Bridging the cultural and language divide in Indigenous Education… Part 2

The Learning on Country program has been a growing focus of our class activity. Here, Djami Marika, managing director of Dhimurru rangers, talks to students about snakes.

The Learning on Country program has been a growing focus of our class activity. Here, Djami Marika, managing director of Dhimurru rangers, talks to students about snakes.

In Part 2 of my entry, I want to focus on how I’ve tried to tackle the daunting challenges I set out in Part 1.

Reflection is one of the most important parts of successful teaching, and I was able to use the recent break to look back on my earlier writing and think about how much I’d learned this year. With three-quarters of the year down, I’m also in a pretty good position to critique my teaching performance this year. I don’t have time to work this into a beautifully flowing essay, so I’m falling for everyone’s favourite fallback: subheadings.

TRIBES – building relationships and trust

The year began ambitiously, as it always does. I decided to make implementing what I’d learned during TRIBES training the big focus in my classroom initially. (in case you didn’t know, TRIBES is a behaviour management program used by educators all over the world). Our school has a history of using TRIBES effectively. I’m pragmatic when it comes to behaviour management systems, my only insistence being that (a) every school must have one; and (b) it needs to be implemented across the school, so that a common language is employed and students know what to expect.

TRIBES allowed me to establish some ground rules, and more importantly, build trust.

TRIBES allowed me to establish some ground rules, and more importantly, build trust.

The end goal of TRIBES is to build an environment of trust – in the classroom, between staff, and across the school. I think I’ve done a pretty good job in my class. Initially, I did TRIBES activities every day, and emphasised that the classroom should be a safe, welcoming place. That went hand-in-hand with building a strong learning routine and high expectations of the students. In the early days I got students to produce personal profiles, telling me about their interests as well as cultural information such as their clan, skin name and homeland. As time went on, we were able to construct a gurrutu chart, which shows how everyone is related to everyone else (because I’ve been adopted, I fit into this structure too – hence I’m an uncle, brother, poison cousin etc to everu one of my students). Building strong personal relationships established trust and laid the foundation for further learning.

Embracing the cultural experience

That leads into my next point, which was coming to terms with the foreign cultural environment I’m living and working in. Last year when I went through the various stages of culture shock: honeymoon, frustration, and depression, I wondered if I would ever get to that elusive final step of acceptance. Whilst at times it’s maddening, I’ve been able to come to terms with certain facts of life here. I can see the positive and negative parts of remote community life, I know most things are out of my control, and I try to focus on things I can influence.

Part of adapting has been just picking up lots of little cultural nuances over time, like realising that people often communicate non-verbally, indicating assent or disagreement through a simple raising of the eyebrows or a pout of the lips. I used to just think students were ignoring me!

On a larger scale, I’ve tried to engage with the history and culture by taking every opportunity to listen and learn from elders and historians of this remarkable land. Yirrkala has an amazing history, from the bark petitions and the land rights battle of the 1960s and ‘70s, to the struggle for bilingual education in the 1970s and ’80s, and the emphasis on training Aboriginal educators in the 1990s. I read and learned about the incredible contributions of people like Dr Marika and Dr Yunupingu, those rare individuals who truly “walked in both worlds” and tried to visualise a future for their people which allowed them to preserve as much of their culture as possible, while coming to terms with the inexorable encroachment of Westernisation.

The fishtrap metaphor: we have to work together.

The fishtrap metaphor: we have to work together.

The work of those Yolngu intellectuals allowed me to realise that my task is not so gargantuan, that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. In particular, the rich storytelling culture of the Yolngu gave me some powerful metaphors to help understand my task. During a PD day at the beginning of the year, we talked about the symbolic importance of the Yambirrpa, a traditional fishtrap. The fishtrap metaphor depicts all the adults in the community as rocks, keeping the children (the fish) safe and stopping them from being sucked out to sea (trouble!). In the activity, each staff member was given a rock and asked to write down their personal strengths, before placing their rock in the circle. The metaphor emphasise that all staff being unique qualities, but will only be effective through the collective effort of all. In this setting that extends far beyond the school – there are so many pieces involved, many elders and agencies we have to work closely with.

By necessity, the process of consultation is slow and often maddeningly inefficient. From what I’ve seen and heard, too many ngapaki (whitefella) teachers short circuit the process and do their own thing – this can help in the short term but does no one any favours in the longer term .There are no short cuts to building capacity, success and sustainability in remote communities. It’s about the big picture and the long-term view, and, crucially, working closely with elders and agencies and people in the community. As the year’s gone on, I’ve relied more and more on Yolngu expertise, and when the opportunity has presented itself, I’ve stood back and relinquished the reins, something many teachers find hard to do, but which is essential in this context.

Learning journey

As if the cultural journey wasn’t enough, the professional growth required has been phenomenal: coming to grips with a whole new approach to teaching, which essentially required me to put aside everything I knew about teaching, and rebuild myself from scratch. My training was in an urban high school – I’ve had to become much more like an early years teacher, integrating subject material and creating a highly structured, scaffolded learning environment (actually, being here has taught me that I should have been doing this anyway!).

Goes with the Territory: planning outside during a blackout.

Goes with the Territory: planning outside during a blackout.

