Topic 2: Supportive classrooms

Print Topic Teacher Corey Warrior with students

Significant numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ language and cultural backgrounds include English as a second language, which impacts on the success of their learning in classrooms.

This topic will involve the following:

  • developing insights and understandings that the social and cultural contexts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners may be different to the social and cultural contexts of the teacher.
  • exploring stereotypes and forms of discrimination that are based on erroneous beliefs and attitudes.
  • addressing pedagogical processes and structures to expand your understanding of the learning needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  • ensuring parents and caregivers feel welcome in schools.

Get StartedExplore the concepts, activities and assessment tasks below or use the Get Started button to work through the content in the suggested sequence.

Education is 'heart business'

In order to respect, one must understand. In order to understand, relationships must be developed.
Rogers (2015, pp. 166–181) explains that education is ‘heart business’; for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people both heart (health) and education are a way of life.  Power relationships have often dominated to the extent that institutionalised racism can impact upon children's learning and exclusion from the curriculum — curriculum in the sense of 'everything that happens within the school’. Developing relationships and valuing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ heritage and cultures are paramount in overcoming negative perceptions and low expectations.

What changes as a result of what we do?

Understanding that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children may come to school with a language and cultural background other than English leads to a respect for the fact that children may be bilingual/multilingual.  Students may need additional time to master Standard Australian English (SAE) and respecting that other languages the child may speak are not inferior to SAE.

What will change?

A positive relationship with two-way communication can develop, the child will be less likely to feel intimidated, and it is more likely that respect for the teacher will follow. As teachers, we have the right and the responsibility to work towards increasing respect, reducing prejudice and strengthening relationships.


Rogers, J 2015, 'Education: heart business', in K Price (ed), Knowledge of life: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, CUP, Melbourne, pp. 166–181.

Windows and mirrors

There is more than one way of viewing the world.
For many teachers, the only books available growing up showed mirrors of themselves. Very few provided windows to other worlds. Consider for a moment a picture book from your primary or secondary school years. A poem.  A text book. Were these reflections of your own worlds, or were there other different, interesting, imagining worlds? Life in schools can be filled with contradictions. The concept, or metaphor, using windows and mirrors was originally conceived by Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita of Education at Ohio State University, who specialised in African American children’s literature. In a 1990 article she wrote: ‘Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.’ The curriculum should be both a window and a mirror for students, and it helps to reflect on your own teaching and whether schools should be places where children and young people have the opportunity to discover other worlds, as well as those with which they are familiar. For a number of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students whose language and cultural backgrounds differ significantly from the wider school community, mirrors can reflect their own lived experiences. When I was at school, a very long time ago, there were no mirrors, unless it was the carnival mirror of my first encounter with written stories Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania (1950). Or by the time I reached Book IV of my readers, there was a fairly strong Australian content, encompassing poetry; 'An Australian Cradle Song', geography - The Australian Coast - and 'facts'. A striking example of 'fact' is an account of 'An Ingenious Method of Catching Wild Ducks,' in which the technique of netting ducks is described, all the while managing to portray Aboriginal people in a very negative light.

It might be thought that the wary game would escape by soaring over the obstacle, so high is their flight. But no. The blacks take advantage of the extreme timidity of the poor birds, and, just at the right moment, cause them, by a cunning trick, to swoop right into the trap set for them (Macmillan 1902, p. 32).

By using words such as timid and cunning, the reader is left with the impression that Aboriginal people should not be procuring food. While the method is communicated well and the reader can imagine how the catch is made, the hunter carries out 'deception still farther,' imitating the cry of a hawk, the wild ducks' nemesis. Or my text book, page 14:


But it was not really the white man who first settled in this southern land. For many long years it had been peopled by a dark-skinned race with lank hair and generally flattish noses. They had migrated from the mainland of Asia very many centuries before the coming of our race, crossing the sea lanes in primitive canoes, but we have no definite knowledge of their journey hither. We must be careful, however, to distinguish them from the frizzy-haired Tasmanians who had not made even as much progress as the Australians towards mastering their environment. The accompanying illustration [that does not depict lank hair] shows an Australian aboriginal and some of his implements. In the sketch, which is taken from a photograph, you will find evidence that he lives in a land of strong sunlight and intense glare. The aborigines, who were nomad hunters and fishers, did not bother to grow crops although they dug for edible roots such as yams. They did not build good dwellings, being content with rough bark and shelters, and made little attempt to make pots and other vessels or furniture, though they made beautifully ground stone axes.

                We usually regard our aborigines as being very low in intelligence but we must remember that they showed sufficient intelligence to exist in a land where nature had not been as kind as in other places (Williams, 1956).

