AATE 2019 Conference Reflections

To be ‘outside the square’ is to be OTHER

The square restricts, ticking boxes becomes the main game

We lose focus on what matters

To be made to sit in a square is to be assimilated: the square controls.

The square limits what you can become

It squeezes teachers and they become paranoid about transgressing boundaries

The square is lodged inside us and remains even if/when we return to our circle way of life

Round peg in a square hole.


In today’s AATE Pre-Conference Institute about Selecting and Teaching Indigenous Texts in the English Classroom, poet Ali Cobby Eckermann invited a response from the audience to her poem ‘Circles and Squares’ from her first collection, A little bit long time.

She asked us what we interpreted the squares in her poem to represent. She suggested that this may explain something about the hesitation teachers feel about introducing Indigenous texts into the classroom.

It struck me that not only do the squares represent the dominant colonising culture that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had to contend with since 1788, but that the squares actually colonise us all:

– teachers are pushed into squares by government syllabi and standards, by timetables, by colleagues, by the families they work with, by social commentary about what is and is not acceptable in talking about Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories.

– Indigenous students are pushed into squares – disengaged, disadvantaged – the deficit rhetoric.

There is enormous value in slowing down awhile to resist the squeeze of the squares.  I urge teachers to make the time in their classrooms for this to happen.

Some of the key messages from acclaimed Aboriginal authors and academics at today’s Institute are collected at the bottom of this post.

The day ended with the official conference opening. It was an opportunity to mark and mourn the current reality facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: children are being removed from Indigenous families at a higher rate than when the Bringing them Home report was tabled in 1997 and Kevin Rudd said ‘Sorry’ in 2008. This is something that the Family Matters Campaign is working to address.

I cried as I enjoyed Uncle Archie Roach’s performance and I cried for Barbara and Audrey in Larissa Behrendt’s After the Apology.  But I was also inspired and proud of the contributions so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as those presenting today for AATE, make every day, in every community.

Larissa Behrendt reflected in her Garth Boomer Keynote Address that self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can sometimes be achieved by leading the way and speaking/acting for those most vulnerable in our society when they can’t for themselves; however, it is often more powerful to facilitate self-determination by creating the space for those vulnerable voices to come out on their own terms.

I immediately connected Larissa’s reflection with a comment in today’s workshop, where a teacher shared the story of a shy, young Aboriginal girl in her class who did not speak in class discussions and was too shy to deliver oral presentations. Emboldened by the class study of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poem Grade One Primary, this young girl wrote her own story about her totem and shared it with the class, reciting it and then explaining its meaning. This girl was inspired and given courage to share her talents as a writer in a class where she would otherwise have remained silent. How simple it is: valuing your students’ voices in the classroom by representing their cultures in the texts you teach.

As Larissa Behrendt concluded tonight, the silences are as important as the words. Listen for the silences in your classroom and in your school. How can you take an wholistic approach to addressing those silences as a community?

Key points from speakers at the AATE Pre-Conference Institute

Tony Birch

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers are remarkably generous in sharing their work with audiences at festivals and in classrooms – they want to engage with readers
  • A classroom without Indigenous texts is bereft – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and points of view provide a reference point for students, with which to engage in political and social conversations
  • As a writer, Tony seeks to provide positive representations of Aboriginal people – he does not want to see them demonised, nor pitied. To feel sorry for someone is not an equitable relationship – you are still in power and the person you pity is placed in the position of feeling grateful for your pity. Birch doesn’t want to leave people at the end of a book wondering ‘where does this leave us?’; rather, he wants readers to find value in Aboriginal people
  • Saying we’re all the same devalues all of our stories – however, talk with students about the similarities and specificity of their contexts in relation to that of the contexts presented in Indigenous texts
  • Students generally approach Indigenous texts, and challenging topics, with courage and resilience – Birch has confidence in young people’s ability to engage with Aboriginal writing
  • If using a non-Indigenous author’s text on Indigenous topics, be aware of how they represent the topic, whose voice is heard, etc – and if possible complement with a text or point of view by an Indigenous person

Marcia Langton

  • SE QLD have closed the gap on Year 12 matriculation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students through individual case management, setting goals for districts and schools to work towards, and strong departmental leadership. SUCCESS IS POSSIBLE.
  • While we discuss great literature by Indigenous authors, remember that music is the key storytelling tool for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (as is the case for most oral cultures). Start to bring music into the English classroom as a way to hear Indigenous voices, too. Marcia recommends studying Djapana, Sunset Dreaming which is discussed by Aaron Corn here.
  • Marcia’s latest project is a comprehensive teacher resource: https://indigenousknowledge.research.unimelb.edu.au/
  • Also recommended: http://www.aboriginalastronomy.com.au/
  • Marcia’s latest resource for youth would be excellent professional development for teachers wanting to understand more about Indigenous cultures and histories. It comes with comprehensive teacher’s notes.


Ali Cobby Eckermann

  • Indigenous writing is a manifestation of our hopes and a declaration that we are still here and thriving.
  • Challenge for teachers is to become wholistic practitioners and take an wholistic approach to incorporating Indigenous voices (understand histories and cultures, engage with community, connect personally and spiritually)
  • Engage with world Indigenous poetry to enrich the experience of reading the Australian Indigenous viewpoint – see parallels in other nations’ experiences of colonisation
  • Teacher’s role is to bring out the conversation that students offer – listen, respond, make space for student voice – young people are confident and are speaking out and they want to discuss the hard issues, they want to challenge


My presentation and handouts are available here: AATE 2019 Pre-Conference Institute.




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