Tuesday, April 15, 2014

#TeacherTuesday Australia: Rural and Indigenous - Strategies to improve learning

For week 8 of #TeacherTuesday we are in New South Wales, Australia. This is now where I live, along the northern coast area, just below the Queensland border, below Brisbane - see the map below. In physical terms the school featured this week is relatively close to where I live - see the red marker on the map for the school location.
The teacher is Russell, and the school, Ross Hill Public School, is in Inverell in the northwest. It is a New South Wales country town. It has a population of about 680 students from kindergarten to year 6. 5 – 12/13 year olds.


Out of the 680 students there are 125 Aboriginal students. The school is situated on Traditional Aboriginal land and this is acknowledged at all school functions and meetings.  Russell is Gamilori (Aboriginal) person as well. Out of the 30 teachers, there are 4 Aboriginal teachers and also 2 Aboriginal education officers at the school as well.  

Russell teaches Grade 6. He describes his school and students:

At my school they are all English speaking and we currently we have a new curriculum coming which should have Indigenous language in it which means we’ll have to teach it to our kids at school. Last year I had one boy in my class who could speak five languages. But we predominantly teach in English. 
We have 18% Aboriginal students at our school.   
Poverty draws a line in the sand. You’re on one side or the other. It’s hard. That’s why I don’t set homework on a computer as I know some still don’t have computers at home, and that’s disadvantaging them. I accept it on a piece of paper. I don’t mind how it comes back as long as it comes back!
Aboriginal kids don’t necessarily live in more poverty than Non-Aboriginal kids. It depends where you live I think. These all tie into what the union was fighting for – an education review to get all schools to be funded to the minimum level with extras added on for low socio economic kids, children with disabilities, Aboriginal children. That’s started and is being built into our schools at the moment. The battle’s still going though. The money doesn’t always come. It’s supposed to be over a six year period. I am actively involved in lobbying for this. I am an Aboriginal Councilor on the New South Wales Teachers Federation. It was the biggest educational review we’ve had for an age.  

A lot of the class sizes are big – kindergarten should be 20 students - it’s big! You learn not to sit down! You don’t have a chance to sit down! And as they get older, the classes go up. I can have up to 35 kids in my classroom.
So you need teaching aids – specialized teachers who can take a group of kids to give them a boost in literacy or mathematics.
About Aboriginal people he shares:

The challenges Aboriginal people face are still there today and we need to recognize these as a whole society, we as a people are still not recognized in or own constitution as the first peoples of this country.   
When I was at school it was sometimes difficult going to school with non-aboriginal people as if I was in a classroom and someone didn’t want to sit next to me, I could be asked to move place. That was in the 70s. Now, some of those Aboriginal children have children of their own and in their mindset, education tormented them, so it’s hard for us to get these parents into school.
Some aren’t exposed to the written form of English before they go to school – books and that sort of thing. They hear the spoken language but they’re three steps behind before they start. They’re playing catch up from day one.
Some Aboriginal children don’t go to preschools. I’d say you’d be lucky if 50% of your Aboriginal children had been to preschool. 
A lot has changed over the past couple of years a lot of the teachers have changed even. Their attitudes have changed. A lot of teachers still find it hard to teach Indigenous  children in the classroom. Not because they don’t know what to teach, it’s that they’re afraid to do the wrong thing – to teach something incorrectly when it comes to the Aboriginal perspective on something. They’re nervous. They want to do the right thing but they don’t want to offend someone. If they describe a country or a land and name it wrongly or the history of the country, for example. When it comes up in the media it’s actually really hard in the classroom. Because the kids know the media half the time faster than I do. They’re linked into everything! So as a teacher we need to keep up with all events and technology.
A lot of Aboriginal students don’t even finish high school. They get side tracked. I was the first person in my family ever to do a university degree. In my state, you cannot leave high school until you are 17 years old and you have to have a job or apprenticeship if you’re going to leave before then. They’ve upped that age limit from 16 years. And the high school syllabus has changed to incorporate trades in it and stuff. High school 2 days, tech school for 2 days and work for one day. So they’re working and training while finishing their schooling. Quite a good move.  
About teaching he says:

The way it works for teachers is if you work in certain places you build up points and the more points you get it puts you higher up the transfer ladder so when you teach at the more remote schools you get 8 points per year, compared to 1 point on the coast, so it’s worth 8 years for a job on the coast! You can get a rent subsidy in some western areas. There’s an imaginary line so if you’re on one side of that you get an extra week’s holiday because of the heat too!
A lot of the western schools have a lot of beginner teachers. A lot of teachers come out here because of the incentives but leave after three years, some not all. They come straight from uni. After the 3 years out here they go to teach on the coast instead and live and retire there for the rest of their lives! So there’s a high turn around in these areas.
In my last school I was there for three years and had done relieving work before then, and I was the third longest serving teacher in the school. There’s such a high turnover so the kids don’t learn to trust you. It takes at least 12 months for them to trust you.
There are scholarships now as well so you have to agree to stay for 3 to 5 years or give back your scholarship money.
I wanted to be a teacher when I was at school because I wanted to prove people wrong and show I could do it. It took me a long time. I was accepted into university but turned it down. I was a lifeguard for 16 years. Then I was a teacher. I’m in my seventh year now. I should have done it 15 years ago. I love it! When I was doing my lifeguarding stuff I was still doing stuff for schools – teaching swimming and first aid. Still involved but not a classroom teacher.  


Aboriginal education is compulsory in teacher training, but we can chose electives which are special interests. I choose a couple of Indigenous ones there. I did a double weighted project to raise literacy standards of Indigenous boys in a small coastal town in New South Wales.  It was confrontational as I pulled apart the syllabus to say that I didn’t think it was working for those kids – they were falling further and further behind because what was being taught wasn’t interesting to them. The syllabus didn’t suit their needs. It was too regimented. These boys were more creative, not just mind wise. I got them to learn English through drama and role plays. They got up and acted it out as they didn’t like to be still. The new syllabus has better cultural references in it I’m pleased to say. It has compulsory Aboriginal perspectives in it. You don’t have to write in words, you can write in paintings now, for example. I’ve had my students pull a story apart about the drought of the basin – a big river system here – and I got them to paint it with Indigenous symbols rather than write it. They’re using a lot of terminology out of there.
We have to teach music as part of our syllabus so I try to teach a mixture of indigenous music woven into rap music. As an example I use a didgeridoo artist that plays rap through a didgeridoo! I interweave Aboriginal with modern, and I do that with dance as well, incorporating both. It is important that our children don’t lose their cultural heritage.


A recent UNSECO report highlights the learning gaps that persist between indigenous and non-indigenous students.

On a more global basis, this graph from UNESCO highlights the learning disparities. A recent factsheet from UNESCO tells us:

"The difficulty indigenous children face is one reason for the wide gaps in learning between rich and poor students in Australia and New Zealand. Though these gaps are clearly visible in student assessments, they have not received sufficient policy attention, and so have persisted for a decade and a half. In Australia, around two-thirds of indigenous students achieved the minimum benchmark in mathematics in grade 8 between 1994/95 and 2011, compared with almost 90% of their non-indigenous peer"


Russell shares a real account of issues confronting education in Australia:
  • Equality of education for rural students and indigenous students compared with urban and coastal areas
  • Access to resources - and how schools that have a lower socioeconomic clientele need more teaching resources - human and physical
  • Access to technology - similar to resources - but there are serious inequalities regarding access to online resources through inadequate levels of Internet access across Australia
  • Teacher training - The need to include indigenous subjects and raise awareness.
    Providing incentived for indigienous teachers is also essential
  • Teacher incentives - as mentioned in past #TeacherTuesday posts, providing incentives for teachers to be in a rural area, and to feel comfortable teaching there, is a challenge. Russell is teaching in his 'home territory' therefore feels comfortable. Many teachers in Australia will not, unless forced, teach in the country - a familiar story in many countries.
  • What to teach! We have the Australian Curriculum being implemented from Foundation to Grade 12. This is a major step in helping to unify the country (a state-based education system also engenders inequality) and provide a common core curriculum. It also focuses on the capabilities of 'Intercultural Understanding' and 'Information and Communication Technology'. However Russell shares essential objectives to integrate different cultures into how and what you teach, taking a broader rather than a narrower approach.
One of the most powerful statements by Russell,
"Aboriginal kids don’t necessarily live in more poverty than Non-Aboriginal kids."
reminds us that we need positive action not only for indigenous students, but also for all students across Australia who are living in poverty and statistically are not achieveing as well.

