For everyone Strengthening cultural connections

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 1 year ago.
  • 20 Sep 2022
Gennivieve Collier (left) and Catherine Spehr (right) in Westgrove Primary School’s Indigenous garden. Photo: Meredith O'Shea.

Westgrove Primary School’s Indigenous students program is thriving, thanks to the dedication of two AEU members. 

Westgrove Primary School in Werribee has a vibrant Indigenous students program that sees 22 students meeting twice a term to explore their backgrounds, build connections, and make decisions on ways to share their cultural knowledge with the wider school community. Conceived and initiated by the previous principal, the program is now facilitated by teachers Gennivieve Collier and Catherine Spehr, both keen to emphasise that they are merely “in the background”.

Catherine, who joined the school in 2019, felt passionate about listening to the student voices to determine the first steps in setting up the program. When Genn joined in 2020, she brought a strong interest in social justice – making for an easy partnership.
Each time the Indigenous student group gets together, they take part in creative activities for Indigenous events such as Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC Week, Sorry Day, Indigenous Children’s Day, and Indigenous Literacy Week.

“This program is all about putting the students first and enabling a platform for emerging Indigenous leaders in our school,” Catherine says. “To achieve this, we listen to student voices with sensitivity and do what we can to support the directions that they would like to go in.”

“We aim to encourage student engagement and student voice through authentic cultural reflection and sharing.”

Gennivieve Collier

The group has been learning First Nations languages and studying Indigenous art and symbols. They have explored local areas owned by traditional landowners, researched native plants and food sources, and share stories by Indigenous authors. The students have also written their own Acknowledgment of Country.

Catherine says the older students have developed their confidence in speaking with large groups. “We’ve seen an increase in the way Indigenous perspectives are taken up by the whole school, including through Acknowledgement of Country at assemblies and in morning meetings and throughout inquiry units.”

She says the next measure of success would be to achieve further community engagement and support through the region’s local Koorie Engagement Support Officer (KESO). “Wyndham’s Indigenous community is amongst the largest in Melbourne, according to the latest CENSUS data. Wyndham is also a very multicultural area, with a diverse migrant and refugee population,” says Catherine.

The schools is in the draft stage of its Reconciliation Action Plan, which Genn says they hope to publish this year and continue to strengthen through further community engagement.

“We listen to student voices with sensitivity and do what we can to support the directions that they would like to go in.”

Catherine Spehr

“We aim to encourage student engagement and student voice through authentic cultural reflection and sharing, acting on student initiatives to grow Indigenous knowledge and understandings throughout the school.

“In 2020, we applied for a Landcare grant of $1,500 for a student initiative to rejuvenate the school’s Indigenous garden. The school fundraised some other money for this, and we also received a donation from our local Bunnings.”

The school held a smoking ceremony at the re-launch of this space during this year’s Reconciliation Week. They now open the Indigenous garden weekly for any interested students to gather and explore.

While there is no specific funding for this group, and only a small time allocation, the school does show its support by providing CRT cover to enable Genn and Catherine to support the student meetings. But, as is often the case for these special projects, much voluntary time and energy is also given to the roles. Catherine and Genn would like the project to be ongoing but they reluctantly acknowledge that it is time consuming, and they need further time and support.

“We have received a lot of positive feedback,” says Genn. “We have developed an online resource hub so other teachers can engage with Indigenous materials, and there is curiosity and genuine questioning about how we can improve our practice in this area. We also have some great engagement with parents, including connections with our school council and our local Wyndham Council.”

Most importantly, the kids wholeheartedly enjoy themselves, she says. “They love being able to direct their own projects and share the results with their peers. These are students who often don’t drive the learning, so this is a space where they feel supported and inspired to build their cultural competencies.”

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