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Engaging Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) students in a world of words and wonder: a story from Woodridgre State School: 'non-native speaker like you should not come to teach English in Australia'.

For almost eight years, I taught communication skills to engineering students in my home country, India. A dream to teach in Australia appeared crushed as the words above of my supervising professional experience teacher left me reeling in a school washroom. With a single sentence I had been alienated. I did not belong.

That same day I encountered the support of another teacher, a professor who convened the professional experience course. Down the telephone line she listened to my words of defeat and insisted that we meet for coffee, encouraging me with her words, 'before you take any final decision'.

Both of these teachers have had a profound impact on my teaching career. My professional experience supervisor presented me with an unexpected challenge. Fortunately I was able to meet this challenge with the guidance and mentorship of a professor who believed in my capacity as an educator--a world away from my homeland. I learned a valuable lesson about the damage that even the slightest criticism can have on the confidence of international students seeking to weave their way with a familiar language in an unfamiliar context. I was left with a deeper understanding of the importance of connection and belonging in the learning process. Whoever entered my classroom in the future would not leave feeling that they did not belong.

Creating a safe space for dialogue with NESB students

For the past seven years I have been teaching Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) students at Woodridge State School. My current class of 18 students (between 10 and 12 years of age) arrived as refugees in Australia from different countries representing a mixture of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. For most of them the path to acquiring the English language began less than 12 months ago. I have learnt that I need to listen not only to their words but also to their silences. Through their silences, I have come to understand that it is my responsibility to create spaces where they can find their voice and ameliorate feelings of powerlessness.

Establishing spaces for dialogue with my NESB students is an exercise in building trust. Trust is comfort. Trust is safety. An invitation to trust must be extended respectfully and meaningfully. Parker Palmer (2010) in his work, The Courage to Teach, claims that good teaching is an act of hospitality towards young people. I have found it involves creating learning experiences, which connect students to their veritable backgrounds as citizens who hail from around the globe. When they feel a sense of personal connection to the curriculum I can promote a desire to wonder, to speak and to learn. Professional Standard 1 of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers identifies the importance of strategies in playing a predominant role in framing pedagogical decisions that enhance understanding of our students' diversities (AITSL, 2014).

Facilitating student engagement, reflection and 'voice'

Throughout 2016 my colleagues and I at Woodridge State School have participated in a trial program investigating ways to teach for social cohesion across the Australian Curriculum. Educating for a Cohesive Society is a program underpinned by Harvard University's (2016) Project Zero Visible Thinking approach. At the heart of the Visible Thinking approach is a suite of relatively simple thinking routines that aim to develop thinking dispositions, which 'strive for understanding, to figure out the complexities of fairness, to seek truth or hunt for creative solutions' (Harvard University, 2016). In my classroom an essential Visible Thinking routine, See, Think, Wonder, has transformed our classroom dialogue and strengthened the capacity of my students to investigate complex questions in the F-6/7 Humanities and Social Sciences (HASS) Curriculum (ACARA, 2015).

During a Civics and Citizenship inquiry we investigated the provocation: Do boys deserve education more than girls? The aim of the inquiry was to make explicit the skills of questioning and analysis, and the interdisciplinary HASS concepts of perspectives and action, and cause and effect. To set the stage for the inquiry, students explored a variety of visual texts including, Be at School, from the animation, Finding My Magic: Children's Rights Series (EveAsh, 2011). With my students' interest piqued and equipped with what has become a routine protocol in our classroom discussions, See, Think, Wonder, I unveiled the provocation, 'Do boys deserve education more than girls?' Figure 1 documents my students' interpretation of the provocation guided by the following questions: What do you see? What do you think about that? What does it make you wonder? (Harvard University, 2016).

Weaving a world of words and wonder

Figure 1 illustrates the richness of thinking made visible as my students' different viewpoints were 'expressed, documented, discussed and reflected upon' (Ritchhart, Church, & Morrison, 2011). The dialogue afforded by this participatory process led to extraordinary stories of life beyond borders in faraway places such as Iran, Afghanistan, Burma and Tanzania. The inquiry process deepened with an exploration of the students' wonderings: Why can't girls get an education in some parts of the world? Why do girls need an education? In Figure 2, students arrived at solutions for how girls can achieve an education in socially and culturally challenging circumstances.

Encouraged when their thinking was made visible, my students were eagerly able to weave words of wonder into narratives that gave meaning to their lives. As Matthews (2008) reminds us, schools are not 'simply literacy delivering machines ... they must create learning environments and spaces for participation, communication, relationships, friendships, belonging and learning about oneself and others' (p. 42). Harvard University's Project Zero Visible Thinking approach scaffolds and stimulates a world of literacy learning for NESB students. Core routines like See, Think, Wonder promote an opportunity to acquire new literacy skills and concepts by connecting students to a variety of texts and known experiences in a reassuring context (Genesee, 1994). Together my students and I are empowered to weave a nexus between our existing diverse worlds and brave new worlds of learning and literacy.


ACARA Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority. (2015). F-6/7 Humanities and Social Sciences Curriculum. Retrieved from /f-10?layout=1

AITSL Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. (2014). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Retrieved from au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/ standards/list

EveAsh, (2011). Finding my rights--Children's rights series. Retrieved from cfm?fuseaction=ses.Finding_My_Magic_-_Childrens_ Rights_Series

Genesee, F. (1994). Educating second language children: The whole child, the whole curriculum, the whole community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvard University--Graduate School of Education. (2016). Project zero: Visible thinking. Retrieved from http://

Matthews, J. (2008). Schooling and settlement: Refugee education in Australia. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 18 (1), 31-45.

Palmer, P.J. (2010). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making thinking visible: How to promote engagement, understanding, and independence for all learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nandini Dutta is a teacher at Woodridge State School teaching refugee students in the Intensive Language Care unit of the school. She has a teaching background of over 15 years in Australia and overseas. She has completed her Masters in Educational Studies and Graduate Diploma in Education from The University of Queensland and is currently pursuing Masters by Research at Griffith University. Her research area is refugee education in Australia. Email:

Caption: Figure 1: Documented student thinking using the Visible Thinking Routine, See, Think, Wonder

Caption: Figure 2: Students documenting why they think girls need an education
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Author:Dutta, Nandini
Publication:Practical Literacy
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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