Karen’s story

Year 1 action research at Lilly Pilly Primary with co-teacher Sierra

I graduated as a teacher about 6 years ago. My first teaching spot was in Port Augusta at a school that was 85% Indigenous enrolment. The site was so strongly Indigenous we actually qualified to be an Indigenous school if we wanted to be. So I guess here at Lilly Pilly Primary there’s a lot less Indigenous kids but I’ve kind of had that passion sparked from Port Augusta.

I’d done a fair bit of PD around Aboriginal Education in Port Augusta because it was most of our students. Here, we’ve done a fair bit of smaller PDs but never really longer-term things. We’ve done stuff like scaffolding and literacy, which is aimed a lot at Indigenous communities on lower literacy levels, but not necessarily specifically just Indigenous kids.

Our action research was based on the Alaskan research we did, so we were looking at student voice, parent communication and the local community context. We developed a HASS unit of work that focussed on continuity and change, significant people and events and cultural diversity and interconnections. I was more confident in teaching this unit than I probably would have been prior to this action research because of the preparation. We really thought about the assessment a bit more. We had the scaffolding, the smaller assessments plus the inquiry projects. So we gave the kids multiple ways of showing their learning.

Outcomes; I think the Indigenous students were more engaged. They didn’t necessarily shift their grades dramatically. So they probably normally sit on E to D. So they’re probably still around a D maybe a C level now but they were actually staying in class where it was an afternoon topic which normally they’d leave the classroom. So they were more engaged but I think it would take a longer time than the 5 weeks to actually improve the grades significantly. So I think them being more engaged means there’s the potential for them to lift up if we continue it.

I think the EALD students really had the biggest shift in their grades. Because they really connected and got really interested in the topic.  I think generally there was a whole shift. So our bell curve that’s normally on a D shifted to a C, so that was good and we’ve had kids getting As and Bs which is pretty rare in this unit. I think the whole cohort lifted, including the Anglo-European kids. And we had a number of kids who normally wouldn’t hand anything up and they still actually did an inquiry poster, which is significant for them.

I think the classroom relationships changed a lot, so they were a lot stronger; initially between teacher and student but then I think as they got to share their stories and their experiences it probably improved amongst the group as well/ I think that culturally responsive pedagogy broke down some of the barriers like the normal kind of cliques broke down a bit because they all had different topics.

We’ve probably got about 10 kids across the unit that are extreme racist students.  They’ll openly express their views without any thought for who’s around them. I think you could tell at the start they were parroting what they’d heard other people say. Like, ‘Oh they were helping them by taking their kids away, we were giving them support because they weren’t looking after their kids’ or ‘They get all the handouts now’. So initially we were dismissing that and saying. ‘You can’t say that because it’s racist’ but then we kind of confronted it more. So we were answering their questions with facts and saying. ‘Well have you considered this’ or ‘How would you feel if …’ and trying to build their empathy. And I think by the end of it we didn’t necessarily completely shift their views, but their empathy was built and they were like ‘Oh if that happened to me I could see how they would feel’. So they were a lot more empathetic. I think a lot of them thought the Stolen Generations was a couple of hundred years ago.  I don’t think they realise Australian History is very recent and that the last Stolen Generation dormitory shut down in my life time and they’re like, ‘Oh you’re not that old’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, that’s my point’.

We also had an art competition that was opened up and it was about kids just responding or saying which Aboriginal artist or artwork they like the most and why A parent came in and she was angry. ‘Why are you focusing on the Blacks again? I’m sick of everything being Black’. And she said ‘Why don’t you ever focus on the Asians’? And I said, ‘Well actually we have. We’ve learned about Orang Asli’. And she’s like, ‘I don’t know whoever they are’. I said ‘Well there’s some kids’ posters around the corner if you want to have a look’ and she’s like. ‘No, I know you have to toe the line for the Department’. I said ‘No, actually I believe what I’m telling you’. And she went into how as a white person now she feels like the minority and she’s forgotten about, and I said ‘Well we do White English, White Maths, White Science. Most of our subjects are actually based on White middle-class society, not any other group’. And she went on to say about how her grandma had gotten a medal from Hitler but we don’t get to celebrate that and why don’t we do more about celebrating Hitler’s past and what he did? So I said, ‘I don’t think we’ll be celebrating Hitler any time soon in History lessons’ and she went on about why we keep having to say sorry. ‘You teach kids, you say sorry if you bump someone and then you get over it. So sorry has been said so they need to get over it and move on’.  I said ‘It’s probably a bit different. You wouldn’t say to the Jews just get over the Holocaust and it’s our version of genocide’. And she finished with ‘I’m not racist, I just hate everyone equally’. So that was her justification for it all.

