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For parents, teachers and children, some resources for decolonising education

Introduction by Croakey: Professor Anita Heiss, a Wiradjuri author and scholar, recently wrote about the enormous amount of work undertaken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in educating non-Indigenous Australians, particularly in the wake of the Aboriginal Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter movements.

Meanwhile, the Blackfulla Bookclub on Instagram grew from 1,000 to over 20,000 followers in just two months and has been inundated with questions about where to find First Nations stories for adults, children and young people, according to its founders, Merinda Dutton, a Gumbaynggirr and Barkandji woman, and Teela Reid, a Wiradjuri and Wailwan woman.

“…what we have witnessed through Blackfulla Bookclub is the overwhelming energy of everyday Australians taking the initiative to decolonise their bookshelf by reading books by First Nations authors and seeking a better understanding of our storytelling,” they wrote in The Guardian this week.

In the article below, Tabitha Lean, a Gunditjmara woman, and Pip Henderson, a white woman, write from Kaurna Country with suggestions for parents on decolonising education and how this might look during the pandemic and homeschooling. They say:

In so many ways, we come from two very different worlds, but just as Anita Heiss tells us, “we have more things in common than we have that’s different”.

We’re both single mums trying to do the best for our kids. We move in the same Twitter circles, have very similar views on life, and both want to see a more inclusive, honest and progressive country to raise our babies in.”


Tabitha Lean and Pip Henderson write:

My name is Pip, and I’m a white person, born on Kaurna Yarta. I’m a single parent to three primary school aged children. My background is in public health, and I see addressing social determinants of health and decolonising systems and structures as key to reducing inequities within communities. I am a PhD candidate at Flinders University exploring the impacts of whiteness in the education system, and am specifically interested in decolonising schools and western education, and research practices.

Situating ourselves in the landscape is so important. It is our way and it’s important for context. My name is Tabitha and I am a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna country. Like Pip, I am also a single Mum to three awesome kids. My background is in junior primary/primary teaching, and I’m super passionate about including our perspectives of being, knowing and doing in all areas of education and curriculum.

In so many ways, we come from two very different worlds, but just as Professor Anita Heiss tells us, “we have more things in common than we have that’s different”. We’re both single mums trying to do the best for our kids. We move in the same Twitter circles, have very similar views on life, and both want to see a more inclusive, honest and progressive country to raise our babies in.

Children learn so much just from being around us, doing activities with us, our conversations and the stories we tell. There are awesome and fun lessons to be learnt from and during everyday activities – whether we are reading stories, gardening, drawing with chalk on the driveway or baking a cake.

We want to impress on parents, that now more than ever, is not the time for further stress or pressure… but we also want to flag that, if and where you can, now might be a good opportunity to consider some ideas around decolonising education. Learning from home may provide the opportunity to throw off those colonial shackles and decolonise not only what we’re learning or teaching, but how. 

If you’re wondering why decolonising education might be important, please consider this article by Amy Thunig, a Gamilaroi education academic who problematises the colonial foundations of schools and the education system and is an important read.

Similarly, In My Blood It Runs is a beautiful film, ethically developed in terms of consultation and collaboration with local community members and generously available on ABCiview for families across Australia from 5 July 2020. The movie offers insight into how the western education system, its approaches and its measures of success aren’t always fair, equitable or just. It highlights that there is more than one way of thinking, knowing and being which can all be equally valid and relevant.

Below, we share some resources (mostly) freely available online that might support parents and teachers alike.  All of these ideas are underpinned by three key ideas about decolonisation:

  • Privileging Indigenous perspectives
  • Challenging dominant practices
  • Focusing on truth-telling.

Privileging Indigenous perspectives

Decolonising involves a conscious and concerted focus on privileging and prioritising Indigenous perspectives by bringing these to the forefront and, by default, decentering white and western perspectives.

Drawing knowledge and developing understanding from multiple perspectives is a powerful way to disrupt dominant narratives, build understanding of other cultures and social positions, and challenge negative stereotypes.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Anita Heiss share brilliant explanations about the problem of single stories and offer important examples that we can learn from. A harsh, but true axiom follows: you’re not well read, if all you’ve read is white authors.

Ensuring the books you and your children read is diverse in terms of authors and characters is one way to help ensure that a broad range of perspectives is included. In some areas of academia, there are movements to #citeblack in recognition of ensuring that it is not just white voices and perspectives that dominate the narrative. In terms of what students are reading in schools, check out this list  of top 15 books taught by English teachers. It is dominated by white men.

Lucky for us, Cara Shipp and Anita Heiss offer some great recommendations about books for children that primarily feature Aboriginal people and/or are written by Aboriginal authors.  Glee Books also has a comprehensive list. You might be able to borrow these online through your local council library. If purchasing, look to support Aboriginal owned-and-operated businesses like Koori Curriculum, Magabala Books or Riley Carrie Resources.

You can even outsource the reading to YouTube with the likes of Trevor Jamieson (Rabbit Proof Fence) reading Sorry Day, Mary Albert reading How the birds got their colours, Uncle Jack Charles reading Go Home, Cheeky Animals, Storytime with Aunty Nita or Storytime with Jess from Koori Curriculum and more. QueenMode Bookclub on Instagram is another excellent resource that will be loved by adults and children alike.

