I have long been a proponent of positive learning environments (Porter, 2007) (FA: 1.2), and the importance of this was brought home whilst working in a public school located in a relatively affluent area of South Australia. Although the school has a higher percentage of students in the upper-middle and top quartiles of socio-educational advantage (ACARA, 2022), a third of the students come from an EALD background, and many students have significant mental health issues.
One Year 9 Design class I taught included an Indigenous student with complex PTSD (Student A), a student with multiple personality disorder (Student B), a student whose parent had just been diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer, a student with severe dyslexia (Student C), a student who had recently come out as LGBTQIA+ and was struggling with a hostile family environment and an anxiety disorder, and three international students with varying levels of English language development (Students D). Further complicating the class dynamics, none of the students in the class had been exposed to design before, and the general view of the class was that they just wanted to “do art”. I knew I would need to establish a safe and welcoming learning environment if I was going to have any hope of engaging these students, and that I would need to differentiate my teaching based on low student readiness and the high number of students with documented disabilities requiring formal modification of tasks to ensure they could participate fully in learning (Tomlinson, 2001) (FA: 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, 1.6). I did this using preassessment strategies and tiering as, for example, in the lesson on colour theory (Appendix 1) (FA: 1.5, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 4.2, 5.1, 5.3, 5.4).
Using Wiggins and McTighe’s (2005) backwards design principles (apt, given this was a design class), I started at the end. All students would need to produce a final design. Logos were chosen because they are relatively simple to analyse and require all four major design principles (contrast, alignment, proximity, and repetition) to design. To create those logos, I knew the students would need to produce a design portfolio documenting their processes and thinking. Not only do portfolios provide excellent scaffolding for the design process, but they also introduce students to the formal design process and the assessment requirements used in later years, including in SACE Design. Working back from there, I knew students would learn the design principles best by analysing existing logos. This gave me the structure for the Introduction to Design unit (Appendix 2) (FA: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 3.2).
Unfortunately, given the general lack of any prior design knowledge, there was quite a lot of direct instruction at the beginning of the unit. I tried to make this as interactive as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that the students needed to engage with a fair bit of design theory to be able to complete the unit. I used a number of teaching strategies to try to alleviate this issue, including a glossary template the students would build together as they progressed through the unit; PowerPoint presentations on design intended to demonstrate core design principles (Appendix 3); tapping into student interest by getting them to focus on brands they already had a relationship with (Appendix 4); using a mix of group work, whole class discussion, and individual work (Appendix 5); and leveraging pre-existent knowledge from the students’ Visual Arts background (e.g. tapping into colour theory, as in Appendix 1) (FA: 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 4.2, 5.1).
In terms of my general approach to behaviour management and overall demeanour, I was sure I greeted every student as they entered the classroom, refrained from raising my voice, maintained a warm and friendly manner, and addressed behaviour issues quickly, preferring to reinforce positive behaviour (Appendix 6) (FA: 4.3).
I was not privy to the details of A’s mental health condition or treatment, but I was instructed to focus on making them feel safe in the school environment. In class, A would often disengage and disassociate, retreating inwards with a “blank look” and ignoring what was happening around them. I relied here on my knowledge of trauma-informed practice gathered through the literature (Garcia, 2019; and Brunzell, Stokes, and Waters, 2019) and my participation in workshops in Aboriginal Bi-Cultural Awareness, Safety for Inclusion (Appendix 7), and the Child Protection Curriculum (Appendix 8) to gently draw A out of themselves and back into the classroom (FA: 1.1, 1.2, 1.6, 6.2, 6.4, 7.1, 7.4). Knowledge gained on inherited trauma was instrumental in developing my approach here (FA: 1.4, 2.4). Although the evidence suggests a better long-term approach for a student’s development is to avoid praise and instead promote intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation (Porter, 2007), I judged A’s immediate needs would best be met by providing them with lots of encouragement and positive reinforcement so that they felt safe in class (McDonald, 2017; and Flynn, 2013) (FA: 1.2, 1.4, 4.1, 4.4). I also modified the final summative assessment to focus on the work A was able to produce, rather than penalise them for incomplete work (Appendix 9) (FA: 1.5, 5.1, 5.5).
