In 2016, I sat down with my principal to discuss my pedagogy and we identified culture as an area of weakness. It just felt like an area in which I lacked strength and confidence. I know I do work in this area, but how well do I do it? My principal found out about the CRP project and suggested it to me. So in 2017, I joined the project and collaborated with my colleague Kelly to develop a unit of HASS work that drew on the principles of culturally responsive pedagogy.
In 2018, knowing I would be moving to a different site the following year, I wanted to look at how I can make sure I am not the only one thinking culturally responsively. I needed to encourage and support other staff to think that way in their teaching. Do they understand about being culturally responsive, and what’s some different approaches we can use with students?
I was meant to come back from maternity leave to a 6/7 class with which I would teach a new unit of work, but my role changed and I was now working across the school. My role now meant I taught a total of 206 students over the unit, instead of just one class.
The original data I collected was in regards to how our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students felt at school and how connected they were to their school and learning. We had a group of Aboriginal students learning the Kaurna, the local Aboriginal language, as part of an additional program at our school. I obtained feedback that they were excited to have the opportunity to learn Kaurna. They felt that people were actually noticing them, and they were having the chance to speak their own language. They said they’ve recognised that if they don’t use Kaurna, they will lose the language altogether. They also enjoyed the fact that their culture was being spoken about and recognised as important in the school. They couldn’t connect the same feelings to our compulsory subject of Spanish. A lot of Aboriginal students who participated in the Kaurna lessons struggle in our Spanish lessons and they don’t engage. And through conversations with Sarah, our Aboriginal Education Teacher, we found that those who are attending the Kaurna lessons are engaged, excited, attending school on their Kaurna lessons days, and it’s making a significant difference to them.
I decided to centre my unit of work on cultural stories. My main focus was on our Aboriginal students and helping them with their connection to learning. I also wanted to develop a unit of work that can be adapted for a variety of year levels and teaching abilities.
In Term 4 I sent an email to colleagues asking teachers to be a part of my unit of work. I was overwhelmed with the number of teachers who responded with a yes. They were really excited. One of my colleagues, originally from Ireland, was so positive with the unit that she was going to implement it with her class the following year too. She said all she knows is the traditional history around Australia and the arrival of Europeans. She felt that for her to be able to look at it in a different way, rather than just the traditional way, inspired her and gave her confidence.
I have photo observations, all the lessons and work samples I’ve got of the kids. At the start of the lesson I would ask kids ‘What is culture?’ and a lot of them didn’t know. There were some who said ‘Yes, yes, I have a culture’, but then they couldn’t give me any more information about it. So to be able to say that’s how we’re made up, it’s everything, our values, everything we’re taught from family members, society, all builds up our culture.
But my Aborignal students had that confidence to know ‘These are stories about our culture’. And as I was teaching, you could see them looking at everyone thinking, ‘These are my ancestors, this is how we taught each other, sent messages through, this is our history’. And you could see that pride in them. And you’d be on yard duty and I’d have kids coming up to me, all different year levels, talking to me about things, ‘I saw this’. So that’s a way they’d initiate conversation with me in the yard.
In one of the 5/6 classes I went into, one of the students straight away looked at me and said, ‘Oh Aboriginals, we’re learning about Aboriginals’. And right from the start of my lesson, from the time I walked in at 9:30, until our big lunch (first break), she was drawing, she wasn’t listening, no eye contact, very negative body language. She’s known to be sort of that kind of student anyway, very defiant, very strong willed. And so I sat down with her at big lunch and said ‘Look, what’s going on. And I really want you to be honest with me. I’m not going to get cross, I just want to hear what’s going on, like did you not like the lessons I was doing?’ She replied, ‘Oh no, it’s just I don’t think it’s important’. So I was able to talk to her about why Dreaming stories are actually there. And it’s celebrating a culture and something that is so, so old, yet so relevant, some of the messages that we get from them today. We had such an in-depth conversation. And it was funny because when she came in after big lunch, she was a different student. It’s almost like she had the opportunity to voice how she was feeling, hear my reasoning, and thought ‘Okay, actually it’s not as bad, I can take that wall down, it’s not scary’. And she was even putting her hand up answering questions. It was a big turnaround.
And across the school there has been a change. Teachers are actually reaching out to me and saying, ‘What kind of things have you heard about? What’s been really good? Give us some real practical stuff to be able to take back’. I think that’s what teachers are after. We can talk about it and give them the theory behind it. But we can also give them some practical stuff that they can do. And even if it’s just teachers thinking, ‘Oh I’m doing a science lesson on earthquakes, I know, the story about a kangaroo inside Nobby’s Island, and that was related to earthquakes, the Dreaming story’. Even if they do that within a lesson, integrate different cultures and tales, ‘Oh I’m doing a lesson about this, what’s some cultural aspects I can put into it’? It might be a different way of thinking. Maybe we go and do our lesson outside, and we sit down and look at nature. I think those sorts of things are going to just make such massive impacts.
I think where this project’s gone has now got me thinking with everything I do now, what are the needs of my students, where are they from, what are their backpacks they’re bringing, what’s that prior knowledge. We all tap into prior knowledge but I think we don’t go deep enough.
It’s funny, because people say when they hear me talking now, ‘We can just hear your passion, the way you talk about it’. I’ve always felt I’ve been confident in developing relationships with students. But I think this has made me focus on a bigger picture with them. Not just the student and their own needs, but the family. What’s their history, where have they come from, what’s been going on in their lives? I think I’m paying more attention to that and trying to connect with home a lot more.
I think families, especially our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who feel they’ve had bad experiences at school, they can be nervous when it comes to a classroom. And I think it’s showing them we are trying, we really, really want to connect, and it’s not just because we just want to tick box and go ‘Yes we’ve had families attend our open night, and we’ve got this many numbers’. I think it’s making it more meaningful. ‘You know what, if you can’t make it to our night, it’s okay, we’ll work out a time to catch up’. But I think we need ask, ‘Okay, well why aren’t those people coming’?
I’ve always tried hard to understand my students and where they come from, but now I’m looking more in-depth. And I just wish we had something in place so we can then pass that in-depth understanding of each student to the next teacher rather than just always look at results. It’d be nice to be able to go to teachers, ‘Okay, this is the student’s results and how they’re going. But this is some extra information’, and being able to sensibly pass that through to teachers, which could be done better.
I’ve done more reading in the past two years than I’ve done in a long time. I think because I knew that it needed to be done, and we had to make the effort, I was able to do it without a problem, and I knew it was going to lead to where we’re going. And a lot of the articles explained other people’s experiences, through projects they’d done and their own results and they make you go, ‘Oh I hadn’t thought of that side of things’. The fact that every article didn’t say that their projects were perfect, there were some that you read where there were some failures in it, and you could go, ‘Oh well that didn’t work for them, I wonder if it’ll work for me or should I change it’. So that was a positive too.
Reflecting upon my growth within the project, I can’t believe how much I’ve developed as a teacher. It’s about stepping out from the confines of my classroom and having confidence in what I’m doing and being able to say to others, ‘Let me help you, let me work with you on things, let’s be collaborative’. When I think of my journey, I believe it was important to be able to get the whole school thinking about it, and the whole school talking about it, because that’s how we’re going to make that change.