Serena’s journey

I came late into classroom teaching. I was in the music industry in a private setting as a piano teacher for most of my life. But I actually got quite bored with private teaching, I did it for so long and did it in so many schools. I just felt that I needed something different and to expand my horizons. I went back to university and did a postgrad and was sent to Nundroo Gum College for one of my student teaching placements and I stayed here ever since.

I had been pretty independent, running my own music business, private teaching, for most of my life and I really felt that I needed to be in a particular type of school, that I wouldn’t fit into a lot of mainstream schools. When you’ve been selfemployed and you’ve been running your own show most of your life, it’s hard to suddenly start working for institutions and government. I like this school because it’s Year 11 and 12 and adult reentry. We provide learning programs for SACE completion for particular cohorts such as young people who have disengaged from mainstream schooling, young mums, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, new arrivals and adult learners looking to finish school. There’s a lot of freedom with how I can deliver things and it’s just a good fit for me.

I think my journey with culturally responsive pedagogy started when I was a primary school student and I had a teacher who was doing culturally responsive pedagogy back then. This teacher’s Year 6/7 class did a performance at the first Reconciliation Convention in Adelaide in 1998, so she’s been doing culturally responsive pedagogy in her classrooms for a long, long time. A lot of the focus of her work was how to break down, deconstruct belief systems, how to examine our belief systems, what creates our belief systems, where do they come from, are they really serving us, what is the outcome of those belief systems. This teacher is semi-retired now, but she has been an inspirational and collaborative mentor in this project.

For my action research project, I examined the way I was delivering Year 12 EALD Essential English tasks, and so I was really examining them to see how much culturally responsive pedagogy was getting in there, which probably wasn’t really a lot. I’ve moved into the area of EALD teaching in the last few years, so I was really examining my ability to incorporate more of that culturally responsive content.

The class I decided to focus on was pretty diverse. I had probably about four or five different cultures in there, so Vietnamese, Nepalese, Indonesian, Afghani, Indian. There were nine students, ranging in age from 20 to 44 years old. English is the second language of all of the students in this class.

One of the main things in general I’ve been examining, is delivering Aboriginal content, which is something I haven’t been overly confident with. I’ve attempted it in the past with fairly basic things, but I wanted to take it to a different level, and the only way to get comfortable with it is to do it and build up the experience and the knowledge. We looked at Aboriginal and English settlers’ interactions
and Rabbit-Proof Fence was a story that we focused on within that whole topic, but we then sort of broadened it out again and took themes from it and drew parallels with our own lives in relation to those themes as well.

Initially they were pretty quiet and not very confident, but once they got past that and started to express themselves, they had a lot to say. I think they had a lot to say because they’ve all had life experiences. The one good thing about being in an adult re-entry is you’ll get some older people who really have got a lot of life experience. So that all started to really come out and I thought it would be hard for them to write the poetry but when they started to, once they got past the writer’s block, it just seemed to sort of flow.

The students got very deeply involved and got pretty emotionally involved. That was sort of expected. I think that when anyone goes into the history of our country, I don’t think you can look at that history without getting involved with it emotionally. And that story in particular, it’s a very powerful story, it’s a very moving story. Some of the students have had very similar experiences of persecution from their pasts so they were very deeply involved and they wrote some very powerful poetry in response to the task. I think that this particular unit of work just encouraged deeper levels of engagement, it encouraged them to go deeper into themselves to bring out something to meet the demands of the task and so as a consequence of that the atmosphere was different. As a class, we did go on a fairly intense learning journey. So, as a result, I really felt I got to know them more and they certainly shared stories with me that they may not have shared if I hadn’t done this unit of work, stories about their background and their challenges. So we were all really very close when we got to the end of the year.

The high intellectual challenge was there. Because usually I’d just get them to write an essay on themes or something, whereas this time they had to write a narrative in response and they had to do more research, so there was definitely more challenge them and to explore deeper concepts and to make connections between those concepts and those ideas, there was more challenge in that way.

One of the things I did which was I got our ASETO involved in our class. I’ve never done that before and I don’t even know why I haven’t thought of doing that before the class. I just explained what I was doing, I asked Jarrad if he would come into our class and talk to us about his background and history, his country, his language, his perspective on reconciliation and where it’s at in our country. So he came in and gave us an incredibly in-depth talk, but he was also interactive so he brought in artefacts that were all passed around. We looked at the Aboriginal languages map, he talked a lot about his background and history and what it was like for him as a child, what it was like for his father, what it was like for his grandfather. He talked about the Stolen Generation, he talked about reconciliation and where it’s at in the country now and what needs to happen and what needs to change and what it means for him. He talked about Dreamtime, he touched on Elders and their roles in the community, and he touched on history.

