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Educator Yarns Season 2 Episode 15: Interview with Rhiannon and Kelly

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Today Jessica speaks with Kelly and Rhi, about their work in  embedding Aboriginal pedagogy within their practice with children who have additional learning needs

Drawing upon their own lives, family and educational experiences, they speak about the benefits of Country, and the importance of exposing children to the support of country. Kelly and Rhi discuss the importance of culture and the need to advocate for the culture of those that can’t advocate for themselves.

SHOW NOTES

Rhi:

What does any of that matter if he doesn't understand who he is as a person and where he had come from?

Jessica Staines:

Children want to learn and they approach their learning with enthusiasm, they will learn.

Rhi:

How can you know, and remove the agency and identity of somebody who doesn't have a voice? Biggest thing to put through it is to presume competence; don't not do something because you don't think the child can do it until they've shown you that they can't.

Speaker 3:

You're listening to the Koori curriculum Educator Yarns, with Jessica Staines.

Jessica Staines:

I'd like to acknowledge the [inaudible 00:00:40] people, the traditional owners of the land on which I am recording this podcast. I pay my respects to their elders, both past, present, and emerging, and pay my respects to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander listeners.

            Hi everyone. My name is Jessica Staines, director of the Koori Curriculum. For those of you that aren't familiar with our podcast, season two is all about our new book, Educator Yarns. We're meeting and interviewing with our educator contributors from right around Australia, who will be sharing little snippets of their piece.

            It will be a combination of stories about why embedding Aboriginal perspectives is so important, how to connect with local community, how to embed Aboriginal perspectives in our programme, how to work with anti-biassed approaches and so much more. So make sure you listen in and enjoy the episode. Bye for now.

            So welcome Kelly and Rhi onto the Koori Curriculum Educator Yarns podcast, which is quite a mouthful actually. So I thought we would begin by if you guys can just introduce yourselves, and just share a little bit about your current teaching context.

            I've read your bio, so we know all the things, but just a little bit about, I guess how you two came together as well would be great.

Rhi:

Well, I'm Rhi, and I am a qualified early childhood educator and I'm also mom to a five-year-old with autism, and I'm also a person with a disability myself, so I have a very strong interest in advocating for disability rights, and particularly in the areas of early intervention.

Kelly:

I'm Kelly. I'm a qualified primary school teacher with a passion for inclusive education and Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander culture and histories. And I also have a disability; I'm dyslexic and found learning quite challenging, and didn't actually have that person to connect with.

            So that's a bit of one of my goals, is to make people who feel a bit awkward enjoy learning, and hopefully have forever life long journey of learning.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, fantastic. And I just wanted to chuck in there as well Rhi, that Dallas is also Wiradjuri, so even though you identify as non-indigenous, you're the mom of a deadly little jarjum, who we all adore, Mr. Dallas.

            So, how did you both become passionate, not just obviously about education and supporting children that have disabilities, but supporting children that have disabilities to also learn about Aboriginal culture. How did that start?

Kelly:

For me personally, I'm from a trauma based background, and like I said before, I found education quite challenging and didn't fit in, in regards to the learning models and styles, and found that I learned better being outside, connecting with country and in a different way.

            We had land in Boorowa and went there for all holidays, and brought up with horses and sheep and, and all that sort of stuff. And I didn't become an educator until I was an adult, and seeing a young mom, and seeing my children also struggling with the school system, I've felt this real fire in my belly that I needed to get in there, and I needed to have a voice for people where the education system is not working.

            And I didn't quite know how to go about that because through uni, honestly it was very textbook and didn't really make a lot of certain sense and didn't really meet my learning style, but I just knew that I had to get in there to be a voice for people who also found learning challenging and that through embedding and using your guiding principles and the eight ways, that it works, it makes sense.

            You have a sense of calm, you have a sense of engagement and that it's meeting all learning styles and giving people a voice.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah. And I think there's so much in the eight ways of learning that you can see that it lends itself not just to Aboriginal children and how Aboriginal children learn, but how many different people and children learn, particularly non-verbal learning and connecting with country.

            And that's what I was going to say; for you having animals around you, and I don't know, I feel like many people with disabilities and even myself. I'm quite an anxious person; I know that my animals are really great for that, and that connect, being outside and being with country.