I think normally I would have just gone ‘Oh yeah’ and kind of fobbed it off. ‘Okay you’re racist but that’s okay’. But now I was like, ‘No, actually you need to be put in your place because you’re affecting the students’. And I think I prepared myself for her a little bit because I knew from the parent/teacher interviews that she wasn’t happy with it. But I think she kind of respected it. I think she’s used to kind of dominating conversations and getting her way and people agreeing with her. So I think she was a bit like, ‘Oh you challenged me’, and I had an answer for everything she said.

I’d love to actually get the opportunity to go and see some of the examples where it’s working well. We’ve read so much about it and its inspiring. And even looking at the connections.  I feel like there’s so many good resource people that we’ve met that I’d like more connection with. Even the people from the Islamic school because we have quite a few Muslim kids here, but we don’t get any support with that. I’d love to actually know how I can respond more to our Islamic community and I think it would actually help our Indigenous kids because those two groups are clashing a lot at the moment.

One of our Indigenous kids, his mother who’s not Indigenous was commenting on how things had changed and improved, but I think out of all parent groups the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents are probably the most reluctant to come into school and interact with us. And I don’t know that that’s actually changed yet.

I don’t think there’s huge dramatic changes in us as teachers because I think we’re pretty competent to start with, but I think it made us more accountable and more reflective along the way. Even planning the whole unit. We did change stuff as we went because we thought ‘Oh it’s not quite heading where we want’. So we shifted directions a few times. And the accountability. Normally when stuff gets busy at a school, we’ll drop off the parent communication. But we committed to it and even when we ran out of time to do an extra report we’re like ‘No we’re doing it’ and we stayed and just actually did it.

It would be good to encourage the rest of the school to do it. I don’t see why they can’t incorporate it more. We’re trying to make the school leadership more accountable for parent communication and student voice because really it should be good practice anyway. I think if you’re actually trying to be the best teacher you can be that all contributes to it and it lifts student outcomes.

I’m really excited because my next school has more Indigenous students and about 50% English as Second Language. So I think looking at being culturally responsive will help with most of my kids there because they actually almost become a majority with 50%. Obviously they’re all from different cultures, so they’re still in minorities in their own way. But I’m looking forward to seeing how I can integrate CRP more.  For a lot of kids who don’t know Aboriginal cultures, they think it’s all about dot paintings and gardening. But there’s so much more depth to it. And it’s across so many more curriculum areas than kids would expect. So I think it would be good to actually tie it into all the curriculum. So I’d like to do it more mindfully across all subjects, obviously still do the one real focus but actually integrate it into my practice because I do think it’s best practice.

I just want to keep doing it.  I really loved it-

Year 2 – Westringia Primary

At my new school, I focused on two units of work. One was a unit on Dance, and the other was English. At break times I had already noticed my class become a dance room, so I wanted to capitalise on the students’ love of dance. For English, we looked at Survival Stories, either from their own lives and families, or from research into other people’s lives. I was looking at how to engage children more because they were very compliant but not really engaging with lessons, they were just kind of sitting and smiling, so it was more about maximising the engagement side of it.

I have two Indigenous students in the class, but I didn’t track them especially. In the English unit, one of them wrote about coming from Point Pearce and moving down to Alberton and then to our school and how she still doesn’t really fit in here, which was good because it gave me more insight into where her head’s at as well. The other student engaged well with the Dance unit. She likes more theatrical things where she can express herself more, so that was really right into her favourite zone. And then in English, for her Survival story, she shared about almost choking on a coin. I think she engaged well for probably three quarters of the English unit and then probably lost interest at the end a little bit. But it was still probably better than usual and the story she wrote was probably one of her better stories.

