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  What Works - The Work Program

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Lanyon High School, Australian Capital Territory

A forum with Aboriginal students

The context

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Lanyon High School is a Year 7-10 school of about 800 students in the Australian Capital Territory. It is located in Conder, a southern suburb of Canberra in the Tuggeranong Valley, in an area of predominantly low socioeconomic groups.

In many parts of Australia, Indigenous students are a small minority in our schools and so it is at Lanyon. There were about 12 Indigenous students at the school at the time of the forum described below.

The school is part of the well-known 'Lanyon Cluster', which also includes Lanyon's four main feeder primary schools. The cluster collaborates on a range of matters, including those concerning Indigenous students.

For instance, the Lanyon Cluster is unusual in that it operates one ASSPA for all the schools, together with Lake Tuggeranong College. There are about 70 Indigenous students across all these schools and ASSPA meetings, which are held twice a term, are usually attended by about 30 people.


The forum

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Teacher, Nick Harris and students

A group of Indigenous students met with Geoff Ainsworth of the What Works team in September 2003, to discuss their views about school and schooling.

'Anne', 'Kate' and 'David' are in Year 7. 'Carla' is in Year 9. 'Chris' is in Year 10. All are Lanyon HS students. 'Alan', 'Tanya' and 'Kellie' have now left Lanyon HS and are in Year 11 at college (senior high school).

Here are some of their views. In many ways, they're not so different from other groups of students across the country, and yet there are particularities that deserve attention.


What do your parents want you to get out of school?

Everyone agreed that their parents wanted them to get 'a good education'. What, then, is a good education? Answers ranged from 'the chance to go to university' to 'finding what I'm good at and using it to get a job'.

David:

I came here because my mum had heard a lot of good things about how there was a program for Indigenous kids. I liked that idea too.


Several others mentioned that their parents hoped they'd be able to learn about Aboriginal culture and history at school. Others said that their parents wanted them to be able to do a variety of subjects and have the opportunity to play lots of sport.


What should schools do about Aboriginal culture and history?

Tanya:

I still think we don't learn enough about Aboriginal culture in class. We did a little bit about the stolen generation and that was good. But sometimes we were getting, sort of, a non-Aboriginal person's ideas about Aboriginal people. When you're sitting in the class it doesn't seem right.


Alan:

We need to learn more about culture... heaps more about Aboriginal culture.


Others agreed that, although they had visits from Aboriginal people from time to time, more of an Aboriginal presence in the school would be good. Kellie said that both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students should be learning about Aboriginal culture and history 'because it's such an important part of Australia'.

Several students spoke of the diversity of Indigenous cultures and the need for non-Indigenous people to understand that. It was agreed that non-Indigenous people shouldn't generalise about Indigenous people.

Alan:

People think it's all the same but it's not. I've got a mate from up in Queensland and his people do things differently... the culture is different.


As far as teachers are concerned, Tanya seemed to speak for most.

Tanya:

I like it when they see that we've got a culture and we pride ourselves on that. I don't think it has to be a big issue but Aboriginality is there all the time. People should know that.


What can teachers do that helps you get on with your work?

Following on from the last discussion point, everyone thought that they get on better with teachers who acknowledge and show some respect for Aboriginal culture. Some spoke as well of approachability and others mentioned teachers who 'make you feel comfortable'.

Chris:

It's best when you can go and talk to teachers, like in the staffroom, you feel they've got time for you.


Alan:

I like someone you can respect, but not just because they're a teacher, but because of what they know and how they treat you. You need to respect each other to a certain extent. There were a few teachers who could make you feel bad if you don't read so well. Not that they think you're bad but that they just don't have time for you.


Teachers who take the time and trouble to deal with students as individuals are clearly the most popular with these students. But there was disagreement about how much teachers should 'push' you. Carla felt that pushing sometimes makes her stubborn 'if it's not done in the right way'. But Alan said, 'I reckon I need someone to push me. Otherwise I'd cruise along.' He also values teachers with a good sense of humour.

There was agreement, however, that teachers who took the trouble to explain things orally were popular.

Kellie:

It puts you off if they just write it on the board and don't explain it.


What should be the balance between individual and group work?

There were several views.

Carla:

We work better in a group. Then we can work it out together. But when we're by ourselves, we get frustrated. Sometimes we talk too much in groups and the teachers don't like that.


But others, such as David, stressed the importance of learning to work on your own.


What do you think about discipline systems in schools?

Although everyone agreed that schools had to have some sort of discipline system, there was no agreement about what such systems should look like. Some felt that detention was appropriate but others agreed with the following.

Alan:

Sitting in detention looking at a book made me want to read less, not more!


That remark led to Tanya's comment that she didn't like punishment by itself, but that any system ought to be aimed at encouraging the student to do better in future. Several people agreed with Alan that 'it's a big shame to have the school ringing my dad and mum about me.' But did that help students improve? Most thought so.

Anne:

I don't mind mum reminding me about my homework, but I don't like the idea of having to do it as soon as I get home from school because you do need a break.


Kate was in vigorous agreement.

Carla:

I was on a checklist system, because I wasn't doing my work. All the teachers had to fill in something about me. I didn't like it at all but it did get me going again. Ringing up my Mum worked too! She looked at the checklist and knew what homework I had and then I did it. I suppose it's better... it was better than detention! Having to just sit there... it's hard.


Alan:

If I was a teacher I think I'd get satisfaction out of working out how to make these kids not naughty, if they're the right words.


How different is it at college (senior high school)?

Tanya:

There's more work and there's more freedom as well, more free time. Sometimes it's harder to get into your work. Sometimes you need that little bit of extra help from teachers but they're busy... There's more responsibility for your own work. Which is good, but you have to learn to do it.


Alan:

It's a lot of hard work! But it's not as hard as I thought it was going to be. I'm doing lots of hands-on classes, because I learn better like that. So, in a way, it isn't so hard. I'm doing metalwork and woodwork and agriculture and they're all outdoors sorts of things and hands-on things and I enjoy them. I like to see a finished product. Sitting and writing an essay doesn't appeal to me.


Clearly, more self discipline is required at college.

Kellie:

College is more open. If you don't turn up to class, well, you don't but you can't have too many absences because there are course requirements. You have to understand the requirements. You can't ignore it and hope it'll all work out.

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