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Valuing all pathways to literacy: an action research project with indigenous early childhood students.

ALEA Indigenous Award 2009

In 2009 ALEA National Council established an award to support early career Indigenous teachers and/or early career teachers of Indigenous students. The two recipients of the 2009 awards were Hayley Spaans from South Australia and Suzanne Lane from the ACT. Each is an early career teacher of Indigenous students. The award offered ALEA membership, teacher release to engage in reflective conversations about practice with an experienced mentor and support to attend a national ALEA conference. Rosemary Sandstrom from South Australia and Anne McNamara from the ACT were the mentors and ALEA National Council thanks them both for their continuing commitment to ALEA and to supporting teachers. The following article by Suzanne Lane tells the remarkable journey she undertook as part of her award. Hayley Spaans' article was printed in February in Literacy Learning: the Middle Years journal. ALEA congratulates and thanks both teachers and their mentors.

The Beginning

I moved to Canberra from England 3 years ago and took up my first teaching appointment at Narrabundah Early Childhood School in January 2009. I had a small class of 8 children which grew to thirteen. More than half of these children have Indigenous backgrounds. I was aware that those acknowledged to be at risk in the Australian education system are Indigenous children. Malin (1990a, in Bliss & Exley, 2004, p. 11) 'concluded that aspects of the teacher/student relationship resulted in some Indigenous students being academically and socially marginalised'. My knowledge of Indigenous culture was very limited and I was concerned I did not have the background knowledge to teach them effectively. I was finding it particularly difficult to build a relationship with Indigenous twin girls in the class. I needed to find a way to connect and engage them in school. I had been critically reflecting with my colleagues at school when the ALEA action research project was mentioned. I realised that this was exactly what I needed: a way to address the need or 'niggle' in my classroom teaching.

The Action Research Project

Meetings with my mentor, Anne McNamara, were extremely valuable in the learning process. I was able to talk though my observations and reflect on what I needed to implement or change. From this, the action research project took parallel paths. The first was academic research. I went back and read literature about Indigenous education. This reading had new meaning as an educator rather than a University student. The articles resonated with me on another level and I gained new understandings. In particular, I was inspired by the words of Luke and Kale, 'there are many pathways to literacy' (1997, p. 11). I had always recognised that children learnt in different ways and that there was not one correct path to literacy learning. However the classroom I provided did not explicitly confirm what I believed to be good teaching. The second path was my observations of what was happening in the classroom. I listened, watched and recorded the pathways these children were taking and then I could provide what was needed to help them engage in literacy learning.

As I followed these paths, I started to ask some hard questions. Who can succeed in my classroom? What is our school culture? What am I valuing as learning? I soon realised my answers to these questions contradicted our classroom environment.

At the ALEA national conference in Hobart my project took shape. I was particularly influenced by the work happening at Ainslie School around Writers' Notebook. I adapted their Stories in a Box* idea for my students and began a project about storytelling. Through my research, I had identified two Quality Teaching elements that I needed to focus on to engage my Indigenous learners. The element 'Narrative' was achieved by making oral story telling a key component of the lessons, this way the learning was accessible to all students. Also, the element 'Background Knowledge' was included by explicitly acknowledging the students' home cultures through our personal stories (A Classroom Practice Guide: Quality Teaching in ACT Schools, 2006). The students began their journey the same way. Each child was given a box to take home and fill with items important to them or their family. From the items, the children would tell their stories through writing, drawing and talking. Each student took a different pathway and each one was explicitly valued as literacy learning.

Pathway A

At the start of first term, my student, 'J' was always keen to answer questions and be part of class discussion, but her comments and answers seemed random and off topic. As much as I encouraged and acknowledged her input, J was becoming disheartened as she struggled to know what to say. Making these observations showed me that the classroom culture we had created was not inclusive enough. J did not have a voice.

We began just 'chatting' as a class one day over shared fruit. I told the children a story about a bat stuck in our house down at the coast. J began talking about a lizard she found in their bath at home. The next day I told a story about a dentist trip, J started telling us about her Mum's visits to the dentist. Story telling was the key. Not just any stories, stories about J and her life. I now had a forum for J's voice that was informal and open.

From these observations I began the Stories in a Box project. J brought in a picture of her grandparents holding her as a baby. From this picture, she told a story about herself, I recorded her voice and played it back to her. J laughed as she heard it and went to paint a picture of the next part of the story.

J is in role play stage of writing and will regularly ask a teacher to scribe for her. I was happily surprised when she wanted to write the words to her story herself. With guidance, J wrote a sentence with correct directionality, beginning consonants, clear separate words and a proud full stop at the end. To engage in literacy J just needed a way to start with her words.

