First Nations Content

Today’s article follows the journey of six drama teachers from Victoria, Australia including First Nations content in curriculum. 

Each teacher came to the project, stimulated by different triggers beyond curriculum or Professional Standards for Teachers but what they all shared a sense of moral purpose, embarked on a journey without a final destination, all found it scarey, all began the journey with a fear of making mistakes, all made mistakes and messed things up but ultimately were rewarded with tremendous joy generated by their work so I thought I’d share their stories with you. 

Of the 6 teachers, only one hand a First Nations background but whilst she acknowledged this heritage, had a complex relationship with this identity.  Another teacher, whilst being white, was married to a Ngarrindjeri man, had three boys and had lived in various First Nations communities. The remaining four had no lived experience and only a superficial understanding of first nations perspectives when they began their journey to teach First Nations content.

To describe this journey they all drew a visual representation of their journey’s which they acknowledged was respectfully inspired by songlines of first nations people. They included ideas such as contexts, catalysts, starting points, challenges, lightbulb moments, mistakes, achievements and new questions. They then came together to talk through their models, reminding themselves of a yarning circle. 

One teacher commented

‘Doing this process is giving us a lived or an embodied sense of what a yarning circle is, and its value. We’re not saying that it’s what we’re doing, we’re not saying that we understand it entirely, but in this process, and in living it, that gets us closer to understanding that as a way of knowing and being. I feel like that’s respectful.’

To which another replied

‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being inspired by the knowledge and the paradigms that we’re learning about.’

And another

‘But it’s important that we don’t shy away from the messiness and the discomfort of it’

At the outset, all teachers had a lot of questions 

‘How can it be done in Drama? How do we transfer that perspective into the classroom? Why? What? Who? Help!’ 

With some confessing they initially got stuck in limbo with their questions.

But another articulated their journey forward beautifully:

What stands out for me is the fear at the start, and then the community. Fear holds you back, stops a lot of people from exploring and jumping into this… but there is community and support.’

Another interesting lightbulb moment mentioned was

‘Neelands and O’Hanlon (2011) writing that Shakespeare is a cultural entitlement of every British child. I like that idea, but that’s not …

J: Who we are.’

What a great question! Who are we? 

Waleed Aly (2016) argues that Australia can’t come to terms with its past because of our cultural mythology. To actually acknowledge our violent past (and present) dissolves our collective fantasy that Australia was built on ‘mateship’ and a ‘fair go for all’. It’s the challenge of disrupting an entire belief system, these fundamental assumptions about who we are.’

The teacher who had lived in First Nations communities commented that

‘When I started living with Aboriginal people, everything I knew was challenged. I was hearing ‘White this’, and, ‘White that’. I didn’t understand what that meant for a long time. I didn’t actually have the lightbulb moment, until I read textbooks about history, and understood about colonisation.’

And another commented

‘Exactly! Every time I think I know too much, I stop and think, ‘I’m not Black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a First Nations person.’

Even the teacher from a First Nations background commented

‘I didn’t know that I was Aboriginal up until a certain point. I find it interesting that I don’t see a lot of my family acknowledging it. I question why we don’t celebrate it.’

To which another responded

‘My family heritage is Maori, but I have no lived experience of that, if that makes sense?’

Perhaps one of the most interesting comments about heritage was about guilt and shame, a theme of this paper. 

‘One of my grandfathers was a Nazi soldier. Dealing with the guilt of that as a kid was seminal. I couldn’t be alive without the Holocaust happening. A lot of the things around White guilt in Australia, I’ve thought about for a long time.’

Many reflected on wanting to challenge everything they learnt as children and had a recognition of how little they knew. 

One teacher centred herself as a learner alongside her students on the map and when challenged on this responded:

Initially, I was afraid, because of the unknown of it all, and not having the knowledge or contacts, or people to turn to, and feeling alone. Then I met you, Remi, and you passed along that First Nations teaching resource (Bell-Wykes et al., 2019). I made a lot of phone calls and spoke to people at school, reached out to the Council, and the Koorie Education Officer, and got some people from the community to assist me. Everybody was so willing to support our journey, that I felt, ‘I can do this!’ The most important thing was the Reconciliation Officer saying to me, ‘You can’t do anything wrong. What you’re doing is right. You’re finding a voice for these students, and you’re taking them on a journey. So, there’s nothing you can do wrong.’ That made me feel safe.’

And for me, that has been the nub of my poor effort when it comes to incorporating First Nations material, it is not something I feel safe doing. I am not confident, I know I will make mistakes and I know so little. 

I was encouraged by another teacher’s picture which included landmarks such as 

‘Central Shame Ranges, Mount Mortification, the Sea of Cognitive Disequilibrium, the Temperate Fear Forest, and the Secret Cave of Quiet Satisfaction’

These made me laugh, because they would certainly be landmarks on my journey!

Vulnerability and shame can be very real stumbling blocks for pursuing this content. Which is why I’ve included some quotes on how these teachers overcame them.

Every time I experience shame, it’s connected to the next moment of learning. Shame and guilt, they’re not a ceiling. There’s a celebration in feeling shame, because it means that you care.

C: Not only that you care, but that you’re willing to challenge the shame, and put yourself in a vulnerable position.

A: Vulnerability is central to all of my work. I say to teachers, you don’t need to simplify it for kids. Share with them the complexity and the shame. Our job as teachers shouldn’t be to give kids simple answers to complex questions. We should help kids to see how complex issues are and give them the skills to be able to reside in uncertainty. One of the best ways we can do that is to model it. To say, ‘This is terrifying, complex, unclear, really scary. We’re going in. Yippee!’

J: So many people are fearful of shame. But what if we face shame? How do we encourage people to embrace shame?

R: It’s so embedded in our language to view shame, fear, disequilibrium, and so on, as negative, but they’re not necessarily. Shame is cultural.’

So the resolve they showed was to put themselves in the position of a learner, and try. Through this many built a community both within and outside their schools, with one teacher sharing

‘It’s got to go beyond the drama teacher. At my school, I did my project with my students, and we presented it as professional learning. All these teachers got inspired, then we had our Community Understanding and Safety Training,2 and that was great. The ball kept on rolling. Now I’ve got all these teachers coming to me, wanting to get it into their curriculum.

C: You’re talking about teaching First Nations content becoming cross-curricular?

J: Exactly. People are taking it up at my school now and it’s exciting. It’s not just my responsibility. It’s everyone’s.’

Thanks for listening! My name is Sarah Marshall, I wish you all a fantastic week of Bringing out their best!

Finally, I’d like to share some exciting news with you. Our course Managing Performance Anxiety for Student Wellbeing has become accredited PD by NESA so, if you’re a performing arts teacher in NSW looking for some accredited PD hours that are relevant to your performance space, take a look!

Danielle Hradsky, Rachel Forgasz, Andrew Byrne, Jane Carter, Kristy Griffin & Lauren Miosku (2021) ‘It’s got to be a journey’: learning to teach First Nations content and concepts in the Australian drama classroom, NJ, 45:2, 77-96, DOI: 10.1080/14452294.2021.2004732

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