Please email Cliftonhillcrt@vit.vic.edu.au if you'd like to join the network. Once we've established a sizeable group of relief teachers, we'll be organising workshops for those who are interested.
"The best educators are the best learners. They can adapt to tomorrow's contexts, technologies, languages" (AITSL)

Monday, 17 September 2012

Study of history and racism in the new curriculum

With the new Australian curriculum comes a focus on areas for which some teachers do not feel adequately prepared. One such area is that of the cross-curriculum priority 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures'.  The priority will provide "opportunities for all learners to deepen their knowledge of Australia by engaging with the world's oldest continuous living cultures. This knowledge and understanding will enrich their ability to participate positively in the ongoing development of Australia"(ACARA). Although recognised as a 'cross-curricular perspective' in the Victorian Essential Learning Standard, Indigenous perspectives has a tendency to get marginalised within the efforts to cover the curriculum's demands. A recent article in Education Review titled "US guide on history and racism" addresses the challenges of this new priority and discusses in particular the way Montana has approached the study of Native American history and culture. Growing up in Montana myself, I experienced the transition of Indian Education for All Act, and through my degree in Education, I was required to take a Native American studies course in addition to Multicultural Education. The courses allowed opportunities for engagement with the various cultures through local Powwows, literature and guest speakers. These experiences opened a new world to me, providing me with a passion for a culture I had never known.

Despite being enlightening and relevant, these courses alone were not enough. One cannot grasp within a 4-credit course the necessity of culture to a group of people who have endured such a painful history. Nor does it adequately explain that teachers aren't to encourage guilt or pity, but rather acceptance and understanding. Although different in many ways, marginalised groups of many countries are facing similar challenges. The Essential Understanding Regarding Montana Indians states:
"Identity is an issue with which human beings struggle throughout their lifetime. Questions of "Who am I?" and "How do I fit in?" are universal questions of the human condition. Historically, schools have been places for students to explore their identities. However, when the culture of students' homes and communities is not evident in school, finding a way to belong within that system is more difficult and can lead to frustration. Educators need to ensure that each student has an opportunity to feel included in the classroom either through materials or pedagogical practices."
Empathy for our students' respective identities and strife cannot be achieved through simply a college course or two, by committing to a lifestyle geared towards continual learning.

Australia is progressing leaps and bounds with the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures in the curriculum, as well as the movement for Constitutional recognition for the nation's first people (see YouMeUnity), but there is much to be done on the ground level. As CRTs, we teach the greatest variety of students. It is up to each of us as educators to display the enthusiasm necessary to educate ourselves about the heritage of our potential students. To grow up having teachers that understood us and that we could relate to is something many of us took for granted. Yet even more valuable than the necessity for white Americans/Australians to gain an appreciation of the local native's culture is the necessity for native students to see their lifestyle recognised within mainstream education. Every student deserves the opportunity to study something that they excel in, and for many students this passionate subject area is their culture.

Whilst recognition and education of these cultures begins in the school, CRTs must educate themselves. Mel from the Wodonga CRT Network recently posted about the Professional Development requirements for VIT registration (What do YOU want from Professional Development). Although some CRTs are (and have always been) excelling well beyond these minimal requirements, many are skidding by with the bare minimum hours for registration, failing to see the benefits of which a lifestyle of continual Professional Development allows. It's concerning to hear teachers are participating in Professional Development opportunities simply to tick off hours or to enhance their CV. Even worse is the thought that if it were not a requirement, some teachers would never participate in PDs. As educators, we must also be lifelong learners. We must be continually educating ourselves about our students and their world if we are to continue teaching effectively. As the quote at the top of this page from the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership states, “The best educators are the best learners. They can adapt to tomorrow’s contexts, technologies, languages.” With time and money constraints the drive for learning can be diminished, but be assured any effort to improve teaching practice can, in fact, be Professional Development. Attending seminars and workshops can provide a unique experience, expert advice, collegial atmosphere or simply the certificate. Seeking the advice of a colleague with multicultural expertise or observing others teach the subject can prove equally useful. Aside from the benefit to your students, Professional Development will allow for an acquisition of further self-awareness and a greater understanding of your skills and weaknesses as an educator. Oh what an infinite amount there is to learn.

More specifically, self-guided multicultural education gives teachers the skills to identify biases in past curriculum materials, as James W. Loewen outlines in Lies My Teacher Told Me:
"Children's history books use terms such as 'westward expansion' and 'Manifest Destiny' to describe what would be more accurately called ethnic genocide. These books alternately portray Indians as 'noble savages', 'faithful Indian guides', or 'sneaky savages' who lead 'ambushes' and 'massacres', while in contrast, cavalrymen fight 'brave battles'. These books propagandize the 'glory and honor' of taking land and oppressing native people for European purposes that are portrayed as holy and valid (Skinner)".
Part of this cross-curriculum priority will inevitably be uncovering the skewed histories and the racist ideologies that are still prevalent today. "Unless teachers are properly prepared, they are not likely to have the necessary skills to discuss racism in anything other than a perfunctory way"(Education Review). School should be an environment in which students feel ok to confront their own stereotypes and racist ideas by dissecting what influences led to those viewpoints. Lessons also need to provide and contextualise multiple perspectives and experiences to allow students to formulate their own unbiased interpretation of history, which will ensure their ability to translate their knowledge into modern-day relevance. Gone are the days of learning history by memorising content from a textbook written from a single perspective of events. Instead teachers should use that textbook as a guide for biases and an interpretation of one form of history, asking "Whose viewpoint is presented, whose omitted and whose interests are served? (Michael H. Romanowski)"

Despite our initial ignorance and hesitations to a new subject area, we must take the challenges of the new curriculum head-on. Professional Development will help to provide insight, and give you the means to approach the topic. You don't need to have all the answers to teach something, and in my experience it’s actually better if you don't. An air of curiosity in the classroom is much better than that of denial and avoidance. Open the floor up to discussion and yourself up to what your students have to say; show them you're never too educated to learn.

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