            So, it's not just something that I can see would be great for somebody's wellbeing that's Aboriginal, but for non-indigenous people as well.

Kelly:

Exactly right. But also when you're out there it is about learning about how to respect and engage with it in a meaningful sense. So for taking care for country, not just pulling off branches because you're stimming or you're meeting a sensory need, but engaging with nature in a more purposeful, caring way.

            And you actually see that there's a sense of calming in doing that, as opposed to the destruction where you end up just getting more heightened.

Jessica Staines:

Yep. And what about you Rhi? How did it begin for you?

Rhi:

I've always been an outdoorsy kid, and I grew up with a lot of the misconceptions around the Aboriginal community and Aboriginal people, and I wasn't allowed to play with the Aboriginal kids even though I did, because as a child, you do the exact opposite of what you're told.

            And it was that curiosity; why am I not allowed to? Well, I want to go see it. And the more that I saw it, the more that I loved it. So I grew up with lots of stories around Sydney, and with my friends there. And then it really sort of embedded for me in the past five to seven years, I was working at a community-based service, and we did a lot of work with care and protection.

            And we had a lot of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families coming through in various levels of support and access, and that sort of thing. But on the other hand we also had a lot of strong connections with community, and we had someone coming in every week to work with all of the children. And for me, that's where I saw the beauty of when we embed an Aboriginal perspective; it's brings so many strengths to the classroom.

            And as Kel mentioned, it gives the opportunity for every child to succeed. And then for me personally, I've always been very relaxed outside, same with me and my animals, my horses. So when I'm working with my trauma affected children, I took them out. I always took them outside. Away from buildings, away from lots of people or where they can be cornered.

            Into open space, and you just see the calm. And for me, country is a big basis, and where I start with almost every child, and then other things are added in, but country is where I always start.

Jessica Staines:

It's quite interesting isn't it? Because I know when I was talking to Tanika about my experience with children with disabilities, it was like a crash course when I started at 16 working in early childhood, when I was the support worker for two different children that were on the spectrum, who were completely different from each other.

            So once I thought I had it figured out with one and tried to transfer it over to the other it was like, no, hang on a second.

Rhi:

It doesn't work like that.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, I went off and did some training, because I agree with you Kelly, you're nowhere near prepared enough, whether it's uni or certificate courses, diploma courses. The real learning happens on the job. And for me, I just had no exposure whatsoever to people that had disabilities growing up. So it just was a whole new world for me in many ways.

            But what I did notice is that a lot of the families, there would be five-year-old children that were in prams and yes, maybe that was because the children were tired and so forth. But other times it they were on leads, and I can understand that these things happen. These tools are used, different reasons; mobility aids or to cope because there's many children, not just one child, and all that sort of stuff.

            So there's no judgement  on families that do any that use any of these things, but what I observed, there was a real anxiety about taking their children to play grounds or out where there was freedom for them to move around physically outside of their home, because I think they felt that it would be dangerous or, I don't know, that it would be an uncontrollable situation for them. It seemed to cause a lot of anxiety whenever those topics were broached.

            So really, the early learning outdoor space that we had, which was a very big environment, but the children even in that environment, they were so much more relaxed having this freedom to move and to be.

            And I think for the family, seeing them in that setting slowly allowed them to build their confidence, to take them out to other open areas outdoors where the children could connect and be with country. And it was such a therapeutic thing for not just the child, but for the family, like to be with country in that way.

            So I totally agree with you. And I think that particularly children on the spectrum seem to be able to connect with country in a whole other different level.

Kelly:

They're spiritual kids Jess. Honestly, working at a specialist school where we've got students that they're all moderate to severe disabilities; intellectual, physical, or a range. And I'm telling you, they see stuff that we just don't see. They don't have that judgement  on ability, or race or anything like that. What they're relying on is consistency, routine and that intentional, deliberate, purposeful teaching, like what you and Red discuss about the places and spaces.

            And I think in regards to supporting the families is that we need to understand that that's a life skill, and we need to practise that through with their anxiety, how they feel safe in those open spaces, and what they can do to support their sensory, whether it's an intake or to sort of disperse, whether it's through connecting with country or whether it's through the symbols. How to actively engage with those spaces to be able to regulate and be safe.

