Case Study:

Sharon’s Art unit

Teacher: Sharon
School: Paperbark Secondary
Learning Area: Art
Year: Level: 9

Context

Sharon has been teaching at Paperbark Secondary for 11 years. Her learning area is Art, but she also has leadership roles, including overseeing the school’s Aboriginal Education Department. Sharon describes her school as transformational: staff are looking at new ways to engage students by working with their individual learning needs. Strategies explored include PBL, individual learning plans, onsite alternative learning centres and culturally responsive pedagogy.

Paperbark Secondary is situated on the fringe of suburban Adelaide. The local community is in the process of rapid economic transition due to recent industry closures. Unemployment is high—around three times the state average. Consequently, many of the students enrolled at Paperbark Secondary are receiving support through the School Card system. Around 1000 students are enrolled at the school and numbers are growing. Cultural diversity is high, with 40 different nationalities are represented on campus. More than 10% of students are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander heritage.

Sharon’s Year 9 Art class reflects the cultural diversity of the school, with students from Africa, Nepal, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Poland and Germany. Three students are of Aboriginal heritage. She describes the class as ‘very noisy’ and it is often difficult to maintain engagement, with some students very easily distracted. Art is a compulsory subject in Year 9, and Sharon is keenly aware that many students do not share her passion for the learning area. She is always looking for ways to engage reluctant students in Art so that they can express themselves at their own level, while still challenging them. She does not seek technical perfection: ‘I would never want to hear a child say, ‘You made me hate art”’.

The pedagogical challenge

Sharon identified her pedagogical challenge as a result of an introductory workshop on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy run by researchers at the University of South Australia. At this workshop, Aboriginal Elders were invited to share their experiences of going to school and growing up in South Australia. One of the Elders used the term ‘deep listening’ to refer to the sharing of significant stories. Sharon found this experience of deep listening profoundly moving, almost cathartic.  She realised that she needed to listen more carefully to her students, and that they needed to listen more carefully to each other. In class, the students always sat in cultural groups. Her pedagogical challenge was to promote deep listening across cultures and, through this, increase engagement and learning.

Theoretical Basis

Two theoretical resources were used by Sharon to frame a research question that would address her pedagogical challenge. Previously, she had engaged with the work of Aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta, who advanced the ‘8-ways of Aboriginal learning’ pedagogical framework; this informed her approach. She also drew on the Alaska Standards for Culturally Responsive Schools.

Links to the five key ideas

  • view cultural difference as an asset
  • offer high challenge
  • connect to the life-worlds of students, and promote life-world connections between students

The action research question

In order to investigate the pedagogical challenge, Sharon focused on two inter-related research questions:

  1. How do I engage the students in experiences that involve the development of observation and listening skills?
  2. Through this, how can I change and improve my teaching practice to embed cultural practices in my teaching?

Doing the action research

Sharon developed a unit of work that was designed to promote careful inter-cultural listening between students.

There were three assessment tasks:

  • Groupwork: Each group researches and Dreamtime story and then presents the story to the class. Peer-assessed
  • Individual work: Each student researches the work of South Australian Aboriginal artist Ian Abdulla 
  • Pair-work: In cross-cultural pairs (designated by the teacher) students tell each other a story from their own life and culture. Students take turns in listening to their partner’s story, make notes and draw a story board. Finally, students paint their partner’s story in the style of Ian Abdulla 

Sharon collected several types of data including:

  • Reflections, notes and ‘light bulb’ moments after significant lessons
  • Video recording of two lessons
  • Student survey
  • Student story boards, notes, folios and paintings
  • Peer-assessments
  • Photographs of students at work
  • Attendance data

Student outcomes

  • Students became more engaged in their learning
  • Attendance increased
  • Students began to listen to each other
  • Students became more respectful to Sharon and to other students
  • Students became interested in listening to and talking to students who they previously would not have spoken to
  • Students became much more responsive in class 
  • They asked to go outside to work much more often
  • Students felt a sense of pride and ownership

Teacher outcomes

From this action research, Sharon reports that she has learnt (or in some cases, is starting  to learn):

  • How to connect students to their own culture
  • How to make work meaningful to students
  • To let students take control of their own artwork
  • Aboriginal students respond REALLY well to culture. Students who were disengaged came to class AND worked
  • Students are proud of their own heritage
  • Students are interesting and amazing
  • Working outside is peaceful, restful and calming for students, and students are often more engaged in their learning when they are working outdoors

During one lesson that was conducted in the school library, a teacher of Indian heritage spontaneously offered to talk about her own life to the students. The students found this highly engaging. From this, Sharon learnt:

  • Bringing other teachers into class to tell their own stories allows students to listen and connect to learning.

Student outcomes

  • Students became more engaged in their learning
  • Attendance increased
  • Students began to listen to each other
  • Students became more respectful to Sharon and to other students
  • Students became interested in listening to and talking to students who they previously would not have spoken to
  • Students became much more responsive in class
  • They asked to go outside to work much more often
  • Students felt a sense of pride and ownership

Teacher outcomes

From this action research, Sharon reports that she has learnt (or in some cases, is starting to learn):

  • How to connect students to their own culture
  • How to make work meaningful to students
  • To let students take control of their own artwork
  • Aboriginal students respond REALLY well to culture. Students who were disengaged came to class AND worked
  • Students are proud of their own heritage
  • Students are interesting and amazing
  • Working outside is peaceful, restful and calming for students, and students are often more engaged in their learning when they are working outdoors

During one lesson that was conducted in the school library, a teacher of Indian heritage spontaneously offered to talk about her own life to the students. The students found this highly engaging. From this, Sharon learnt:

  • Bringing other teachers into class to tell their own stories allows students to listen and connect to learning

The broader picture

Sharon’s unit of work made several links to the Paperbark Secondary’s strategic priorities:

  • Improve engagement and learning outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • Incorporation of Aboriginal Perspectives throughout the school curriculum
  • Monitor well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students
  • Increase cultural connectedness
  • Increase community engagement
  • Increase the number of students achieving ‘A and B’ grade standards/ Eliminate high level of unsatisfactory ‘D/E’ level grades

As a result of this research, Sharon now feels more confident—as a non-Aboriginal teacher— to incorporate Aboriginal perspectives into the Art curriculum.

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