By Anessa Quirit, Year 5/ 6 teacher
It all started with the overarching idea we were exploring that year around the theme of identity. As a teaching team, we knew we wanted the kids to feel empowered, empowered enough so that they would be motivated to take action in some way to have a positive effect on their world.
So there I was trying to think about what kind of book I could read with the students in which the character was thrust in a situation where she wasn’t out to seek power, but the pressures of society thrust the taking up of power on her. She had to sink or swim.
The key things that I remember about that year were, one, the discussions, the rich discussions that we had around their feeling of who they were, which came out of their perception of the world. I remember one discussion around an incidence of bullying in the class. The kids really had had enough and ‘the bully’ in question I knew was suspected of being bipolar, though a diagnosis was yet to confirm the condition. In any case, he had been suspended for a couple of days, during which time the kids were talking about him. I remember the feeling in the room change the more the children understood where the bullying person was coming from. They didn’t have to be angry at him anymore. The power to forgive other people was really big.
I remember other snippets from that point in time when we had just started using Google Drive to store the students’ materials. We were looking at the “Six Cs” at the time by Michael Fullan and the Deep Learning rubrics. And we were trying to figure out how we could collaborate, how we could allow collaboration with the limited resources that we had. And what we ended up doing was looking at the historical links between the post-apocalyptic dystopian world of “Hunger Games”, and real history. We said, go and research: find out what you can and come back and tell us.
What we found was that the kids identified, for instance, some of the commonalities between ancient Rome and the gladiator games in Hunger Games and how the games were actually used as a mechanism to control the people, to keep them happy, so that the emperor could continue doing what he wanted to do. I thought this was great but how could we make the collaboration work with all students when we had a timetable which favoured that the kids where in so many places?
So we started using a common task, around the creation of a Google slideshow. Within that structure, students were able to chat, have discussions and critique each other and see ‘live’ how the slideshow was coming together. The idea was not necessarily to create a single presentation, but a platform for students to share ideas and critique each other and go, “Right, go back and check that fact. I can see where you’ve found it, but this is where I’m coming from!” So cross-referencing, active cross-referencing, active questioning of what’s going on, it was amazing.
Scaffolding, from beginning to end.
At the time, I was just looking to solve a problem: I can’t get all these kids in one room at the same time, and that’s not going to happen with their timetable. I had to balance it off with being at home and answering prompts through student emails like, “Can you do this for me? Can you check that for me?” But it was wonderful to see how they totally drove the collaborative process. And then what they did was bring in what they had learned and what they’d found out.
They made links, the suggestions were going off like firecrackers… there was a feeling of fireworks. They were bouncing ideas off one another that were completely valid. This was true in any sense … in the adult world as well as the classroom. The students were relating concepts and ideas of things like consumerism through the novel. They began to relate the people in the capital and how they were so obsessed with what they were putting on their faces that they didn’t have time to think about the welfare of the whole society.
There were quite a few that were notable. One of them prompted me to send a letter home because it was quite risky. The letter home advised parents that in studying Hunger Games, their child would be exposed to look at what it meant to participate in war games. Part of the process would involve them being ostracized. The exercise was designed as a voluntary thing but anybody willing to participate would understand that this is what they might expect.
I went to the team of Year 5 & 6 staff and said, “Right, so how can we do this so that students could have a true account, and that they came back to the group about how they were feeling, about being treated differently or segregated from others?” What we came up with was working with students with some not being allowed the use of a locker. They had to stay inside at recess and lunchtime, and they had to make sure that the room was set up for the next class. So they had to do all these chores.
I noticed that the kids developed quite an interesting buzz about them, so I decided to push the issue further by turning it into a math thing. I wanted to introduce algebra through the possibilities and the patterns of dispensing fairness like… if you’re eight years old and you have two votes, and you have a vote every year, we have to figure out an algorithm to find out does your family need extra sustenance the way Katniss’ family did. How is that fair? Is it okay to not be fair?
We actually did an entire series of workshops where we looked at algebra and pattern making. If that wasn’t remarkable enough, I had children couldn’t count past their fingers and they were doing participating in the math. They were able to do this. Sure, they need more assistance and guidance, but they did it.
Blockers to learning
I just went, “Okay. I don’t care what you think you know, or what you think you know. I don’t care about the answer, I just want to know what you’re thinking. Let’s devote all of our energy to that and then worry about what comes out of it later.”
So if I kept them focused on, “I don’t care about your answer. I never will care about your answer. I don’t want to even know the answer. We probably won’t even discuss the answer.” I continue to say such things especially in the face of children who don’t believe me. I say to them, “Okay, just try me, but don’t ever bring a pen to my class. Bring a pencil instead!!”
In time, the kids were turning around and saying, “I’m going to algebra class now, everybody. I’ll see you later.” You know, there was just such excitement of, “Wow, this is algebra. Okay. All right.” Some got it right away. Less confident children developed into a more confident ones as their ability grew with every attempt. The student that when from counting on his fingers to doing algebra is now in Year Eight. He’s studying science and mathematics at the John Monash School of Science. He’s doing mathematics courses that are geared towards older years than he chronological age. So this child has gone from “Oh, I’m awful.” Before we undertook algebra, he really had no way of trying to figure out logically how anything mathematically fitted together. He just had this idea that, “Oh, that’s my worst subject.” You know, and by the end, he was very different.