Jessica Staines:

And so what you're sort of describing is how you're engaging really with Aboriginal pedagogies to inform your teaching practise with children. And for those of you that are familiar with the eight ways of learning, the references are pretty explicit in the conversation that we're having.

            But the other thing that I wanted to touch on was really, Rhi, something that really struck me with what you wrote about in the piece and conversations that we've had, is that whilst people were very, I don't know if this is the right word, but accepting of Dallas, having autism and your want as a mother to, I don't know, assist him in how he engages in preschool and all those places and spaces; they could understand that he would need mobility aids, or that he would need visual cues, and that this is something that you were trying to support him with, but there wasn't a whole lot of support or understanding from others about why you felt there was such a need to foster his Aboriginal identity.

            And the way that it came across to me anyway, was "Don't you have enough on your plate worrying about his disability? Surely Aboriginal culture is not a priority for you." Am I right in surmising that?

Rhi:

Yeah. It's very much that. It's basically seen as autism, that diagnosis. He'll learn to talk, he'll learn to walk, and he's done all those things. He's going to go to school, he's going to do this. He's going to be a pilot.

            But you mention his Aboriginality, and people are like, "But he doesn't really get it, does he?" And I'm like, "Well, you're thinking he's going to land a 747; I'm fairly certain they can work out his cultural identity because I'd rather him learn about his cultural identity than land a plane right now."

            So they have this concept of there'll be obstacles, but he'll overcome them, and an autism diagnosis won't stand in his way.

            But yeah, what Kel said about Aboriginality being a deficit, it's seen as something that may hold him back, or it's not as important.

Kelly:

It's another label or which does my head in.

Rhi:

It is, and I just think about what is the point of this child that we spent thousands upon thousands of dollars on therapy, and he spends hours in therapy. If he learns to walk and talk ,and fly an aeroplane, what does any of that matter if he doesn't understand who he is as a person and where he has come from?

            And that's a really hard thing to get across to people because they just see it as, "Well, he doesn't understand." And I'm like, "Well, ask any five-year-old to give an in-depth discussion about their identity as an Aboriginal child, and I don't think you're going to get real far real quick."

Jessica Staines:

Well, this is it though. And I don't think you can de compartmentalise a person's identity ;there are many things that shape my identity. My gender, my sexuality, my body shape and size, where I live, my cultural heritage, my language, my skin colour, the music that I like. There are so many things that shape who I am, how do you separate a person's disability from their culture?

            You can't pull a person apart that way. And like with Dion Beasley who was at the Aboriginal Early Childhood Conference and obviously he's a famous Aboriginal illustrator, and has done Cheeky Dogs and Go Home Cheeky Animals, and he is deaf, non-verbal, he has disabilities.

            And he's now using a mobility aid because he used to be able to walk, but now he can't; he's got muscular dystrophy amongst other things. I mean, you can look at where he lives, at Tennant Creek, but then also, he was someone that was brought up in out of home care, with Joy his foster mum and family.

            So, there are so many things that shape who he is; his family structure, geographically where he lives, his gender, his sexuality, his ability. How can you say that one of those things is more important or less important in terms of a person's sense of self? I don't know.

Rhi:

I know. So how can you know, and remove the agency and identity of somebody who doesn't have a voice, or isn't able to process or understand that? That's not your right, to say what someone can hear or engage with or learn, because that's up to that individual, it's not our right to remove that from someone, or to be their voice when they might not have one.

            And that really upsets me. And I think Dion's a really wonderful example of his team and his carer, and our job as educators; to advocate for people and to celebrate and be proud of who we are, and also of our First Nations People and what they've done for country. And to tell the truth of what's happened in the past in a way that they can connect and understand.

            And I think recently with the fires, Jess, is a really fantastic way to talk about something that was traumatic, because children see that, especially with social media and then to talk about how the plants are healing and what can we do to help that. And I think if you're saying to a child that they can't be engaging in culture, well, isn't that a part of culture?