Pathway B

'T' came to our class half way through the year and I clearly remember his first time writing in his new book. When I presented his writing book, T sighed and sat down with his lead pencil. He wrote 'I wt to the pak'. I asked him to read me what he wrote and he quickly reeled off what was there. The next day with some encouragement he got his book and began to write again. I quickly went over and asked, "What are you going to write about today?" He shrugged and said, "The park". I began asking him about the park, who he went with, what he played with and he soon revealed that he did not go to the park, "But that's what you are supposed to write," he said. I asked him what he did do and together we wrote a new sentence. After a couple of weeks, T had realised you could write all sorts of things. He wrote about dinosaurs, turtles, games and of course his weekends. He learnt that writing could be fun and used it in games, signs for plays and on the ground with chalk. T brought in his box that included his favourite toys and TV shows. He began his story with writing; I was amazed at his independence and the length of his work. I asked him to read his story whilst I recorded his voice and he read it back beautifully. T had become disillusioned with literacy; it was boring and held no meaning for him. Once he was aware that he could write anything he wanted, in any way he wanted, writing had a new significance to him. For T, this breakthrough went beyond his writing skills as his reading, mathematics and social/emotional skills also developed. He interacted with peers more positively; he could negotiate play and confidently created his own learning experiences.

Pathway C

In Term 1, 'N' had always been quite happy to sit and draw. I found it hard to engage with N, she would rarely make eye contact and did not respond verbally when I spoke to her. So, I would just sit and draw next to her making positive comments about what she was doing. N would always choose drawing or art and craft. Her love of writing grew as she observed others writing and talking about their work. N began writing on everything, she put letters all over her art and craft creations, she would write all over the ground on the verandah, she would write pages and pages of letters in her writing book. When N brought in her box Mum had written me a note explaining what it was. She had brought in an amethyst that her godparents had given her at birth. I spoke to N about the note and she started telling me about her godparents. I was so excited to hear N talking about her life. She went over to the art and craft area and made a picture showing her holding the rock with numbers and letters all around her. She described her picture to me; the numbers and letters were there because she loves writing. Therefore, I suggested that we wrote her story together. With guidance N wrote a long story about her rock and her love of writing. Finally, we began recording. N and I played with the recorder for a while before she told her story. I was unsure if the microphone would be able to pick up her voice but when I pressed record N had a loud, strong voice, "Once upon a time there was a girl called N". Wow! She knew what she wanted to say and had confidence in her own story. N has since begun contributing in class discussions and regularly tells us her stories.

Valuing their work

I recognised that how I displayed their work told the students a lot about what I valued as school work. It is easy to send the message that the finished product is more valuable than the journey taken to create it. Therefore, I made a multimedia display that included their writing, their drawings and their voices through buttons that, when pressed, played back the students' recorded stories. This has become a regular feature for the students and the parents to engage with. As they pass along the corridor, they stop and press the buttons to hear their stories, look at their stories and read their stories.


Those hard questions:

Who can succeed in my classroom?

As stated in QTM and STELLA, building relationships with the students must come first. Once I knew and understood my students I was able to provide a place where they could tell their stories. I wanted every child to experience success in our classroom and I recognised the importance of scaffolding them to achieve this success. As stated by Hammond and Gibbon (2001, p12), 'knowledge is collaboratively constructed rather than simply passed on'. Through observations, work samples and working alongside the students I learned how to teach each of them and began to solve my 'engagement problem'. By understanding my students' strengths and weaknesses I was able to provide experiences where everyone could feel successful.

What is our school culture?

We are finding that by working on our whole school culture to make it inclusive, families feel more welcome and a healthy dialogue is developing where the parents can help celebrate their children's learning and feel valued and appreciated. With the Stories in a Box project, I was able to overtly value the students' home cultures in the classroom and value what was important to them. Our school is striving to include and respect all cultures by providing opportunities to learn about each other and by building relationships within the community. I hope to study and learn more ways to involve the parents and community and to promote learning as a life skill rather than something that is limited to the classroom.

What am I valuing as learning?

It was important for me to explicitly value all pathways in literacy learning. I had realised that previously, I was valuing writing samples that 'ticked all the boxes' and pictures that were based on recognisable symbols. My own culture was influencing and defining the work in the classroom. Through this project, I have found ways that I can celebrate the diversity of students' responses in the classroom. The way I talk to the children about the learning I see and the way I display their learning now sends the message that learning can look different for everyone and that each pathway is valued in our classroom.


ACT Department of Education (2006). A Classroom Practice Guide: Quality Teaching in ACT Schools. ACT: ACT Dept of Education

Ainslie School ACT presentations at ALEA AATE Bridging Divides conference Hobart July 2009

Bliss, J. & Exley B. (2004). Using Culturally Relevant Texts and Grant's Holistic Framework to Connect Indigenous Early Readers to SAE Print--Based Texts, Practically Primary, 9(3), 11-15.

Hammond, J. & Gibbons, P. (2001) "What is Scaffolding?" In Swan, C. (2004) Listen to the Children: Responsive-Interactive Talk in Year One. Practically Primary, 9(3).

Luke, A. & Kale, J. (1997) 'Learning Through Difference: Cultural Practices in Early Childhood Language Socialisation', in E. Gregory (Ed) One Child, Many Worlds: Early Learning in Multicultural Communities, 11-29. London: Fulton Publishers.

STELLA Standards and Framework, ALEA/AATE. www.

* An article on Stories in a Box at Ainslie School was published in the February edition of Practically Primary.

Suzanne Lane is in her first year of teaching at the Narrabundah Early Childhood School in Canberra. She was a successful applicant for the ALEA Literacy Learning Partnerships for Indigenous Education, Action Research project 2009.
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Author:Lane, Suzanne
Publication:Practically Primary
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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