For Kaye Thorne’s class of pre-primary and kindergarten students, Noongar language lessons are the highlight of the week.
“They say: ‘We’re going to Noongar!’
“They have been so enthralled by what they have learned, the students have independently returned to class and begun a scrapbook with Noongar words and pictures to keep in our class library, to show our kindergarten classmates.”
The students are some of the youngest in a whole-of-school Aboriginal language and culture program adopted by Beeliar Primary School in Perth’s southern suburbs.
The school is one of many in Western Australia to have embraced First Nations culture under the guidance of the WA Education Department, where Noongar man Kevin O’Keefe is principal adviser for Aboriginal education teaching and learning.
He has drawn upon several decades of experience to assist schools in integrating Indigenous language and culture into education from kindergarten to year 12.
Developing cultural awareness
“This is a country that has 60,000 years of culture… all Australians should be proud of that,” Mr O’Keefe said.
“There is an increasing expectation across Australia that we embrace Aboriginal language and culture, develop our respect and understanding.”
The department has developed the Aboriginal cultural standards framework through consultation in 2016 and Mr Smith said it has been the basis of the approach to Indigenous education over the past five years.
He said a review of the Australian curriculum showed there needed to be much greater visibility in the curriculum of Aboriginal history, culture, and language.
He also said more needed to be done to ensure that all teachers knew more about First Nations culture and could share it with their students.
“There’s work going on, to not only ensure that there’s a greater focus on languages, but also ensuring that right across the curriculum in history, and science and art, the indigenous experience is presented.”
Mr O’Keefe said programs included providing kids with the chance to go “on country” to learn from elders.
“The Aboriginal community is very excited about it, because a lot of the concerns that they’ve had about their kids not doing well at school is that they simply haven’t been engaged in what they’re being taught because it doesn’t relate. to their own life and experience.
“What we’re finding is, even with those aspects of Australian history, which are very challenging, the stories of the massacres, and so on, what we’re finding is an incredible thirst for greater knowledge by students.
Teaching the teachers
While the initiatives are being embraced, Mr O’Keefe said the challenge for schools was that teachers were generally no more knowledgeable about Aboriginal language and culture than the wider community.
At Beeliar Primary, principal Daniel Mort and teachers including Marie Lynden and Kailee Maree have been taking a “holistic approach” to teaching with the hope of intertwining Indigenous language and culture into the school’s.
Students have started with learning basic words, before progressing to forming sentences using picture books.
Classrooms and other places around the school have been given dual names, with students encouraged to have language conversations with teachers and other students.
Ms Lynden, a proud Wadjuk Noongar woman said they were now teaching all students about Aboriginal culture, focusing on the local Noongar dialect.
She has also been hosting afternoon tea on Tuesdays for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students where they “yarn” and play games to strengthen relationships with each other.
“The kids love it,” she said.
She said students “can’t wait” to learn more and would excitedly ask her: “How do you say this?”
She said it gave her an immense sense of pride that Indigenous culture was valued by them.
‘It makes me feel special because I am Noongar’
Lucas, a year 5 Aboriginal student at Beeliar Primary School, said he found learning Noongar language “interesting”.
“It makes me feel special because I am Noongar and I care about this,” he said.
“I like to read Dreamtime stories and I would like to find some games like Roblox that are created by Aboriginal people.” Lucas said.
Ms Thorne said the five-year-olds in her class were “engaged and involved”.
“For most of my class, Australia is their birth country, but they have never been exposed to the language or tales of the peoples and land.”
“Perhaps most importantly this is an opportunity for our children to gain perspective,” and “grow up with a greater appreciation for the language and links to this land,” she said.
Pre-primary student Lucas enjoys the classes he said.
“I think learning the Noongar language is good, it makes me want to keep on learning. I like doing drawings of animals. My favorite one is the wetj (emu), I like doing it,” he said.
LOTE teacher Kailee Marree said learning about pre- and post-colonial Australia led the older students to use critical thinking skills to have open discussions about some aspects of history.
“They are questioning: ‘What happened to Indigenous languages?'” She said.
Year 6 teacher Mark Goundrey said the introduction of the Noongar Language Program at Beeliar Primary had been an inspiration to the students, teachers, and wider community.
“It has sparked some fascinating and passionate discussion in class as we are focusing on migration and recent Australian history in the humanities.
“I also feel it’s been a fantastic opportunity for our Indigenous students to proudly lead and be a source of knowledge in our classes,” he said.