This text book made me feel kind of “not human” and my feelings were reflected much later by the Pulitzer prize winner Junot Diaz, a Dominicam American, who in an interview in 2009 said ‘If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. Growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?” Available at: Accessed 29 May 2016. What if I’d had Herb Wharton’s poem? How different may I have felt? School days One mile to school each morning shank’s pony was my bus, home sometime for dinner in midday summer heat barefooted from shade to shade I raced, that ground sure burnt my feet. Sometimes a glance towards the river, rod lines set down there, I’d better check them out Catfish might be biting Better down the river catching fishes than learning silly tales in school, golden apples, flying horses dragons breathing fire or some pommie playing bowls. If they’d taught us how to ride or just had cowboy movies I’d never have played the wag. Think about how the curriculum functions today. When we look at all the items, we can conclude that there is more than one way to view the world, but how often do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students get the opportunity to do this? I could name at least 50 books off the top of my head for younger readers, but let’s think about chapter books and graphic novels for older readers. The following is taken from Learning to Teach in the Primary School, chapter 13: In 2011, Laguna Bay joined up with Oxford University Press to develop, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, a series called Yarning Strong (Robinson, 2011). Teachers have been heard to say that if this is the only resource they have in the school, they have all they need to teach about things Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. The set is based on four themes: family, land, law and identity. One of these novels, Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, written by Jared Thomas (2011), has three themes: taking responsibility for the land, taking responsibility for younger people, and the importance of knowledge and learning. (Other works in the set include stories on concepts such as hard work and determination, value and importance of family, intellectual property, justice, peer group pressure, bullying and racism.) On a first read through of Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, the following concepts are apparent: Country, belonging, passing on of learning, protection and protecting, responsibility, people – land, feelings, Elders, extinction, ecosystem, grandfathers, early settlers, missions, forced ‘protection’, culture, being talked into Country, ancestors, right knowledge, birds and trees go together, survival, common sense, mirror image, shelter trees (lined with fur), scientific gathering of flower buds (pressed), leaves, twigs (paper bags) and seedpods; birds and animals – if we take away their home then we should plant new, possums and birds maintain the species by passing seeds, bees eat pollen and keep birds and possums away; knowing something makes you feel good; pointing with finger is rude (point with chin); some city children do not realise where food comes from; catching yabbies; Aboriginal humour; the Ancestors’ campfires; different cultural groups have different stories about the Milky Way; tennis courts and swimming pools versus the bush; how to tell male/female yabbies as females are not eaten; challenges, first-aid using a bull ants’ nest and a fire pit; ants make antiseptic; infection; ash is sterile because it has been burnt and under the ground; germination, Aboriginal colloquialisms – ‘proper little tracker’, ‘pretty deadly’, ‘biggest mob’, ‘proper good’, ‘Cuz’. This is a very long list.
  • Do these concepts fit within the Australian Curriculum priority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures?
  • How would this information assist you in providing mirrors for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students as well as windows and sliding glass doors for non-Indigenous students?

Related content

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Sims Bishop, R 1990, 'Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors', Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, vol. 6, no. 3, viewed 29 August 2016, <>. Fletcher, J 1952, Little Brown Piccaninnies of Tasmania, John Sands, Sydney. Hudson, P (ed) 2013, Learning to teach in the primary school, Cambridge University Press Port Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 240-241. Macmillan and Co, Limited 1902, Macmillan's Australasian Readers Book IV, The Macmillan Company, London, p. 32. Thomas, J 2011, Dallas Davis, the scientist and the city kids, Oxford University Press, Victoria. Wharton, H 2003, Kings with empty pockets,  Herb Wharton, Brisbane, p. 12. Williams, M 1956, Out of the mist, Oldham, Beddome & Meredith, Hobart.

English literacy and language

Repeatedly, literacy is used within the literature to mean ‘the ability to read and write in English’.
Hanlen (2010) acknowledges the basic fact; literacy is the ability to read and write in any language - which should be acknowledged by all teachers.
 If everyone talked to their young children the same amount, there would be no racial or socioeconomic gap at all (Rosenberg 2013).
The article  ‘The power of talking to your baby’ (Rosenberg 2013) does not contain the word 'English' at all. The paper is a brief account of research being undertaken in the United States and reports that: Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his [sic] home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. There is little recognition given in such articles to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children as learning English as an additional language, or in some cases English as a last language. The article reported by Rosenberg points to research undertaken by Hart and Risley in 1995, which will be the basis of new research. Rosenberg states that ‘ … evidence is showing that the much-ridiculed stream of parent-to-child baby talk — Feel Teddy’s nose! It’s so soft! Cars make noise — look, there’s a yellow one! Baby feels hungry? Now Mommy is opening the refrigerator! — is very, very important’.  However, Eades (1993) points out that in Aboriginal families ‘…  this conversational pattern doesn’t appear to be characteristic of interaction between Aboriginal people and their babies’. Talk is not talked for talk’s sake. We must be wary of the outcomes of research that are biased or skewed and not apply them haphazardly in different cultural contexts.


ACARA nd, Who are EAL/D students?, Australian Curriculum, viewed March 9 2016, <>. Eades, D 1993, Aboriginal English, Primary English Teaching Association, viewed 26 June 2015, <>. Hanlen, W 2010, Aboriginal students: Cultural insights for teaching literacy, NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney, viewed 8 November 2016, <> Rosenberg, T 2013, ‘The power of talking to your baby’, The New York Times, April 10, viewed 20 March 2015, <>
Image: Extract from banner of Australian Curriculum website

Indigenous languages

There are many, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, as can be seen from the Languages map created by David Horton. While a number of these languages are sleeping, a number continue to be spoken, written and read on a daily basis.
As a result of colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages came to be mixed with English and other languages for purposes such as trade and negotiation. These languages, such as Aboriginal English, Creole and Kriol are often the first languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Even though many children may not have heard their traditional language being fluently spoken, the English that they speak is influenced by their ancestors’ traditional languages. 19th and 20th century colonialism outlawed first languages and demanded they be replaced by rudimentary competence in the master language (Phillips 2015), so it was that their ancestors learned English in an oral manner with no written form, and the type of English that they were taught was never intended to empower them to access the mainstream (Donaldson 1985). They were taught only convenient forms of English as a means for governments and other people to control and manage (Fletcher 1989; Donaldson 1985), and as Perso and Hayward explain, ‘It was left to the Indigenous people in Australia to make themselves understood by the British, who generally wouldn’t learn to speak Aboriginal languages’ (2015). Australian languages, together with Kriol and Creole, are the languages of storytelling (history/teaching/education), the languages of children talking to each other and they are the languages of pre-primary school, the languages of immediate and wider community.