            Isn't that a part of our heritage and country? I just don't know why there's so many barriers and why it's so hard.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah. I think there still that labelling that you said before; there's a stigma perhaps towards Aboriginal people that people with a disability, they already have a label on them, they're already going to be marginalised, and then to be Aboriginal is to be seen as a deficit in some way.

            Whereas my culture is not a deficit, my culture is my strength, and I think when people have things in their life that are hard, and I believe we all have different things in our life that are hard, but you need to really lean on the strengths, and the things that make you strong, to get through things that make life harder.

            And I think your community and your culture, to me it doesn't mean deficit, it doesn't mean shame to me. But perhaps it is that protection thing, and I know that people that have done my workshops, I talk to them about, I still have a family member who says to me, you know, "I don't know why you want to tell people that you're Aboriginal, because if you don't tell people, they'll never know, and that that's okay."

            And she says that from a protective point of view; she's older, in her 70s, and it comes from this fear and this shame of what it meant to be Aboriginal back then. So for her, she can't understand why I announce to people and let people know who I am, and who my family is and where I'm from. And I think everyone has different feelings about it based on their own experiences, I guess, I suppose.

Rhi:

Just taking it back to what you said about separating; how someone can separate ability, disability from culture, the perfect example of that is that Dallas refers to Wiradjuri and autism as one word; it's Wiradjuri-ism, and that's just the perfect example of this little person who's got this, because obviously we talk to him about being a Wiradjuri person. We also talk to him about, you have autism, so he's got this understanding, and he's combined them.

            And I think that's a very beautiful way to show how those two worlds, as far as he's concerned, are completely meshed together.

            And yeah, just when you said how can you separate them, well, the five-year-old has just shown that he doesn't separate them at all; it's Wiradjuri-ism.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah.

Rhi:

And I just think that's beautiful because in his own words, he's just highlighted both of those two things that make him who he is.

Kelly:

You almost need to get it on a shirt and he's ripping it off like a superhero.

Rhi:

Wiradjuri-ism.

Kelly:

Like this is no deficit; labels don't identify me. It's not something you can cure, or doesn't need to be fixed, let's celebrate this, it's exciting.

Jessica Staines:

So with non-Indigenous children that you two are teaching, that potentially have disabilities, what are some ways or resources that you lean on to include Aboriginal perspectives in your curriculum?

            It's really general. It's so hard because I mean, obviously if we're talking about Autism as opposed to Down Syndrome it's not going to be the same, but is there any tips or experience, examples that you could share?

Kelly:

Yeah, absolutely. I work at Cranleigh, which is a specialist school in Canberra, and we have lots of high sensory needs. So a lot of the things that we use; it could be streamers and ribbons, so we would be, which I learnt from your conference, not the STEM one, but the one before Jess, that you had with, I can't remember the lovely lady's name. It wasn't Jane, it was the other lady that was doing the singing. And, it used-

Jessica Staines:

Oh, Amanda.

Kelly:

Amanda. With colours of red, yellow, black, blue, green, and white, how do we separate them? Who's got the same? Going out on our playground, collecting things, coming back, doing some form of craft or counting, or using those tactile items, and then returning them.

            I think to be honest, if anyone needs a starting point, is to clear any line in the sand of what they can't do, to go and purchase your book and start from there. Have a look at what you can do, think outside the square, remembering that these children deserve the right to an education, and using tactile items is a great way to start. So starting with country. Lots of sand drawing and writing, sensory play, hiding things in there.

            Play School is amazing. That wonderful episode of acknowledgement of country is so engaging, it's so informative. And there's a term worth of lessons there, yeah. There's lots and lots.

Jessica Staines:

I just need to take you on the road with me. You're good. You're a good spruiker, Kel. Not bad.

Kelly:

I absolutely mean it. And it's something that we do a lot of. We recently had a display in our staff room that I've created from what I've collected. And we thank Nunawul when we collect things; "Thank you for these leaves, thank you for these sticks." And then we will use them in a sensory form of play, and then we return them.