Collecting ESL assessment data, carrying out SENA maths testing, using the data to design small group and individual learning plans, programming with a new curriculum, applying a rigorous and complex ESL sequence, integrating SOSE and Science into a 10-week English text cycle… The challenges have been immense. And every time I feel like I’m getting on top of something, the principal will throw another obstacle in my way! Not complaining… This is the reality of what needs to be done. The latest challenge is setting English and Maths targets for each student to reach by the end of the year. It’s only now, in Term 4, that I feel like I’m starting to get on top of things. But I’ve got a clear plan for this term and next year will be easier. Most importantly, I’ve grown incredibly in my understanding of how students, especially in an ESL context, learn best, and the skills I’ve gained will serve me well for the rest of my career.

We use Curriculum Journeys talk about where we are headed.

We use Curriculum Journeys to talk about where we are headed.

The school leadership’s emphasis on professional development has been invaluable. We have a one-hour “Learning Together” PD session every week, in addition to staff meetings. In Week 3, every teacher presents their Curriculum Journey, explaining where they’re going with their class. And late in the term there is a “flood walk”, where teachers visit every classroom and learn about what others are doing. Each teacher receives written feedback from their peers. It’s a fantastic experience which our regional director called exemplary when he took part during the recent school review. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from seeing what other teachers are doing, particularly when it comes to creating a visually stimulating classroom.

Relevant and accessible curriculum

The biggest day-to-day problems at our school are attendance and engagement. There is a circular causation loop at work here – lack of consistent attendance among many students makes it hard to engage them successfully, because they’re well below age level. Conversely, our difficulty in designing a relevant and inclusive curriculum alienates students. The longer this cycle goes on, the worse the problem gets, until students stop attending all together, because they see no point in attending school.

One of the decisions I made early on is that I was not going to worry overly about who was coming to school – it’s not something I can do a lot about, as I don’t have the time to be visiting students’ houses every day. My energies go into making sure the students who do come find the classroom welcoming and sufficiently stimulating that they want to keep coming.

With students in Years 8 and 9 who can barely read English, it is easy to get frustrated at their lack of basic literacy. But we still have to find a starting point to engage students. I’ve approached this at a micro and macro level.

Firstly, I use the assessment data I’ve collected on students to work out exactly what they can do. Work is designed from there. What that means is that most students are working to achieve Year 3 and 4 standards – but at least those are achievable. As my principal has explained, too often teachers teach to where students should be up to, and having missed so many intervening stages, there’s no way kids can access those skills and content – it’s too far outside Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

At the macro level, I’ve tried hard to design learning programs that are relevant, interesting and enable us to integrate cross-curricular strands. Our central focus each term, using the Walking Talking Text (WTT) process, is an English text. All the other content flows from that. The school had a few hard years under poor administration and older programs were run down or lost. So I’ve pretty much been building from scratch – and let me tell you, drawing on content from 4 or 5 different curriculum areas, whilst also planning across multiple year levels to take into account students’ great learning variance, using a new curriculum, is not easy! But at least once it’s done it will make the next teacher’s job easier, and secondary staff are working on creating scope and sequence and programs from Years 7-10.

In Term 1, we studied Tim Winton’s Blueback, a lovely novella about a boy and his relationship to the sea. What I was looking for was to make some connections with students’ real world experiences, but it felt a bit flat, because I wasn’t confident in the WTT process and the literary qualities of the text made the language and themes somewhat inaccessible for students. I tried to incorporate discussion of fish stocks and sustainability, but without Yolngu support these concepts were difficult for students to grasp.

Learning on Country: a highlight of the year was a cultural trip to the nearby island homeland of  Dhambaliya (Bremer Island).

Learning on Country: a highlight of the year was a cultural trip to the nearby island homeland of Dhambaliya (Bremer Island).

In Terms 2 and 3, I aimed to find texts that drew more on students’ interest and experience. After discussions with my principal and senior teacher, I chose factual texts on snakes and wetlands. I hadn’t had this in mind at the time, but these choices were rather serendipitous, allowing our class to link up with the local Aboriginal rangers, who had begun working more closely with the senior students as part of the Learning on Country program. LoC seeks to provide vocational pathways for students by combining scientific concepts about conservation and land management with traditional knowledge of country. Dhimurru rangers visited the school to talk to my class about snakes, and in Term 3 we visited a local wetlands site to discuss human impacts on the environment. By embedding these rich activities in a strong cultural context, we were able to address some of the curriculum outcomes for science and geography.

These initial activities in turn led to a 3-night cultural camp with Dhimurru to take part in an important ceremony on nearby Bremer Island (Dhambaliya), a Rirratjingu clan homeland and location of a number of sacred sites. Those three days were by far the best experience I’ve had since coming to Arnhem Land. We’re following up the camp with a range of activities in the classroom this term, including writing about our experiences in first language (Yolngu Dharuk), and developing students’ geography and maths skills by working with maps. I’m able to do things I wasn’t earlier in the year, because I now have Yolngu support that wasn’t there before, in the form of a team teacher and also from Dhimurru

Our term 4 will text will consider similarities and differences between the experiences of American slaves and Indigenous Australians.

Our term 4 will text will consider similarities and differences between the experiences of American slaves and Indigenous Australians.

I know there’s a long way to go, and my successes have been very modest. Hopefully I’ll get to work with some of the same students.  I’m proud of the fact that my class has consistently had among the best attendance in the school throughout the year, and that we’ve got a few previously disengaged students coming to school regularly. I’ve learned a lot and there are some good foundations in place for next year. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying our Term 4 focus, which is on the history of slavery in the United States. The big focus is on “rights”, and talking about the similarities and differences between the experiences of slaves in the US and Yolngu and other Indigenous Australians.

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