Rachel Wood – Portrait
This is my third year out of uni, so I’m a fairly new early career teacher. I have been working in the Aboriginal Education team at Roma Mitchell Secondary College for the last two years as a tutor of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and I have four other classes. So when the school was invited to be part of this Culturally Responsive Pedagogy program, my line manager, Alistair, thought that he and I would be the best suited teachers to participate because we probably have the most contact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at the school in terms of tutoring and teaching. So I guess we would be in the best position to implement culturally responsive pedagogy.
Look I will be honest, I’ve previously had very little professional development on Aboriginal education or culturally responsive pedagogy. I mean, at uni there was the compulsory Aboriginal education topic that all students had to do and that was really beneficial, but in terms of PD since graduating I’m struggling to think of something that I have been to that focussed on that area.
My year 10 history class was the focus of the action research. So the aspect that I focussed on was my use of meaningful open-ended questioning to elicit more class discussion.
I have three Indigenous students in that class. One is a chronic non attender; another―her attendance isn’t terrific either and she did not complete the particular task that was set, although she did engage in discussion. She’s a very proud Indigenous student. She was more inclined to contribute to smaller group discussion rather than whole class discussion. She tends to keep to herself, but I know that she was interested in the topic. The third student was very successful. He’s one of our gifted and talented students and he really thrived; quite a reserved student and again more likely to engage in smaller group discussion rather than whole class. But we really weren’t focussing purely on Indigenous students.
So we did have a lot more class discussions than in previous units. I wanted to really focus in on what kinds of questions am I asking. I wanted discussion―rather than just having the same students always putting up their hands and me having an answer in mind that I wanted to hear. I wanted them to tell me things I hadn’t even thought of or to share their opinions or their ideas and then sort of jump off each other and have a proper discussion.
They’re a pretty switched on class―lots of gifted and talented students―really respectful class. There is generally not a lot of behavioural issues. The majority of the class finished the assignments. I think the engagement was also evident in their grades. When looking at our data, attendance didn’t really change. I had one particular student who I had seen maybe twice this year who sent in his work, which was a surprise, and I think that comes down to the fact that the task itself was very heavily scaffolded and he able to complete at least one section of it. But sadly he wasn’t there for any of the discussions but I think those open ended meaningful questions don’t just have to be asked verbally. They were in the actual assignment so I think he was given the chance to think more critically.
So we decided we would incorporate the Aboriginal history in South Australia since 1800 role play as a formative task because we thought that would give a good overview of Indigenous history and what had happened. I think it also gave some context because we do have a lot of kids or students who are not from Australia and come from overseas or migrant backgrounds. Plus we really wanted to look at ‘empathy’ and we thought that the role play would elicit much more of an empathetic response than just glossing over what happened in history or reading it in a textbook.
Jess, our ASETO, had conducted the role play many times. She was involved in its writing. So we asked her and our other ASETO Mike to be involved. It would enable them to get to know the students but also the students to know them Also we did have Aboriginal students who were doing the role play so it would give them support as well. We felt that we couldn’t run this without the ASETOs.
All the Year 10 History classes did the role play and the students had a reflection sheet to fill out. So we got feedback from students across those six classes, not just my class, and across those classes that word ‘empathy’ kept coming up.
We actually tried it out with teachers at the school first. So we asked for teachers who wanted to be part of it as a PD session. And we had about 25 teachers, which is about a quarter of our teaching staff, and from multiple backgrounds―lots of teachers who were not from Australia or had migrated here. And that was very successful.
So essentially the role play went like this. All the furniture was moved to the sides and the students would sit down on the ground; there was an outline of the coast of South Australia. Students would be put into cultural groups and then they were given a card which explained their heritage; what their land was like; what kind of flora and fauna was on the land and they were also given a large A3 piece of paper and they would draw their country. They were also given small coloured cards which represented family members. So maybe purple represented adults and Elders, and yellow represented children and they had names on them. So the students had to put their people on their land which they had drawn. And then as the role play began the teacher read out the history like a timeline, so a date and and event and then the ASETOs would then walk around the groups of students and ‘enact’ the history. So if white settlers came and took a part of Kokatha land they ripped the piece of paper in half and took a part of the land. If smallpox had come in and killed Indigenous people they would literally take the cards and scrunch them up and they’re dead. And students were moved to different lands across the other side of the room, as a visual representation.
