Centring on identity

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9 November 2018

With its award-winning resource centre and bilingual program, Yirrkala School is leading the way in how to affirm culture and identity while building a foundation for English literacy.


The breakthrough work of a resource centre in Australia’s north-east Arnhem Land has won
the Arthur Hamilton Award for Outstanding Contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education. Yirrkala School’s Literature Production Centre produces multi-language print and digital resources for the bilingual school’s students and coordinates its cultural program.

The centre supports the school’s team of teachers through planning, resource selection, production and assessment, and provides IT support and mentoring.

Its staff produce all print, video and online resources a teacher might need in the local Yolŋu Matha languages including books, songs, activity sheets, play-based learning resources, handwriting books, dictionaries and translations.

It has embraced new technology, producing interactive ebooks for iPads, and this year is working with the University of Melbourne on a Yolŋu Matha phonics app.

The centre, established in 1974, is staffed by a teacher-linguist fluent in English and several Yolŋu Matha languages, a literature production supervisor / IT specialist, a multilingual senior literacy worker and two literacy workers who are Year 12 graduates of the bilingual program. The centre is also part of the mentorship program for Yolŋu Team Teachers undertaking Certificate IV in Education Support.

Valued culture

Yirrkala School’s goal is to develop fluent ‘both ways’ literacy and enable its students to ‘walk in both worlds’. This is dependent on first building strong Yolŋu identity, language and culture.

“Having strong language and strong culture supports students’ identity and wellbeing,” says senior literacy worker Rärriwuy Marika. “It makes them feel proud and know their culture is valued.”

Strong cultural identity and literacy in the local language creates the basis for students to successfully learn English.

“Setting down that strong foundation of literacy and oracy in their first language leads to more success in learning English as a second language,” says literature production supervisor Jake Stockley.

The school’s 190 students all speak Dhuwaya Yolŋu Matha at home and use it as their first language in class.

“Dhuwaya is a lingua franca in the community,” says teacher-linguist Yalmay Yunupiŋu, “And we know all people learn best in their first language.”

The school uses the highly successful and evidence-based staircase, or step, model of bilingual instruction, where a child begins their early schooling speaking and writing
in their first language.

The use of English for teaching gradually increases throughout a child’s school years. By Year 4, English is used 50 per cent of the day and by Years 11 and 12, English is used for teaching
90 per cent of the day. By Year 12, students are fluent in English as a second language and literate in their first language, with a number of students undertaking their Year 12 Northern Territory Certificate of Education and Training.

The school also supports senior students to strengthen their clan languages, which they begin learning as they get older and go through initiation, says Marika.

“What we often do now is produce a book in Dhuwaya – the children’s language – and, if that story was told in a clan language, we will also produce a version in that language,” says Stockley.

Under the school’s both-ways Garma Maths curriculum, traditional Yolŋu metaphors and patterns are used to teach modern mathematics.

The school has a formal Learning on Country partnership with Dhimurru rangers who manage the country on behalf of the Yolŋu landowners. Students, teachers, rangers and elders work together to learn about their land, history and stories relating to country.

Profound metaphors

The centre provides planning space, resource production and management of resources for lessons.

There’s a lot more to it than checking sentences and spelling. “It’s about going through the process to make sure the work is appropriate for Yolŋu students,” says Marika.

The centre uses the profound Yolŋu metaphors of Ŋathu (the cycad nut) and Yambirrpa (the fish trap) to share beliefs about the way Yolŋu people live and work.

The Ŋathu metaphor describes how to remove the deadly poison from a cycad nut so it is safe to grind for making sacred bread. It has an inherent message about the importance of process.

The Yambirrpa metaphor, about working together to build a shallow rock wall on the beach to trap fish, reflects a culture built on understanding and working with the environment.

Creating culturally appropriate learning resources for Yolŋu children follows the same careful process.

“We ensure they are correct, appropriately levelled and consistent with a Yolŋu worldview,” says Stockley. “We work together to make a bilingual education that respects Yolŋu knowledge and ways of learning.”

With four decades of experience, the teachers at Yirrkala know bilingual education is the right pathway for their students. “Yolŋu children speak and think in Yolŋu Matha,” says Yunupiŋu. “To educate them in any other way would put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already are.

“Non-Yolŋu Matha speakers should consider that, if they were educated in a language other than their first language, how well would they do?” says Yunupiŋu.

By Krista Mogensen

Arthur Hamilton Award

The AEU’s annual Arthur Hamilton Award is in honour of Arthur Hamilton, a proud Palawa man, educator and union activist who died in 2004. For more information about the history of Yirrkala School, see Dhanbul Djamarrkuli'.

This article first appeared in the Australian Educator, Winter 2018.