Children need to feel accepted and valued in the classroom
Narrabundah Primary School is located in suburban Canberra. It's a low socio-economic area, with high rates of unemployment. Many students have only one parent at home and for some, home is a caravan in a long-term caravan park. There are other housing problems as well.
The school has about 100 students and 25 of these are Indigenous. Every day, the school flies the Australian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.
Trish Keller and Jermaine
When principal Trish Keller was interviewed for her job she had said that she wanted to make a difference in the school. After her appointment in 2000, she wasn't sure at first what direction to take but she knew that the school had a number of empty spaces that could be put to better use.
She spoke with people from the school's Indigenous community (including the ASSPA committee) and together they came up with the idea of the Koori Classroom. It would be a centre for the school's Indigenous resources and a place where Indigenous students, parents and community members could feel comfortable. It would also function as a place where other local schools would come to learn about Indigenous culture.
But it had to be a team effort and there were protocols to be followed. So Trish spoke to the Chief Education Officer, who was very supportive. She also approached the school's ASSPA committee, which gave its blessing, and the School Board, which was also very supportive. Her staff supported the idea from the beginning.
The Koori Classroom
They then had to decide which room to use, and the Time Out room was selected. The community helped to clear out the room and the school's janitor painted it in Koori colours. By this time, students were wondering what was going on and they were excited about the idea of a Koori Classroom when they were told about it. It still wasn't really clear what the room would look like, but then the ASSPA committee came in and put up posters and a net roof covered in gum leaves. The room looked good, smelt good and excitement was rising. The teacher/librarian helped move all the Indigenous resources into the room.
A big opening ceremony was planned and invitations were sent to community members, the CEO, the Minister, the media, local schools and pre-schools and other supporters of the school. Prominent Indigenous people, such as Brumbies player Jim Williams, were also happy to attend.
On opening day, in April 2000, the students were divided into peer support groups for a range of activities. Then, on the grass in front of the school, they assembled, raised the three flags and sang the National Anthem and their favourite song, 'I am Australian'. Indigenous didgeridoo player Graham King played as the guests came into the foyer, before ACT Minister for Education Bill Stefaniak and local Indigenous identity Ben Blakeney officially opened the Koori Classroom.
The day was a big success, but it was only a beginning. Next, the room had to be used productively and the momentum had to be maintained. Trish Keller says she really believed the school was on the right track when she had an opportunity to attend a 'Dare to Lead' conference.
For two days I listened and learned and was inspired by the Indigenous presenters and others. I realised then that what we’d embarked upon at Narrabundah was the way to go. We were on the right track.
A strong message that kept coming across at the forum was that Indigenous education is core business. The strategy is to spread the word, with the teachers being the key. Identify issues and make them our own and deal with them. Just do it. The Koori Classroom was our starting point, our vehicle to travel our ‘pathway of hope’, valuing and respecting Indigenous culture. ‘Pathway of Hope’ had been the name of the keynote address at the forum.
Koori kids are our richness and we need to be advocates for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our community, whether we have Indigenous kids in our school or not. In our case we do — a considerable number, and it was up to me to get on with what we’d started and to get on with it right now.
And I’ve discovered that you’ve only got to ask Koori people to help and they’re happy to do so. Talking to the parents, making them welcome to the school, using their expertise and their talent — these are the things that start to get you on the right track.
The school's Aboriginal Education Worker, Rosemaree Whitehead, is originally from Queensland. She will soon complete a teaching qualification. Rosemaree sees the Koori Classroom as a starting point for numeracy and literacy.
Because kids need to feel first and foremost that their identity is valued in the school. They're proud of who they are. I know, from my own personal experiences, if your culture is not being accepted and valued in the school there is no hope for the rest of learning.
[When she saw a newspaper article about the Koori Classroom] I thought to myself, well, this has got to be a school that's dedicated to improving opportunities for our Koori kids. So that was the main reason I applied for the position.
I've found that the Koori Classroom means a lot to the Koori community. They're really over the moon about it. They say things like 'we've finally got our own room for years we've been going into the whitefella's room but now we've got our own'. The Koori Classroom is positive in the way that Aboriginal culture is being promoted in a positive way and that's for the whole school not just Koori kids. Non-Indigenous children can also see that Aboriginal culture is a positive thing.
And the Koori Classroom is a starting point for literacy and numeracy as well.
As an Indigenous person who hopes to be a teacher soon, I'd say that our children need to feel accepted and valued in the classroom. And that they belong.
In the months that followed, the Koori Classroom came to be used for regular classes each weekday morning. As well, Indigenous leaders were invited to take weekly workshops and some of these leaders were parents of students at the school. Other special visitors were also invited and the school community was involved through a newsletter and through telephone contact.
Indigenous parents were coming to the school to run activities such as painting, dancing and cooking. Koori story-telling was going on in the Koori Classroom. Students were excited and keen to take part and the school was building partnerships with the Indigenous community.
By Term 3, 2000, a series of staff development workshops was held, to explore ways of making the curriculum more inclusive of all groups in the school, and some focus questions had been devised.
One of the identified needs in the school was for a Social Skills program, and a program called Yerrabi Pathways was devised, based on the work of a group of consultants in Queensland (M&M Pathways). Yerrabi Pathways is based on a growth diary concept. Every Monday morning there is a Yerrabi Pathways assembly, in which teachers take a concept from the growth diary, such as 'friendship', and role play a related incident. This is hugely popular with students and the concept then becomes the basis of other classwork.
In fact, the whole of Yerrabi Pathways is closely linked to literacy and numeracy activities. Students write in their growth diaries daily and even those who were previously reluctant to write at all are participating. In fact, writing has become established as a valid task, with a direction, purpose and a focus on the concepts of the week. Teachers are encouraged to have high expectations and this is proving positive for student achievement.
Local Indigenous artist Duncan Smith has painted (with students) a large mural called 'Yerrabi', which hangs in the school foyer. (He has also been employed for half a day each week to work with teachers and students on a program called Guyunggu, which was developed in the NSW Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay.)
Duncan explains the meaning of the painting:
It's life's journey down the right pathways through teaching, learning and support.
It involves nine steps to education, looking at it from an Aboriginal perspective. It's also about learning respect for land, for people, for cultures and respect for self.
It takes them down a pathway which makes connections between home life, school life and the rest of the world. So it's all about connection, and a sense of well being.