Making Connections Through Languages

Brooke Wandin knows she has big shoes to fill. The Wurundjeri educator is five weeks into teaching an innovative Aboriginal languages program to prep students at Melton West Primary School, continuing an important legacy.

   Mathew Gardiner, a young Wurundjeri man and former prep teacher of the Woi Wurrung language at Melton West Primary School, with students Xavier and Nikita who are now learning the language in grade one with Brooke Wandin. Photo Kristian Scott/Star Weekly

Mr Gardiner framed the curriculum in 2016 and, for the first two terms, focused on the connections between language, culture and land through the use of song, dance and games. The program is an example of  good practice for an Aboriginal language program for early learners.

Ms Wandin is enthusiastically taking Mr Gardiner’s class into grade one. “I am so keen for the opportunity,” she said. “It has forced me to focus on my language.”

The quest for an Aboriginal languages teacher at Melton West began in 2014. At the time, Principal Michelle Costa came away from a pilot schools project focusing on improving outcomes for Koorie students with a deeper understanding of the need for Koorie cultural inclusion and the significance of the language reclamation process.

“I realised the importance of recognising our First Peoples and the injustices they had been through,” she said. “That really sparked my interest."

Ms Costa wanted to introduce an Aboriginal languages curriculum for prep in 2015 as the (Languages Other Than English) LOTE, in line with the government expectation that all prep children would learn a language.

With the support of the Victorian Aboriginal Education Association Incorporated (VAEAI) and the Wurundjeri Tribe Land and Compensation and Cultural Heritage Council, she set out to find a teacher of the Woi Wurrung language. She discovered that only about 20 people in Victoria spoke the language fluently.

Mr Gardiner, who was himself still learning the language, was brought on board.

“For Mathew as a young person who was learning and teaching it, it was a good stepping stone,” Ms Costa said. “He would go to the Council to learn the language on Monday and bring his knowledge to our classrooms two days a week."

Ms Wandin, also, is learning the language as she teaches it.

“It’s a real motivating factor for me,” she said. “We sing songs. One is a counting song, while in another song, the children act out the animals that I sing about. I’m just starting to teach them small phrases. One of them is how to introduce themselves.

“The other topic we’re focusing on is animals - what they look like, where they might live, the way they’re used. I took in some possum skin and emu feathers for them to touch.”

The program took two years of hard work to get off the ground. This year, about 160 students across prep and grade one are learning the Woi Wurrung language, with the prep class being taught by Wurundjeri woman Rebecca Axford.

“I feel proud to tell prospective parents that we teach the local Aboriginal language as our LOTE,” Ms Costa said. “We were tenacious enough to stick by it, fight for it and not give up, and for that I am also proud.”

Increasing the number of Koorie language programs in kindergartens and schools is a commitment under the Department of Education and Training’s Marrung: Aboriginal Education Plan 2016-2026.

It is supported by new investment to develop and pilot a Victorian Aboriginal language program to support community efforts at language learning and increase the number of Koorie language teachers.

For more details on the Marrung: Aboriginal Education Plan 2016-2026, see: Marrung