Wandei dis wan olgamen en olmen bin go wugubut blanga gowena en kengurru en eni kain bush taga (James 1986). Is this literacy? If literacy is understood as the ability to read and write in any language, then the Kriol sentence above is literacy. I can read it. I can write it. I can understand it. I have read many times this little book about the old woman and the old man going hunting for goanna and kangaroo and any kind of bush tucker.


Similarly I enjoy the story of ‘Da ol man’ (Shnukal 1988, cited in Connor, Moyle, Smith & Price 1996, p. 61 ). The story begins ‘Longtaim i bin gad wan olman. Em I sebenti. Em no sabe wiskain po rid ene rait.’ I can read it. I can write it. Is this literacy? Or does the story need to be written in English and read in English as follows: For a long time I have been a good man. I am seventy. But I don’t understand how to read and write.


Connor, L, Moyle, D, Smith, S & Price, K 1997, Signposts … to country, kin and cultures, Carlton, Victoria. Donaldson, T 1985, 'From Speaking Ngiyampaa to Speaking English', Aboriginal History, vol. 9, pp. 126–147, viewed 29 August 2016, <;dn=057755931923451;res=IELIND>. Fletcher, J 1989, Clean, clad and courteous : a history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales, J Fletcher, Carlton, NSW. Horton, D 1996, Aboriginal [and Torres Strait Islander] Australia, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, viewed 25 June 2015 <>. James, T 1986, Faniwan stori: olgamen en olmen bin go wugubat, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Darwin. Perso, T & Hayward, C 2015, Teaching Indigenous Students: Cultural awareness and classroom strategies for improving learning outcomes, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW. Phillips 2015, p.108 - details missing Troy, J 2015, ‘Language and literacy’ in K Price (ed), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education: an introduction for the teaching profession, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

Aboriginal English

Many assume that if you are born in Australia, that you speak Standard Australian English. This is incorrect - not all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children speak English as their first language.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have lived in capital cities almost all their lives still use language words, especially those that relate to private things, such as geel, jillewa, and so on. Eades (1993) explains  ‘Many varieties of Aboriginal English have no h sound at the beginning of the word … This feature is largely the result of the influence of traditional Aboriginal languages which have no h sound. Over the generations, Aboriginal speakers have learned English with an Aboriginal accent. So when they have learned  Standard English words which start with an h sound, the Aboriginal accent has produced them without it’. This is also seen with French speakers of English, who have no aitch sound in their language. As teachers, we can be aware that a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children come to school with languages other than English, but if we focus so much on (English) literacy, somewhere the knowledge that children can be literate in any language gets lost. Can we accept the legitimacy of Aboriginal Englishes, Creoles and Kriol and instead of telling the child that this is ‘bad English’, accept that they come to school with a language other than English? Hanlen, in her 2010 article for NSW, explains why many children who have language and cultural backgrounds other than English do well at school. She says that ‘Children who come to Australia from other countries, for example, in Asia, Europe and the Middle East generally come from literate families whose social practices often involve literacy practices. The children generally, have been exposed to these and the value of literacy in education’ (Hanlen 2007). Students may have a difficult time initially, while learning English as a second language as well as coping with classroom learning concepts. However, children who do their learning in the early years in their home language or dialect achieve better outcomes than their peers who are forced to learn in the second language or dialect (Cummins 1989; Eades 1991; Hagen 1987). The linguistic skills that these students gained while experiencing their early learning in their home language are easily transferable to the learning of the second language. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, due to historical and other reasons, may not come from “literate” families whose social practices involve literary practices.


Cummins, J 1989, Empowering minority students, California Association for Bilingualism Education, Sacramento, United States. Eades, D 1993, Aboriginal English, Primary English Teaching Association, Rozelle, viewed 26 June 2015, <>. Eades, D 1991, ‘Communicative strategies in Aboriginal English’, in Language in Australia, S Romaine (ed), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Hagen, A 1987, ‘Dialect speaking and school education in Europe’, Sociolinguistica, Vol. 1. Hanlen, W 2010, Aboriginal students: Cultural insights for teaching literacy, NSW Department of Education and Training, Sydney, viewed 8 November 2016, <>.

Hearing loss

Ear disease and associated hearing loss are prevalent among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
Otitis media (OM) is a chronic middle ear infection that often causes hearing loss. It is an inflammation of the middle ear that reduces the ability to hear clearly. OM can be severe, leading to permanent deafness, or it can fluctuate.

If you can’t hear, you can’t learn

Children who have recurrent ear infections may become so used to their level of hearing that they do not know what it is like to hear clearly
This has a significant impact on children’s ability to learn, behaviour and  language and literacy development. They miss many of the cues that other children take for granted.