            But Jess, if anyone joins your email link of the top 30 tips, oh my gosh, there's more resources there, but just that embedding in imaginative play. And it's not a separate thing. Once you can open your mind and heart, it's actually quite accessible, and cheap/

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, that's the thing. I think a lot of people talk to me about the financial side of it. And I just think, it's the principles that we're talking about. I mean, do you have a sand pit? Well, then you can tell sand stories, and borrow, use, and return from country, and unpacking with children what it means to be a custodian.

            I mean, these are things that anyone can do in their intentional teaching practise, but I think a lot of people are really intimidated, and they worry. I know a lot of people really worry about doing the wrong thing. And there's a lot of conflicting advice out there about what's okay and what's not okay.

            And we see it all the time, don't we Rhi? So, for people that don't know, Rhi is the co-admin in our Facebook group, The Koori Curriculum Educator Community, and we get heaps of questions, the same questions almost, all the time.

Rhi:

Over and over again, just worded differently.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, that's right. So we just finished making a little course today, which is like answering the top 10 questions. Like where can I find an elder? Can I read dreaming stories? Can I do symbols on kids' faces? Can we play the didgeridoo? Because it's the same stuff; it's about dot painting, all of that stuff that we see educators have.

            They just want to know if it's okay for them, you've got to give people permission. Like, you can try, and sometimes you're going to fail, but you need to be persistent, and you need to persevere through that, and you need to lean on people that are willing to support you.

            And our educator community is a great place for that because we keep people out that are rude, but no one is judging, at least not from our side.

Rhi:

God no, that's right. I think my biggest thing, I think it's a big thing for Kel too, is just a lot of people, if they've got a child with special needs or whatnot in their class, they're very overwhelmed about where to begin. And the biggest thing to put through it is to presume competence; you know, don't not do something because you don't think the child can do it, until they've shown you that they can't.

            Take a risk. It could work out and it could not, it could be a complete disaster. I've had situations that have gone pear shaped very fast, and that's a learning curve, but until you actually get in there and try, you don't actually know which way it's going to go.

Kelly:

And for me, I think what's really important is that when you can open your mind and heart that teaching through the eight ways or your wonderful principles, is that it's a symbolic relationship, that it helps the student, but it also helps you. There's nothing negative about getting out there and having a go; it's quality teaching, it's intentional, it's important to model and to demonstrate, and practise and practise.

            What I've heard you say in your podcast, Jess, around having that opportunity to connect with country; if you're not caring for, and learning and immersing on country, it's hard to have that understanding. And students that I've been working with, with moderate to severe disabilities, love it.

            And yes it takes practise, and it might be that we're watering plants and they're green, and your focus might be learning green ,and it might be putting green pictures or cardboard around plants to teach them that, but if you repeat and keep doing, it's just a beautiful relationship and connection of quality learning.

Rhi:

It's very much looking at each individual child, and seeing what they need and what they're learning, and then working out what resources or what things are available to them. The good example of that is Dallas. He's got this alphabet fixation, so he's got his Koori Curriculum alphabet cards, which are very rarely out of his hands, but we recently added to that.

            He's got a beautiful wooden alphabet set that was painted by an artist, Jodie Freeman for him. So we've now mixed art in with his alphabet and sight words, and it's just this beautiful thing where he's like, "Oh, someone from community painted this for me."

            And we're building those connections through that interest, and it's still focused on his alphabet fixation and starting to learn sight words and sounds, and that sort of thing.

            But it's just looking at the children where they're at now, the exact way that it's promoted through the Koori Curriculum; embedding using the children's interests as that vehicle for learning.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah.

Rhi:

And just working out, grabbing things along the way. So, and I always find very literal things, as Kel has said. You can't learn about country without being on country, so I love things like the art that Gary Purchase does, because we've all got those birds that he's painted in our backyards, in our playgrounds.

            So, if I hold up a rainbow lorikeet, all those kids know. "Well, I've seen one of those birds." So, it's about finding what's relative, and what the children can relate to in context. Context is a huge one; it's very hard to go abstract with these children, but if you stay within context, I think that-

Kelly:

Allow them processing time and time to practise.

Rhi:

Yep.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, what's meaningful for them? And I think that's exactly right, Kelly. They have to be able to revisit don't they? I think that's been one of my biggest pet peeves. Like, pre COVID we used to go and mentor educators in services, and we would come out twice a month. The off weeks, I would email the centre and say, "Let me know what interests you've got going on, I'll pack up a kit, come up with some ideas. I'll bring it out to you, of ways that you could include an Aboriginal perspective in whatever the children are interested in."