I think for the non-Indigenous students, the ones who would characterise themselves as Australian, they engaged with the Survival unit quite well and they all shared their own stories. I think some of the students who have more traumatic backgrounds were able to share that and then produce a much higher quality of work. Like Eric, he usually writes very basic stories, and he wrote a really detailed story that he was able to share and I think that helped him a lot. It probably changed his perception of himself as a learner and he developed better connections with the class and me.

I think the cultural divide broke down a bit, because originally the students were quite segregated. My African kids would stick together and the Indian kids would stick together and my Vietnamese kids, whereas now they mix in with each other, depending on the task and who they want to work with. But even just starting the Dance unit, when they chose their groups, they kind of split themselves up. I thought the Vietnamese kids would go together to do a Vietnamese dance, but they didn’t. They were like, ‘No, we want to learn other people’s dances’. They were really supportive of each other and they were a really supportive group and I think that’s because we do so much public performance, they do oral presentations all the time. I think they just got really comfortable with each other and knowing how to give good feedback, which then built their confidence in that as well. I think my students have bonded a lot more and they’re actually a really tight group. It feels like a real team.

I think I know them a lot deeper than I would have without CRP. I think I’ve always known which kids play what sports or instruments and what music they listen to and current things, but I think it gave me a better understanding of their history and where they are coming from, even where their families are coming from and how to approach things in that way as well.

The key ideas of culturally responsive pedagogy—I think the high expectations, I’ve always done that anyway, so that’s been right throughout my teaching. So I feel that’s already a part of my practice. I think looking at students’ life worlds, I probably started to develop last year and then this year especially.

Probably the key idea I didn’t connect with straight away was the socio-political, activist angle, so that was my challenge. I think it was not really understanding socio-political consciousness, exactly what it is—it’s the hardest one to define. So the socio-activist one was my trickiest one but I feel like, now, that’s what I’m working on and that’s probably changed my head set the biggest. I think this year I was more confident with the other key ideas so I probably did more of that—not necessarily in the units that I deemed to be my CRP ones, but in my classroom structure and how I set up my classroom.

For example, when we did History and the Ancient World, I said, well, here’s the achievement standards you have to hit but these are the content areas you can choose. So one student did things to do with death, one did marriages, one did famous people who made a difference, or how life was different from slaves, or how education changed from then until now. So they really went in different areas but their work was so much better.

My kids will say now if they want to do something or change it or negotiate with me, so I guess there’s that freedom. Next year, I’m going to plan my units with my class, so I’m going to pull out the achievement standards of the curriculum and map it out with the kids, so the kids have ownership over the year. So, ‘What are we doing this term, which topic should we do?’ Like in History, ‘We have to do a timeline, which of the topics do you want to do a timeline on’? I would normally have everything planned from January and know what I’m doing for the whole year. But I want to be more responsive to what the kids want to do and focus more on the achievement standards and capabilities rather than content so much.

I think you don’t want to focus just on race. That could be a trap you could fall into easily and I feel like I dodged it this year. But last year, I kept focusing on Indigenous only. Whereas this year, having a broader group of kids in my class meant I focused on all cultures and different aspects, so it wasn’t always race. For example, we were talking about food and just different practices that people do.

And being careful of the kids going, ‘Well, I’m Australian so I don’t have a culture’. ‘We don’t have any cultural food’, and not alienating them by focusing so much on other people’s backgrounds when they don’t necessarily think that they bring a background with them. So I had to unpack that in the Dance unit because some of them were like, ‘Well, we’re Australian, what are we going to do’? They came up with ‘Land Downunder’ and that’s the only thing they could think of as a song, and I was like, ‘But there’s different stories and there’s Australia’s history, lots of different songs and dances and styles and reasons’. I think because the White Australian kids are in a minority in my class, if I hadn’t unpacked that, they would thought, ‘Oh, she doesn’t care about us’, it probably would have gone too far the other way as opposed to making sure it’s everyone.