It made that ethereal algebra, where you’re incorporating letters and numbers into something that’s tangible, that’s workable, that they can see how it applies to real life. I applied the same approach to directing a student teacher when he wanted to teach students how to calculate the perimeter of square and triangle. “Well, that’s great, but why is it that way?” His response was “I don’t know.” So I drew the square, and I said, “Right, how do you find the area of this, base x height, right? Okay, so then, how do you make a square into a triangle? Half the base times the height. That’s what I want students to see: when you know why it is the way it is, you are not just plugging in numbers.
I was one of those students who was all right with maths up until a certain point, and then everything just got overwhelming. So I know how kids feel.
Never give up!
The tension between teaching something and interacting emotionally with students is difficult to separate. Holding high expectations of an extremely vulnerable student really challenges your resolve. Saying, ‘I don’t care where you’re coming from, you can still achieve so much’ is part of the tenacity I bring to teaching when what I’m really saying “Yes, I’ll help get you there. Come in with the right attitude, and I’ll help you get there.” I’m very upfront with the kids. It’s probably just part of the American in me that I just don’t have time for nonsense, but that they know I love them.
Alongside my determination, however, I know that I need to know them as people before I can learn with them. That’s really what Amanda (not her real name) drove home for me. I had to know her and she didn’t let me in until I knew her as a person. She didn’t let me in until she saw I wasn’t gonna give up on her. I actually came up against a lot of walls within the school.
Don’t tell me that I can’t do something, just let me have a space in which I can try to figure out how I’m going to do it. If you tell me I can’t do something, why should I listen to you? You know, that’s probably one of the best aspects of working here at Wooranna Park. I don’t know if the principal sees kind of monster he’s created, and I don’t often go into his room to tell him all the wonderful things that are going on. I just end up doing them, and if he hears about them, great.
When I think of how Wooranna enabled me to work with Amanda, I see her arrival in grade five, very disconnected, just looking out the window. She really grated on me because I’m doing everything I can to try and get engaged in the classroom. It was this fine line of irritation and what I noticed in the person before me.
It was July and she was still not doing her work. She was just away with the fairies. I’d known a little bit of her background because I taught her older brother, who had some issues. I knew that Amanda had been whisked away with her mother and her brother when the children were previously at Wooranna in grade one and two respectively. At the time, Amanda had reported that she was being sexually abused by one of her grandparents. Her father had been abusive to her mother. When she had opened up and shared that at the school, the police and DHS had come and the consequences for the family were very severe. They whisked the three of them away that day, never to be heard from again, somewhere, they hid them. And then all of a sudden she pops back up in grade five.
I sat down with her many times trying to get through to her, and I’m like, “Right, what’s going on?” And this day, she was very reluctant to open up because she saw what happened when she did the first time. Her entire family got turned upside down. But I persisted, “What’s going on? You see, the girl was doing tally marks to count, and she’s only getting to five. What’s going on? Okay, there’s trauma. Where did she go?” So I asked her what school she’s been to.
She said she’d been to two or three different schools, and in that time that she had known that the teacher had said, “You can’t do this work, so you do this work.” And put her in with ‘the babies’. That’s how she described it. So I work out that she had been ‘streamed’ according to what teachers had perceived that she couldn’t do. So she had labelled herself, “I can’t do it. I’m out, I’m done.” But then she ended up coming back to Wooranna.
She came to school every day with little cat ears on her head. She loved animals and I decided that I would use that fact as my way to relate to her. Passion led. It had to be that. I can’t worry about what she could write or what she could count. I had to work to get her to answer, “What do you want to do?” Not in any casual way but in the context of what I was doing with the whole class through our reading of Hunger Games: what could you do to make a difference?”
I’d heard on the radio that the RSPCA had a cupcake fundraiser coming up in August, so I feed this to her. I said, “Well, what are we going to do for the animals?” I don’t know, she responded, I’m going to make a poster.” “No, we’re not! We’re not making a poster! I elaborated on what I had heard on the radio about the cupcake fundraiser. Sell cupcakes, donate money to RSPCA. “Does that sound like an idea you want to do?” Amanda added, “I can get my mom involved.” “Yes, please. Great. Wonderful.”
So we set off to create a plan. I prompted her to go and figure out how many people might want to have cupcakes. I asked her to figure out a recipe. We’ve got to figure out how many times we have to make the recipe. There was none of this, “Let’s learn your adding and your repetitive addition.” Rather, “How many batches of cupcakes are we going to make? How are we going to do this? How are we going to fund the materials.” By this time, Amanda’s mother had become involved. She then advised me “My mum’s going to take me to go and get the materials.” I’m so pleased.
I hadn’t seen her mother very much at all and mum had a lot of other issues. But the mom wasn’t moving, she wasn’t doing anything. She was saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” but then not following through.