This blog post is a contribution to Week 8 of #TeacherTuesday, a UNESCO and EFA initiative. I invite you to also read from my blog:
“Find out more about the TeacherTuesday campaign: read the blogs and join us for weekly tweetchats with the teachers”.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Global Education Highlights (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

TeacherTuesday - Bangladesh: Learning on water with solar powered technology

The theme for #TeacherTuesday this week of technology and access to learning is dear to my heart and my work from the past 20 years. Also, having lived in Bangladesh for four years, 2003-2007, I have great empathy with the teacher this week as I have seen and interacted with and lived with the wonderful people of Bangladesh who have a resilience, an amazing intellect and joy for life.

The teacher interviewed is Mosammat Reba Khatun. She is 40 years old and lives in a small riverside village in Bangladesh. She completed 10 years of schooling, is a single mother and lives with her parents. Much of the text below is in Mosammat's own words, (indicated by a different font).





I teach on Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s solar-powered floating school and I have been teaching there for the last 10 years.

The school is located on the Gumani river in the Pabna district in northwest Bangladesh. Our floating school works in the remote river basin where there is no education option, particularly during the monsoon season. It collects children from their homes, teaches them on board and returns them at the end of the session. Then the school-boat moves onto the next village. The school offers three shifts per day and reaches a total of 90 students.

It runs from January to December. Our school has a classroom for 30 students and internet-linked computers and electronic resources.  Our floating school provides education up to grade IV. Students are 6 to 9 years old. The students that get good exam results receive the SuryaHurricane solar lantern (a low-cost solar lantern made from recycled parts of the conventional and much-used kerosene lantern) as scholarships. Parents also receive on-board trainings on human rights, nutrition, health & hygiene, sustainable farming, and climate change adaptations.


I teach students in grade II. My students are 7-8 years old and they study Bengali, Maths, English, and learn drawing and there are 30 students in our class. 67 percent of the student are female.

We need the floating school because in the monsoon season (late June to October), one third of Bangladesh goes underwater. Boats are the only means of communication in the flood-prone areas. It makes it very difficult to access basic services. Roads to schools get flooded and children cannot go to land-based schools. Therefore the floating school is the only education option here - it travels to students and provide education at the doorsteps. 



 The school-boat is specially designed by architect Mohammed Rezwan (founder of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha) to adjust to any equipment configuration as well as to protect the electronic equipment from heavy monsoon. The boat is outfitted with a multi-layered waterproof roof. It is built with local materials, traditional knowledge and labour.

Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha was a 2012 WISE Award winner (World Innovation Summit in Education, Qatar). I was there at WISE that year when Mohammed Rezwan accepted this award. You can find many more details, including videos, about the solar-powered floating schools on the WISE website. There is also an interesting live chat archive and an interview transcript with Mr Rezwan.


The floating school ensures access to education and information in the monsoon season. It encourages parents to send their girls to schools and pushes for female enrolment. The trained parents grow new crops that ensure foods and year-round income. The rate of early marriage is reduced. This floating school is the combination of a school bus and schoolhouse. I am teaching our students at our doorsteps. It saves time for the working children and me. 

There is an overwhelming need for floating schools in the flood-prone communities. About 20 percent of each village population is school age therefore many parents want their children to get enrolled in the floating school. They always request for the enrolment of their children.


A lot has changed in the last 10 years. To begin with there were not any computers or solar powered system on the boat. Considering the need, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha gradually introduced the computer and internet, then the solar system. When we found the surplus solar energy on the boat, the organization introduced the solar lantern. The design of the boat was changed during the past years.


Technology is very important to us as we use Internet linked computers at school. We use cellular data network for Internet connectivity. Children learn computer skills and watch educational shows. It encourages children and helps to learn more. Computers in the classroom have encouraged the students to learn the new technology, watch the educational shows, learn how to draw pictures and visit the online educational websites.


I think technology makes learning easier for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example because the students often live in such remote areas that are often off the [power] grid we have started the lantern scheme to enable children to do their homework in the evenings. Only 5 students in each class have received a SuryaHurricane solar lantern as scholarships so far, but most of the houses want the SuryaHurricane solar lantern. There is a real growing demand of renewable energy and communication technology in Bangladesh.

