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Teaching culture key to unlocking high potential

Schools across south-western Sydney are embedding culture in enrichment programs to re-engage Aboriginal students.

Four students lying on the floor behind a snake made of lego.

Rosemeadow Public School students build their totem, a snake, using Lego as part of a Yalaganj challenge day.

When teachers at a community of schools in south-western Sydney identified their Aboriginal students weren’t always engaged in class, they knew something needed to be done.

Despite their apparent disengagement, the students were identified by their teachers as having strong academic potential.

The big question for their teachers, including Joanne Ryan, an assistant principal at Rosemeadow Public School, south of Campbelltown, was how to maximise that potential.

The answer came in the form of the Yalaganj Initiative, a program combining traditional classroom skills – including literacy, communication, research and creativity – within Aboriginal culture.

After involving students in programs based around Aboriginal culture, the shift from disengagement to becoming active learners was clearly visible.

“A lot of these students have come from being very quiet, flying under the radar in their classes at school, and given these opportunities I’ve seen changes in some students you wouldn’t believe,” Ms Ryan said.

“They’re now engaging in their classrooms, they’re now doing things they would have never done before academically as well.”

The Yalaganj program started in 2016 with Rosemeadow and four neighbouring schools, and this year doubled in size.

Now students from Campbelltown East, Briar Road, Thomas Acres, Rosemeadow, Ambarvale, Bradbury, Ruse, Kentlyn and John Warby public schools regularly meet for the ‘challenge days’.

Yalaganj instructional leader Stuart Keast said the programs used cultural learning as a way to leverage improved performance and allowed schools to find hidden “diamonds”.

“When our kids have a strong connection to culture or a strong pride in their culture that transfers back into the classroom,” Mr Keast said.

Results from 2018 Yalagnj students showed a 22% drop in the number of students receiving ‘at risk’ results for comprehension on the Progressive Achievement Test (PAT).

Over the same period, the number of students in the top two categories on the maths PAT – ‘on track’ and ‘working beyond’ – also grew by 8%.

When Zachary from Rosemeadow attended his first challenge day last year he was reserved.

“Zachary traditionally had his own smaller group of friends, and did things in his own individual way,” Mr Keast said.

“He’s working towards developing the resilience and willingness to have a go at things, to get it wrong, keep going and move past it.”

After attending a number of challenge days, Zachary said he found the program was “a lot of fun”.

“I think that everyone who is Aboriginal should do this because you get to meet other Aboriginal kids from different schools, you get to make a lot of new friends,” Zachary said.

Activities at the challenge days include using Aboriginal symbols to create codes, researching the lives of famous Aboriginal leaders and creating Lego models of students’ totems.

Other Yalaganj challenge days focus on robotics and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities.

Returning for her third challenge day, Briar Road Public School student Kyomi said she was “excited” for the opportunities to explore her Aboriginality.

The proud Yorta Yorta and Wiradjuri girl said learning about Aboriginal culture was important “so we don’t forget about culture, and lose it”.

Mr Keast said he hoped other schools would implement similar programs.

“Schools do lots of these things, and sometimes it just needs a little bit of a tweak.”

“Kids sitting in here today may not have been part of one of these opportunities ever if we didn’t run this, but they’re sitting in the top third of the class, or halfway through the class and no one really taps them on the shoulder and lets them blossom, extends them all the way.”

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