I guess it’s just making sure you think of it from not a race point of view all the time and bringing in the different things that culture can embody and not forcing it on kids. To give natural ‘ins’ where they can share without having to whack them over the head with it. And if a kid who is Aboriginal wants to do a dance that’s K pop, not thinking, ‘Damn it, that’s not what I wanted’. They might have come to school with a different head set that day; the way they’re feeling on a particular day or wanting to present themself.

And I started Genius Hour at the start of the year where the kids could work on their own topic and by the end of the year it became a personal inquiry where they could choose any topic, I told them the English skills I was going to assess on, but they could choose wherever they took it. And I think it actually showed me what they can do in English on a topic that they choose.

One student, in his last presentation, he invited his Mum and Dad in and he didn’t tell them what for. So they just came to the Front Office and they were like,’ I have to go to his classroom but I don’t know what for’, and I didn’t know they were coming either. So his presentation was why he’s a proud Māori. Both his parents are Māori, and they just loved it. And then his Mum stayed for another half an hour talking about her culture and explaining to the rest of the class. I think it was really significant, because I had just assumed that this student knew a lot of the information because he is Māori, but he’d actually researched a whole lot of stuff, and his Mum said, ‘He didn’t even ask me anything about it’. So he’d investigated it all himself. But he’d also talked about why his family left New Zealand and the gang violence his Dad was in, so it was just really personal. But the kids can tell when someone’s putting something out there and I haven’t heard anyone repeat anything to other kids in other classes. They’re quite mature when you give them the chance to be. It was really good with Mum coming in and being so willing to share Māori culture. Some of the African families seem a bit more hesitant to come in, they’re not sure.

I think my approach has caused a few awkward conversations with parents who don’t quite get it, but then once I talk to them about it, they are all on board with it.  I think this year has been more positive because I’ve got supportive parents and they have been really interested in the use of their culture. I think their kids had gone home and told them because I didn’t specifically tell them.

I think CRP makes sense from all the research I’ve done, so I don’t see why I wouldn’t use it. I’m more open to trying new things now. I feel like I’ve embedded culturally responsive pedagogy into my practice now so it’s kind of in my head whenever I’m doing something and I’m trying now to infiltrate the other people in my building and the school.

Some of the other teachers use their more familiar worksheets and things that they have done for a long time, which I get. But now that I’m trying to respond to the kids individually, I find it easier to start fresh and work forward that way, which is probably more work, but I think it’s more quality work. But I’m at the start of my career.

It’s harder to convince people who are seeing out their years to change. I’m probably trying to convince them to be a bit more progressive. Because I feel so confident in it, I’m now confident enough to say, ‘I think you should try this’ or ‘This would really work’. Especially at this school, it seems ridiculous not to be doing something, whether or not you believe in culturally responsive pedagogy as I do. But there seem to be teachers who are just teaching no differently than if you were in an all-white Australian school. I don’t see them responding to the differences as a positive; they’re trying to work around it with a deficit view of our kids. I think some of the older staff or more experienced ones are just like, ‘This t is the way it is and we’ll work around it and get through. And this is the same science worksheet I’ve done for 10 years so I’m doing the same science worksheet.’

I think if other teachers got on board with it, there could definitely be an impact school-wide because the whole school is very multicultural. I feel like it’s something that’s kind of lost a little bit here. We do Harmony Day and the kids cut out orange strips of paper and join them altogether and formed a big chain out on the oval, but I feel like that’s very tokenistic. What does that mean, why do we chop up so many bits of paper? And we have lots of performers come in and do shows but, again, it feels like there’s not a lot of learning in the build-up or after. It’s more like ‘Let’s go watch an Aboriginal dance’, ‘Okay, that was nice’. Whereas, I think it would be nice to see the kids sharing more of themselves and teachers responding more to that.

I don’t know if my school leadership fully understands what we’re doing. I offered a staff information session but none of the leaders came. Staff here don’t seem to want to do anything if it’s after school, so even when the Assistant Principal and staff run things on English that people have identified they need help with, they won’t go to it.

I think, I’m just trying to embed CRP now in my practice. It’s really already in my head set so I’m not thinking of what units next year are going to be culturally responsive, it will just be throughout. And I’m probably more of an advocate now for Aboriginal education and trying to find ways to better address Aboriginal education. It’s probably given me more big picture questions about what’s next.

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