Reflections from the ALEA/AATE National Literacy Conference, Brisbane, July 2013.
As I sit in the airport café, a primary-school-aged boy sits with his mum, waiting to return home from his holidays. He holds a hand-painted boomerang, the returning variety, which he presumably painted himself at a local school holiday activity. Perhaps it was for NAIDOC week, that one week in the year when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures are allowed by ‘mainstream’ Australian society to be “celebrated”. It is during this time in July every year when the internet is rife with lesson plans for teachers who would like to celebrate NAIDOC by, perhaps, having their students colour in a native animal or, indeed, paint a boomerang.
Tokenism, I hear you say. Well, it’s a little more complex than that. I encourage teachers to get rid of that word, ‘tokenism’, from their vocabulary. At its best it dismisses an act or gesture before one even has a chance to analyse its value (or lack thereof). At its worst, the word allows many thousands of teachers to continue to teach the Anglo-Australian content with which they are most comfortable and continue to exclude Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives: “Oh, I’d like to incorporate Indigenous perspectives but I’m scared of doing it in a tokenistic way [so I just don’t do it]”.
Is the painted boomerang tokenism? Well, that depends. Did the child (and his mother) engage with Aboriginal people while he painted the boomerang? Did they learn about the boomerang, its uses, and the many different kinds of boomerangs traditionally used? Did they learn that the returning boomerang, an Australian icon, was traditionally actually a child’s toy, and differently-shaped boomerangs were created as hunting tools? Did they learn how boomerangs are made, incorporating an appreciation of early use of ‘physics’, and what some of the various Aboriginal names for the objects are?
In short, was the learning experience a rich one that advanced the boy and his mother’s intercultural knowledge/understanding in some way? And, more importantly, did the experience allow the boy and his mother an opportunity to meet and talk with Aboriginal people? Because if the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, then I would venture to suggest the painted boomerang is not necessarily ‘tokenism’. Of course, if the boy’s life experience and education exposed him to nothing further than that boomerang-painting experience during NAIDOC week, then I would be concerned. But if it is an aspect of a long and rich tradition of education about the First Peoples of Australia, the traditional custodians of this land, then I don’t think we can reduce it to tokenism and discourage others from having the same experience for fear of being tokenistic. As with so many aspects of the curriculum, teaching Indigenous perspectives is not so much about the ‘what’ you teach as about the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ you teach; it’s about the cumulative knowledge and experiences an education system builds up for its students over their educational lives.
The first thing we need to do as a system is to stop marginalising Indigeneity. This was a key point in the great Professor Allan Luke’s retiring speech or ‘swan song’ at the end of the 2013 ALEA/AATE literacy conference. Professor Luke had the courage to say what I couldn’t in my own papers and conference workshops on the subject: he told us, straight up, that Australia’s education system is “structurally racist”. At that moment, I strained to listen for the sounds of horrified gasps from the audience. But our teachers are too smart for that. As Luke pointed out, ask a teacher about their views on Indigenous issues and they will give you the politically correct answer they know they are supposed to give. But observe a teacher’s actions and you will see, most of the time, that they are excluding Indigenous issues, people, histories and cultures from their classrooms, no matter how subconsciously.
Of course the education system is structurally racist! I’ve experienced that personally through my own perspective as a Wiradjuri/Welsh student of the Australian education system. And the legions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who continue to be locked out of education, destined to leave school before Year 12 and live a life of either welfare dependency or low-paying unskilled labour know that it’s structurally racist, too. It’s also classist. My students in the behaviour unit, who are continually suspended and marginalised, know that. And every day after working with these students, I go home and give thanks for the fact that I was born into a) a middle class family and b) a family tenacious and skilled enough to negotiate both the Aboriginal/Anglo worlds. I’m strong and proud of my culture, my heritage, my family; and I also know how to ‘win’ in the white system. But no educational institution gave me that tenacity: that, I owe solely to my good fortune of being born into the family I have.
No, teachers in the auditorium didn’t gasp audibly in horror during Luke’s highly political and confrontational address. Instead, they quietly diminished Luke later in conversations with peers. Here are a few comments I was confronted with during my conversation with dear and respected friends, and underneath them, in bold, are the retorts I had in my mind, which I wish I’d said out loud.
“I didn’t know he was so into Indigenous stuff, he’s always been seen as the literacy guru”.
Well, we can all be interested in, and have knowledge about, a whole range of aspects of education. I, for example, consider myself a specialist in both Indigenous perspectives and literacy. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. And his interest in ‘Indigenous stuff’ should not diminish his authority in literacy education.
“That wasn’t appropriate for the final keynote of the conference. He should have presented that in his own conference session, not the final keynote. The final keynote is supposed to sum up the overall themes of the conference.”
