I’ve been at Sheoak Secondary for about seven years now. I was fresh out of Uni and I did a couple of relief teaching days here, and then they said ‘Oh we need another tutor, do you want to work one day a week’? And I said yes, and then it was two days a week and then three, and then a couple of contracts. And because I was tutoring Aboriginal students and I really enjoyed it, I eventually became an Aborignal Education Teacher (AET) and I’m currently Aboriginal Education Co-ordinator. I’m almost at the end of a five year contract.
When I was at Uni, there was only one lesson I ever had that mentioned anything about Aboriginal culture or how to teach Aboriginal students. Then, as an AET, I went to a lot of the meetings that used to occur in the Aboriginal Education sector, but the Department doesn’t run them anymore. I’ve organised a few people to run some cultural inclusiveness workshops for the entire school. And there was a South Australian Aboriginal Education Conference this year, and I was a guest speaker. But that was the first time I’ve ever heard of a conference for all the Aboriginal Education staff.
For my action research, I was planning to work with my Year 9 English students, but the class was changed and instead I was given a Year 11 Research Project class. Now Research Project is mainly individual work and my role as a teacher is to manage 20 individual projects. So I found it difficult to begin with, trying to come up with a culturally responsive angle with a Research Project class, because I was thinking more about content than pedagogy. I ended up looking at increasing student voice and therefore increasing engagement and participation. I also tried to use Aboriginal cultural content in all of my examples. And I wanted to give some power back to students. I decided to use a Yarning Circle as an aid to encourage student voice
I didn’t have any Aboriginal students in this class. Apart from ‘mainstream’ Australian kids, I had 13 EALD students, and they were from a range of places like Bhutan, Nepal, places in Africa. These students fear public speaking and are reluctant to share their ideas with each other. I conducted a student survey, and a lot of the EALD students had only been in the country for a year or so. This was new class, I’d only just met them, and they didn’t interact with each other at all. They were all sitting in their culture groups, so I had all the Australian kids, all the EALD kids, all the Nepalese kids, I had all the African boys sitting together, and then I had two kids who have really high IQs who sat together. And they never interacted. I wanted to build relationships within the classroom between cultures.
For the EALD students, a lot of content relating to Aboriginal cultures or histories isn’t really discussed in their Year 11 classrooms, because they don’t do humanities in Year 11. Presumably, they would have learnt more about Aboriginal perspectives in their earlier years of schooling if they had been in Australia. All they really knew about Australia was the day that people become citizens, because that’s what it means to them. So, I when I talked with them about their research projects, I deliberately used Aboriginal content in my examples for project ideas and folio pages. When I talked about website analysis, I used websites on the Stolen Generations to model an analysis. And when we did video analysis, I used You Tube videos of the Australia Day debate.
I saw a Yarning Circle mat a year ago at my son’s playgroup, and I thought it was just something that they sat on to have their morning tea, and then I asked the facilitator, and she said ‘Oh no, it’s called a Yarning Circle’. And then I started Googling and found one. So I decided to use a Yarning Circle with my Research Project class. .
Anita, one of our ASETOs , is new to the school and new to education. She supported me. So with the Yarning Circle, I went to her to get all of my information and she spoke to her dad, who is an Aboriginal Elder in their community. And what I did find surprising, once I spoke to Anita about it, she was actually quite comfortable to come into the classroom to help out. And she gave me lots of little different things to do each week with the Yarning Circle. Like one week she taught me about drumming for meditation, and I went in and did it in the classroom. When the students practiced their interviews, which is part of the Research Project curriculum, they interviewed Anita with questions they had prepared earlier about Aboriginal cultures. And for her to come to all the CRP project workshops has been really positive. So our relationship just changed with that, in the sense that ASETOs usually just stay in the Aborignal Education office and when crises come in, they deal with them, but they don’t actually ever go into classrooms, or know anything about curriculum or things like that.
So we used the Yarning Circle for group discussions. At first students were apprehensive and reserved because it was different but, after a while, they started to respond to one another. I think the kids actually learnt some listening skills with the Yarning Circle. And when we did the practice interviews, we spoke about active listening and not reading from your cue cards all the time and actually listening to someone and responding. So we did lots of practices of that in the Yarning Circle as well. So I think, if anything, they developed their active listening skills and learnt to respond to each other a bit better.
And I realised that zig-zagging across the Yarning Circle doesn’t work, you have to go around in a circle. If you zig-zag, they don’t have to talk, they can kind of go unnoticed. They would pass less if we went around in the circle. I discovered as well that if I had an object that gets passed around as a talking stick then, more likely than not, they will talk.
And then once I finished the four-week Yarning Circle work, I realised—only through looking at the photographs that I had been taking—the students had actually started to sit in other spots in the classroom, and even now, I’ve got a couple of the EALD girls sitting with some of the African boys, and so forth. So the students are now mixing in different cultural groups. And instead of always asking me for help, they are asking each other first, or moving around the classroom to ask someone else before they ask me. The students are helping each other with their projects.
I think the big thing that I learnt is it’s not just about the curriculum, it’s more about the pedagogy. And a lot of teachers are in the same boat. Whereas now I think differently. But I think another thing with the Yarning Circle was me letting go of the control in the classroom and talking a lot less.
For our action research projects, my colleague Jake and I were both focusing on voice and peer collaboration. And we realised that previously, whenever we did our reflections, it was always about our relationships with the students. But we realise now that what’s really important is the students in the classroom getting along with each other and having a good relationship with the teacher.
And because my Yarning Circle unit wasn’t very big, at first I felt like I wasn’t doing anything really powerful in terms of culturally responsive pedagogy. I thought I was maybe doing something quite small. But now I feel like maybe I did do something a bit bigger than what I had thought. When I started evaluating it, I realised it had a lot of purpose to it.
I have a lot more to learn. If someone said to me ‘What is CRP?’ I don’t have a huge understanding, it’s just enough to get by. Next week, when Jake and I present our projects to the whole school, I know I don’t have a lot of CRP. But I do know my one thing that worked. I hope it becomes part of the curriculum now. I’m giving the whole school a new tool.
 A dedicated Yarning Circle ‘mat’ for participants to sit on can be used, but is not essential.