1.1 Teachers know their students
1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
One of the most memorable and powerful literacy teaching and learning sessions I have encountered occurred last year when I worked with a group of 15 teenage indigenous males who were enrolled in a tertiary access program. School had failed them - in fact many of the social institutions they had access to had failed them - they were in a correctional centre. The university capitalised on making the course available to them.
This particular 3 hour weekly 'lesson' I shared with an indigenous male teaching colleague - my task was to teach a 'literacy skills' subject, his to teach an 'Indigenous Studies' one. From the perspective of the students' learning (both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander), it was important that both of us were in the room to 'team teach', given the cultural dilemma of my non-indigenous female status (it was also a requirement of the site). This session took place during the fourth week of a 13 week semester.
In order to 'hook the students in' to reading, so that they might 'find themselves in the range of texts' I shared in class, we jointly read and negotiated views on a number of issues in texts that were 'about them'. I was keen to give the students authority over what they read, particularly in the initial stage. Having surveyed the students to understand their tastes, we read anything from boxing magazines, short stories and poems and academic articles (always by indigenous authors). I wanted them foremost to enjoy reading and to explore issues of interest to them, to discuss, to feel success, to raise confidence and to form partnerships. I wanted them to begin to know that this is what uni 'academic life' is about - taking up positions, and disrupting some old habits (or 'learning as usual').
We had read aloud a true story, 'We Look After Our Own' (Oodgeroo Noonuccal, in E.H. Edwards, Ed., Thirty Stories, 1984). It is an Easter-time account of a young islander woman, Mrs Edwards, whose aged father, kidnapped in earlier times to work on Northern Queensland canefields, now needs full-time additional care due to illness. Her husband suggests she put him in a home for the aged. This horrifies her - 'we look after our own'. A local member of parliament visits and later organises a religious nursing home to take her father. However, on arrival at the home, Mrs Edwards is confronted by a nun who, seeing the colour of her skin, suggests that the other patients would be cruel in their comments to her father and that she 'try the general hospital'. As Mrs Edwards drives away the nun calls 'God bless you dear'. The story concludes with Mrs Edwards awaiting relatives to arrive for her father's funeral, as the Easter church bells ring in the distance.
Some students were saddened by the racism and the pretence of virtuousness that were displayed - many, of course, related the story to events in their own lived experience. Others were angry, knowing intimately the historic and systematic disregard that 'whites' had and continue to have, they say, for their indigenous culture. Comparisons were drawn between how indigenous and non-indigenous cultures care for their aged. What was most important? Cleanliness? Their independence if they wanted to manage alone? Family care? The role of elders and kinship? Others compared similar 'white' institutions that claimed to 'care' but which were, in fact, callous, hypocritical and contradictory: medical institutions, schools, legal systems and prisons, they suggested.
But there were some students, products of their history, who strongly believed the old islander man was inferior and should not have been permitted a bed at the home. One student went so far as to comment, 'They should have had a sign up at the old persons' home saying, "No Blacks Allowed"'. Further questioning confirmed that this indeed was his position - 'blacks are inferior'. He had no 'other way of knowing' what it was to 'be aboriginal' in this world. A dispossessed and disintegrated family history contributed to the position he took.
While I was acutely aware of the discourses that had informed this student's thinking, it was a moment in which the student's peers and most importantly, the mature aged indigenous male teacher with whom I taught, assisted in shaping and shifting (in their words and in their way) possible ways of 'seeing' and 'knowing' how his position might reinforce an sustain racist relations. This kind of teaching and learning is certainly not 'complete' in one lesson (if ever), and requires sensitivity and respect. However, a fracture or disruption did occur and other possibilities (alternative ways of thinking) had been given space. I reflect often about how powerfully the knowledge of the two teachers in this lesson combined to help students' achieve learning about their own thinking (a meta-level awareness), and how this informs the positions they/we take up. It was, in this instance, not about blaming or devaluing a student's view, but understanding what he (we all) bring to text when we read.
Students in subsequent lessons examined the issue of cultural differences in age care and of racism historically and currently, from the points of view of characters in the story: Mrs Edwards, her father, her husband, the local member of parliament, the nun. I encouraged students to think about what (discourses) had informed each of these people's views on the situation. They first wrote on butcher's paper, working collaboratively, and later role-played versions of the story in small groups. Despite previous reluctance to write, all students wrote short diary entries from the voice of one of th characters of their choice.
The text provided a springboard for other forms of writing and access to other texts and knowledges which interrogated similar issues of concern to the students themselves in their own lives. Alongside their Indigenous Studies subject, which dealt academically and accurately with Aboriginal-Australian history and institutions, this 'literacy skills' subject enabled those knowledges to inform not only what was happening in their personal experience (how their subjectivities had been shaped), but how they might construct their talk and writing. Importantly, this kind of culturally active learning overshadowed the students' previous 'hang-ups' about fears of making mechanical errors (the teacher's red pen!).