Virginia State School, Qld.

Virginia State School is a coeducational government primary school in Brisbane with about 400 students from preschool to Year 7. Included in this school population are about 20 Indigenous Australian students.

Virginia is a largely residential suburb on Brisbane's north side and is situated about ten kilometres from the central business district. The school has an Aboriginal Student Support and Parent Awareness (ASSPA) Committee and, in general, enjoys good community support. For further details about the school, visit its website at:

Program overview–'Travelling the Road to Reconciliation–How can we shorten the journey?'

This unit, 'Travelling the Road to Reconciliation–How can we shorten the journey?', was first conceived by the Curriculum Coordinator, Michael Paulsen, and implemented by Year 6 teachers Alison Stoneley and Annette Stevens and Year 7 teachers Cameron Ross and Richard Ashley. As the title suggests, the unit was about projects that the students could undertake in our school and local community to enhance the process of reconciliation.

The unit ran for 13 weeks although many group projects continued throughout the year and will be ongoing. The host Key Learning Area for this unit was SOSE and the unit utilised many resources including the Discovering Democracy Middle Primary Unit 'Rules and Laws' and the Discovering Democracy Upper Primary Unit 'The Law Rules'.

The students

This unit was undertaken by two Year 6 and two Year 7 classes, each containing 25-30 students. As with many classes in schools, a wide range of literacy levels is evident in each class. Children in all classes also vary from those with learning disabilities to those who are identified as being gifted and talented. While a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds are represented, the majority of our students fall within the low- to mid-SES (socioeconomic scale) range.


Learning needs

The main focus of this unit was to give the children an opportunity not only to develop an appreciation of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture but also to explore the changes and consequences of cross-cultural contact. Only by examining Australia's recent past is it possible for all people to understand how to move forward together in the future. As Michael Paulson explains, 'I believe that our unit on reconciliation has given the children an opportunity to play their part in creating a future society that will hopefully be more harmonious'.

Learning outcomes

The Queensland learning outcomes addressed in this unit were predominantly from the new SOSE syllabus. This unit focused on both Level 3 and Level 4 outcomes.

Outcomes addressed

SOSECulture and IdentityCI 3.1 Students identify the contributions of diverse groups, including migrants and Indigenous peoples, to the development of their community.
CI 3.4 Students communicate an awareness of change within Aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
CI 4.1 Students investigate how religions and spiritual beliefs contribute to Australia's diverse cultures.
CI 4.4 Students describe changes resulting from cross-cultural contact on Australian and non-Australian Indigenous cultures.
 Time, Continuity and ChangeTCC3.2 Students create sequences and timelines about specific Australian changes and continuities.
TCC3.4 Students organise information about the causes and effects of specific historical events.
TCC 4.1 Students use primary sources to investigate situations before and after a change in Australian or global settings.
TCC 4.3 Students share empathetic responses to contributions that diverse individuals and groups have made to Australian or global history.
TCC 4.4 Students critique information sources to show the positive and negative effects of a change or continuity on different groups.
TCC 4.5 Students review and interpret heritages from diverse perspectives to create a preferred future scenario about a global issue.
HPEEnhancing Personal Development4.4 Students demonstrate skills and actions that support the rights and feelings of others, while adopting different roles and responsibilities in social, team or group activities.
The ArtsVisual ArtsVA 4.2 Students make and display images and objects, considering purposes and audiences.
VA 4.3 Students analyse elements and additional concepts evident in images and objects from a variety of cultural and historical contexts.

Program outline

The foundation of our unit was the vision statement of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation:

A united Australia which respects this land of ours values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and provides justice and equity for all.

