Valuing All Pathways to Literacy: An Action Research Project with Indigenous Early Childhood Students

Article excerpt

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. …