What can teachers do?

If you suspect a child suffers from hearing loss, then encourage the child’s parent/caregiver to see his or her GP. The following is taken from Conductive hearing loss in the classroom by Erin Callahan (Team Leader, Statewide Speech and Language Service, Department of Education and Training, Western Australia):
  • Be aware of your own voice and volume in the classroom; ensure you project your voice
  • Children benefit from seeing your facial expressions and lips when you are speaking and reading.
  • If you’re talking to the class, stand still so children can focus on one point. Stand closer to children who you know have a hearing difficulty and ensure they can see your face.
  • Noisy classrooms often present a challenge to children with otitis media, particularly when they are trying to hear instructions
  • Some children with long histories of hearing loss will not have learned how to listen. Listening involves physically staying still and attending to and then understanding and thinking about what’s being said. As such, gain children’s attention before giving instructions, repeat the key elements, check their understanding by asking them to repeat the main points.
  • Pairing children with a buddy is another helpful strategy. When children don’t understand or have difficulty understanding instructions, they can be encouraged to go to a nominated buddy who will explain the task.
  • Working in small groups or in pairs is often helpful for children with otitis media as the number of voices they need to pay attention to are decreased when compared to the whole class.
  • Talk with children about hearing loss, including what it feels like and the strategies that children themselves can employ (such as asking a friend, keeping the noise down, facing the person when speaking, speaking clearly and asking questions to clarify information when you don’t understand). Awareness leads to action and acceptance.
  • Many children benefit from the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness (sounds, not letters) as well as pairing sounds with visual or gestural cues.
  • Some classrooms are equipped with a sound field amplification system which helps to project the teacher’s voice to the children by making it louder and easier to hear.

Further research on learning and hearing loss

  1. What Works. The Work program: Improving outcomes for Indigenous students website See
With appropriate intervention, high-attending students with hearing loss stay at school longer and achieve at higher levels.
For many Aboriginal children, otitis media is a chronic condition with long-term health and educational effects. The persistence of the disease and its long-term effects is due partly to a lack of awareness of the disease among parents, caregivers, teachers and health workers, and partly to the lack of agreement about who is responsible for treating the disease and its effects.
  1. The Board of Studies (NSW) Otitis media and Aboriginal children: a handbook for teachers and communities (1994) See


Callahan, E (n.d.), Conductive hearing loss in the classroom, Western Australian Department of Education and Training, Perth, viewed 8 November 2016, <>

Welcoming parents & caregivers

Schools send messages to parents/caregivers in many different ways. These messages can create a clear picture in the minds of parents about how the school sees them.
Messages can be delivered in subtle ways, including how welcome parents feel at the school, the tone of notes and newsletters, how approachable staff are at the school, and the opportunities for parents/caregivers to be actively involved in the school.
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, historical issues have left a legacy of  suspicion in relation to schooling.
You may find that older caregivers, and perhaps some parents, were excluded from mainstream schooling, or that their experiences were far from positive. In New South Wales, for example, early policies supporting segregation permitted Aboriginal children to attend the local school only if they were adequately dressed and well fed, or 'clean, clad and courteous' (Fletcher 1989). However, don’t assume that all parents and caregivers have had negative schooling experiences. It is helpful if partnerships are developed with parents and caregivers, especially in the development of Personalised Learning Plans, but also on a day to day basis. Making parents/caregivers welcome in the school could start on an informal basis through events external to the school such as sporting fixtures or a chance meeting at the shopping centre.
One of the most valued resources in a school with a significant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander enrolment is the Indigenous Education Worker (IEW - job title may vary).
An IEW can assist a teacher with important knowledge about the school community, for example: whether the family has a phone; who is caring for the child; where the child is living at present; the ability of family members to respond quickly; and if perhaps they are dealing with grief. One parent wrote a list of 12 things that would make parents/caregivers welcome at a primary school.
  1. Consistent messages in the newsletter that the school values the involvement of parents/caregivers.
  2. Being told that parents/caregivers are welcome at school assemblies.
  3. Community events like barbecues, trivia nights, and social gatherings.
  4. Information evenings for parents/caregivers about a range of relevant [to them] topics.
  5. Teachers welcoming parents/caregivers in the classroom.
  6. A range of ways parents/caregivers can volunteer in the classroom or the rest of the school.
  7. An active Parents and Citizen Association (P&C) that is an important part of school decision making.
  8. The principal being at the school gate at the end of the day to say bye to kids and to chat to parents/caregivers.
  9. The principal having an open door policy (and meaning it).
  10.  Information in the newsletter about what is happening in classrooms.
  11. Feedback being sought from parents/caregivers on a range of issues.
  12. Friendly office staff.
Retrieved March 8 2016 from Is there anything you would add to this list to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents/caregivers to feel welcome? Aboriginal teacher Annette Gainsford has worked in many roles in schools, as well as university education. The examples below are her experiences of what has worked to welcome and involve parents, caregivers and community members in schools.