We can’t keep marginalising Indigenous education. Every teacher should be engaging in a dialogue about this as it is a moral and educational imperative. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our nation’s First Peoples and their children are, generally, populating the lowest bands of achievement, engagement and attendance in education across the country. We have to do something about this! Why should all the conference sessions about this topic be ones, like mine, that participants can “opt in” to? I spoke to 15-20 people; Luke conveyed many of the same points I made to several hundred. Why can’t we bend the rules a bit and accept his thought-provoking lecture for what it is, rather than call in the [Anglo-Australian-conference-organising] rulebook and discount his lecture because it wasn’t delivered at the appropriate timeslot or in the appropriate way? Can’t we think outside the box?
“That was just grandstanding of the highest order”
Grandstanding is putting on an ostentatious display to gain audience approval. It is showing off, attention-seeking. It is footballers taking rude “selfies” and tweeting them around the world. It is not a professor, in a lecture theatre, at a university, discussing his research. Luke’s address was, as could be expected from a respected veteran academic, evidence-based. He had data to illustrate his points. True, he delivered it with passion and zeal. But please, let’s not start penalising each other for being passionate!! Passion for literacy and education is what I come to the AATE/ALEA conferences for.
“Well, how are we supposed to improve Indigenous outcomes when we know nothing about Indigenous issues and there are hardly any Indigenous teachers around?”
I am an academic. I went to university. I researched topics that I had little prior knowledge about. In my teaching career, I have been asked to teach books I’ve never read, periods of history I’ve never before studied, disciplines I didn’t major in at university. What did I do when faced with such dilemmas? I prepared. I read the books before I had to teach them. I talked to colleagues who knew about topics I didn’t. I went to cultural institutions and studied. I know how to do all this because I am a “lifelong learner”. Isn’t that what we teachers are all supposed to be? Intelligent, well-read people who know how to learn stuff and then teach it? So go out there and learn about your country, its history and its peoples. Engage with Aboriginal people and organisations. Attend Indigenous cultural events (film screenings, theatre plays, dance performances, poetry readings, band performances, art exhibitions). Read the Koori Mail or the National Indigenous Times. Stop making excuses. Would you accept such excuses from your students?
We will not improve Indigenous outcomes and get more Indigenous people to tertiary study and into the teaching workforce unless we address the issue of our Anglo-centric curriculum that is currently shutting Indigenous people out of the system.
Luke did something I admire but am often too timid to do myself. He was forthright and challenging. And thank goodness for people like Luke. In a less composed moment earlier this year, I came to blows with another good friend of mine who was recalling an Aboriginal guest speaker who once visited her local school and was so militant and confrontational in his presentation that he “turned everyone off”. Her point was that she refuses to listen to the Aboriginal perspective if it is not presented in a palatable manner. In essence, she wants what John Kinsella (in Papertalk-Green, 2007) termed “a romanticised or mediated version of indigeneity made for soft consumerism”. She is a lawyer who relishes a good argument and has brought me to tears many times over the decades we’ve known each other with her argumentative and confrontational manner –and often, she argues to the death over the most inconsequential things such as the merits of a particular movie or book. But she wouldn’t accept this same confrontational approach from an Aboriginal person talking about a serious issue such as the stolen generations. She deemed that unacceptable behaviour which justified the students “switching off” from what the man had to say.
But maybe all these approaches are valid and valuable – the warm, sometimes humorous and non-confrontational approach (an approach I usually favour) as well as the more serious and straight-taking, sharp-shooting approach of Allan Luke. Sometimes we need to be genial and work together harmoniously rather than set up oppositional factions. But sometimes it’s important to be jostled out of our complacency, isn’t it? Because otherwise, we will be content to let another century pass where the curriculum barely changes beyond “Captain Cook founded Australia in 1788”, and “let’s celebrate Aboriginal people during one week in July”.
This year’s AATE/ALEA conference theme was “brave new world”: so let’s be true to our word and enter a brave world of teaching where we shake things up a bit and allow some other voices into the main arena. Let’s relinquish control over who can say what, how, and when. Let’s be wary of judgement words such as “inappropriate” and “tokenism” and actually engage in meaningful, open-minded ways with some different perspectives that challenge us.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working in schools need to be braver too. Personally, I’m going to be braver and verbalise the things I’m thinking, my ‘Indigenous perspective’, so that I don’t come away from conversations, like I did at the conference, thinking “gee I wish I’d said……”
Luke, A 2013, ‘From Wittenburg to Wiki:Literacy as a cultural and intellectual technology and/or how 21st century schooling has totally lost the historical plot’, closing plenary in Brave New World: AATE/ALEA Joint National Conference, QUT, Brisbane, 4-7 July 2013.
Papertalk-Green, C 2007, Just Like That and other poems, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle. Preface by John Kinsella.