The initial reaction was confusion and I asked Jess afterwards, ‘They were confused, does that mean it wasn’t successful’? And she said ‘No, they should be confused because that’s exactly what people would have felt at the time’.
We made a conscious decision to make sure all students were given the chance to debrief and then they filled out their reflections over the weekend. And that worked out really well because I think if they had rushed to fill out those responses it wouldn’t have sunk in. They wouldn’t have given me genuine honest answers. But next week I had these really long fantastic responses from students. I think when I am talking about my pedagogy and these meaningful questions, one thing I have learned is time―give them time to do these things.
And because we knew this could bring up a lot of emotion and it could be quite traumatic for some students―because we have not only Indigenous children but also children who have left war-torn countries or who have had similar experiences―we made sure to send a letter home to every parent beforehand. The letter explained the purpose of the activity, why we were doing this, and gave the students the option to remove themselves if they didn’t want to be part of it, or if a parent felt that their child shouldn’t be part of this role play. And not one parent said they didn’t want their child to be there. Which was surprising because I thought there could possibly be some parents who felt that this was maybe too traumatic for their child or who might have different opinions on history.
Two of my Aboriginal students were present and although one of them is not particularly chatty, his reflection feedback was really positive. The female student, I could tell that she really appreciated it. And I think she also really enjoyed having the ASETOs come in—she felt comfortable that they were in there with her. I think that had our ASETOs not been part of it, it would have been very, very different. It was so important to have them there.
And the role play goes back quite far in time, but I could see students tuning in the most when it was their parents’ generation. So when we got up to the 1960s and 70s and Mike shared his experience as a child having his mother hiding him and his siblings when there would be a knock at the door. It’s almost like students’ ears kind of pricked up, ‘Oh it was real’. This was the first time that my history students had had an Indigenous person share their story in person in class. Mike is very softly spoken, he is a man of a few words, but I think what he said was more important than anything that they have read in a text book all year. So, look, if they forget everything else that we did this year I think that they will remember the role play and how they felt doing it.
The African girls really engaged with this on a deeper level. We had a girl who was from Burundi or Congo or somewhere around there. She came to Mike and Jess and actually wanted to talk about how the role play pretty much lined up with her own history back in her own country: ‘Oh this happened to us, our land was taken away … We don’t speak our language any more’. And she was in there for a long time talking to the ASETOs and wanting to talk, and then there was also another group of African girls who talked to Mike and Jess―I don’t think in as much depth, but wanted more understanding; wanted more sharing of their own story because it just really resonated with them.
I really enjoyed making this unit with the other teachers and with Alistair in terms of my own development. I felt I have become a lot more confident from working on this because in a way it felt a bit like my ‘baby’. I had never worked on a unit from scratch. When I came to this school, most of the units were already written, so felt like I was just following step-by-step what they had said to do. But this project gave me the opportunity to put my own spin on it and obviously, too, that culturally responsive spin.
This year, I was looking at my ability to conduct group work in class, because it’s not really something that I’ve done much with my year 12 class. They’re doing doing Stage 2 Essential English.
So I wanted to help them develop their creative writing skills by working with each other, rather than doing independent work, because creative writing is an area they really struggled with and I felt that they needed to work with each other to get the best possible outcome. In this class there were four girls and about 18 boys, and a huge number of cultures and language backgrounds. Of the 22 students, I think about 20 had an ESL background, with an average equivalent of about Year 6 writing and reading level. I had two Aboriginal students in that class.