That modification was also essential for Student B, who was a talented artist but only present for two classes throughout the unit because of their complex mental health needs. B’s parents were more focused on their psychiatric treatment and viewed schooling as a way for B to engage with peers and gain some semblance of normalcy on the days they could manage it. As such, they did not want B to do any work outside of school and asked that B’s teachers refrain from piling additional pressures on them at school. Again, it was necessary to ensure B felt safe and welcome when they were there, and to not overwhelm them by focusing on the work they were not completing. Because B’s absences were random and no work was completed at home, it was difficult to plan out an altered unit for them. Instead, I had to be responsive on the days they were there to keep them engaged in learning. I felt it important that some learning occurred, even if it was only something small, and during my time with B we worked together on colour theory and line work one-on-one (FA: 1.1, 1.5, 1.6, 3.3, 4.1, 4.4). This meant I could provide B and their parents with some feedback on their progress, even if it wasn’t formal (FA: 5.2)
Student C’s needs were less complex, but as per the legislation on disability and inclusion, it was essential to differentiate for this student so that she was able to participate fully in the learning activities of the unit (FA: 7.2). Though resistant to engaging with design, C loved art and engaged with the more creative parts of the unit with ease. C struggled to express their thoughts in writing, however, but because writing was not an integral skill for this unit, I allowed C to provide verbal responses instead of written responses for the summative assessments, and this was sufficient to allow them the opportunity to demonstrate their learning (FA: 1.1, 1.5, 1.6, 3.3, 3.5, 4.1, 5.1).
Having worked in international student support for many years, including as a communications officer (Appendix 10), I am well-versed in communicating effectively with students from a NESB. I put this experience to good use with Students D. Because their level of English comprehension varied, my approach was to ensure all task descriptions, for all students, were clear and concise (Appendix 4), which I checked using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to ensure the English was pitched at an appropriate level (FA: 1.1, 1.3, 3.5, 4.2, 5.1). It also helped that I was able to pronounce their names without difficulty, as this made them feel welcomed in the classroom.
As can be seen from the feedback I received from colleagues on my teaching practice (Appendices 6, 11, and 12), I was largely successful in maintaining a warm and welcoming classroom throughout the unit, and this was reflected in the overall lack of behavioural issues I needed to manage during my time with this class (Appendix 5) and the ultimate effectiveness of the unit (Appendix 2) (FA: 2.3, 2.6, 3.5, 4.1, 4.2, 4.4, 6.3, 7.1). This was further reflected in the fact that all students passed the unit, with Students A, C, and D scoring Bs and Cs. In line with parental expectations, Student B was not awarded a grade but was able to demonstrate their learning in the two lessons we spent together.
The experience of teaching this unit to these students has highlighted the need for creating a positive learning environment, and for ensuring teaching and learning activities are differentiated so that all students, regardless of their personal situation, are afforded the opportunity to engage successfully with their learning. Aside from ensuring I meet legislative requirements for inclusivity, I feel teachers have an ethical responsibility to ensure no student is excluded and that all feel welcome, safe, and valued. The effectiveness of this approach is reflected in the learning outcomes for students, both in terms of their measured outcomes, and in the sense that the students are visibly happy to be there and eager to engage with their learning tasks. Treating every student as an individual, and trying to meet every student’s individual needs, is a big ask, but strategies such as solid planning and tiered activities can help make this work more efficient and leads, ultimately, to better outcomes for all students. Having said that, I do think I need to further develop my understanding of, and ability to support, students identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander (FA: 6.1).
• Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2022). My School. Retrieved from https://myschool.edu.au
• Brunzell, T., Stokes, H. Waters, L. (2019). Shifting Teacher Practice in Trauma‑Afected Classrooms: Practice Pedagogy Strategies Within a Trauma‑Informed Positive Education Model. School Mental Health, 11, pp. 600–614. DOI: 10.1007/s12310-018-09308-8.
• Flynn, P. (2013). The transformative potential in student voice research for young people identified with social, emotional, and behavioural difficulties. In Seery, A., Loxley, A, and Grenfell, M. (eds.) Examining Theory & Practice in Inclusive Education. Trinity Education Papers, 2(2), pp. 70-91.
• Garcia, A. (2019). A call for healing teachers: Loss, Ideological Unravelling, and the Healing Gap. Schools: Studies in Education, 16(1), pp. 64-83.
• McDonald, T. (2017) Classroom Management: Engaging Students in Learning (2nd Ed.). Australia: Oxford University Press.
• Porter, L. (2016) Young Children’s Behaviour: Guidance approaches for early childhood educators (4th ed.). NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.
• Tomlinson, C. (2001). The how to's of planning lessons differentiated by readiness (2nd ed.). Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.
• Wiggins, G. P., and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.) Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.