Example 1: Yarn Up

A local primary school’s Aboriginal Education team decided to have a “Yarn Up”:
  • to be held once a week on the same day with staff to attend on a rotational roster (The AEW and Principal made it a priority to attend every week).
  •  scheduled from lunchtime onwards approximately 1:30 – 3:00
  • invitations to include parents, caregivers, community members as well as small children (below school age) and students who attend the school.
  • to be accompanied by food (sausage sizzle, sandwiches, iceblocks etc.)
  • invitations to be completed by Aboriginal students in class and taken home to family and community.
  • include one afternoon a month where students could invite friends and friend’s family to come with them.
“Yarn Up” had great success and attendance, through interactions at “Yarn Up” the Aboriginal community and the schools Aboriginal students were able to contribute to decision making processes that involved self-determining practices. Community engagement increased with new friendships made between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal families at the school, thereby reducing racism and stereotyping.

Example 2: Community Connection Barbecue

Community Connection Barbecues were arranged to address the issue of lack of contact with Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) boarding families with teaching staff. Teaching staff would volunteer to accompany Indigenous students to Moree once a year to attend an Indigenous youth festival (Croc Fest). While in Moree the school would initiate a Community Connections Barbecue for families in the area to come and meet with staff in regard to student progress, welfare etc. Barbecues were highly attended and very successful in improving communication and connections with remote Indigenous families. Families could also use the opportunity to spend time with their children and attend performances before the children would return to boarding school for the remainder of the term.

Example 3: Back Gate

In one particular school it was noticed that the Aboriginal parents would use the back gate to the school to drop their children off. Staff recognised that if they needed contact for any reason that this was a good time and location to build relationships, have an informal yarn or even get a note signed.

Related content

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Fletcher, J 1989, Clean, clad and courteous: a history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales, Southwood Press, Sydney.


Suggested readings for Topic 2: A supportive school
Martin, K  2007, 'The intersection of Aboriginal Knowledges, Aboriginal Literacies and new Learning Pedagogy for Aboriginal Students', in Multi-literacies and diversity in education:  New pedagogies for expanding landscapes, chapter 3. Bishop, R & Berryman, M 2006, Culture speaks: Cultural relationships and classroom learning, Huia, Wellington, NZ. Lindsey, R, Roberts L & Campbell Jones F 2005, 'The art and science of conversation' in The culturally proficient school, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, California.

Further reading

Universities Australia 2011, National Best Practice Framework for Cultural Competency in Australian Universities, viewed 25 June 2013, <>. What Works. The Works Program, Badu Island State School, Torres Strait, Queensland, Commonwealth of Australia, viewed 29 August 2016, <>. Hanlen, W 2010, Aboriginal students: Cultural insights for teaching literacy, NSW Department of Education and Training, viewed 29 August 2016, <>. Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW, What are the Educational Implications for Aboriginal English Speakers?, NSW Government, viewed 19 June 2018, <
Image: Extract from the cover of Multi-literacies and diversity in education:  New pedagogies for expanding landscapes

Feeling welcome

Activity: As a parent/caregiver, what would make you feel welcome in a school?
  1.  Think about your own experiences during schooling and make a list of at least six things that made you feel welcome.
  2. Then make a list of at least six things that would have made your parents/caregivers feel welcome.
  3. Are any of the items on 1. and 2. the same or similar?
  4. Share your lists with a partner and discuss items that are the same and whether you would like to add to your list from your partner’s and vice versa.

How would you go about making your classroom and school more welcoming for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents and caregivers?

In groups, on large sheets of butcher paper (or prezi), illustrate in words and drawings what this would look like, for sharing and discussion, either online or on campus.


What would you consider might be the most valuable outcome of building a sound partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ parents/caregivers?

Related content

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A supportive school culture

Activity: Identify the elements that indicate a supportive classroom and a positive school culture of respect, equality and cooperation.

East Kimberley Schools
  • Identify the aspects (artefacts and espoused values) that were visible in your schooling.
  • Identify the underlying cultural assumptions (unconscious beliefs/perceptions) that were not visible in your schooling experience.
  • Identify aspects of a school that would portray a positive school culture, that would enable students to learn effectively.
In groups, consider what such a school might look like, feel like and sound like using the following aspects of school life:
  • interpersonal interactions (between and with staff, students, parents/caregiver and community organisations/member)
  • physical spaces - indoor and outdoor spaces (buildings, classrooms, play areas, corridors)
  • teaching and learning
  • before school, after school and break times (lunch, recess, entering the learning space, before and after school)
  • media (website, Facebook page, newsletter).
Sometimes it is helpful to consider what it would not look like, feel like and sound like. Now brainstorm what a school that harbours disrespect, inequality, exclusivity, individualism, and egoism would look like, feel like and sound like.
Discuss the following:
  • In which school would you rather be a student, a parent/caregiver, or another community member?
  • Who would thrive in each of the two school cultures described?
  • Which school culture is more likely to contribute to student learning for all students?
  • Discuss any other aspects of a school’s culture that may or may not contributes to promoting or embodying reconciliation.

Poster activity

In groups, design a visual resource that promotes the values of reconciliation and that you could envisage using as a beginning teacher.  Look at the following images that could be used as posters.
Poster examples:
Share with your group:
  • How do they make you feel?
  • What is the poster's intended message/theme? What is it promoting?
  • Is it successful in achieving the desired message, theme and or feeling?
  • Is it successful in promoting the values of reconciliation?
Where possible make copies of the resources to display.

