Case Study:

Responding to history through narrative

Teacher: Sam White
School: Northern Adelaide Senior College
Learning Area: Essential English (EALD focus)
Year level: 12


Sam has been a teacher for 30 years and spent most of her teaching career as a private piano teacher. Alongside this, she  ran a music business which involved performing, composing and recording etc. Eventually Sam returned to post-graduate study and this ultimately led her to an extremely fulfilling role as a full-time teacher in Elizabeth’s north, at an adult re-entry high school called Northern Adelaide Senior College. Currently Sam’s learning areas are Music, English, Integrated Studies and Research Practices. Over the last few years she has specialised in delivering these subjects to specific classroom cohorts such as EALD students, and students with learning difficulties or identified as on the Autism Spectrum. In essence, Sam is keenly interested in facilitating a learning process which engages students on a deeper level leading to some degree of profound inner change within the individual. Sam hops that the result of this process can be seen in the new ways that students may perceive themselves, their communities and the world in general.

Northern Adelaide Senior College is a unique adult re-entry public high school which provides an inclusive, supportive, creative and rich learning environment for many people from a wide variety of backgrounds. 

The college provides specific learning programs designed to achieve SACE completion for particular cohorts, such as young people who have disengaged from mainstream schooling, young mums, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, new arrivals and adult learners looking to finish school. Embedded within the school is a thriving community learning center which provides pathways for disengaged youth to recommence their learning journeys through many engaging programs designed around the interests and needs of these young people. There is also a dynamic early learning center which is helping young parents to learn about and engage with the vitally necessary education of their own children—a right that they may have not been fully exposed to themselves.  

The college has strong ties to the surrounding communities in the north of Adelaide.

Sam focused her CRP action research on her Year 12 EALD Essential English class which had nine students, ranging in age from 20yrs to 44yrs old.  The cultural background of the students included: Vietnamese, Indonesian, Nepalese, Afghani and Indian.

The pedagogical challenge

Sam identified her pedagogical challenge as firstly; how could she enhance the EALD students’ knowledge of Aboriginal issues and history of Colonial and Aboriginal interaction with a focus on the Stolen Generations period? From her experience over the last few years, it is not uncommon for these students to have little or no knowledge of the history of Colonial and Aboriginal interaction and the impact and consequences of this for our society. Secondly, Sam felt she needed to gain confidence with delivery of curriculum about Australian Indigenous histories/perspectives/contemporary issues, and to think differently about how to design curriculum to be culturally responsive and enhance learning. 

Sam’s focus for this action research was for the students to achieve transformative learning in their hearts and minds about Aboriginal Australia and the importance of the Reconciliation process.This would be demonstrated by the students showing deep learning and engagement with the topic from an intellectual and heart perspective, which will be reflected in their narratives.

In developing a unit of work, Sam decided to focus on the following aspects of CRP: 

  • High challenge: The unit challenges students to deeply express their personal response, insights and attitudes to the complex cultural exchanges within Australian history. As the teacher, Sam knows she does not have all the answers to complex questions that may arise out of this topic, however together students and teacher can go on an exploratory and meaningful journey that can lead to deeper understanding of the impact and consequences of certain belief systems.
  • Strongly connected to life worlds: The unit asks students to draw parallels with their own life worlds and stories of survival. 
  • Activist orientated: Students are asked to consider how they can contribute to and affect the ongoing issue of reconciliation leading to positive exchanges of learning. The unit has scope for a multimodal delivery utilising text/spoken word/images/music/video and has a community outcome (e.g. publication of narratives in the school magazine).

Recognition of cultural difference as an asset: Students are asked to find the similarities between the fundamental spiritual/emotional needs of human beings for happiness and freedom despite differing cultural backgrounds. The exploration of themes such as respect, power and healing are undertaken by all participants in the learning journey regardless of cultural background.

