Sam’s story

I came late into classroom teaching. After I completed a music degree at the University of Adelaide Conservatorium, I was in the music industry for most of my life and worked as a performer, composer, accompanist, recording artist and private piano teacher. Eventually I felt I needed a change from private teaching, and decided to expand my horizons. I went back to Adelaide University and did a postgraduate degree and was sent to Northern Adelaide Senior College for one of my student teaching placements – and have stayed here ever since!

I had been independently running my own business for so long that I felt I needed to be in a particular type of school, and that I wouldn’t fit into a lot of mainstream schools. Transitioning from self-employment and in a sense ‘running my own show’ to working for institutions and government had many challenges for me. I like this school because it’s a Year 11 and 12 adults reentry high school. We provide learning programs for SACE completion for particular cohorts such as young people who have disengaged from mainstream schooling, young mums, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, new arrivals and adult learners looking to finish school. There’s a lot of freedom with how I can deliver the learning content and it’s just a good fit for me. Due to already having quite a lot of life experience, I felt I could relate really well to the older students. 

I think my journey with culturally responsive pedagogy started around 40 years ago when I was a primary school student, and I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher (Dr Janett Jackson) who was doing culturally responsive pedagogy back then. Later, Dr Jackson’s Year 6/7 class did a performance at the first Reconciliation Convention in Adelaide in 1998, thus she has been doing culturally responsive pedagogy in her classrooms for a long, long time—a true pioneer in this area. Coincidentally through family connections, Dr Janett Jackson became a life-long friend and, through our many guided discussions (and engagement with her 2 theses), she has been an inspirational and collaborative mentor in this project.

A lot of the focus of Dr Jackson’s work was on how to break down and deconstruct belief systems, and how to examine our belief systems. In her work she asks pertinent questions like: What creates our belief systems? Where do they come from? Are they really serving us? What is the outcome of those belief systems? 

The CRP action research I carried out in 2018 draws from some of the models in Dr Jackson’s work—in particular with the creative use of concept maps. 

For my action research project, I examined the way I was delivering Year 12 EALD Essential English tasks to see how much I was embedding culturally responsive pedagogy—which wasn’t really a lot as it had not been a real focus for me. I’ve moved into the area of EALD teaching in the last few years, so I was very interested to improve in this aspect.

The class I decided to focus on was diverse. I had five different cultural groups: Vietnamese, Nepalese, Indonesian, Afghani, Indian. There were nine students, ranging in age from 20 to 44 years. English is the second language of all of the students in this class.

Delivering Aboriginal content was one of the main areas I wanted to examine. This is something I haven’t been overly confident with. I’ve attempted it in the past with fairly basic task design, but I wanted to take it to a different level. I decided that the only way to get comfortable with it is to just take more risks, and build up my experience and knowledge. Interestingly, when I was in the music industry, I worked with some world music bands that had musicians of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural background. Through this experience, I became engaged in a challenging, yet rewarding, cultural exchange through the medium of music which permanently changed my understanding of culture in my own communities. 

For this recent CRP project, as a class we looked at Aboriginal and English settlers’ interactions, and Rabbit-Proof Fence was a story that we focused on within that whole topic. We then broadened it out, took themes from it and drew parallels with our own lives in relation to those themes.

Initially the students were pretty quiet and not very confident, but once they got past that and started to express themselves, they had a lot to say. I think this was due to their own life experiences—which can be very rich due to many students being older, so that all started to really come out of them. Initially I thought it would be hard for them to write their poetry, but when they started to explore these themes and parallels with their own life experience, their creative writing flowed very easily. 

The students got deeply involved, emotionally and intellectually. That was expected. I don’t think we can look at our history without getting emotionally involved—especially in regards to the Rabbit Proof Fence story—it’s a very powerful story, it’s a very moving story. Some of the students have had similar experiences of persecution in their pasts; this led them to be genuinely immersed in the task and consequently they wrote some powerful and profound poetry in response to the story. I think that this particular unit of work encouraged authentic levels of engagement, it inspired them to go deeper into themselves to bring out something to meet the demands of the task, and as a result of that, the classroom atmosphere was different. As a class, we did go on a fairly intense learning journey, and I got to know my students better and they learnt more about each other. They certainly shared stories with me that they may not have shared if I hadn’t done this unit of work, stories about their background and their challenges. We had all built closer relationships by the time we got to the end of the year.

The high intellectual challenge was there. Usually I’d just get them to write an essay on themes or something, whereas this time they had to write a narrative in response and they had to do more research, so there was definitely more challenge for the students to explore deeper concepts and to make connections between those concepts.