            And from one week to the next I would be there, and the interest had come and gone. And for some of these children, they're only there two or three days a week, so what opportunity was there for them to revisit, to master a skill, to reflect, to go deeper?

            And I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's that we get bored with things before children do, and so we move them through, and we have this busy curriculum. And I've heard the argument from educators, "Well, not all the children are interested in the same thing; they've got so many different interests."

            And I think this is a thing. There's space for us to do intentional teaching and decide on topics of inquiry as well, but we know that not all children are going to be interested in a snail, because maybe they all didn't see a snail on the weekend, but if this is so important to one child, when you put time and effort into it, other children develop an interest because they're being exposed to it through what you're doing at preschool.

            So, I really do encourage people to go slower, and all of the examples that I show in our embedding Aboriginal Perspective Workshop, people sit there and they go, "Oh, wow, that's so good, you found all those things."

            And I said, "Yeah, over an eight month period." Because my curriculum is slow, and it takes time for children to revisit, to get the next tangent, to find the next resource, to have the next step. But did my topics of inquiry and projects encapsulate all the principles and practises, and outcomes of the EYLF? Yes it did. Was it holistic curriculum? It absolutely was, but it wasn't easy curriculum, it wasn't a quick curriculum. It was slow.

Kelly:

Absolutely. I think you've nailed it on the head. And if we're not allowing students; little people at this stage, to explore, we don't know what prior knowledge or what they've come to school with, but if we don't allow them that time to practise and develop these skills at these early years level, then how do they ever catch up when they start to engage with the Australian curriculum?

            And it's such a vital part in their little lives, for us to take a deep breath and slow down, and think outside the square. And I think that eight ways and inquiry based learning and the Aboriginal early childhood guided principles, I think we're silly, and we're making it harder for ourselves if we don't give it a go.

Jessica Staines:

Yeah, absolutely. And I don't know if you would agree with this or not, but I could almost argue that the most important thing for children that have disabilities, and for Aboriginal children alike, is that they develop a positive disposition towards learning, and that they build a great rapport with you as their educator, because I think that if children want to learn, and they approach their learning with enthusiasm, that they will learn. Does that make sense?

Kelly:

Oh, 100%.

Rhi:

But both of us are just nodding madly at the moment.

Kelly:

And ticking the air, just going, "Yes." Like a fairy almost, waving a wand. You're absolutely right.

Rhi:

I mean, I know personally, Dallas has a lot of anxiety around not being able to keep up. And if he thinks that he can't do something right the first time, then he won't even try, because he doesn't want to fail, and he doesn't want to be left behind, he wants to be like the other children.

            And I think that really that comes down, is you have to slow down, and you have to give children the time to process, to revisit, to develop an interest. Sometimes it's a case of actually getting them to engage full stop.

Kelly:

And it could be their anxiety, "Well, I've never seen that or done that, so I'm having a panic attack, let me take some time to give it a go, and then to feel how I felt." And then went, "No, that wasn't all right, but okay, maybe tomorrow it felt a bit better." You know?

Jessica Staines:

Yep. And having enough joy in the learning process; that they're happy to fail, to come back, to try again. And I think it's about the dispositions that we're trying to foster in children to be competent learners, which we know that they are.

            So I can see that there's so much crossover between the curriculum that we're supporting and what you guys are doing with your children, so thanks so much for jumping on and yarning with me ,and for writing in our Educator Yarns book. I know that people are going to love your story, so I really appreciate you guys taking the time.

Kelly:

Thanks.

Rhi:

Thanks, Jess. Thanks for doing what you do. I'm really grateful, really grateful.

Jessica Staines:

I hope that you enjoyed this episode, and had a great little sneak peek between the pages of our new book, Educator Yarns. If you'd like to ask questions or connect with me, best to join our Facebook group, The Koori Curriculum Educator Community, which is free for all of our listeners and members.

            In our next episode of Educator Yarns, I'll be meeting with Kathy Hope, and yarning about string play and pedagogy.

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