All aspects of our unit were guided by this vision. With this in mind, we developed four focus areas that provided the framework of our unit of work. These four focus areas were:

1. Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lifestyle and Aboriginal law

Learning experiences:

  • Excursion
  • Study of Aboriginal Dreaming stories through language activities
  • X-ray art patterns inside animal shapes, dot painting, cross-hatching
  • Traditional lifestyle–tools, kinship groups, totems, seasonal migration, language groups, Aboriginal law, etc
  • Aboriginal artist conducting workshops with children
  • Aboriginal guest speaker on local Aboriginal history and weapons

Discovering Democracy links:

  • Discovering Democracy Middle Primary Units (Curriculum Corporation, 1998),
    What are Aboriginal laws? (pages 46-48) and Handouts 11-13 (pages 61-63)
  • Australian Readers Upper Primary Collection (Curriculum Corporation, 1999),
    The Story of Tjirbruki: A Kaurna Story (pages 16-17) and A Just Punishment (pages 40-41)

2. A timeline of post-contact including investigations into significant events that have influenced the rule of law in Australia

Learning experiences:

  • Myall Creek Trials
  • Federation
  • The Freedom Rides
  • 1967 Referendum
  • Mabo Case

Discovering Democracy links:

  • Discovering Democracy Upper Primary Units (Curriculum Corporation, 1998),
    'The Law Rules', Should people be equal before the law? (pages 50-53) and Handouts 16-18 (pages 72-75)
  • 'People Power' How did the Freedom Riders escalate the campaign for justice for Aboriginal people? (pages 117-120 and Handouts 1-3 (pages 129-131)
  • Discovering Democracy Primary Video (Curriculum Corporation 1998), The Freedom Rides
  • Discovering Democracy Upper Primary Units Assessment Resources (Curriculum Corporation, 2000), Assessment Task: The rule of law–Myall Creek trials (pages 20-27)

3. Changes and consequences of cross-cultural contact

Learning experiences:

  • The 'Stolen Generation'
  • Video Rabbit-Proof Fence–viewing, sharing responses, journal writing, art responses
  • Aboriginal guest speaker on the 'Stolen Generation'
  • Native Title

Discovering Democracy links:

  • Australian Readers Upper Primary Collection (Curriculum Corporation, 1999),
    From Little Things Big Things Grow (pages 38-39)

4 The origins of reconciliation in this country, and civic action students can undertake to promote reconciliation in our community

Discovering Democracy links:

  • Stories of Democracy CD-ROM (Curriculum Corporation, 1998), People Power interactive and Biographies–Charles Perkins
  • Student projects (individual and group) to promote the process of reconciliation in our school and local community–see project examples (other files).

Other curriculum resources

Reconciliation Australia website:

As a Matter of Fact–Answering the myths and misconceptions about Indigenous Australians, ATSIC, 1998
Teaching the Teachers–Indigenous Australian Studies, Model Core Subject Manual vols1 and 2
The Rabbits, J Marsden and S Tan, Lothian Books, 1998
Aboriginal Studies Kit, Jean A Ellis, Kaliarna Productions, 2001
The Burnt Stick, Anthony Hill, Puffin Books, 1994
Two Hands Together, Dianne Kidd, Puffin Books, 2000
The Stolen Children–Their stories, Carmel Bird (ed.) Random House, 1998
Too Many Captain Cooks, Alan Tucker, Omnibus Books, 1994
Side by Side, Alan Cook, Omnibus Books, 1998

Women of the Sun (Ronin Films, PO Box 1005, Civic Square, ACT). Study guide available:
Rabbit-Proof Fence (Distributed by Ronin Films for educational purposes). Study Guide available from
They Took the Children Away (Equality Videos, 1997). See

Community resources:
Reconciliation Queensland
Noonga Local Reconciliation Group
Ngutana-lui Cultural Centre–Inala

Developing the program–The story of Virginia State School's journey by Michael Paulsen

In the beginning

Our story began when I attended a Discovering Democracy workshop in Brisbane in 2002 and learnt that schools could apply for a $5,000 grant if they were willing to do a project in the area of reconciliation. Sitting next to me were some teachers from McDowall State School (in Brisbane) and after learning that all of us had an interest in this area, we agreed that we would share our ideas if each school proceeded to undertake a unit of work promoting reconciliation in the following year. This was to be the first of many local partnerships our school would forge. After establishing that Year 6 and Year 7 Virginia State School teachers Annette Stevens, Alison Stoneley, Richard Ashley and Cameron Ross also thought that the process of reconciliation was important, we decided to plan an integrated unit on reconciliation regardless of whether we received the grant or not. The unit would implement an inquiry approach and explore how our students could demonstrate active citizenship by doing both individual and group projects that would enhance the process of reconciliation in our school and local community.

