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.




Reading Australia resources

I have written three units for Reading Australia with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander perspectives:

Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, for Year 10-12

Heat and Light

Ruby Ginibi Langford, Don’t take your love to town, for Year 12


Les Murray, Collected Poems, for Year 11


Reading Australia now has a partnership with Magabala Books and there will be units of work on Magabala titles coming soon.

An Aboriginal Literature “Canon”?

At the Hobart AATE/ALEA Literacy Conference in July 2017, I had an interesting chat with a teacher at a boys’ school who was looking for some canonical texts by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors which he could recommend to parents as significant literary works.

This is an area Anita Heiss has written much about and indeed is addressed in her edited collection  ‘Stories Without End’, co-edited with Penny van Toorn. See review here

My suggestions at the time, and some more I have thought of since, include:

Terri Janke – Butterfly Song

Tara June Winch – Swallow the Air and After the Carnage

Roberta Sykes – Snake Cradle, Snake Dancing and Snake Circle

Alexis Wright – Carpentaria, The Swan Book

Boori Monty Pryor – Maybe Tomorrow

Ali Cobby Eckermann – various poetry

Archie Weller – Day of the Dog and Going Home for more gritty novels for those disengaged boys!

Samuel Wagan Watson, Lionel Fogerty – poetry

Kim Scott – That Deadman Dance (Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, 2011)

Charles Perkins – A Bastard Like Me

Uncle Bill Neidjie – Old Man’s Story and Kakadu Man

ALSO check out the titles listed here.

There are also many awards specific to Indigenous literature, and the shortlists give you an idea of the cream of the crop:






Please reply and add suggestions!

Great reads from Magabala Books

Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation in Broome has sent me some beautiful children’s picture books to promote.

Magabala has been in the game since 1990, producing high-quality Indigenous Australian literature.

I highly recommend you browse their collection at www.magabala.com

Here are some of their latest goodies:

The spotty dotty lady

Josie Wowolla Boyle & Fern Martins (Ill.)

2014, 31 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website: http://www.magabala.com/resources.

This is a beautifully illustrated book with vibrant colours and stunning art. It has large and clear font.

It is about friendship among all races and types of people.  The sad lady’s only friends are her flowers.  She finds a spotty dotty flower which inspires her to paint spotty dotty designs on her tea cups, and then her kitchen, and then her whole house.  This attracts interest in the neighbourhood and the neighbours and their friends come to look.  They begin to get to know each other and make friends.  The lady throws them a party and paints their tea cups and after that she is never lonely again.  It shows how much we connect emotionally with nature, beauty and colour.

It is a great book for discussing the importance of friendship and community; and how hobbies like gardening and art can bring people together.

The little corroboree frog

Tracey Holton-Ramirez and Angela Ramirez (Ill.)

2013, 32 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website: http://www.magabala.com/resources.

This book has large and clear font and has bright, watercolour-painting style illustrations.

The little corroboree frog is ultimately a conservation story – a frog wakes up from winter hibernation, mates with a female frog, waits for eggs to hatch but is troubled by the weather changing. The winter rains are not coming and there is rubbish in their habitat.  Meanwhile, a little boy and his father are exploring the area and the frog jumps on to the boy and leads the boy to his nest to show his home.  The boy realises that the frog is unhappy about humans’ treatment of his habitat and he and his dad clear it up and drive home discussing what they can do to help the frogs.

This is a great book to study within a unit on environment/conservation, and it includes a non-fiction section with frog facts.

Spinifex mouse

Norma MacDonald (writer and ill.)

2013, 40 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website: http://www.magabala.com/resources.

This is a stunning book with lyrical language and elegant illustrations by an award-winning artist.  Little spinifex mouse is called ‘Cheeky’ and dances and teases the snake as she rests warming up on the rock – until the snake strikes, and the eagle comes and picks up the mouse, saving it.  He drops the mouse but the snake has caught up and strikes again; this time the eagle picks up the snake.  The mouse goes home and tells his family, saying he learnt his lesson and won’t be silly again – and the family decide to change his name to ‘Lucky’.

The writing is sophisticated, in third person, past tense and using dialogue and a range of literary devices such as repetition, alliteration and rhythm and simile.

There is a clear moral, that greed and boastful/showing off behaviour will make you unpopular and cause trouble.

There is information about habitat and the life cycle/predators, so this book also fits in with units on environment.

Silly Birds

Greg Driese (writer and ill.)

2014, 32 pages

Hard cover

Teacher notes available on the Magabala website: http://www.magabala.com/resources.

This evocative book tells a Dreaming story – Maliyan the eagle is a bird who always looked and listened because his parents taught him speaking too much was for the silly birds.  Maliyan grew wise and met Wagun, a silly bird who boasted that he was the best; he was loud and ran around, knocked people over, didn’t listen to elders.

Maliyan thought he was fun and followed him and started to act like him. More birds followed; they became careless and didn’t look after their environment.  The parents grew worried and upset.  Maliyan felt bad and went to the elders for advice. He remembered to look and listen and he grew wise again.  Wagun continued to be selfish.  He lost his ability to fly, and scratched around on the ground to find food. Today all Turkeys scratch around on the ground and can’t fly well.