Whenever I helped Amanda with the planning, I had to walk her through it step by step. We wrote out a letter to the school, that I started for her and she finished it. We then edited it together. I recall how we encountered some flack when we went to go and get it printed off at the office. There was a barrier. She got stopped, there was a wall every time she came down to talk to the principal or to get something printed out. I actually had to walk her past the blocker to get to the principal who immediately agreed to the initiative.
When all of that had happened, and we were coming closer to the day, I was clear that if she didn’t have a plan, we couldn’t do the activity. It was getting to a precipice, “I need you to do something, show me something, show me some effort, show me something. I know you want to do this. Let’s get there.”
We got to the day that we were supposed to cook the cupcakes. The mother came in with the supplies but Amanda didn’t have any plan on how she would do the task. And so we all sat down, and I am close to saying, “Well, that’s it. We’re done.” I was really at that point. Amanda is in tears. I took a minute and I walked away. I left mum to console her daughter. I said, “I’m going to come back and you’re going to figure out what you want to do” And so I came back and mum stepped in, and said, “Right, we’ll go and do this at home, and we’ll come back in.”
All it was, was knowing how many cupcakes had to be made. Amanda just had to try and figure it out. We had all of the surveys. She had surveyed everybody. From that point on, with her mom committed to do the task with her, she started moving. But by now it was the end of August. So I said, “Never mind the RSPCA deadline, we’re doing this next week.” So I sat down with her and asked her “How much money do you want to make?” She meekly responded “Oh, I want to make $100 or whatever.”
On the day in question, Mom brought some stuff down. She had been very ill and couldn’t walk very far: she had to take public transport to get to the school. Mum was now very committed. We got past all the blockages, we made the cupcakes, we sold the cupcakes. Amanda had a core group of classmates whose skills she could rely on, helped get her where she needed to go.
There was all of this altruism going on in the classroom at the time, and that’s underestimating the quality of relationships that I was witnessing. It’s just who they were as young people. They knew Amanda needed help, and they offered to assist her in counting, collating and delivering the cupcakes. They also cooked the cupcakes, and did the washing up after it was all over.
You could just see how the project enabled Amanda’s confidence to grow. And by the end of the entire experience, she had sold over $350 worth cupcakes. Her mother had come in to help her. It changed everything, but not blatantly. It was just in who she was as a person, being able to stand in front of a group of people, which she couldn’t do before, and just say, “This is what’s going on, this is what we’ve raised, this is what we did.”
It just transformed her in a matter of two months. But then I gave her a further challenge when I said to her, “Your journey’s not ending. You’re going to go down to the RSPCA, you’re going to call them and let them know you have raise money for them. Rather than hand it over as an anonymous donation , you’re going to explain what you’ve done.”
It was October by then, and it seemed to take forever to have a school cheque drawn up because, once again, Amanda was blocked by the school procedures to act on her instructions. I explained “I want to know you have a voice. I want other people to know you have the voice.” So I sent her to speak for herself so that she would say she had the power make a serious request of an adult.
There continued to be issues with drawing the cheque for the RSPCA with office staff where I actually had to tell Amanda, “You’re going to come against people who just don’t understand and you have to fight.”
And I was giving her this message multiple ways because there was still that concern that she was being molested. However, she never opened up about anything else because she was just too scared that she would be taken away again. Despite it all, we got the cheque drawn up and I said, “Right, I’m going to pick you up at your house, on my day off, and we’re going down to the RSPCA.”
So I drop my kids off, one at school and the other one with the grandparent, and I went over to Lily’s house. I went to her house and, I mean, it was very confronting. The girl had a number of animals that she loved, but they were clearly a family in crisis. It gave me a glimpse of what she went home to every day, but the love that was there with her mother, even if her she was physically and emotional fragile.
Through the experience, Amanda seem to grow in her understanding of what it meant to rely on somebody to support her, even though there were awful things at play. However, I couldn’t tell her that I knew about those things or that I suspected them. I could just what we had done together in the classroom
Coincidentally, when we down to the RSPCA, the receptionist informed us that she had attended Wooranna Park Primary School! The ensuing conversation made Amanda relax a little more. When the receptionist called down the Head of Fundraising and presented the cheque, we got a personal tour of the facility. I could tell that Amanda wanted to get further involved so I asked how young people could become volunteers to look after the animals on site. We were told that they could come and cuddle the animals and help out. I left the details for Amanda to work out with her mother in their own personal time.
I didn’t quite realize the impact that the experience had made on her until later on in the year. It was around Father’s Day when I had a conversation with Amanda’s mother where she told me that she and Amanda had gone to newsagency to get a Father’s Day card . Instead of looking at the cards, the girl went straight to the back of the store and picked up a math book and said, “Mum, I need to practice my math, can you buy me book?” The fact that the mum had that moment to share off the cuff told me that Amanda had changed, not just her skills but more so her belief in herself to do things she couldn’t do before.
The next year, and I wasn’t even there at school that day, Jennie [Vine] told me during reading a John Marston’s poem with the line “I was a sailor. I was lost and now I’m found” appears. Jennie asked the class “What does that mean?” And Amanda stood up and said, “I was lost and now I’m found.”