One of the significant things I did was to get our ASETO (Aboriginal Secondary Education Transition Officer) Jarrad Chester involved in our class. I’ve never done that before and I don’t even know why I hadn’t thought of it before this project. After explaining what I was doing, I asked Jarrad if he would come into our class and talk to us about his background and history, his country, his language, his perspective on reconciliation and where he thinks it’s at in our country. Jarrad came in and gave us an incredibly in-depth interactive talk, he brought in artefacts that were all passed around. We looked at the Aboriginal languages map, Jarrad talked a lot about his background and history and what it was like for him as a child, what it was like for his father, and what it was like for his grandfather. He talked about the Stolen Generations, he talked about reconciliation and where it’s at in the country now and what needs to happen, and what needs to change and lastly, what it means for him. Jarrad also talked about the Dreaming and Songlines, he touched on Elders and their roles in the community, and he talked about other historical aspects. Because of that, we all got to know Jarrad, and we learnt about his life, background and role in the school. 

For me, this positive exchange was so meaningful for myself and the students. There has to be positive exchanges to foster learning and new ways of thinking. For the students, it was a memorable experience and probably quite unique for them. They directly connected with an Aboriginal person and heard their story. I really don’t know how much interaction they would have had previously with Aboriginal people. Most of them have been in refugee camps for large sections of their lives, and only been in Australia for a short time. For those students who have been here longer, they tend to remain somewhat enclosed in their own communities, and the cultural activities within that. 

I did surveys asking them what they knew about Aboriginal culture at the beginning of the unit, and the results showed that they had very little knowledge or none at all, and that had changed by the end of the unit. The next step would be to try to create some sort of ongoing cross-cultural exchange between my class and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our school.

Overall, I think quite a lot changed. The students know a lot more about Indigenous history, Australian Aboriginal history and Aboriginal and European interaction. They have a lot more empathy, and certainly their eyes have been opened to Aboriginal culture, languages, history and ways of looking at things. 

Apart from the time commitment which created some stress on top of what I already have to manage as a full time Year 11 and 12 teacher, everything worked for me about this project. It just resonated hugely with me personally, my values and goals, and as a teacher in general. I was just very grateful to be part of it, and I noticed that every time I was engaged with it, I felt really happy and content—which is always a good sign that I’m doing something that’s beneficial for myself and ultimately others. As teachers, we are constantly being exposed to many choices around PD topics, it’s hard to know what to specialise in. Personally, I need to choose something that I connect with on a heart level, this will fuel my motivation and engagement. 

Trying to do action research within a classroom is a little bit challenging because you’re thinking on two levels at once. Actually, this becomes both exciting and perplexing because it’s unknown territory for me, so I don’t have lots of confidence. A couple of times earlier on, I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can even keep going with this, it’s really hard, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t know how I’m going to do it’. Ultimately I reached the conclusion that it’s more important to take a risk and try these new pedagogies, knowing that it’s okay to fail sometimes, this will lead to greater learning— the main purpose behind research after all. 

I’m so glad that I really stuck it out. I still feel like I’ve only scraped the surface of it. To me, it’s a long-term project, it’s adding a whole other layer of dimension into my teaching and my role as an educator. I am taking the long term approach, and will continue to stay committed to this path in my teaching design.

I found that I had strengths in certain ways that I didn’t realise I had. Things like facilitating yarning circles, even delivering some of the content which initially I didn’t feel confident in. Once I was actually doing it, I felt that I came across quite well, because I recorded myself and I listened back to myself, and I have had experience working in the music industry with Aboriginal bands and musicians, so I have actually had quite a lot of personal experience but from a different angle. In a sense I had already started on the journey of connecting with Indigenous culture and issues. And it’s not just ‘their’ issues, it’s actually ‘our’ issues, ‘my’ issues, ‘your’ issues, it’s all connected because we all share this planet.

I’m finding now that I’ve got a new level of curiosity and interest in learning about Aboriginal cultures, belief systems and languages. It’s like a real genuine curiosity which actually overcomes any fear I might have had. Sometimes I put things in the too hard basket, whereas now I’m just really, really curious. For example, I never really had any desire to learn some Aboriginal dialect, but now I do. I went to the local library, and I borrowed a book on Kaurna language.

The learning assessment plans that I continue to write will have a lot more Aboriginal content embedded in them, and I’m going to try new things, and ultimately it will become a significant part of the way I do task design.

Once you’ve decided to make culturally responsive pedagogy part of your teaching, it’s a journey. There’s a lot of ethical aspects to it. However, at some stage you need to take the leap and just go on a journey with it. I definitely want to keep it going, to stay connected to the CRP team, and to keep building effective teaching and learning in my multicultural classrooms.

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