Improving student attendance

Activity: Consider the following statement from Dr Chris Sarra as a basis for school attendance.
We have school/s that kids want to be in where the relationships are good and the classrooms are places that have intellectual integrity. (Sarra 2011)

Group discussion

Consider the following scenarios in relation to providing a learning environment that is centred on intellectual integrity and good relationships.
  1.  Jenny is a graduate teacher in a remote school in a grade 1/2 class. She is organised and has the daily morning English literacy block planned but most mornings she only has 2 or 3 of her 15 students at school when school is scheduled to start. She decides to put on a DVD for the 2 or 3 kids each morning until more arrive about 30 -45 minutes after the bell.
  2. Kindergarten teacher refuses to send home another ‘reader’ for one of his students because the last reader was not returned.
  3. Duncan has noticed that a group of his students is having trouble concentrating on their work by about 10am. He talks to the kids and finds out that most mornings they don’t have breakfast before school.
  4. A secondary teacher in a remote school who has no or very low attendance in the mornings decides after talking to the Aboriginal Education Worker and Principal to use the school vehicle to do a drive around the community in the morning to pick up of her students. Attendance significantly increases for the morning period. The next year a different secondary teacher decides that because in the real world no one picks you up for work he would not be doing the rounds in the morning. Attendance drops off again.
  5. Janice has a very rowdy upper primary class so she regularly gives her class worksheets that contain busy work and colouring in to try to keep the classroom calm and manage their behaviour.


School attendance and retention of Indigenous Australian students Issues Paper No 1 produced for the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse, Nola Purdie and Sarah Buckley, September 2010: What Works.The Work Program: CORE ISSUES 5, Student engagement: Attendance, participation and belonging:


Sarra, C 2011, Student attendance strategies, video, YouTube, viewed 29 August 2016, <>.

Windows and mirrors

 Activity: Reflect on the statement  ‘we need books in which children can find themselves’.


If all children see are “reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and value in the world—a dangerous ethnocentrism” (Bishop 1990).

Related content

[related_excerpt slug="module-2/topic-2/windows-and-mirrors/"]


Sims Bishop, R 1990, 'Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors', Perspectives: Choosing and using books for the classroom, vol. 6, no. 3, viewed 29 August 2016 <>.

Language and literacy

Activity: Use a semantic web to engage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students respond well to verbal activities and often become more engaged when a teacher starts out a lesson with finding out what they know about a certain topic. This approach is also useful for the teacher, as she or he gets to understand what they already know and this helps with ongoing planning. One way of doing this is to use ‘semantic webbing’, an approach that is often used to identify the key themes of a reading selection before and after the reading experience. Semantic webbing need not be confined to a reading selection.
At the beginning of learning about a new topic, the teacher asks the students what they know about that topic.
In the Australian curriculum (Year 4) one of the content descriptions is for students to “Understand that Standard Australian English is one of many social dialects used in Australia, and that while it originated in England it has been influenced by many other languages”. One of the elaborations suggests that students can show they have mastered this by “identifying words used in Standard Australian English that are derived from other languages, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, and determining if the original meaning is reflected in English usage, for example ‘kangaroo’, ‘tsunami’,’ typhoon’, ‘amok’, ‘orang–utan’”.
  • Find out what our students know about languages, so the teacher, or preferably a student, might put the topic “language” in a circle at the centre of the whiteboard.
  • Students then brainstorm as many associations as possible with the topic.
  • Perhaps one student acts as recorder, or the person who gives the word writes it in a list to the side.
  • The next step then is to discuss and categorise all the words, and connect with lines, making a web of all the ways they are related on the board.
  • The teacher can then guide students towards discussing words used in the SAE language that are derived from other cultures.
  • Students should be asked what they already know about this topic.
  • Ask what they would like to know about the topic.
  • Any questions can be recorded for later, or included as topics for research.
The important aspect of this activity is that students themselves are a resource and collaborate with other students by sharing their own knowledge and previous experiences.

Semantic web example

The semantic web below illustrates what Arrernte children know about merne (plant food). An example of a semantic web  


Weaving the literacy web: creating curriculum based on books children love by Hope Vestergaard is an especially useful resource.
Image: Semantic web; Michael Colbung, University of Adelaide

Making meaning of text

Activity: Consider the importance of prior knowledge when extracting meaning from a text.


Learning to read and write in English involves more than decoding, it requires the learner to make meaning from the text. Harris, Turbill, Fitzsimmons and McKenzie (2006) describe the role of reader as text participant to involve drawing on two types of knowledge; ‘the topic at hand (content) and knowledge of how the text at hand is organised (structure).’ The first type of knowledge is the focus of this activity. According to Miller and McCallum (2015), the first stage of introducing new material to students who speak English as an additional language (EAL learners) involves activating and engaging their prior knowledge. An essential part of this phase is to build on student’s prior knowledge when it is not the same as mainstream learners. We all bring prior knowledge to texts, but what if your prior knowledge does not match the knowledge needed to make sense of the text or does not match the prior knowledge of the other learners for this particular text? Without the appropriate orientation to the background knowledge within the text, some students will be at a significant advantage.

