Spotlight On: Learning Indigenous Cultures

18 October 2019

This article first appeared in Queenwood News Weekly 18 October 2019.

In the holidays, a number of teachers completed an Indigenous cultural immersion on the south coast, near Mt Gulaga (Mt Dromedary). As they spend several days on Yuin country, learning culture, sharing stories and ritual, and pausing at sacred sites, their understanding and appreciation of Indigenous culture deepens in a way that is unattainable through any conventional training course or conference. We are fortunate to work under the guidance of a number of highly respected elders – in this case Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison and his grandson, Dwayne Harrison – and over time they have commented on how much growth they can see in the way culture is held by our staff.

This is important for every Australian, but particularly so for teachers. Over a decade ago, the teaching of Indigenous histories and cultures was identified as a priority in the Australian Curriculum, to allow students ‘to engage in reconciliation, respect and recognition of the world’s oldest continuous living cultures’ (Melbourne Declaration). My concern has always been about the implementation of that priority when teachers themselves have not been taught, either in their schooling or university training, which means that even well-meaning attempts to teach such culture and history can easily end up being superficial, misleading or even unintentionally disrespectful. For this reason, Queenwood is particularly strong in its provision of opportunities for staff to learn directly from Aboriginal elders, through immersive experiences on country.

The Year 6 mother-daughter trip to Arnhem Land also took place in the holidays, with a profound impact on all involved. Bonds are strengthened and knowledge is deepened in this remote environment within an Aboriginal community which is remarkably strong. One mother said to me this week: ‘it has shaken my whole perspective on the world’. Ella Forrest, now in Year 8, wrote a beautiful poem in the last edition of QNews and summed it up well: ‘It’s hard for me to tell you how it was because this is an experience that I want to be special to me.’

Next year we will launch an additional immersion experience for Years 8-10, who will have the opportunity to visit Broome and The Kimberley Region. In addition to visiting numerous art and cultural centres, the girls will have the unique opportunity to spend time at the Yiramalay Wesley Studio School where they will learn alongside Aboriginal students from remote areas. This two-way learning opportunity will encourage our girls to share their experiences while learning about the lives and ways of the people in the Kimberley region. Two of the Elders visited Queenwood earlier this year to work with a group of girls teaching culture through bush dyeing and they are very excited to welcome our students in turn to their country.

For girls in Year 11, there are opportunities to connect with the students of Macleay Vocational College – both at their campus and ours. This is a completely different but equally important experience of Aboriginal culture and contemporary experience. We have a rich connection with this impressive College and our girls grow enormously through their contact with peers who have had such diverse experiences. (If you need an introduction to the story of our partnership with them, you can find it here.) Again and again, our students tell us that this personal connection inspires them, challenges them and transforms their understanding. All of this is brought back into the classroom where it enriches all students.

Sometimes, this comes directly from the students who can share deeper and more nuanced perspectives with their peers. They are also clearly learning from distinctively Indigenous ways of knowing about the world – and this emerges both in the classroom and, for instance, in our outdoor education program with a variety of learning experiences on country incorporated into our camp program.

Sometimes the impact comes through teachers. A Year 12 student told me last term that the single most powerful lesson she ever experienced was delivered by an MVC teacher in the grounds of Kinchela Boys Home, as he described the experiences at the Home of his grandfather, a member of the Stolen Generation, and she came to understand for the first time its full implications. Or just yesterday, one of our teachers told me how her own learning had been invaluable in lessons this week. I asked her to describe how:

We have been teaching a Year 10 unit on megacities in the developing world and the challenges facing people living in these cities. Most of the challenges are issues related to urban poverty – lack of sanitation, health problems etc. I spoke with them today about urban poverty in our own towns and cities – something that until recently I had only personally seen overseas – and emphasised that there are many challenges facing the urban poor in Australia. I then discussed some of the things I witnessed at Kempsey and they had an opportunity to ask questions and have a discussion.

And there are many more examples.

These insights are benefitting girls of all ages across the school. As we gradually broaden the range of opportunities available to students, staff and families of Queenwood, we are not only strengthening the quality of our teaching, we are also responding to our moral obligation towards Australia’s first peoples.

Mosman Council is celebrating Aboriginal culture next week with a range of free community events, including a sunset ceremony led by Uncle Max. It has been a great privilege for us working with such a distinguished elder so this comes highly recommended.

And finally, exciting news: ABC’s Australian Story is telling the story of Macleay Vocational College (or at least part of it) in the next few weeks. The date is yet to be confirmed, but it appears it will go to air either on Monday night (21 October) or in the next few weeks. (We will keep you posted via social media.) The ABC crew spent some time at Queenwood in preparation for this episode, but I gather that this particular aspect has not made the final cut. This is understandable, given the richness and complexity of the work done by the College and the 28-minute time limit for the story, although you may see some snippets of our girls and programs in associated ABC news coverage in the coming week(s). I expect, however, that this episode will be of great interest to the many parents who have supported our fundraising efforts for MVC over the years, as it offers greater insight into the life of the College and the community it serves.