Theoretical Basis

A key theoretical resource that Sam drew on to help design her research topic question was the guided discussions that took place between her and mentor teacher Dr. Janett Jackson, who has done significant work in the area of CRP over the course of her teaching career. This inspirational collaboration included referencing to Dr. Janett Jackson’s PhD thesis  ‘Shifting Reflections’. 


Some of the complementary CRP frameworks from Dr. Jackson’s work that were referenced in class discussions were:

  • Cognitive domain and affective domain: What are the facts? What are the feelings?
  • Counteracting stereotypical thinking
  • Everyone has a stance/belief—what has informed that belief? Deconstructing these beliefs
  • Modifying beliefs: We need to question our beliefs
  • Dr. Jackson’s ‘inside out’ theory: ‘What’s in the student’s own life that relates to the topic’?
  • Using mind maps and concept maps to find this out; also used yarning circles

Links to the five key ideas

  • view cultural difference as an asset
  • offer high intellectual challenge
  • promote multimodal sharing of learning

The action research question

The investigative research question for Sam’s CRP action research was:

What type of culturally responsive lessons based on the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, foster in Year 12 EALD students a deeper appreciation and understanding of Aboriginal people, culture, languages and history?

The action research

When Sam had taught the unit of work in previous years, the main focus was to ask the students to produce a written essay analysing the main themes presented in the film.

This time, Sam made a number of major changes to the way in which she implemented the lessons and consequently the learning journey and the outcome were different for the students. For the task, the students needed to do some research about the Stolen Generations period in Australian history and view the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. After discussing the themes and ideas of the film, the students were asked to produce the following:

  1. A narrative, such as a poem or song, about one or more of these ideas as a personal response to the text. Use mind and concept maps to record their planning. Show themes, ideas and vocabulary such as words and phrases on their maps. Words and phrases could be in students’ first language.
  2. A reflection and analysis about why they chose this theme/s to base their narrative on, as well as identifying the literary/poetic techniques they used.

Sam’s new pedagogy included:

  • Conducting a yarning circle discussing themes relative to the story and social/political setting of Rabbit-Proof Fence, with participants contributing their thoughts about the following questions:

What does freedom mean to you?

Describe an experience you had when you felt really free

If you could get everyone in the world to do something to make it a better place, what would it be?

What is true power?

Students and teacher learnt a lot about each other and stories of survival from the yarning circle—particularly from the Hazara students who had fled the Taliban.

The students came up with the following list of themes to base their poetry on:

Leadership Healing Nature
Power Communication Kinship and Family Ties
Change Spirituality Empathy
Identity Landscape Freedom
  • Challenging the students to deeply express their personal response, insights and attitudes to the complex cultural exchanges within Australian history.
  • Asking students to draw parallels with their own life worlds and stories of survival.
  • Inviting Jarrad Cherster, the school’s Indigenous SSO, to contribute his knowledge to the collective learning. Jarrad spent a whole lesson with the class. The students asked Jarrad questions, for example, ‘What was your childhood like?’. Jarrad talked about his and his family’s experiences with racism, and the difference between the 60s, 70s and 80s. The  school site is currently working on a Reconciliation Plan with Jarrad.  During the lesson, Jarrad:
    • Shared his background and history and where his family comes from which is near Ceduna and Port Lincoln and how his lands hold some sacred sites which join onto the Pitjantjatjara Lands, people would travel down to these sites such as the Initiation Caves
    • Explained about traditional laws in relation to the Didgeridoo and who could play it
    • Helped the students and teacher understand the map of Aboriginal Languages and how each area had it’s individual “song” and custodians
    • Explained that for the girls in the Rabbit-Proof Fence story to have that knowledge and travel that distance meant that this was all handed down to them through song and culture
    • Discussed the Kaurna geographical region
    • Showed amazing artefacts from his father’s home
    • Explained how the Elders are the keepers of the knowledge
    • Discussed the Stolen Generations with the students and teacher
    • Talked about the Dreaming and the old ways; each geographical area has a different song line  
    • Discussed Reconciliation – ‘It has come a long way but it has so far to go, Aboriginal people need to be recognised in the Constitution, Aboriginal people up to 1967 were recognised as fauna and flora not as people. The history of Australia is dark, but it is getting better’.
  • More focus on how the students can contribute to and affect the ongoing issue of Reconciliation leading to positive exchanges of learning.

