Sharon’s story

I came to Paperbark Secondary School after some relief teaching, and I’ve been at this school for 11 years now. It’s not a white Australian school by any stretch of the imagination and increasingly it’s becoming more and more multicultural, which I think is fantastic. 

My specialisation is Art. Also, I became the Director of Intervention and Learning Support a couple of years ago, and part of my portfolio is to oversee the Aboriginal Education Department, so I’m the overseer of it. I’ve always had Aboriginal kids in my class, I’ve always been interested in Aboriginal art, but I work more directly with them because of my position in the school. I’ve had no professional learning for Aboriginal Education, apart from self-development such as going to exhibitions and listening to Aboriginal artists talk.

Prior to this unit of work I’d had trouble engaging my Year 9 students in Art and getting the class to remain quiet for long enough to explain tasks to them. I wondered if I would have more success in engaging the students if I could turn the tables and get the students interested in art by linking tasks to students own lives, encouraging the students to take responsibility for their learning (peer assessment, group work, taking them out of their own social groups and comfort zones). I also realised that most of these students never got a chance to tell their own stories or to talk about their own cultures.

At that very first meeting when we met with the research team on the University campus, I was really inspired by the invited Aboriginal Elders when they sat down and told their story to us, and you could hear a pin drop in the room. Everyone was just focused and listening to them, and they called it deep listening. For me it was cathartic. Teaching is so stressful, and I realised I needed to take time out to sit and listen to my students, and that the students, because they’re so busy, need to take that time out, and listen to each other. I was so impressed with that, the Elders’ talk, so it really had a deep effect on me, and that’s when I decided that I’d like to try something like that. And I thought that that was a skill that I needed to learn, with my students, and to understand their cultures and to understand what their needs were, and also that the students needed to engage in that deep listening process, which is why I set up the task of telling each other a cultural story and having to record it and draw it and do a painting on it. 

In class, we discussed the work of Ian Abdulla, who is a South Australian Indigenous artist. The students had to research him and his paintings, and he does quite naïve sort of paintings, and they’re beautiful, they just tell stories about his life growing up on the Murray. I wanted to show them an artist who does beautiful paintings, but they’re not technically perfect. And he tells a story of his life, and it’s beautiful, his work. 

So there were three assessment tasks throughout. I opened the unit of work with them grouping into their own friendship groups, and they had to read a Dreamtime story and interpret that in a drawing and stand up and tell the class about the Dreamtime story and talk about their artwork. They did that in groups, that was peer assessed. Then they did the individual research assignment on Ian Abdulla, and then they had to interview each other and then recreate the story that they’d been told in a painting. The most successful part of the unit was interviewing each other and doing the painting.

I had two or three Indigenous students in my class, they were all female, one was engaged from the beginning, but she had quite a few absences. I noticed that she attended more. She was really good, because I was calling Ian Abdulla ‘Ian Abdoola’, and she goes ‘Miss, it’s Abdulla’, and I said ‘Oh I’m sorry, it’s just the way I pronounce it’. She said, ‘No, you don’t understand, he’s a member of my family, I’ve met him, he’s connected with my family’. And she felt really proud to be able to say that in front of the class. 

The majority of the class—in fact I probably had only two or three Australian European students—the rest of the class was made up of Afghani students, African students, there was someone from Poland, there was someone from Germany, there were Asian students, and Nepali students. Particularly amongst the Nepali students, they were very loud, very active. The African students were kind of disengaged, very much in their own group, and prior to doing this project, they were a very, very loud class and I had trouble engaging them in work. When I started this project, I noticed that they started to engage in the work, they started to attend, they started to participate, and the noise level went right down. I really wanted them to listen and I really wanted them to learn about someone else’s experience from a different culture. So I grouped them with someone from a different culture. They had to sit and listen to each other’s story. I wanted them to listen and I felt they wouldn’t listen as closely to kids in their own group, they’d muck around. So I selected who they talked to. They had a little bit of leeway, and there are a couple who clashed who would not speak to each other, and so there was no point in putting those two together, so they had some say in it. Prior to that, I’d let them group themselves, and they all grouped into their own cultural groups. Well I don’t feel that would have worked so well. I wanted them to learn and to listen to someone from a different culture.

The task was for them to interview each other, but we did that outside. And as soon as we went outside I put them into groups of two, and they found a quiet space, and this class is a really rowdy class, as soon as they did that, they were all settled, it was peaceful outside, it was lovely.

