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St Michael’s Primary School

School context

St Michael’s Nowra is a systemic school in the Diocese of Wollongong serving the Catholic community of the Shoalhaven. In 2006 there were 43 staff and 560 students of whom 32 identified as Aboriginal.

The school also had a Learning Centre for children with special education needs.

School learning team

The school learning team included the two Year 2 teachers and the Aboriginal Education Worker (AEW). They were supported by the Stage 1 executive member of staff, the Regional Curriculum consultant and the Aboriginal Education consultant as well as the direct involvement of the Catholic Education Office. Their support proved critical to both the school program and the depth of community involvement.

Working with the community

The Aboriginal Education consultant facilitated close contacts with the local Aboriginal community. With this assistance, the school was able to involve several elders who then played key roles in supporting the project.

A number of Aboriginal parents of students in the class joined the learning team. One of the most valuable strategies used by the team was to conduct interviews with the elders and parents early in the project about their mathematics knowledge and their experiences of learning maths at home and at school. These interviews, which were undertaken by the AEW and the consultant, were videoed for the team to watch and discuss at later meetings. These proved to be a major innovative strategy that prompted wide-ranging discussions, and provided many ideas that were later translated into teaching and learning experiences. The issues raised became significant points for further discussion, and raised the awareness of the teachers of a wide range of cultural aspects of the students’ lives. This proved to be a major outcome for this project.

Community consultation on aspects of language

The use of Aboriginal English

Through contact with the community and observing and interacting, the language patterns of Aboriginal English became evident and recognised within the school. This was further emphasised through the speech patterns of guests during NAIDOC week. The implications for the school’s Indigenous students were evident. In many ways these children operate as ESL children would in a school environment. The children are challenged in understanding spoken English patterns and further challenged in expressing themselves. The teachers became aware of and encouraged the use of phrases of Aboriginal English with parents and children.

In particular, teachers became aware of the way in which instructions are given in the classroom, and for the need to rephrase these at times.

As procedure, at the beginning of topics the children were given an opportunity to brainstorm language associated with the lesson, so they could bring forward their own understanding and variations on words. For instance, when dealing with multiplication the words offered could include ‘groups’, ‘rows’ or ‘mobs’. This list was displayed and the children could add to it during the course of the topic. They were encouraged to use a variety of these terms when recording.

The use of familiar items to motivate the students

In the Mathematics classroom, we tried to use examples that were familiar and of particular interest to the children. This enabled the students to visualise the examples easily and to see their relevance. This in turn gave the children an opportunity to be expert and confident in their contributions to the group. The targeted content was gleaned from the students’ own interests, primarily ‘food and money’ but also football, skateboarding and water-skiing. This strategy resulted in Indigenous students speaking out confidently in the group, enjoying being the ‘expert’.

The common use of mathematical terminology

Along with the challenges that many Indigenous students have in operating with spoken English, the required mathematics-specific terminology is also an issue. Through our lessons we attempted to expose and use appropriate language so the students were recognising key mathematical terms (eg ‘difference’), using them in context across many sub-strands, and relating them to real life (eg ‘What’s the difference between your pocket money and mine?’).

In meetings with the community members we also tried to expose the adults to this specific language in an effort to empower them to support their children more effectively. The adults had an opportunity to try these activities, ask questions and walk in the shoes of students encountering the activities in the classroom.

Contact with parents/community

Our community members were encouraged to become involved with our project through relationships that already existed, and through the tireless efforts of a few people, especially Marion Crossley and Margaret Simoes. The community members were invited to meet the project team to discuss what we were trying to do in catering for our Indigenous students. The contact was through home visits and personal calls. Meetings were held in the Parish Hall to ensure that the community felt secure. The community, through discussion, shared their own past experiences and the feelings they currently had about Indigenous education, and then we looked at the future and how we could support our Indigenous students in the classroom. Our community members were invited to join in the lessons but most were reluctant to be present in the classroom, not feeling ‘expert enough’ to be part of the project within the classroom environment. We invited all the children’s parents to participate in open classroom, when the children joined with parents and demonstrated the activities. We were really pleased that some of our Indigenous parents came and were present in the classroom with other parents.

During our meetings we as a team felt it was a two-way learning situation, with the community sharing the cultural information and us providing the learning and teaching expertise. The community trusted us to listen to and to interpret what they said.  They asserted that the business of teaching in the classroom was our area and they were not so keen to be involved directly. The community members did express a desire to understand more about what the children were learning, so we provided information sessions for the community to support them in this area. Each time we reported back to the community, again extending the invitation to become more closely involved in the classroom directly. Our Indigenous parents were also committed to work during the day (as most of our parents were) so classroom support was difficult for them to arrange.

In 2007 we worked to maintain the links with our community. Aunty Marie Stewart gave the welcoming to country and presented to the whole school her experiences with the message stick in Alice Springs during NAIDOC week. We also welcomed community dancers to perform for the school. It is this ongoing contact and working together that is crucial to working with our Indigenous community.

Reflections on the project

From the teachers

‘The children liked the idea of choosing the activities and were even more motivated by seeing the workstation appearance, with lots of concrete, motivational, real-life materials. The groups worked well as a whole, the ability grouping allowed the more challenged groups instruction at an appropriate level.’

‘This week we had the opportunity to present our project to the staff. It was an introduction… As they had only heard the project name being mentioned… There was much insight and reflection involved though the discussion following the presentation was supportive, encouraging and thought provoking.’

From the Aboriginal Education Worker

In October, we held a gathering at the school in the classroom. I feel this was an excellent place to hold the gathering. It was away from the hall, which can be a bit formal sometimes and we just wanted everyone to feel comfortable in the school. Five parents and community [members] turned up. This was a little disappointing… I felt an admirable achievement by the teachers was at the start of the gathering they acknowledged country. HUGE. This has never been done at any of our meetings before.’

‘Being part of this project has made me realise school to most Koori kids is another whole language… Our teachers took on board what was said about language and the need for more purpose. They applied their understanding in their classrooms and the result was fantastic.’

Sample lesson plans

The following detailed lessons were the assessment tasks set towards the end of the term in two main curriculum strands. The tasks summed up the work that was explored with the community and delivered to the students.

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St Michael’s Primary School