Data collected

  • Written journal including documentation of collaborative sessions spent with mentor teacher Janett Jackson and referencing to her PhD work around culturally responsive pedagogy
  • Audio recordings of the lessons and significant moments
  • Pre- and post-unit anonymous survey with questions about the students’ knowledge of Aboriginal histories/culture/languages
  • Assessment task sheet and performance standards for marking
  • Samples of students’ work

The broader picture

Connection to the school’s Strategic Prioritiesl: 

  • Teachers develop reflective teaching and learning practices
  • Focus on growth mindset for both staff and students

Connection to the school’s four core values:

SUCCESS – Empowering individual achievement

COMMUNITY – Connected, engaged and safe

IMPROVEMENT – Persistence, innovation and growth

INCLUSIVENESS – Celebrating and respecting diversity

Links to the Australian Curriculum

Students understand and interpret information, ideas, and perspectives in texts and consider ways in which language choices are used to create meaning.

Incorporating Indigenous perspectives – providing opportunities students to learn about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures, and contemporary experiences

Personal and social capability – students develop communication skills needed for conversation, research, presentations, and the expression of viewpoints and arguments. They develop empathy with and appreciation of the perspectives of others.

Ethical understanding – students engage with ethical dilemmas presented in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, and consider reasons for actions and the implications of decisions and how they are reflected in their own responses

Intercultural understanding – students can express their ideas about their own culture and identity and also appreciate and empathise with the cultural perspectives and values of others, students can reflect on how they personally can contribute to reconciliation.

Critical and creative thinking – students apply critical thinking when they apply their knowledge of language to consider the purpose, context, audience, and language features of the film text “Rabbit Proof Fence”. Creative thinking enables students to apply imaginative and inventive strategies in the creation of their own original works.

What Sam learnt

…about her pedagogy – it led to transformative learning in the hearts and minds of the students, it was rewarding drawing on such a wide range of activities

… about her students – all students had inspirational stories of overcoming adversity by using core values and qualities which shaped their character for the better. They were deeply interested in Aboriginal Australia and wanted to learn more.

… about classroom research – it’s extremely worthwhile and teaches Sam so much about herself, her students and the learning journey. She realies she has to be prepared to take risks.

… about CRP – it resonates with Sam’s value system and goals for being a effective teacher, it’s not that hard once you start fully embracing the mindset, consequently it spills over into other teaching areas.’

What challenges arose?

Sam identified the following challenges

  • Should have started the surveys earlier
  • Needed more students to do the post survey
  • Yr 12 students don’t have as much time for exploratory learning
  • Limitations in her own knowledge of history 
  • Language barrier and student limitation with understanding deeper concepts
  • Managing emotional responses from students
  • Being in the stretch zone
  • Time restraints – didn’t follow through with publication of poems – except one got published in the school magazine

How will this impact on Sam’s future teaching?

  • Build on what she has learnt
  • Continue with integrating cultural CRP pedagogy into her teaching
  • Apply the methodology she has learnt with different texts
  • Stay connected to CRP action research team
  • Share her learning with other teachers in my school
  • Engage the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff member more regularly in curriculum planning and delivery

The overall outcome was that the students and Sam had an enriching, shared learning journey which led to new skills, knowledge and connections within, and outside the classroom. The students have come away with much more knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal people, history and culture. By raising their awareness and empathy the students have come away feeling as if they will be proactive in responding to Aboriginal issues now, and in the future.

In conclusion

The overall outcome was that the students and Sam had an enriching, shared learning journey which led to new skills, knowledge and connections within, and outside the classroom. The students have come away with much more knowledge and appreciation of Aboriginal people, history and culture. By raising their awareness and empathy the students have come away feeling as if they will be proactive in responding to Aboriginal issues now, and in the future.

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