For everyone Culture in the classroom

Boonwurrung Elder N'arwee't Carolyn Briggs on the 'Sea Country' sailing excursion. Photo: Natalie Davey

While Quandamooka woman Katrina Amon’s family had assumed she would attend university, her Year 12 coordinator had different expectations. “They believed people like me should get an apprenticeship, not finish Year 12 and get a tertiary education,” she says. “That provided me with the motivation to succeed.”

As a Parkdale Secondary College teacher, Katrina now works tirelessly to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to discover their culture and identity and resist this kind of lazy stereotyping.

She and her colleagues have created a strong Indigenous program, which sees Year 7 students participate in a flag-raising ceremony, Year 8 students participate in an Aboriginal poetry unit in their English classes and the Year 11 and 12 footy team compete in a NAIDOC football gala.

‘[Missing out on learning about Indigenous cultures growing up made me want to] be that person to introduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cultures and history into the classroom.’

In the Year 9 CONNECT program, students learn about the 1967 Referendum, before which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were considered ‘flora and fauna’ by the Australian government. “The students are very surprised that I was not a citizen of my country for the first four years of my life,” Katrina says.

In Term 4, along with the Kingston Koorie Mob, they all participate in Year 9 Koorie Day. “This day is a celebration of Indigenous Culture, but we still highlight important issues such as Stolen Generation, Closing the Gap, Black Lives Matter. We have Aboriginal presenters: Uncle Kutcher, who is an amazing singer-songwriter; Uncle Ron Murray, who is a fantastic didgeridoo player and storyteller.”

In Year 10, Katrina’s students participate in ‘Deadly’, a five-week course covering various topics related to Indigenous history and culture. “We look at the Stolen Generation, land rights, deaths in custody, Closing the Gap. Also, identity, hunter and gathering lifestyle, and an insight into Indigenous Culture. This looks at why Country and your Mob is so important.”

Parkdale students on Pelican 1 catamaran as part of the 'Sea Country' excursion. Photo: Natalie Davey

Knowing that Indigenous students are often isolated, Katrina forged links with a network of neighbouring schools that now comprise the Kingston Koorie Mob. This community-based group often meets at the Derrimut Weelam Gathering Place in Mordialloc and runs activities that involve an impressive number of organisations, from Koori Heritage Trust, Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Bangarra Dance Theatre, Ilbijerri Aboriginal Theatre and the Melbourne Festival – Tanderrum. The Mob also has connections to community Elders, such as mentors N’arweet Carolyn Briggs and Aunty Faye Muir.

Its main activity each year is ‘Sea Country’, in which students sail Port Phillip Bay on a 62-foot catamaran with N’arweet Carolyn Briggs, a marine biologist, and crew and staff from participating schools. The students are always encouraged to bring a friend. “Our theme is ‘Our Culture is Your Culture’, so it is very important we have non-Indigenous participants,” Katrina says.

N’arweet tells the students important stories from the Boon Wurrung tribe (on whose land Parkdale is situated), including tales about the creation of the bay, and asks students individually about where they are from. Katrina says N’arweet usually knows someone from the student’s Mob.
“The student’s eyes light up,” Katrina says. “I know I feel my Country and my Mob, it is who I am, and I feel it in my heart. We want our students to have that knowledge and that connection. I think, for Aboriginal people, it is part of our physical being.”

Students from Reservoir East Primary School with their NAIDOC banner. Photo supplied.

Pride and belonging

Shannon Bourke, early childhood teacher and Garawa and Yanyuwa woman, shares Katrina’s belief in the power of “specifics”. As she sees it, there are two entry points for teachers working with Indigenous students. Firstly: “What is the child’s identity? What stories and resources can I find that relate to that child’s identity? So, if they are on Yorta Yorta Country, can I find a story or song written by a Yorta Yorta person? It’s identifying those children’s Mobs and making them feel strong and proud and wanting to find out more about who they are.”

The second entry point emerges from the question: “Whose land are you living on?” Shannon explains. “In my teaching practice at my current school, it’s really privileging that we live on Wurundjeri Country. These are Wurundjeri stories. What else can we find out about Wurundjeri people?”

Missing out on learning about Indigenous cultures growing up made her want to “be that person to introduce Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and cultures and history into the classroom setting”. Over the years, she has learned that it is not her place to be teaching certain cultural practices – for example, dancing and painting – to children who are not from her Mob. Instead, her practice is to engage with cultural protocols, including Acknowledgement of Country, and values such as belonging to a community. “I’m not representative of all Aboriginal people. I still have a duty to be mindful about how I act in spaces respectfully. You’re accountable to your community.”