Representation and visibility matter, with benefits of this extending well beyond people who are in non-dominant social groups. Make sure there are multiple representations of different (non-white) cultures in the media your children watch.

For those who are in the dominant social groups, ensuring that people whose appearance or culture is different from their own is reflected in what they see normalises diversity. There is no shortage of media available – check out Indigenous Community Television and IndigTUBE for example.

 Little J and Big Cuz is a firm favourite in our households with many gorgeous lessons about culture and community. NITV has just premiered a wonderful new show for children called Thalu available on SBS On Demand. Move It Mob Style can get the whole family up and moving, while Our Stories on NITV features many positive, heart-warming and valuable stories and are an important tool for countering uninformed, negative stereotypes. 

Subscribing to Koori Mail and @IndigenousX can help make sure you get a regular dose of news from around Australia that often doesn’t make ‘mainstream’ media. Luke Pearson has collated a brilliant list of inspiring Indigenous Australian TedX talks. It is important to be critical when selecting sources of information. Creative Spirits, for example, is a site that contains much misinformation and racist myths. For help in considering whether a resource is appropriate or not, you might look to here.

And don’t forget to check out Spotify’s playlists “Blak Australia” and “Aboriginal songs” too. There is also an emerging trend of TikTok content produced by Aboriginal people (for example, Blackfulla TikToks) which can be entertaining, fun to watch and sometimes informative – at the very least they can open up avenues of conversations about contemporary Aboriginality.  

Challenging dominant assumptions

Decolonising is also about challenging dominant ways of knowing and doing, specifically those colonising practices that inequitably impact Aboriginal people and perpetuate white privilege. This means that the white way isn’t always the right way. Or at least, it’s not the only way… remember the lessons from Adichie and Heiss.

Our schools’ classrooms, for example, with their orderly rows of chairs and desks and a teacher stationed at the front, are constructed this way, not because this is the optimal learning environment for children, but because of colonisation, capitalism and the need to successfully manage so many children in one place. Our classrooms don’t need to look like this, and neither does learning from home.

Researchers and educators, globally, are exploring how to decolonise school sites. This is a hard task with multiple barriers. At home, though, we might be better positioned to challenge the dominant approaches to teaching. In no way is this meant to throw shade at teachers. What we are saying is, that we don’t have to replicate classrooms when our children are learning from home during COVID-19 – both in terms of how we teach and where we teach.

Mathematics can look like worksheets sitting at a desk, but can be taught in nature too.  It can also be taught through storytelling. The YuMi Deadly Centre shares a number of student learning resources such as Maths as Story telling (MAST). Our children much more readily grasp the idea of division when in the form of a story (for example, sharing lollies into party-bags equally) rather than a series of digits.

Parents supporting their children’s learning from home can look to Nakamarra on Facebook to learn from their homeschooling adventure. While on Facebook, you might also want to check out Deadly Science for some inspiration. While the primary objective of Deadly Science is to provide science books and early reading material to remote schools in Australia, their Facebook page contains loads of inspirational stories from kids in  remote area schools, featuring a Deadly Scientist award each week.

Just as education isn’t restricted to the classroom setting, it doesn’t need to not only be on offer during school hours. You might head outside at night and look up to the skies. First Nations peoples on this land are the oldest astronomers in the world. SBS’s Stories in the Sky is a great starting point and Australian Indigenous Astronomy has brilliant resources linked to curriculum. If daylight saving, bedtime routines and/or light pollution make seeing the stars impossible, take a virtual tour on an online stellarium.

Aboriginal art is beautifully complex and multi layered, and every nation has different styles. There are several excellent online options for learning about the many talented artists in the Aboriginal community, as well as some online tutorials to have a go yourself. You can sign on for weaving tutorials, or try your hand at dot painting with Uncle Buddy’s online classes

You might also look at art collections online or Aboriginal cultures galleries at your local museums, such as Tarnathi at Art Gallery South Australia. Exploring performance poetry and songs (such as that offered by the Unbound Collective)  is also another really powerful way of exploring the relationships between people, culture and country, while considering how those concepts are conveyed through artistic expression.

Embedding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ histories and cultures is identified as a cross-curriculum priority in the Australian Curriculum. That means that for all subjects taught, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives should be included. For this to move beyond a tokenistic ‘add on’, it is important to recognise the value of privileging Indigenous perspectives and for us all to learn more about the ways of people who were here well before Cook. Many wonderful and beautiful resources are available at the Living Knowledge Place – take your time exploring these with your children, or even on your own. Remember Chimamanda Adiche and Anita Heiss’ warnings about single stories. 

There are some good explanations and examples of what embedding Indigenous perspectives into curriculum means, and how to do this, provided by Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority. The University of Melbourne also shares some amazing Indigenous knowledge resources linked to curriculum that parents can access to help link content to practice.  However, to really get your teeth into it, we recommend checking out Amy Thunig’s blog for valuable insights and answers to your concerns about how you might do this well.

