Embedding Indigenous Cultural Language in Curriculum

Wurruk Primary School, a small school in Victoria’s east, has an enduring Indigenous Culture Language Program which allows students to learn words and phrases of the local Gunaikurnai language and engage with the culture of our First Nations Peoples.

The program is longstanding and was initiated in recognition of the number of students at Wurruk Primary School who identify as Aboriginal. Even beyond the school setting, Wurruk and surrounds are home to many Gunaikurnai people, the traditional owners of Gippsland. 

Wurruk Primary School principal, Gayle Coleman has overseen the cultural language program to its current form – as an engrained element of the school community.

‘It’s embedded within the whole curriculum, in everything we do.’

The teaching of Gunaikurnai language is guided and supported by Lynnette Solomon Dent, who has links to the Gunaikurnai community through family, she also works across Gippsland as a Koorie Educator Support Officer for the department of Education. In addition to her official role, Lynnette comes to Wurruk as the Aunty of a student and familiar face to many of Wurruk’s students. 

‘I am a Monaro/Ngarigo woman but we have blood lines that are in Gunaikurnai and it was many of my Elders Aunties Uncles that I worked with for the over 30 years reviving our local Gippsland language and embedding into kindergartens and schools.’

While there are dedicated units for learning Gunaikurnai language at Wurruk PS, Wendy Conway, who delivers the Cultural Language program across the school, ensures it’s included wherever possible. 

‘It’s sort of part of our daily ethos. On every occasion, including assemblies, a student who is designated and approved by the Elders of this area, does an acknowledgment.’

Jarome is a year 6 student at Wurruk and gives the Acknowledgement of Country in Gunaikurnai. 

He learned from Brad Kenny (Wurruk’s KESO) and Lynette, who together spent time with Jarome to share with him the significance and meaning of the Acknowledgement in Gunaikurnai.  In turn, Jarome passes this culture and knowledge to the rest of Wurruk’s staff and students. 

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The Tibballs family; Jarome, Rashad, Keira, Jordan and Graham

In this spirit, Wendy ensures her teachings make meaningful connections with Indigenous culture and language.

‘I’ve got 7 Indigenous students in my class, so my language is often Respect EldersResponsibility… and that goes throughout the classroom.’

‘Whenever I can I use literacy that has a relevant – not just a token but a relevant – reference to Indigenous Culture. For example we might address Black Lives Matter in our speaking and listening…so it’s imbued. It’s got to be purposeful.’ 

The program has strengthened the school community immensely. For students at Wurruk whether they are Indigenous or not, the program promotes discussion, open mindedness, and a truthful engagement with all of Australia’s history. 

Wendy explains that everyone, herself included, has been relearning details of the past. 

‘For me it’s been really, really useful. And for the students, as they have very little knowledge themselves. That’s to say nothing of the whitefellas – we have even less.’

‘In the last 12 months we focused on the ABC iview program “My Place” and that was wonderful because we were able to refute many of the misconceptions of what actually happened. That was really engaging for the students and for me… and of course the children now know that terra nullius was an imaginary phrase.’

Student artworks responding to Sorry Day.  

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Wurruk students making ‘smoke free school’ signs in art. 

The engagement with Indigenous culture isn’t purely historical. Wurruk Primary School regularly includes dream time stories, dance, art, and language in learning and celebrations. As Gayle explains, the inclusion of the Aboriginal cultural perspective in their day-to-day encourages pride across the whole school. 

‘I think when acknowledgments are done, the Indigenous children say it with pride and we’ve got students who are part of Indigenous dance groups….we’ve had children representing their culture in dance and in song and that gives them some sort of sense of belonging to their culture.’ 

An outcome less anticipated is the way the program impacts the greater Wurruk community. Wilma, a Gunaikurnai local whose grandchildren attend Wurruk, explains how much the program means to her. 

‘Before lockdown I used to go to the school and I used to see the kids do the Welcome to Country. I was so proud of that – so proud to see my grandkids stand up there and recite the Welcome to Country for the whole school and the visitors.’

For Wilma, having her grandchildren come home from school and share what Gunaikurnai language they have learned has been inspiring. 

‘As as adults we only knew certain words we couldn’t put a sentence together because we were stopped, we weren’t allowed to do that and carry on with our culture.’

‘The kids actually know more than I do about the language so they can teach me now…We haven’t lost our language, it just went missing for a while and now it’s back. The younger generations have found it for us. Which I think is absolutely amazing. I couldn’t be more proud of them. I am wrapped that the school has gone to all this trouble to get language back for our Koorie kids.’ 

Jerome, Sawyer, Kira, Bryan and Lincoln are senior students at Wurruk Primary School, they mentioned some of the most memorable parts of the Indigenous Language Program.  

‘We learned about the seasons. In Gunaikurnai they have six seasons. We only have four but they have six.’

‘It was the tenth anniversary of Indigenous Literacy Day and we watched Jessica Maubay perform.’  

‘We learned a song called “I am Australian”. We sing it in English and Gunaikurnai Language and we are going to teach it to the rest of the cluster.’

Other schools in the Gippsland cluster have been lucky to share in Wurruk’s cultural learnings and engagement with Gunaikurnai Language, as Wendy explains. 

‘We belong to a rural cluster so we’ve had days where we come together, and people like Brad (the Koorie Engagement Support Officer) have organised events around NAIDOC Week and we’ve done things within the cluster.’

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Local Indigenous Dance Group, including some Wurruk students, performing.

For Gayle, sharing Indigenous culture with the local Gippsland schools in the cluster is a highlight of the program. 

‘I love it. It’s one of the very exciting things that we can do. The kids embrace it. We have big days when all of the Cluster come and we invite a lot of different people from the community to come in to share their cultural knowledge.’ 

These events and engagement with tradition and Indigenous history fosters discussions among staff and students about a number of cultures. Gayle explains it as an opportunity for everyone to acknowledge their own cultural histories and customs.   

‘It’s bigger than just teaching about history, it’s about community and acceptance. Acceptance of one another and understanding where people come from.’

Wendy, who has been at Wurruk for the last three years, hopes that this language program will have a positive impact on all of Wurruk’s students, especially those who are Indigenous. 

‘We’ve got our fingers crossed that the children do take this on board and stand up tall and are able to express themselves. I think the only way to do that is through education. I think education is powerful. Without being able to express ourselves it’s tough, without having the knowledge is tough too.’ 

For Wilma the program has been a reminder of the value of small schools, and the impact Wurruk Primary School will have on her grandchildren. 

‘This is the best little school. My kids are going to remember this little school long into their adult lives. Because it’s so small and they’ve got time for everyone.’