“It was a hot, humid day. The wet season was in full swing so when it wasn’t raining you felt you could cut the air with a knife. The children sitting in class were restless and their young faces were moist with perspiration. They were hot and completely uninterested as I tried to persuade them to concentrate on something they knew nothing about, and which to them seemed both purposeless and pointless. I wanted them to learn to ‘tell the time’.”
As a young teacher in Yirrkala in remote Arnhem land in the 1960s, Beth Graham slowly began to understand that the mainstream approach to education was not meeting the needs of these bright children.
“I realised we needed to recognise where these knowledgeable children were within their own culture, and use this as a starting point for school education. I became a believer in starting the school education of children in the language they spoke, and teaching them to read their own language before they did so in English,” Beth explains.
In the 1970s Beth had the opportunity to return to Yirrkala to help develop bilingual education for that community. She jumped at the chance.
One of the first priorities was to work with the community to create books for the children to read in their own language. Another was to develop a truly team approach to benefit from the cultural knowledge and language skills of Indigenous teachers. In time, the approach began to bear fruit.
“I remember a young girl named Yananymul. She was constantly watching and listening to the group that was a bit further ahead of her. After school one day, her dad called in and this little lass sat on his knee and read to him. She was performing with such confidence that I handed her a book that was way ahead of her current level. To both her dad’s and my delight she read that also. She was not only listening in to what was happening around her – she was learning! She could read competently in any of the dialects spoken in the community, and later quickly became confident in reading in English.
“Yananymul has since developed as a leader in her community and at the Garma Festival in 2016 was awarded the title of ‘Hero’ for the work that she has done in that role,” Beth says.
The pioneering work of Beth and many others has been backed up by international research.
“The research is quite clear: if you want Indigenous children to learn effectively in school, they need to begin education in their home language,” Beth says.
Beth returned to Victoria in the late 1980s, and in 2004 husband Leigh built a holiday house for the family in Barwon Heads.
Now 84, Beth remains a passionate advocate for bilingual education for indigenous children in remote communities.
The Yirrkala community continues to offer bilingual education, and this year graduated eight students. For the first time four of the group received ATAR scores. Sadly, due to government policy many other communities in the Northern Territory no longer have access to an early education in their own language.
Beth recently completed a memoir: ‘Living and learning in a Yolngu world’. Ebook copies are available from major retailers such as Barnes and Noble and booktopia, and books are available from email@example.com
Story and photos: Emma Homes