Case study activity

Consider the following case study. (You’ll need a copy of the book Handa's Surprise or watch the video below). Ian is a new teacher in a remote Aboriginal community in Central Australia. His class is a composite Reception/Grade 1. Ian works with Kukika, who is the class Indigenous Education Worker (IEW). Kukika tells Ian that of the 15 children on his roll, 13 speak an Aboriginal language as their first language (predominately Pitjantjatjara). Two students speak Aboriginal English as their first language and also speak Pitjantjatjara with their peers. For all the students English is a second, third, fourth language.
Ian is very keen to start the first literacy topic. This is how he plans to start the unit. Let’s go through each step that he goes through and discuss what his rationale for each step might be:
  1. Ian goes to the school library and chooses the big book, Handa’s Surprise. In groups read Handa’s Surprise. Discuss the appropriateness of this choice.
  2. Ian discusses the book with Kukika. (Why would he do this?)
  3. Ian and Kukika talk about and brainstorm the background information (concepts and ideas) in the story that they want to orient the children with. They consider what prior knowledge the children bring to the text, what might be familiar and what be unfamiliar. (Why would they do this?)
  4. Kukika tells the children what happens in the story. (Why would she do this?)
  5. Ian reads the story to the children. The educators note any questions and or comments that demonstrate prior knowledge and areas in which they can include in the next stages of planning.
  6. Kukika chooses some words out of the book to translate into Pitjantjatjara. (Why would she do this?)
  7. Ian organises to buy the different fruits from the store (Why would he do this?)
  8. Ian and Kukika show the children the seven delicious fruits in a basket plus some tangerines. The children feel the fruits, smell the fruits, describe the fruits, and draw the fruits. They then cut up the fruits for the children to taste (Why would they do this?).
Here is a different group of children discovering the fruits from Handa’s Surprise
  1. The children talk about which fruit they like best (Why would they do this?).
  2. Ian reads the story to the children again. (Why would he do this?) The educators note any questions and or comments that demonstrate prior knowledge and areas in which they can include in the next stages of planning. (Why would they do this?).
  3. Kukika and Ian talk with the children about the animals in the book (Ostrich, chickens, butterflies, monkeys, cattle, zebra, elephant, giraffe, goats, dogs etc. Using cuts outs of all the animals Ian and Kukika helps the children categorise which animals live in the local area, Australia, and/or Kenya. Can they think of Australian animals that are similar to animals in the book (Emu/Ostrich etc.). Using picture they talk about how they are similar and how they are different. (Why would they do this?).
  4. Ian reads the story to the children again. (Why would he do this?) The educators note any questions and or comments that demonstrate prior knowledge and areas in which they can include in the next stages of planning.
  5. They repeat step 11 for Handa and Akeyo’s village. They compare and contrast; what is similar to their community and what is different. The children draw pictures of both. (Why would they do each of these steps?).

Your turn - Presentations

Now each group can select a literacy text and you would begin the literacy unit by orienting children to the background information in the text (concepts, ideas etc.). Include the following:
  • A very brief description of the context of the class (you could use Ian and Kukika’s class or a local context)
  • A brainstorm/list of the background information, ideas and concepts that you think will be familiar and unfamiliar to the children and information that they could use to make meaning of the text.
  • A few activities/learning experiences that will help orient children with the background to the text, with your justification of why you have chosen this activity.
  • Choose one or two activities to do with your class.


Brown, E 1995, Handa's Surprise, new edn, Walker, London. Harris, Turbill, Fitzsimmons and McKenzie 2006, 2nd edn, Reading in the primary school years, Thomson Social Science Press, South Melbourne, Victoria. Miller & McCallum 2015, Classrooms of possibility: Supporting at-risk EAL students, Primary English Teaching Association Australia, Newtown, NSW.
Image: Screenshot from Handa's Surprise (YouTube)

Stereotyping and generalising

Activity: Consider the impact stereotypes based on generalisations have on students’ learning in schools.


Stereotyping can be considered a form of jumping to a conclusion. The conclusion is based on a generalisation and is a short cut we make in our heads to determine a conclusion quickly. The misleading thing about generalisations is that you are relying on only some information or evidence to form your conclusion and not the complete picture. Stereotyping based on generalisations can play out in our thinking in at least two ways;
  1. Observing that some members of a group share a particular trait and inferring that all members of the group have this trait. This is generalising.
  2. Observing that an individual has a particular trait and classifying that person into a group which are ‘known’ for that trait i.e. based on generalising.

Activity: Detect illogical thinking

The following activity will allow you to detect illogical thinking. You can then practise detecting similar faulty thinking when thinking about stereotypes and generalisations that you may have heard or hold about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples:
Example Faulty: Illogical thinking (why) Okay: Logical thinking
A. Michael says pink is a girl’s colour. Mr Stewart wears pink shirts to school so he must be a girl.
B. Chris says Byron Bay is near Queensland. Liz doesn’t live in Byron Bay, therefore she must not live near Queensland.
C. All babies are born from their mother. This is a baby, so she must have been born from her mother.
D. Celebrities are interesting. Donny is a celebrity, so he must be interesting.
E. Most students who do well at school are good at spelling. I am not good at spelling so I will never do well at school.
F. My fence is made out of wood. This is a piece of wood, so it must be a piece of my fence.
G. Bananas are a fruit that can be peeled. This fruit can be peeled, it must be a banana.
H. Italians eat pasta. You eat pasta, you must be Italian.
I. Some Baby Boomers don’t believe that humans are the cause of climate change; Jan is a Baby Boomer so she must not believe humans are the cause of climate change.
J. All people breathe air; Ken is a person so he breathes air.
K. No woman has been president of the USA; Susan Henson is a woman and therefore she will never be president of the USA.
Activity adapted from Mathew Lipman’s exercise on Stereotype p. 36 of Philosophical Inquiry: An instructional manual to accompany Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children 2nd ed., 1984.

