Beyond honouring culture

Tim Blackman

With conflict ravaging the lives of peoples the world over we are in a volatile period; this volatility engulfs the lives of many students, especially those from culturally diverse backgrounds, making it essential that we redouble efforts to fight racism and support peaceful co-existence.

With the recent Harmony Day celebrations, the 18C debate and the rise of right-wing populism, now is a powerful time to be talking about race and culture in our schools.

A political climate that fears difference and seeks to divide our society along cultural lines means one day a year to celebrate diversity isn’t enough; a surface understanding of cultures and diversity doesn’t make for meaningful social cohesion.

For decades, school policy and activities have been based on honouring cultural diversity, usually through celebrating the visible features of different cultures such as food, dance, music, and dress.

Radical teaching that seeks to eliminate racism and support peaceful co-existence must have us diving deeper into culture. We can adopt culturally sustaining pedagogies by making our practice, terminology and school culture more pluralistic every day of the year. Culturally sustaining pedagogies include exploring culture through language, values, belief systems, family roles, relationship to land, notions of justice and so on. It can also be teaching through pedagogical processes outside western understandings, such as Aboriginal 8-ways pedagogy. There must be active interest and commitment to engaging with students’ own knowledge/identities and that of their broader cultural communities.

Moments must be found within curriculum to value difference and not fear it. This could be seen as radical because for many it requires pedagogical shifts away from eurocentric pedagogy and curriculum content. In another sense it is not radical because it aligns with the Department’s wellbeing framework, which is committed to providing physically and emotionally safe schools. There are many ways teachers can embed culture into curriculum and general classroom practice.

I teach at a school with a diverse range of students, many of whom have unique names that have meanings I don’t understand. A simple activity of getting students to go home and find out the meaning of their name and the story of how it was chosen engages students in their language and history. As a homework activity of sorts it also engages carers and parents in the task and shows a level of care and respect for their child and culture.

Language can also become important by teaching key words in English and another word. Many of my students speak another language so often I ask what a key word is in their language then try to use it interchangeably. This small and simple act increases language understanding and can help break down the fear of different languages. This is particularly important currently for Arabic, a language that can evoke fear or racism due to media and bigoted society members.

Teaching with Aboriginal pedagogies is such an important way of demonstrating that Indigenous cultures here and around the world have different and engaging ways of knowing and learning.

Rather than holding a class discussion, I facilitate a yarning circle. Students sit in a circle facing one another and are introduced to yarning as an Aboriginal way of knowing and learning.

I introduced to students the spiritual significance of the land as the source of energy and life for Aboriginal peoples, and that yarning circles should be done outside on the earth. Now cultural understanding and culturally sustaining pedagogies feature consistently in lessons.

When thinking about ways of making classrooms and schools more peacefully and attuned to cultural diversity, I suggest an MEC check — meaningful, embedded and consistent. This involves asking questions such as: how with the task/activity/event achieve the broader goal of peaceful co-existence and understanding? Does the task/activity flow as a part of normal practice? Is there consistency in my practice in facilitating cultural understanding and peaceful co-existence?

Much of what we need to do is a part of our practice but needs to be explicitly called out as aiming to sustain cultural awareness and create peaceful classrooms, school and society.

Beyond celebrating the surface elements of cultures, attention should be attuned to shared values and understandings with one another. If difference is seen as positive and the unknown is known, fear and racism cannot thrive.

Tim Blackman is a proud Aboriginal man and HSIE teacher. As a PhD candidate, he is researching radical teaching in poverty education