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  What Works - The Work Program

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Yarrabah State School, Far North Queensland

Aim high like a seahawk

Context | Literacy and staging | Cultural awareness | Behaviour management | The language of maths



Yarrabah is on the coast, about 60 km south-east of Cairns and beyond the Yarrabah Range. The population is over 3000, almost all of whom are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Prior to European contact, at least three different tribes hunted and gathered in the local area and traded with each other. They were the Gungganyji, Yidinyji and Dyirbal peoples, who spoke dialects of a single language.

In the 1870s, Europeans settled in Cairns and an Anglican mission was established at Yarrabah in 1872. Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their traditional camping grounds and brought to the mission and most residents today have both historical and traditional ties to the area. The first Yarrabah Community Council was established in the 1960s and in 1986 it became self-governing and received its Deed of Grant in Trust land tenure status. Yarrabah is now a Shire with a Council, governed by the same rules as other local government areas.

The school population of over 500 students is entirely Indigenous, making it one of the largest Indigenous schools in Queensland. There are three campuses. The Year 1-7 campus is the largest, with about 320 students, while the preschool kindergarten has about 100 half-timers. The remaining students are at the secondary campus, located about four kilometres from the primary campus and administrative base. The student population is fairly stable. After Year 10, most students travel by bus to Gordonvale State High School, about 35 kilometres away.

The school has a deliberate workforce strategy of employing Indigenous staff in a range of teaching and non-teaching positions. In 2006, more than half the total staff is Indigenous, including the Deputy Principal and Acting Head of Department (Secondary), Bernadine Yeatman. The preschool kindergarten is run entirely by Indigenous people.

Literacy and staging


Terry Davidson

Principal, Terry Davidson, talks about a component of Yarrabah's comprehensive approach to literacy.

We organise home groups generally according to social groupings and behavioural and other factors. We don't create low achieving and high achieving classes as such. We've got a range of social, academic, behaviour and attendance patterns represented in every class.

But, four days a week, for two sessions of work a day, they make what we call a 'journey' for literacy and numeracy. In Year 1, we keep the students together because that's the first year of their schooling, but after that they make a 'journey'. So in the primary school, Stage 1 will have students from Years 2 & 3, Stage 2 will have mainly students from Years 4 & 5 and Stage 3 will have mainly students from Years 6 & 7. [More details about staging…]

In those groups the kids get quality, explicit teaching time with a team of teachers focused on them in their ability groups. And the intent is to fill everybody's gaps and lift everybody, because when you've got an enormous range of kids we found it's impossible for a teacher to give those kids the quality that they need. Within each group there is, of course, still a range of abilities, but it's a narrower range.

Into that arrangement we add the Learning Support teacher, so instead of the typical learning support model of taking students out of classes and working with them one-on-one or in small groups, the learning support teacher is the journey group teacher for the most challenged group of kids. Instead of having four teachers at that stage level there will be five, so that the number of students per journey group is reduced.


We chose reading comprehension as our focus for literacy journey because our data showed us that, although we had students who could read at higher levels, they weren't necessarily comprehending at those levels of text. They'd become good decoders but they weren't comprehending what they read.

There are also identified stage coordinators who take some leadership of those teams of teachers. The stage teams meet on a fortnightly basis to talk about whatever is relevant for their stage.

In the secondary campus, we've embedded a literacy line in the timetable. So every day on that line we timetable the secondary school literacy groups to be taught by the secondary teachers. Every teacher is on that line, enabling small group focused teaching. Most of the groups are either decoding or reading comprehension groups, with one that's at a higher entry level. We're finding that the new Year 8 students are achieving quite well, which suggests that the staging approach is having an effect on literacy levels. These students have achieved at higher levels than some of the Year 9 and 10 students.

This approach also provided an opportunity for the secondary teachers to come together for collaborative planning outside of their specialist subject areas. Previously, they didn't have to plan anything together, but now they need to plan for their literacy groups. So it's had a really productive spin-off in that way and the teachers have engaged with it really well.

This year, as with each year, we've tried to have an Indigenous person working alongside a non-Indigenous person in classrooms and that's a purposeful strategy, acknowledging that the Indigenous person knows the students' language and cultural background, and the non-Indigenous person adapts the curriculum program acknowledging that. We try and incorporate those differences in perspective into teaching and learning programs.

In Indigenous schools, the expectations are for quality education and, in order to achieve that, we have to acknowledge what the students bring and what the students' needs are. We need to have focused strategies in place to address that. An ad hoc approach won't work.

Read Terry's comments about data, intervention and attendance

Cultural awareness and cultural difference


Bernadine Yeatman

Bernadine Yeatman talks about the implications of cultural difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

It wasn't until I really started to look at Aboriginal culture that I noticed that there was a marked difference between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures.

I initially didn't realise that there was a language difference. I knew that we spoke a little bit differently to non-Indigenous people but it wasn't until I read books and worked with a lady who did ESL that I learned that we were actually speaking a dialect or a creole.

And once I was convinced that I was speaking a creole, I had to convince Indigenous staff at the school that they were actually speaking a creole, or what a lot of people term Aboriginal English. I had to do some workshops to convince the Indigenous staff about it.

And that led to developing a package for non-Indigenous staff. I wanted to make the book fit this community. When teachers first come to Yarrabah they are confronted with language difference, but when they read through this book they get to know the areas where there are differences. The sounds are different, the words and the meanings are different. I use the package in cultural awareness workshops for them.

Another aspect of cultural difference is in body language. A lot of our kids get into trouble at school because the teacher is interpreting their body language in a non-Indigenous way.