So they had to tell each other a story about their own culture, and then they had to actually draw it. Then they had to take that story board into the classroom and, in consultation with the person they interviewed, they did a painting for that person. So one person interviewed a boy coming from Africa and he talked about coming to Australia from Africa in a plane, and so that child who was interviewing the African boy drew the plane and the African child said he was really, really interested in some of the Australian animals, the kangaroos, and so he drew a kangaroo on the plane.

As a result of this unit, I feel that the Indigenous students feel more supported, and more understood, and I think they’ve become more confident. I noticed with all three Aboriginal students, this growing sense of pride and I think possibly for the first time in their school career they felt really important and validated maybe? They felt really important in the class and the kids sort of looked up to them. Once I introduced the project, the Aboriginal students attended every single class, they became my favourite students, they offered to help, they were responsible. I had really positive results with the Aboriginal students.

I think that the Nepali and African students feel more important as well, more accepted and more important. And I think that they felt good because they were able to tell their stories. And I even think the European kids felt good because they could tell their stories. So I think it boosted confidence, it certainly improved their listening skills, I think working outside, we painted outside, and we did the interviews outside. Some of the days weren’t warm at all, and one day was drizzling, and they asked to go outside, so they felt more peaceful outside, they worked better, there were no behaviour management issues with them, they were all quite responsible. And it was sustained throughout the whole unit of work. I don’t always think that an interior space works with learning, and especially with painting and art, I think it’s really good to be outside.

So I think I upped the intellectual challenge with them. Some of them were saying ‘I don’t have a story to tell’. And I’d say ‘Think of a happy story, think of a …’, and they eventually were able to convert the idea of being told a story or telling a story, and interpreting that into an artwork, and that’s a really important conceptual leap for children of that age. It actually got them engaged and it changed that class from being low level, fairly out of control class, to being a class that totally engaged. And when we were doing the painting project and the telling each other the stories, there was almost 100% attendance rate. So their attitude, their attendance, their ability to engage all changed. And the kids, at the end of it, just loved the project. I think they made friends, I think they learnt more about other people’s cultures. And it really empowered my Indigenous kids to feel that they were important, it certainly changed their marks in Art, so they were able to be successful in Art. It really shifted the dynamics of the class. I think it made people who need to feel important, important, and it changed the way they look at culture.

I teach in a slightly different way now. I think I’ve learned to listen more carefully to the students. Listening to the kids tell their stories, that was really important and that’s changed my teaching practice. So being more receptive. I’ve certainly realised that if you don’t connect with the kids, if you don’t engage the kids in meaningful work, and in work that’s relevant to them, they’re not going to learn, and they won’t make those connections that they need to make to real life. So it’s really important, and I think that’s one of the big things that I’ve learnt, is that by connecting kids to topics that connect with their real life, then that brings the engagement, that brings the attendance and that brings the learning. I think I’ve learnt to be more humble. The other thing I learnt was that student input is really important.

I’m much more confident now with teaching from a cultural point of view. I remember we were in the library having our class, and I looked over and there were two Aboriginal women who’d come in for something completely different, and they’re sitting listening to a White person teach a class about Ian Abdulla. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not qualified at all to teach this’. And it was a really humbling experience for me. But I did hear after that they thought it was really interesting. So that was good. I’ve always been very wary of teaching Aboriginal art because I don’t feel qualified to do it. But it has increased my confidence in that.

I also learned to rely on our ASETOs and to ask them questions if I’m not sure, about something. I listened to one of our ASETO, he’s a Pitjantjatjara man, and I listened to him tell his stories. And I got to learn more about the ASETOs’ life philosophies as well. I’d actually like to use our ASETOs more in the classroom. I know the Aboriginal kids feel really comfortable with them in the classroom helping them. We would really like to start to embed Indigenous culture on a whole school basis, into our curriculum, and I think the ASETOs are key people to assist with that.

I’ve certainly grown as a teacher. I think it did teach me to let go a lot. I didn’t have to be the expert, I didn’t have to teach the content, I empowered the students to be the expert and to tell their own stories, and I learned from that. And I think that that’s really important with education. I think the teacher should be able to reflect on the work that they do, to improve their work. I also think that in the future I’ll move the class outside more. I’ll build much more Indigenous culture or Indigenous art into my work.

And I think I have a renewed respect for Indigenous people. I’ve always respected Indigenous people but just to learn more Indigenous culture. And I keep going back to that very, very first seminar that we had with the Elders, and they told us their stories. And that had such a profound effect on me. That was a really significant moment in my life.

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