Primary teacher Alinta Iddles-Williams, a Ngunnawal, Ngambri and Wiradjuri woman, says developing students’ sense of pride and belonging is central to her mission. As arts and performing arts teacher at Reservoir East Primary School, she based a recent school production on Bunjil the Eagle: Creator of the Wurundjeri. “It was an excellent way to get students, teachers, and families to connect with and engage in Indigenous perspectives, history, and culture.”

In a previous role in Sydney, the Indigenous students “were these outlier kids on the fringes of a school”, she says. The principal allowed her to pursue a “passion project”, in which they chose something they wanted to research, culminating in a presentation for the whole school and their families.

“Some of the teachers had never heard these kids speak,” says Alinta. “So, having that moment and sense of pride – that just propelled them into wanting to be part of their class. Because important people in their life saw that they were capable.”

Reconciliation poster made by students of Reservoir East Primary School. Photo supplied.

Dark history

Each of these teachers have had to grapple with how to teach distressing and sensitive subjects to various age groups. How can schools acknowledge systemic racism and violence, and work towards ending it? Australia still has a long way to go to but, as Katrina Amon can attest: “Education is the key to a better world.”

“Parkdale Secondary College works hard to implement an Indigenous program in the curriculum and also outside the school,” says Katrina. “We try to provide all students with the tools to confront these issues safely and to encourage allied thinking about issues concerning Aboriginal Australians.”

Even though Alinta teaches primary-aged children, she doesn’t shy away from the horrific aspects of Australia’s past, such as massacres and slavery. “We have to tell the truth and we have to honour that these kids carry with them that empathy; that they can put themselves in those positions.

“Obviously, you have to have the support of leadership in the school to discuss these topics, but I think we owe these generations the truth about our history, because ignorance leads to systemic injustices. We, as teachers, need to understand that. And then we need to educate ourselves and educate our students around that.”

In the preschool context, Shannon has shared stories with her students featuring children being taken away. “Children are still being taken from their families at higher rates than for the Stolen Gen. The reality is, I have worked with children who have been taken or are in the process of being taken from their families.”

The Black Lives Matter movement resonates with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, given ongoing and systemic racism and brutality against black people in Australia, Shannon says. “We’ve had colonial violence in this country since first contact, so it’s very relevant in our society that violence from police occurs on a day-to-day basis.”

Indigenous educators (left to right), Katrina Amon, Shannon Bourke and Alinta Iddles-Williams. Photos supplied.

Embedding knowledge

Alinta aims to embed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives into all of her lessons. “It is not a stand-alone thing, it’s just like a general discourse, and the kids pick up on that and feel like it is a safe place to ask questions.”

Every year she pins an AIATSIS map up in the classroom, depicting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, including language, social or nation groups, which they refer to throughout the year. She makes sure the classroom library includes books by First Nations authors or with Indigenous perspectives, cultures and knowledge.

Sustainability is also a focus, intrinsically linked to teaching respect for Country. “At Reservoir East, it’s the Country of the Wurundjeri people, so we best make sure that we are caring for and looking after this land,” says Alinta.

Shannon also believes mainstream concepts, such as recycling, animal conservation and cooking, could all be taught through the lens of caring for Country. Last year, she taught her students about the planned bulldozing of 260 sacred trees in Djab Wurrung Country to make way for a highway in Victoria. “As a kindergarten teacher, I’m wanting to build strong early literacy skills so, after we had been learning about these trees, I encouraged the children to write letters and draw pictures in support of the Djab Wurrung people and their fight for their Country.”

She points out that the English concept of four seasons does not match local conditions. “In Wurundjeri Country, there’s six to eight seasons that apply and fit. It is about recognising that that knowledge is so much more useful than the colonial knowledge that has been brought to this land.”

A Reservoir East PS student's illustration of Wurundjeri seasons. Photo supplied.

This year, Alinta has a few Koorie kids in her class, and she encourages them to share their stories. In the first week, they brought in their possum skins and other special things from home. She believes there is no excuse for not bringing Indigenous perspectives into the classroom – and every school should aim to connect with local Elders and Indigenous community.

With so many pathways available, Alinta believes all schools should have cultural competency or awareness training, and a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) – a resource freely available online. “If you’ve got a RAP, then it means you are actively making community connections, addressing histories, perspectives and cultures.”

Shannon’s advice is for Indigenous and non-Indigenous teachers to “be brave” about prioritising Indigenous education. “Follow Indigenous voices on Instagram, Twitter. Subscribe to the Koorie Mail. Diversify the media that you consume. Watch NITV. See what it is that Aboriginal people themselves are concerned with at that moment in time,” she says.

“Even though it is in our curriculum, it can still be absent from our classrooms. Start small. You might get it wrong, but you learn from your mistakes and keep going. That is your responsibility as a teacher.”

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