The coda of the story is: “it is hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys”.

This book has beautiful art, incorporating traditional symbols such as dot designs and animal tracks. It teaches children in a lovely manner, gentle but firm, like you are sitting with elders.

It is a great book to use when talking about peer pressure and setting your own goals, your own path in life; not letting others steer you off your course.

Two Mates

Melanie Prewitt, Maggie Prewitt – ill.

2012, 32 pages


Bold font, quite small

This book is based on a true story about Raf , a non-Indigenous boy who has spina bifida, and Jack, an Indigenous boy. They are growing up together in Broome and share a life of hunting, swimming, fishing and quad biking.

The story is reasonably simple, and takes us through illustrations of the boys doing each activity.  The illustrations are cleverly done so that it is not until the end of the book that the illustrations reveal Raf in a wheelchair. The illustrations, too, are simple – like bright crayon drawings. The understated appearance makes the revelation about Raf’s condition all the more compelling.

It is a story about friendship and crossing barriers – around both race and ‘disability’ (although, clearly, Raf is not prevented from participating in cool, fun little-boy activities).

The book includes photos of the real boys and their families as well as information about spina bifida.

It is a great book for teaching about compassion and embracing each other’s uniqueness.

Why we need to put James Maloney’s ‘Dougy’ series to rest

You know the one. Dougy, Gracey and Angela. Addressing the “issues” facing Aboriginal society. Highlighting the familiar tensions of small town Australia: fear and misunderstanding between white and black communities; resentment of Aboriginal ‘hand outs’; how quickly communities can descend into violence and chaos when tested, exposing the anger, fear and mistrust between black and white people that is found when you scratch the surface.

Very important messages and issues presented in well-written and engaging novels by a highly-acclaimed Australian author.

But – when I open the book and read on the first page that the Aboriginal protagonist’s father was “drunk again”, and that his mother was giggling at him and calling him a “silly boong”, I find it difficult to get my head around teaching it.  So much frontloading needs to be done to prepare students for it, and to explain why we are seeing these stereotypes and racist terms on the page (Maloney is presenting one particular experience of Aboriginal families, and not all families have an alcoholic father; there was a time when Aboriginal people took on the racist terms white people used against them in their own interactions as a joke, a little like how African Americans appropriated the word ‘nigger’, but that is less commonly accepted in Aboriginal circles these days).

And ultimately, I just want to say to students that “not all of us live like this”.  My family, my home town of Dubbo, contains elements of the experiences in this novel but there are a great many more positive things I see that I don’t feel get enough air time in Maloney’s novels.  The love and warmth and laughter. The beautiful stories of land and culture.  My Uncle receiving an award for employing and training Indigenous boys in his panel-beating business. My Aunty and Uncle getting involved in heritage discussions with council to protect the scar tree uncovered in a new residential development area. My many cousins achieving in education and the workforce, and some working to give back to the Indigenous community through education and Indigenous Community Volunteers. My father’s life’s work in Aboriginal policy and higher education, being part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Bringing them Home inquiry, running Aboriginal student support centres at universities and setting up Indigenous programs across a range of universities.  My brother educating the local community and school children about Bush Tucker. Our family’s emphasis on hard work, personal responsibility and, above all, maintaining a perfectly clean home, car, and well-groomed appearance!!!   (I must admit this is becoming somewhat diluted through the generations – I keep a pristine home but couldn’t care less about the car, to my dad and uncles’ disappointment!).

Maloney’s novels may have been a good starting point for teachers in the 1990s to begin engaging with Indigenous perspectives.  But – as you can see on my previous blog entries – there are so many contemporary Aboriginal authors who are presenting these perspectives for themselves.  Some present positive representations, some negative, some a bit of both. But the important thing is they are authentic Aboriginal voices.

Furthermore, I’d like to see teachers move away from the “issues-based” teaching of Aboriginal perspectives – or at least provide some balance.  Aboriginality is not a curse. It is not a bad thing to be Aboriginal and not every Aboriginal person or family or community faces unending “issues” and “challenges”. This is a bit of a deficit-model way of thinking.  And it is very pessimistic. Yes, we all have challenges – black or white – and we also all have opportunities and fantastic role models and great achievements to celebrate.

I encourage teachers to move on from Maloney in regards to ‘Aboriginal literature’.  But if you simply can’t, please consider the following points and discuss them with your class to frame your study.

Who’s telling this story?

James Maloney is a non-Aboriginal author representing Aboriginal people and lives, based on 2 years’ experience living and teaching in Cunnamulla, a regional town in QLD.

In his ‘FAQs’ on his website he includes a question: “What experience do you have of Aboriginal life?”

Below are extracts from the website and some comments to think about in terms of framing the text for students.

“I can’t really say that I have any direct experience of Aboriginal life. After all, only an Aborigine could claim this. However, for two years, 1977 and 1978, I watched Aboriginal children growing up, the difficulties they faced, the close family relations that mean so much and the ingrained prejudice of the dominant white culture around them. This was when I lived in Cunnamulla, a small town in south-west Queensland. As a teacher in the State School, there was part of the dominant culture, I must admit and I can’t really claim to have done anything to improve things for my Aboriginal students. There’s not much one person can do and I was only young. The experience had an effect on me though.”