Remember, children learn well from stories and through being engaged in discussions. Yarning and storytelling can make learning even more relevant; and authentically embedding these stories within our experiences and our daily activities enhances the meaning and understanding.

For example, children might be reminded to wash their marras before sitting down to eat, a drive south along Kaurna and Ngarrindjeri country (also known as Fleurieu Peninsula) might involve a conversation about Nellie Raminyemmermin, or paying for something with a $50 note might include acknowledging David Unaipon and his incredible ingenuity and pioneering inventions. If we can make these kinds of positive associations between experiences and concepts by connecting people and places, we can support our children to engage more meaningfully in their learning, all the while enhancing their wonder and interest.

Truth-telling

Decolonising is also about truth-telling. Think of the “Captain Cook discovered Australia” rhetoric. A more truthful history lesson would feature facts about how Aboriginal peoples, across this land (that is now referred to as Australia), had sophisticated cultures and well-developed practices for tens of thousands of years before people arrived from Europe and Britain and claimed otherwise. 

Available for rent from Vimeo, Occupation: Native presents an insight into colonial history in Australia from the perspective of Aboriginal people (probably suited to older children). We know these conversations can be hard – luckily, SBS has developed teacher notes that can help facilitate discussions with your children.

The Frontier Wars were never taught as part of Australian history when we were at school, but are an important part of a shared colonial history, and the consequences of which are still felt today. Australian’s Together shared an Interactive Toolkit which can help fill some of those knowledge gaps, and you can learn more about Aboriginal heroes here.

As we write this, thousands of people would normally be gathering to acknowledge ANZAC Day. COVID-19 restrictions saw many move their dawn service to their driveways. Now is an appropriate time to remember Aboriginal ANZACs and their experiences upon returning. Jess Staines from Koori Curriculum shares the story ‘Alfred’s War’ and demonstrates a respectful and empathetic way to engage children in these conversations.

We think it is important to acknowledge that exploring a truth that differs from what we’ve previously trusted or accepted, can feel uncomfortable. And that’s okay. Sit with this discomfort and reflect. Where does it come from? Why is it there? What can you, we, do to settle that feeling? What can we do differently/and or better? There are movements, such as Stacey Coates’ #EducateTheEducator, that seek to remedy the mis-truths that are (albeit even unintentionally) perpetuated by the teaching workforce.

None of this is necessarily easy – much of it is unfamiliar to many of us (well, for white people, that is). What we are saying is that it is important. Baby steps are okay. It will take time, and there is much to learn. There is value to letting our children know what has been taught, what might have been wrong about that, how we know better or differently now and what we can do. Learning (and unlearning) can happen side-by-side with our children and students.

In addition to remembering to offer an Acknowledgement of Country (or inviting an Elder or member of the Aboriginal community to deliver a Welcome), another way we can help children recognise Aboriginal people as being the First Peoples of this country is by using local community names, rather than the names white people insisted upon.

We live on Kaurna land. We visit family who live on Ngarrindjeri Ruwe, and the lands of Gimuy Walubara Yidinji people. The AIATSIS Map can help you identify whose land you are on. Jack Buckskin’s 50wordsonline project is another great resource to start learning words from the First Peoples from across Australia.

Perhaps strangely, one of the last points is around introducing, or positioning, yourself. We introduced ourselves at the beginning of this piece. This helps others makes sense of us, who we are, where we fit in sharing this information. Conversations with children about where your family is from and who your ancestors are, where they lived, what they did – help us all understand how we came to the place we stand today. It tells us something about why things are the way they are for us – good or bad.

And, when you’re all done for the night – scooch up together and enjoy this Noongar lullaby.

Digital matters

Now to point out an obvious issue: this list assumes full digital inclusion. That is, access to reliable and affordable internet via digital device. You might have heard of Government’s strategies around “closing the gap” between non-Indigenous people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Perhaps what is less well known is the digital divide, which again favours non-Indigenous people. So even in being able to access the resources shared above, is a privilege not afforded to all. 

This might be a great time to see if any unused devices in your home could be refurbished and regifted to another family, or consider supporting Deadly Science or other grassroots organisations in your local area.

COVID-19 is presenting some enormous challenges for us all. And without dismissing the grief, stress and hardship people are facing across the world, for those of us who are relatively safe, there are opportunities.

This land is Aboriginal land – always was, and always will be.

At a time when it can feel like we are helpless and can do little other than just #stayhome, non-Aboriginal people can play an important role in nurturing both their own and their children’s understanding about Australia’s past and improve the respect for ways of knowing, being and doing of those people who have looked after this land since the beginning of time.

Author bios

(Pictured R to L)

Pip Henderson: I’m a white, non-Indigenous person, born and living on Kaurna Yarta. I am passionate about redressing social inequities. I see decolonising systems and structures as key to this. I have a Masters degree in Public Health and am a PhD candidate at Flinders University exploring the impacts of whiteness in the education system.

Tabitha Lean: I am a Gunditjmara woman, born and raised on Kaurna country. I hold a Bachelor of Education (Hons) and am now a Master of Aboriginal Studies student at UniSA. I am passionate about centring Aboriginal voices and knowledge systems.

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