Lee Hewes

is totes becoming a teacher…

#ProjectDreamtime: connecting with Arnhem Land and learning about culture.

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On a recent summer road trip, up through Uluru, Darwin, over to Cairns and back down to Sydney, I became inspired. Inspired by the landscape, inspired by the epic wet season weather, inspired by the stories and culture of the Indigenous people of northern Australia. I got to see Uluru in a once in 50 year downpour, with waterfalls streaming down its ancient surface, after sheltering with my family and some local children from the rain in a cave covered in 30,000 years worth of rock paintings. I was lucky enough to see the Todd River in Alice Springs flowing with recent wet season runoff, an event which is apparently also a once in a lifetime opportunity. I learned about Lightning Man in Kakadu National Park, and how his children, ‘Alyurr‘ bring the wet season when they arrive to the desert. I learned of the evil spirit, Narbulwinjbulwinj, and many other dreamtime stories. I was interviewed on SBS and became famous, lol. True story.

All of these experiences got me thinking about the ways I could use them to teach my students about Indigenous culture and the dreamtime stories. I think it’s important that when our students learn about Australian history, they start with a solid foundation of and respect for the first Australians and the culture which was established tens of thousands of years before any Europeans had ever laid eyes on the beautiful country we now know as Australia. After learning about the awesome ‘Momotaro the Peach Boy’ project by John Miller’s students, where they worked as a build team to recreate the story in Minecraft, I thought that it’d be an awesome idea for my class to do the same with some Aboriginal dreamtime stories.

So over the last couple of weeks of the summer holidays, I designed the project outline, which is guided by the driving question, ‘How could new technologies be used to tell traditional stories?’, and set about trying to connect my class with some schools from remote Indigenous communities. In fact, I emailed probably around 50 schools from remote NSW, QLD, WA and the NT, trying to establish connections. I finally managed to secure a connection with an awesome school from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, which I’ll write a little more about later. I also contacted the AECG and organised for a visitor to come to our school with some Aboriginal artefacts and to introduce the students to Indigenous culture.

His name is Des, and he came and spoke to the students, showing them his boomerangs, which were handed to him by his father and grandfather, a kangaroo skin and some other artefacts. He played the didjeridoo, and explained how it was only the boys and men who were allowed to play. The boys had a go at playing and we all laughed along as they made ridiculous noises. Des explained the concept of totem animals and performed the creation dance taught to him by his father and grandfather, which explains how Baiame came down and created all of the geographical features and the creatures of the land.  It was a great visit and we hope to be getting him back at the end of the project to show him what we have learned and made. Photos below.

We have also been speaking with some students in Arnhem Land via Skype. The students in 5L and 4/5H came up with some questions to ask the students from Arnhem Land. Things like, “What is your favourite sport?”, “Have you ever been out of Arnhem Land?”, “What do you like to do for fun?”, and all the other sorts of things that kids are interested in learning about from other kids. They also asked if the Arnhem Land students had ever seen a crocodile, to which we got the awesome answer, “We HUNT and EAT crocodile!” It was a real eye opener for the Merrylands East students to hear and learn about a traditional way of life that is still being lived today. They told us that crocodile tastes “sweet” and “a bit like chicken.” They also told us of the other animals they hunt, such as the long-neck turtle and sting ray. They told us of their totem animals and which belonged to their families.

Interestingly, one of the Merrylands East students asked if the Arnhem Land school was K-6 or K-12, and they told us that the school is more like ‘birth to adulthood’, with the mothers bringing their children to the school a few weeks after birth and continuing to visit and attend right through until they’ve finished high school and moved on to employment. They explained how children are taught their home language in conjunction with English, with two teachers working alongside each other, and that the elders also take the students to teach them their stories. A really interesting place, and a cool school setup with wonderful people. They have sent us some questions for our students and we will be contacting them again via Skype this coming Thursday to answer them. Such a cool connection to have.

As well as this, students in 5L and 4/5H have been using the class website PBL page to research dreamtime stories from around Australia. Working in groups of 3-4, they have now chosen a dreamtime story to build using Minecraft for the purpose of making a screencast retelling of the story. Their builds will be confined to a Minecraft ‘shoebox’ with dimensions ‘100*80*60’. These are the same dimensions of the shoeboxes used by John Miller in the Momotaro video linked to above, and I thank John for his friendly correspondence in passing on this information. The shoeboxes have been aligned in an 8*8 array, on a specially dedicated and purpose built superflat area on the MEPS-Wooranna Minecraft server. Some photos below, I can’t wait to see the wonderful creations that are soon to fill these boxes.

8 of the groups had all decided that they wanted to build the same story. It’s a story called ‘The Curse’, which they found on the Dust Echoes website, via the class weebly. It tells the story of a jealous witch doctor who sings a song around the a campfire in order to make another man sick. He summons the Namorrodor, and evil, dragon-like creature that eats the hearts of babies and preys on the sick and the elderly. The namorrodor possesses a baby in the sick man’s family and it attempts to kill the sick man before being sent off by the man’s wife, who is a also capable of magic. The lady becomes furious, turns into a crow and flies to the witchdoctor’s cave to kill him.

I’ve set a requirement that each group must explain the moral of their stories in their screencasts. We discussed that the main moral from The Curse is to ensure that we care for our young, sick and elderly, as we have been looked after when we were young, cared for when we were sick, and that when we become old, we will also need to be cared for. So 8 groups will be working as a build team to build that story. We have separated it into 8 different scenes, and each group is now responsible for a different scene.

Other groups in 5L have chosen to build Tiddalick the Frog as well as Mirram The Kangaroo and Warreen The Wombat. There are also 10 groups in 4/5H working on other stories. It’ll be great to see them all finished and for students to share their stories with each other and learn from the videos made. We will also be sharing the videos on our class YouTube channel so the students in Arnhem Land can view them, as well as some of our friends in America, New Zealand and Canada.

I mentioned earlier how I was interviewed in Alice Springs about my lucky monsoonal encounter at Uluru, instantly becoming a worldwide media sensation. The journalist from SBS World News who interviewed me came to the school to run a feature story on the project. It really is a positive story about public education in NSW, the power of connected Project Based Learning and some of the awesome things happening at Merrylands East Public School. I’ve embedded the YouTube link below for you to view, it’s good to see something positive being said about teaching and learning, and not just coverage of NAPLAN, etc. I’ll post the videos once they’re finished, and perhaps get the kids to do a video tour of all the builds in 360º VR, just for something epic and different. Thanks for reading. =]

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