As the 'action' part of our inquiry process was deemed to be perhaps the most important part of our project, the teachers and I investigated the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation website to gain our own understanding of the types of projects the students might be able to undertake to promote reconciliation in our community. The Local Reconciliation Group (LRG) Toolkit link on this site provides a wonderful array of ideas whose implementation can help achieve this purpose. The more difficult task for the teacher taking on a facilitator role in an inquiry approach is, of course, allowing the children to discover their own solutions to the problem.

Next, I contacted the education division of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation and spoke to Julie Morris about any teaching resources that her department may have had that would help us implement our unit. Julie organised to send us several free copies of the publication As a Matter of Fact–Answering the myths and misconceptions about Indigenous Australians, ATSIC, 1998.This is an invaluable resource for providing teachers with the knowledge they may need to debunk the many myths about Aboriginal people that permeate our society. Most importantly, though, Julie casually mentioned to me that she had a friend by the name of Lisa Reynolds who worked for the organisation Reconciliation Queensland and suggested that I give her a call. Interestingly, it was incidental comments such as this that occurred during various phone conversations that often led to the formation of our most productive partnerships.

Aunty Joan

When I rang Lisa, she was very interested in our project and was able to lend us resources such as Teaching the Teachers–Indigenous Australian Studies, Model Core Subject Manual vols1 and 2, and Using the Right Words: Appropriate Terminology in Indigenous Aust. Studies. However, she mentioned that perhaps our best living resource might be her work colleague Aunty Joan Hendriks, who is the co-chairperson of Reconciliation Queensland. I rang Aunty Joan that night and she was delighted that our school was doing such a unit. She was more than willing to help and we talked for more than an hour about our ideas of how to best tackle the reconciliation unit. Aunty Joan made the commitment that she would help us develop our unit once we had done our initial planning. During the first week of Term 1 in 2003, the four classroom teachers and I cooperatively planned our reconciliation unit. A week later, Aunty Joan gave up a day of her time to work without pay with the five of us to enhance our planning. The classroom teachers were released courtesy of our grant money. All of us came away with a better understanding of how the past can affect the present through many of Aunty Joan's insights.

Aunty Joan continued to be an important part of our unit when she later returned to our school as a guest speaker, addressing the topic of the 'Stolen Generation'. Most importantly though, Aunty Joan was just a phone call away whenever we needed to discuss any issue. After our planning day with Aunty Joan, McDowall State School teacher Vanessa Crowhurst and I lived up to our agreement and met to share our ideas about our units in Term 1.

Aunty Mary

The classroom teachers were very enthusiastic about the concept of 'adopting an elder' for our school. After some subtle guidance, one group of students decided that we could introduce an 'adopt an elder' scheme similar to the 'adopt a cop' and 'adopt a fireman' programs that were already in existence at our school. Further, it was decided that, if possible, we should have both a male and a female elder. After being volunteered as the person to help the students find an elder, it soon became apparent that this task was not as simple as we first thought it would be.

Beginning with the ASSPA committee I embarked on a series of phone calls for a person we could adopt as an elder. Aunty Joan had suggested that our elder should ideally be a local person and so I rang Bev Hickey, chairperson of our local Noonga Reconciliation Group. Unfortunately, Bev was also unable to help us with our quest, but through one of her contacts, Robyn Kelso, our district ASSPA coordinator, we found an elder who not only would be honoured to be 'adopted' but who also lived only five minutes from our school.