Is 2 years working in a community enough to make general comment on all Aboriginal lives?

As a white teacher he would not have been trusted by the Aboriginal community during a time of much racism and division.  Therefore it is unlikely they would have told him much detail about their lives and cultures – he may only have a small piece of their story. He might not understand all the reasons behind the issues they face.  He might not know any positive aspects of their culture, rituals or knowledge which they likely kept secret from him as a white man and a teacher/representative of the government.

Could his statement “there’s not much one person can do and I was only young” be considered defeatist, or show a resignation to the poor conditions of Aboriginal people? There are many examples of single people, black and white, who have become activists for reconciliation and change.

“It was those years that formed the basis for “Dougy” and “Gracey” though the towns described in the books aren’t supposed to be Cunnamulla. That wouldn’t be fair. I could have lived in any town in Australia with a mixed population and it would have been much the same, perhaps many times worse.”

Is it fair for him to think that all towns in Australia have the same, or worse, problems than Cunnamulla?  Some communities function better than others, and all towns have their positive and negative aspects.

“Since leaving Cunnamulla, I have maintained a deep personal interest in political and social issues associated with Indigenous Australia, even if I don’t have any close Aboriginal friends. My “experience” today stems more from reading newspapers and watching television news and documentaries.”

In the ‘about the author’ section of his website, Maloney says he lives in Brisbane and loves travelling overseas, meeting new people and learning about their culture and history. Why do you think he does not know Aboriginal people or have any experience with them beyond the media? As someone who knows how to travel, explore and meet people he could perhaps do a little exploring around Brisbane and go to local events such as NAIDOC week, go on bushwalks (Boondall wetlands, Musgrave park), visit the DandiiriMaiwar culture centre, attend events at the kuril dhagun Indigenous Knowledge Centre at the State Library of QLD, attend the annual Dreaming festival or look up the ‘Black Book’ which lists all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island events around Brisbane.

These events were found in 5 minutes by looking up ‘Aboriginal cultural events in Brisbane’ on google.

For someone who claims to have maintained a deep personal interest in Aboriginal affairs it would seem relevant for him to interact with local Aboriginal people an organisations.

“Can a white person write about black experience? It’s a vexed question. Some answer no and criticise me for doing so. Others praise me from trying to understand the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians even if I haven’t got everything right. I have never claimed to speak for Aboriginal people. That would be wrong. But having observed and been both moved and troubled by what I saw, I think I was right to produce these novels.”

The history of colonisation in Australia includes periods of time where Aboriginal people were not listened to – the government made policies about them and designed services for them without asking them for their opinion (as we normally would do in a democracy).  Therefore ‘representation’ is a sensitive issue an Aboriginal people are sceptical of non-Aboriginal people who claim to represent them and their viewpoint.

In 1993, when Dougy was published, Aboriginal authors were less well known in the mainstream, but they were around: Boori Pryor, Sally Morgan, Kerry Reed Gilbert, Ruby Ginibi Langford and Archie Weller, to name a few notables.  There were plenty (and still are plenty) of Aboriginal people writing for themselves – it is not necessary for a non-Aboriginal person to ‘be their voice’, and Maloney acknowledges that.

There is a general belief that in fiction an author can choose to represent whatever they like, however they like, because it is fiction.

The lines become blurred when an author seeks to teach others, or provide some understanding of reality, through the fiction – as Maloney says he was “trying to understand the Aboriginal viewpoint”.  If this “viewpoint” in a fictional novel is taken by readers to be based on reality, then it becomes complicated: whose reality is this?  Is this really the reality of all Aboriginal people? Does a non-Aboriginal author have the right to present an Aboriginal person’s ‘reality’ without asking them?








Capitalising on Curiosity The Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and Australian Literacy Educator’s Association (ALEA) are holding their Annual Joint National Conference in Canberra this July. This year, we have liaised with the United Ngunnawal Elders’ Council and a local artist, Leah Brideson, to create a theme and logo which represents Canberra as a meeting place and its Ngunnawal heritage.

We’re very excited to have Anita Heiss speaking at the event, too.

See the conference site for more information:  www.englishliteracyconference.com.au Keep up to date with all the conference news at: facebook.com/EngLit2015   twitter.com/EngLit2015

Wardaman Dreaming

What a wonderful site for learning about one Aboriginal community and their history/culture – and this is an example of how many Aboriginal communities want to share their knowledge with others (in the public domain).  I point to examples like these when teachers make excuses for not including Indigenous perspectives like “I don’t think it’s my place to teach Aboriginal culture”, and “What if I showed something I was not allowed to show?”

Aboriginal people have over 60000 years’ experience sorting knowledge and deciding what can be public and what is secret/sacred, who can know what, etc.  The chances of the layman stumbling across content they shouldn’t see are pretty slim.  A resource like this is an example of a group of people actively choosing to make their culture public and choosing what knowledge they want made available.  It is surface level information and there would be many other layers of knowledge that we would not be privy to, which will never make it on to this website.