In my first year of teaching I was, along with numerous English classes, assigned a year nine Australian history class. This was before the Australian curriculum AusVELS was introduced, and Victorian schools still adhered to the Victorian Essential Learning Skills (VELS). But despite a state curriculum, the interpretation inside schools, and the existing course work, unit plans, lesson plans and resources available within schools, would vary greatly.
Scouring the curriculum and recommended textbooks and unit plans for the Australian history class, I was dismayed to find very little devoted to Aboriginal history, particularly after white settlement. A solitary week out of the entire twenty-week semester was set-aside on the curriculum plan, and within textbooks there were a sum total of three double page spreads that covered in order, the entirety of Aboriginal history pre-settlement, ‘Invasion vs. Settlement’, and the Myall Creek Massacre.
The textbook weren’t to blame for the lack of coverage, they were developed and designed from what VELS deemed necessary points of study. But teachers do have some wriggle room in how they deliver the material, and how they get their students to the end point, which is, having grasped and explored particular outcome points
At the time SBS had just released First Australians, the incredible six part series that covered Aboriginal history both pre and post settlement. Perhaps, if I’m completely honest with myself, me showing the class that particularly series was convenient in that I wouldn’t have to develop detailed lesson plans for a few periods, but in all honesty I thought it was a travesty not more time was dedicated to not just Aboriginal history nor the prevailing issues carried right through to today, regarding how black and white Australia have failed to coexist on equal terms.
In all my years of teaching I’ve known of plenty of other teachers who have used film and television to help garner understanding of social and political issues
First Australians showed them land rights cases like Mabo, civil rights figures like William Cooper, and resistance fighters like Pemulwuy. For students in the southeastern suburbs, whose experience of Aboriginality was very limited, they were exposed to more than the curriculum of the time would normally have dictated.
In all my years of teaching I’ve known of plenty of other teachers who have used film and television to help garner understanding of social and political issues. I know a teacher that has used the TV series s Go Back to Where You Came From to give students insight into one of Australia’s most contentious social issues, that of asylum seekers, and many others who have watched films relevant to an area of study, but not prescribed by the school nor by any education body or department.
Often the thing preventing students understanding of certain issues, is lacking an understanding. I’ve heard students belittle the plight of asylum seekers in saying “everyone has problems, why can’t they just deal with them” without a hint of irony. The truth is, for a majority of Australian students, most of whom are white and middle class, have faced nothing like the experience of your average refugee.
As a young teacher with a desire to make some sort of difference, dedicating an extra two weeks of class time to the study of Aboriginal history was a small but important step for me. Looking back I have no idea whether it had any effect whatsoever, nor whether any of those students, now adults, throw terms like ‘Abo’ around, jokingly or not, without a teacher such as myself reprimanding them. I’ve no idea if they maintained empathy for the plight of modern day Aboriginals.
In my following years of teaching I would expose students to numerous films, articles and essays that were more in line with my left leaning and more socially minded point of view. But a large part of being an English teacher is to imbue students with the ability to analyse language and arguments, and to form their own arguments – so I was always happy to read essays or listen to oral presentations on issues that took different points to my own – if they were argued well. Similarly we would pick apart a range of articles on a range of issues, with varying points of view –again developing skills of analysis, to prevent students from being manipulated or ‘brainwashed’ into certain points of view. An English teachers role is to expose students to various views on issues, and develop a greater understanding of said issues.
Screening the film as part of a larger week of awareness suggests it’s not just an ad-hoc viewing to ‘indoctrinate’ students; Wear It Purple, which aims to help create world in which “every young person can thrive irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity” is just another social cause in the business of raising awareness and empowering students
So where does NSW’s Burwood Girls High and the other forty nine high schools around Australia’s decision to screen Maya Newell’s documentary Gayby Baby, during Wear it Purple week, a movement to raise awareness and inclusion of sexual orientation, lay on the moral spectrum?
It sits pretty safely I’d say, but NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli banned every public school within the state from screening the film during school hours, effectively reprimanding Burwood, and other schools like it, for seemingly possessing the belief that developing an open minded approach towards those who may be the children of same sex couples, as a pursuit worthy of their school. And as the Sydney Morning Herald’s Saimi Jeong discovered, Burwood Girls High also have eighty minute religious seminars once a term, for which the same rules as the proposed screening of Gayby Baby apply: if parents don’t want their child to attend, they don’t have to.
Screening the film as part of a larger week of awareness suggests it’s not just an ad-hoc viewing to ‘indoctrinate’ students; Wear It Purple, which aims to help create world in which “every young person can thrive irrelevant of sex, sexuality or gender identity” is just another social cause in the business of raising awareness and empowering students by involving them, just like Canteen, or Relay for Life, or Mental Health Week do.
If a whole school gathered to watch a film that related to those organisations or ones like it during their fundraising or awareness pushes, what would be the harm?
The short answer is there’s little to no social or religious blockades in Australia when it comes to cancer or depression. Religious zealots should not forget that Gayby Baby is not a film that glorifies or necessarily promotes being gay, nor does it depict sexual activity, homosexual or otherwise – it simply asks people to recognise that family units that involve same sex couples, aren’t that dissimilar to ‘traditional’ family units. Public schools Australia wide have always hade some sort of autonomy when it comes to which causes they champion or raise funds for, and Wear it Purple is no less important, or less valid than the myriad of social causes schools have got behind in the past.
And if the NSW Education Minister wants to push the line that the screening should only take place as to “not impact on the delivery of planned lessons” then he clearly doesn’t know how much ‘learning time’ is lost in schools to school assemblies, activity weeks, and sports carnivals. It’s also worth noting that as a graduate of Burwood Girls High, Maya Newell’s film holds extra importance as it shows current students what someone from their own school has gone onto do after high school, showing wannabe filmmakers within the school that yes, they can do it themselves – which is incredibly important.
The fear some parents might have about their children seeing a film like Gayby Baby maybe stems from a similar place as atheist parents concerns regarding religious groups operating within secular schools: the fear that some kind of indoctrination might occur. But where religious indoctrination and social indoctrination differ is, one is quickly becoming antiquated, and the other is progressive and more in tune what is arguably the attitude possessed by a growing majority of Australians: that same sex relationships aren’t immoral. In fact, despite claims from The Daily Telegraph that reported on supposed ‘parent outrage’, the NSW Department of Education actually confirmed that not one complaint was received from parents of children from Burwood Girls High.
Besides, screening a film with the intent of educating students via a personal story about what it means to be the child of a same sex couple, and developing some sympathy/understanding/or even begrudging tolerance for non heterosexual relationships – is not something The Daily Telegraph, or anyone should be throwing their arms up over. It’s also quite condescending to think that students at a high school age simply believe everything they see or read – they don’t, in part because they have been taught by their teachers how to interpret and analyse all the information, arguments, and points of view that might come their way and form their own opinion. And mostly because they’re not idiots.
Teachers and schools believe they can make a difference, but none in my teaching experience feel they should (or could if they wanted to) brainwash children into our way of thinking. We expose students to varying viewpoints, we challenge them to inquire, and we promote tolerance and understanding of others. It’s hard to see how any of that could be seen as anything other than a positive.
Garry Westmore is a Melbourne based teacher and Film Editor here at Spook.