture and backgrounds which makes me feel like I know a little more about them and what they have been through. I find it very interesting to learn about other cultures.

I have gained a better understanding of the world’s civil rights and what each country is doing to become a better nation. I believe I can have conversations about civil rights topics and can possibly engage in rallies at some point in my life.

It should be noted that the unit was not without challenge in terms of classroom relationships. One student, supported by a small group of ‘enablers’ , was very vocal and opinionated―not just in Melissa’s class but in other classes as well. When Melissa discussed the White Australia policy with the class, this group started to call her ‘un-Australian’. Referring to the ringleader, Melissa explained, ‘It’s a little bit about white supremacy. He loves to argue with teachers and loves to provide his opinion everywhere, every subject, all the time. He loves to debate teachers … he’ll choose a public setting’. The other students in the class did not enjoy this disruption.  Milissa elaborates, ‘They often tell him to shut up, stop. Because a lot of them have been with him since Year 8, so they’ve had three years of this’. Melissa remained firm in her resolve  not to let this student and his supporters dominate the class, but the anecdote is a reminder of the complex classroom dynamics that teachers (and students) negotiate in their school lives.

Teacher outcomes

In reflecting on her own professional learning, Melissa reports:

I have learnt that I need to provide lessons that relate to students’ life worlds, to provide relevance and a voice to students. It needs to be both challenging and engaging  and offer a variety of ways of learning and interacting as a class.

Effective teaching and learning integrates both curriculum and pedagogies in order to produce culturally responsive teaching. Both are intertwined and can not be effective without each other.   

Relationships are at the core of being culturally responsive and must foster understanding, respect and trust. 

Teachers should involve their students in planning learning experiences and in choosing contexts, activities and even how they will demonstrate their learning. 

Negotiated curriculum and differentiation can help students achieve success and can enable each student to relate course content to his or her cultural context.

The broader picture

Melissa’s  unit of work makes links to the ethos of her school, particularly in relation to the following perspectives:

  • Behaving in ways that are right for yourself and others
  • Valuing difference and diversity
  • Learning cross-cultural communication skills
  • Being open to new ideas


Melissa sought feedback on the unit from other teachers, including her team teaching colleague who was in the classroom while Melissa led Global Civil Rights component of Year 10 History. These are the team teacher’s relections on Melissa’s unit:

Incorporating cultural lyresponsive pedagogies into the Civil Rights Unit has been both powerful and rewarding on an educational and personal growth level. The comfort and security of students in the classroom was evident by the very personal iMovie presentations shared by students who have experienced the civil rights struggle of their own people in their home lands. It was a privilege as a teacher to be given the opportunity to hear the stories of these students, their families and their cultures. The culturally responsive approach made the topic very relevant to the students in Year 10. Whether it was through their own personal story and history they were able to explore, or from being exposed to the experiences, struggles and triumphs of people around the world. Through the connections with their peers, students were able to gain a deeper understanding of empathy and were empowered to be active and critical thinking global citizens in a world where we are so often manipulated by the media. It was particularly rewarding to see students individually, and with great pride, identify with their people and their fight for civil rights. Students were able to interview family members or friends and hear stories and experiences they had not heard before. Perhaps without this unit, students would never have had the opportunity to ask the questions and hear the powerful stories of courage, kindness and hope in the face of adversity. 

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