One of the Aboriginal students was a B average student anyway, he was already performing quite well. But for the other Aboriginal student had struggled in the past, particularly with creative writing. Doing group work suited him well. For one thing he’s a very social student and very popular in the class, and I think he thought ‘Oh cool, I get to chat to people during class where normally I’m told to not do that’. And I think after a while he started to realise ‘Well actually this group work is helping me’. He’s one of those students who lacks confidence in his own ideas. He has a front of confidence when it comes to being sociable, but when it comes to his work he’s got a real lack of confidence. So I think by working in a group he was able to bounce his ideas. And particularly by working with his friends, he was in his comfort zone still. I think he still would have preferred to just be working independently. But he was learning from the other students, the other students were taking ideas from him which was building his confidence and his belief in his abilities I think.
Across the whole class, the students’ verbal skills are a lot stronger than their written skills. In group work, they’re able to work with one another and talk about the work first before they start writing their ideas down. Usually it’s the opposite, they go straight into writing something down and they struggle with that, lose confidence, lose momentum, and they feel less interested in the task because they think ‘This is hard’. So I think by being able to make use of their strengths and their verbal skills, that built their confidence and they were able to bounce ideas off of one another.
Definitely, they improved on their creative writing—the average grade of their creative writing task from Term 1 compared to this final unit. I think it achieved what I wanted in terms of, ‘Yes they did develop their descriptive language’ and most students ended up with really great pieces of work and were engaged.
In terms of what I was trying to achieve, I think that using group work and teaching them how to work as a group was successful. Because that was part of my pedagogy, not just getting them to work in a group, but teaching them how a group actually works together and giving them roles. That’s when it started working more successfully and was less chaotic. And it made them more accountable because they knew that ‘I’m the chairperson so if I don’t let people take turns speaking, then we’re never going to get anything done’, or ‘I’m scribe, if I’m not writing all this down, how are we going to present back to the class?’
And there were stronger connections built between the students, particularly when they had to work with those students who they hadn’t worked with much before. So at first I let them choose their own groups, so they pretty much just stayed where they were because they were already sitting with their friends. And then after that I would randomly select groups each lesson. And I think once you create a routine, then group work is only going to get easier and more effective for them. I guess it changed my understanding of them in terms of the fact that maybe they were more capable of this group work than I first imagined. They’ve got the capacity to try new things and to work with different people.
And I suppose I’ve discovered that I’m maybe more adaptable than I thought I was. It’s strange, you’d think that being in my third year of teaching that I’d be trying new things all the time, but I felt like I was already kind of stuck in a rut of ‘this is how I teach’. And I can go and observe how other people teach and try and use some of their strategies, but it was useful to actually reflect on what it is that I’m actually doing, and what I want to change. So I guess I learnt that I’m more adaptable than I thought I was.
At times it did feel a little bit stressful, particularly doing this unit as a final task of the year. I would have liked to have done more formative work with them, but time was an issue. I can’t be spending too much time doing group tasks, because at the end of the day we’ve got a deadline. Of course I wanted to engage them, but there was also a pressure to get good Year 12 grades. But also stressful in the sense that I was handing some control over to them. So I was quite apprehensive at first.
At Uni, there is such a focus on reflecting on your practice but not a lot of teaching. And then when you get out into the real world, you’re doing lots and lots of teaching but there is no time to reflect. As soon as you get out into the workforce, there’s absolutely no time for that.So this project gave me the opportunity to really think about what I was doing. I guess CRP forced me to reflect on what wasn’t working in a particular class. Because if you’re focusing on that one class, you can figure out what’s working well in this class, take those risks and then you can transfer it into another class.
I think CRP is pretty adaptable. It doesn’t have to be this bigger than Ben Hur, creating whole new units, because all I really did, this time in particular, I kept in the back of my mind, ‘You’re focusing on pedagogy not content’. Last year I still had such a focus on the content more so than the pedagogy. And I think a lot of us are still sometimes unclear on what actually counts as a pedagogy. When I think about those pedagogies that I was trying to encompass last year and this year, I’ll certainly be considering what pedagogical approach I’ll be taking in particular units of work in future.