Because of that, I’ve sort of got to know him. Before, he was just another person working in the school. I mean, I knew what he did and what area he’s in, but I’ve got to know him and learnt many things myself. This is what it’s all about, it’s about an exchange. There has to be positive exchanges.

For the students it was also positive and probably quite unique for them. They directly connected with an Aboriginal person and heard their story. I really don’t know how much interaction they would have with Aboriginal people. Most of them are either new and have been in refugee camps for most of their lives, have been in Australia for a short time. Some of them, maybe one or two, might have been longer, probably very much somewhat enclosed in their own communities, in community groups and cultural groups within that. I did surveys asking them what they knew about Aboriginal culture at the beginning of the unit and it was very little or none, and that changed by the end of the unit.

The next step would be to try to create some sort of crossexchange between my class and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander class. I’m not quite sure how, and how you would tie that into a task but I’m sure there’s ways it could be done. That’s a new idea I might try.

Overall, I think quite a lot changed. The students know a lot more about Indigenous history, Australian Aboriginal history and Aboriginal and European interaction. They have a lot more empathy and certainly their eyes have been opened to Aboriginal culture, languages, history, ways of looking at things.

I’d have to say that, apart from the time commitment which was, for me, a little bit of a stress on top of what I already have to manage as a full time Year 11 and 12 teacher, everything worked for me about this project. It just resonated hugely with me personally and my values and my goals, I suppose, my wider goals as a teacher in general. I was just very happy to be part of it and every time I was engaged with it, I felt really happy and content, which is always a good sign that I’m doing something that’s good for me and meant for me. You’re always being thrown so many choices around PD development and topics, there’s such an incredible choice of what you can start to specialise in, whether it’s learning difficulties or teaching students to be more critical and creative. For me, I tend to go more with what I connect with on a heart level, what really gets to me. If your heart’s in something and you’re really getting something out of it that’s inspirational, then it’s doable, you’ll get through that, you’ll power through it and it will be worth it.

Trying to do action research within a classroom is a little bit challenging. You’re sort of thinking on two levels at once. Actually, it’s quite exciting really. It’s challenging in a fun way, it’s challenging in that it’s unknown territory for me, so I don’t have lots of confidence. A couple of times earlier on, I thought, I don’t know if I can even keep going with this, it’s really hard, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I don’t know how I’m going to do it, because the problem with being a Year 12 teacher is there is so much stress already just to get through tasks and get the finished outcomes.

I’m so glad that I really stuck it out. I still feel like I’ve only scraped the surface of it. To me, it’s a long-term project, it’s adding a whole other layer of dimension into my teaching and my role as a teacher so for me it is a long -erm commitment to this.

I found that I had strengths in certain ways that I didn’t realise that I had. Things like facilitating yarning circles, even delivering some of the content which initially I didn’t feel competent. Once I was actually doing it, I felt that it came across really quite well, because I recorded myself and I listened back to myself, and I have had experience working in the music industry with Aboriginal bands and musicians, so I have actually had quite a lot of personal experience but from a different angle. So I sort of started on the journey of connecting with Indigenous culture and issues. And it’s not just ‘their’ issues, it’s actually ‘our’ issues, ‘my’ issues, ‘your’ issues, it’s all connected.

I’m finding now that I’ve got a new level of curiosity and interest about learning. I’m learning about Aboriginal cultures, their belief systems, their languages. It’s like a real genuine curiosity and learning which actually overcomes any fear I might have had. Sometimes I put things in the too hard basket whereas now I’m just really, really curious. I never really had any desire to learn some Aboriginal dialect, but now I do. I went to the local library, and I borrowed a book on Kaurna language. I would never normally do that but now it’s ignited in me an interest, a deeper interest.

The learning assessment plans that I write for next year ongoing will have a lot more Aboriginal content embedded in them, in every subject, in whatever way I think is going to be appropriate for that cohort, and I’m going to try different things, I’m going to try new things. I think that it’s going to be part of the way I do task design.

Once you’ve decided to make culturally responsive pedagogy part of your teaching, it’s a journey. There’s a lot of ethical aspects to it, I think, then you just go on a journey with it and you try to implement it in everything really. I definitely want to keep it going, to stay connected and to keep working in this area and building on it.

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