Further reading

  1. Facts the Facts using this link: 
  2. Beyond the myths (scroll down to learn the truth about popular myths).

Your first school appointment

Assessment objectives

  • Demonstrate a broad knowledge and understanding of the impact of culture, cultural identity and linguistic background on the education of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.
  • Work towards developing effective teaching strategies that are responsive to the local community and cultural setting, linguistic background and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
This objective can be attained through the following:
  1. Commence a research study based on the given scenario in this assessment.
  2. Structure the research according to the given suggestion.


The school has an enrolment of 40% Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students spread evenly across the school from Kindergarten to Year 12. For some time the school has struggled to engage both the students and their parents/caregivers. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ performance in NAPLAN is below that of their peers (although the school overall is below the ‘like school’ comparative data, so not performing very well at this level). There are two Indigenous Education Workers (IEWs) who work well in classrooms and have the trust and respect of all students, but who are not involved in school-wide activities. The school has a tenuous level of engagement with the local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, but generally for specific events such as NAIDOC Week. The school flies Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags and from the positioning of several faded murals around the school it can be seen that in the past some attempts have been made to make it a welcoming environment. Recently, the school executive decided that a concerted effort must be made to raise the level of engagement and outcomes of all students, with a particular emphasis on developing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ participation and academic outcomes. Consequently, a committee was formed and as you have recently completed an Indigenous Education course as part of your degree, you have been asked to participate. The committee is chaired by a newly appointed executive member, and has three classroom teachers who have volunteered, and one IEW.


Your response

AssessmentGiven this scenario, and what you have learned in this course, what are the key strategic approaches you would encourage the committee to undertake in order to ensure:
  1. The increase of student engagement and improvement of NAPLAN results overall in the school, but particularly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
  2. The increase in participation with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
In your response you should:
  • Define the school based on the above detail and geographical placement e.g. total enrolments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students, staff size and expertise.
    • Follow this line of inquiry. Is the school in a rural or metropolitan context? What is the school size? What is the total enrolment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students and staff numbers? What is the expertise of the staff in this school site?
  • Describe the community and the student’s socio-economic sets of circumstances.
  • Define the scope, skills and capacity of the committee membership.
  1. You can relate your answer specifically to your teaching expertise (early childhood, primary, secondary) and subject area.
  2. Critically analyse the study to identify and isolate the critical educational/social/cultural issues to be addressed (at least 5 separate issues are anticipated).
  3. Design strategies to address each of these critical issues and justify these through reference to theory or practice that works.
  4. Clearly identify and articulate the steps and timeframes anticipated to achieve your strategic approach and present it in a format that will best be useful to you as a resource in your future teaching.

Reflective Journal

A Reflective Journal is different from a personal diary.

Assessment Objective

Commence a Reflective Journal to track progress towards the cultural competence required by an education professional in contemporary society. A Reflective Journal is different from a personal diary. This assessment provides you with an opportunity to reflect on issues in writing, to subject knowledge claims and practices to analysis and to consider knowledge as a topic worthy of scrutiny in its self. During the semester we suggest that you set aside a minimum of 15 minutes three times a week for writing and editing.  You can also use other creative ways to record your learning by including drawing or illustrations in your journal.


The Reflective Journal should be presented in a Word document and be a minimum of 2500 words. In addition, choose your top 10 entries and present them at the start of the journal with a short paragraph explaining the rationale for their selection. Write your journal bearing in mind that your tutor will read it.  This is an academic process that is designed to make you think hard.  It is entirely your decision which of your learning is included and which is excluded in your journal.


Assessment Thus, for this assignment, the Reflective Journal needs to contain your:
  • Thoughts as you interact with the people, content and processes involved in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education.
  • Reflections and interpretations of your learning about issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their education in the broader political and social context.
  • Consideration of your own values, beliefs and assumptions and how they influenced your learning and/or lived experience in relation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians’ education.
  • Critical notes of the readings, lectures, tutorial discussions and tutorial work.
  • Utilisation of published literature to support your reflective writing.
  • A reflection on the relevant Standards (learning, pedagogy, curriculum, etc).

Topic review

Supportive classrooms

Windows and mirrors is an analogy which helps educators from the dominant culture to view how curriculum resources such as books and texts can work to exclude and/or portray negative and even racist cultural stereotypes. The understanding that the social and cultural contexts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners may be different to the social and cultural contexts of the teacher is addressed in this topic through exploring stereotypes and forms of discrimination that are based on erroneous beliefs and attitudes. The potential for the curriculum to value diversity and difference and challenge stereotypes and racism to ensure classrooms are supportive of the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students is also considered.

Questions for review:

  • Has your view of the importance of curriculum and the resources been extended? If so, in what way/s?
  • What do you see is the relationship between providing a supportive school classroom and a curriculum that values diversity and, difference and challenges stereotypes and racism?
  • Imagine an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander student flourishing in his or her classroom: what would this look like? What do you think it is about his/her classroom that would cultivate this?

Choose one Focus Area of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers where you could apply the knowledge and skills you have gained from Topic 2, such as: Professional knowledge 1.5 Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities
Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of strategies for differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities. (Graduate level)

Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Graduate teachers)

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