In the book, I tried to put things in table form, so that teachers can just talk about it, especially about our different world views, how Aboriginal people view education, and even child rearing practices. And one of the main things that I believe a lot of teachers need to know is about the relationships that are in the school and about making connections. My main thing is that, if you do not make connections with every student in your class first, or students in your school, then you will have a lot of behaviour problems. So my big push is that, if you make connections with your students, develop a rapport, they will be more likely to listen to you and respect you. I really push that. Once the children are onside they will do anything for you.

And if teachers know that the family has a powerful matriarch at the top, who has earned respect, then if there are behaviour problems they can get help with that. They can go and discuss it with the matriarch.

Look at a page about relationships from the book, or a page about communication…

Behaviour management and the Respect Circle

Terry and Bernadine discuss behaviour management and the 'supportive school environment'.


Bernadine developed our Respect Circle and that's what classroom behaviour management plans are based on. When teachers develop their plans with students for the classroom at the beginning of the year, the plan is based on the values of respect for yourself, respect for others, respect for the environment and respect for your classroom.

Teachers and students unpack the Respect Circle recognising it's quite different at different levels. Consideration is given at each stage or year level for differences, eg, What does respecting yourself look like at Year 1? What does it look like at Year 7 or Year 10? The Respect Circle is used as a framework for these discussions.


A lot of the teacher aides came from what I call the Hope Generation and they were saying 'these kids today need to go back to traditional respect, the way we used to respect our Elders a long time ago'. So we got together and thought about how we could make the school rules suit our community. But we thought we wanted to keep it simple because we wanted kids to look at it and be able to read it straight away.

In our Respect Circle, we started with the idea that people must respect themselves. Before you can respect others you've got to learn to respect yourself. Teachers can look at it and talk to kids about what taking care of yourself means. It's your appearance, it's the way you dress, looking after your skin and so on.

Another part is 'making responsible choices'. I wanted kids to think about it and see that they can't blame somebody else for their choices, that ultimately they make their own decisions.

We came up with 'Respect others', 'Respect the environment' and 'Respect your classroom'. I wanted to bring it really close to home that in your classroom that's your place to keep it clean, and also there's a bigger environment and that's our community. So, when they're walking around the community they need to respect the community. And also the school is part of the environment too.

The seahawk is Yarrabah's symbol and, for as long as I remember, it has represented Yarrabah because we live right near the sea. The seahawk can fly high and we wanted kids to aim high in the way they respect themselves, others and the environment.


The Respect Circle also links well with community values. When you're considering respect for others, it's not just about respect for the people that are here in the school. So you might ask a student, 'how would your family feel about that?' Actions that are disrespectful at the school level are probably disrespectful at a community level as well.

The Respect Circle is in its third year of implementation and we've started to see a change in the students. Behaviours are more respectful and they now have different language to use when they're talking with us. When we unpack situations, for example, they might say things like 'I was responsible for that but I didn't take responsibility' or 'I didn't respect the environment', instead of pointing the finger and blaming others for their inappropriate behaviour choices.


Even with high school kids, when I'm dealing with behaviour issues I use the Respect Circle to make them realise that everyone is not perfect, that they do make mistakes and when a mistake happens they've got a choice. They can do nothing and feel bad or try to do something to fix it.

The language of maths

Terry and Bernadine discuss a particular numeracy initiative.


We've taken an investigative approach to numeracy and we were part of a 'Literacy and Numeracy in the Middle Years' DEST project in 2005. Our cluster focus was the language of maths.

We were finding that our students didn't understand a lot of the language that was embedded in the systemic numeracy tests. It wasn't the concepts that they were having difficulty with, it was the language. So, we looked at developing an approach to planning for maths that acknowledged what students brought to the context and scaffolding their learning, explicitly teaching the language associated with the concept development.


The intention was to select a group of Grade 6 students and see what language they were using when they were doing mathematical things. It was quite an eye opener, because when we actually watched the kids do a simple task we found that they were having difficulty using language. We had assumed they had the language and they could talk about maths because they'd been doing it for six years but they couldn't.

So we started listing the words they were using. For 'on top of', it might be 'onner'. And we found at that stage that sometimes the kids were using body language rather than words, so we had to start drawing out words from them. Once we got that common language we could start leading them towards mathematical language. But we had to get what they knew first, so we could start with that.

Our goal was that the kids would be able to code-switch at any time, just like the goal in other language activities. [Code switching is the ability to use SAE or home language as appropriate in a particular context.]


Bernadine developed the 'snail plan', which is a planning process in which the students do a discovery task first. It was set up so that the teacher didn't take a lead role, but took a back step and allowed the students to be able to interact while the teacher recorded observations and language heard while completing the task. It's called a snail plan because it acknowledges that we need to go slowly with this. We can't just rush students through this learning. Maths learning is a linguistically challenging task for students.

When we talk about the language of maths we're not talking about the specific vocabulary. And that's where people sometimes got a bit stuck (and we're still acknowledging there's an enormous amount of learning to be done about teaching language difference). It is the associated grammatical structures that need to be explicitly taught and need to be embedded in teaching and learning plans.

During the project, there was a lot of networking and people would meet and develop activities which they would then go away and trial. Teachers documented their reflective learnings. We had a consultant working with us on the linguistics side of it and she helped with analysis of the language of the investigations, unpacking them in terms of what would need to be explicitly taught for that particular unit of work to be really successful. We also had a maths mentor supporting the development of maths concepts and investigations.

The cluster project as such is finished now but this approach has become one of our preferred practices for planning for maths. On planning days, teachers consider what investigative planning tasks they are going to use. It certainly doesn't cover all their mathematical content but it does pick up a significant component of it and it provides contextual opportunities for learning maths.



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