In the UNESCO publication of 'Curriculum and assessment strategies that improve learning', 'Deploying technology to reduce disparities' section, it states: 
"Digital classrooms can enhance learning and bridge knowledge and skills gaps among less qualified teachers." and 
"Innovation in the use of technology can help improve learning by enriching teachers’ curriculum delivery and encouraging flexibility in pupil learning. Greater access to computers in schools helps reduce the digital divide between low and high income groups. However, new technology is not a substitute for good teaching." 
and 
"In poorer countries, the availability of ICT infrastructure remains a crucial consideration. Many countries cannot yet support widespread computer-assisted learning because schools lack internet access or, in some cases, even electricity supply. But, given the investment required by poorer countries to ensure that all schools have electricity supply or internet access, the use of ICT is unlikely to be as cost-effective as spending more on teachers to reduce class sizes. Teachers remain central to curriculum delivery, particularly for low achievers needing additional support."

It seems to me the floating solar-powered boat model brings technology to the classroom by providing essential infrastructure at a workable cost. The next step is to focus on the design of interactive software and how that supports learning within and beyond the indigenous culture.



The teaching can be very challenging, as we are working with children from landless, extremely poor families vulnerable to natural disasters. Their parents mostly work as day laborers and have irregular family income. The condition of the houses is poor. The children under age 5 are malnourished and infant mortality rate is high. Girls are not allowed to move around freely. Many parents are reluctant to let girls go to school but we meet with the parents monthly to encourage them to send their children to school regularly so as to ensure good attendance and low drop out numbers. 


Our school curriculum is student focused, interactive, interesting and designed to be fun for children. Our class size is limited to 30 students which allows for teacher and student bonding. Our students are involved in reciting rhyme and poem, singing, story-telling, reading and discussion on books from the library, drawing pictures on paper, writing poems, etc. These are the ways the children are encouraged to express their creativity and learn more. Students are also encouraged to participate and work in groups. Generally the children find it easy learning how to read and write at our school.

All teachers attend a two-week long orientation training at the beginning of their work here. The training covers the project overview, floating school, curriculum, parents meeting and reporting
guidelines. Also, there are day-long refresher training sessions every month. They cover next month’s syllabus and teaching guidelines, parents meeting agenda and extracurricular activities. At the monthly training, we discuss also about the school performance during the previous month, challenges, and required educational materials (we receive primary textbooks - grade 2 to 4 - from Upazila Education Offices of the Bangladesh Government). We also share feedback received from the parents.


I start the day very early in the morning. I cook food for my daughter and me. Then I teach on the floating school. I work 4 hours each day for teaching and lesson planning/marking. My classes finish at lunchtime. After returning home, I work as a tailor. In the evening, I travel through our village to meet the students and their families. 


The school can help the whole family - Muhammad Sagar Hossain (7 years) is a student of grade II on the floating school. His father Muhammad Altaf Hossain is a day labourer, who seasonally migrates to town in search for work. His mother Ms. Munira Begum looks after the family and works in their homestead garden. She received agriculture training on Shidhulai’s floating training centre, and now practices sustainable farming. Sagar’s older sister Mosammat Munni Khatun also studied on the floating school. He wants to be a floating schoolteacher to teach his villagers.


I hope for the future the importance of creating access to schools for thousands of children living in the flood-prone areas of the country is recognised. In the flood-prone regions the roads to school get flooded and some schools go under floodwater and children therefore cannot go to school in the monsoon season. It is the main reason for school drop outs in rural Bangladesh. I think the government, its development partners, Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha and other NGOs should work together to bring more floating schools across the country.


I decided to become a teacher because I love children and wanted to help them towards developing a better future. I believe our teaching inspires them, it always remains in their heart and becomes a part of their life. I think teaching is a gift of a lifetime. It has given me immense opportunity to give back to my community, help poor students to access to school, and impart positively on children.



This blog post is a contribution to Week 7 of #TeacherTuesday, a UNESCO and EFA initiative. I invite you to also read from my blog:
“Find out more about the TeacherTuesday campaign: read the blogs and join us for weekly tweetchats with the teachers”.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Global Education Highlights (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.