When I first spoke to Aunty Mary Zalewski, I knew that we had found the person we were looking for. Aunty Mary explained that she was a local historian for the history and culture of the Barrabim people, a language group comprising five or six clans that lived in the North Brisbane area. Aunty Mary and her son visited the school in May to talk about gender roles and local sites that were significant to Aboriginal people in our area. She also shared her vast collection of Indigenous tools, weapons and instruments.

The official adoption ceremony took place on 1 August 2003, as part of the school's Reconciliation Day celebrations. The adoption ceremony was organised by a group of Year 7 students who provided Aunty Mary with her school adoption certificate. The pride that Aunty Mary showed as she received her adoption papers was, for me, the biggest highlight among the many reconciliation activities that have been embraced by the school this year.

Unfortunately, Aunty Mary unexpectedly passed away in October. While only a member of our school for a short time, her contribution was significant and all who knew her held her in high regard. We hope her short association with us enriched her life in her last year as it enriched ours. We are planning to dedicate our Reconciliation Garden to Aunty Mary when it is finished. Recently, I had the pleasure to meet with Aunty Mary's daughter Fran. She expressed her wish to continue with the work that her mother had started at our school. Fran will continue to be a regular visitor at our school and share her knowledge of local Aboriginal history with our teachers and students. Fran and her family will officially open our new Reconciliation Garden next year. Fran also suggested that our new garden might possibly be a more appropriate place to hold future ASSPA meetings.

Learning experiences and projects

In February, the Year 6 and Year 7 students visited Ngutana-Lui, the Aboriginal cultural centre at Inala. This was a powerful start to the unit, as students had hands-on experience in learning about bush food, Aboriginal Dreaming stories and dancing, Torres Strait Islander culture and gathering and hunting techniques.

On March 21, students joined hundreds of Australian schools and organisations to celebrate Harmony Day. As this was an inaugural event for our school, the Year 6 and Year 7 students were responsible for promoting the day. Many students and teachers wore orange shirts or ribbons to show their support for goodwill between all people from all racial backgrounds. Students across many year levels also wrote poems that reflected this message.

In April, local Aboriginal artist Joe Malone visited the school to teach the Year 7 students aspects of Aboriginal art. Joe is a parent of one of our former students and was very willing to share his expertise with the children. The resulting pieces of student art will hang in the school's administration block after it is refurbished in December.

The school's own Reconciliation Day in August was a school-wide celebration. After the ceremony in which Aunty Mary was adopted, students of all ages rotated through activities organised by some of the Year 6 and Year 7 students. Rotational activities included listening to Dreaming stories, painting Rainbow Serpents, Aboriginal dot painting and face painting with clay.

In September, three new flagpoles were erected, enabling the Torres Strait Islander flag and the Aboriginal flag to fly alongside the Australian flag. The flagpoles will form part of the Reconciliation Garden that will be constructed as soon as the administration block is finished in December. The garden will be designed and built by the students and it will symbolise the importance our school places on the process of reconciliation. Ironically, the Reconciliation Garden was to be our major project this year, but due to the forthcoming refurbishment of our administration block, it is the only planned project that the children didn't undertake. The Year 7 children will complete the garden in 2004.

Apart from these activities, each student in Year 6 and Year 7 was involved in an individual project that aimed to give a public message about the importance of reconciliation. A delightful range of creativity was evident with, for example, the production of storybooks, posters, fridge magnets, badges, videos, sunglasses cases and even a reconciliation quilt as mediums to spread the message.


Our four classroom teachers agree that our unit has been very successful on a number of levels. Firstly, developing strong local partnerships has been one of the highlights of this unit. Secondly, the group projects to enhance the process of reconciliation were approached enthusiastically by most students and the teachers were pleasantly surprised with the creativity that many children showed with their individual projects to spread the reconciliation message. As Year 6 teacher Alison Stoneley noted:

Because children got out in the wider community, change just hasn't been in them. They've tried to include the school and wider community, so hopefully this will help to change a few attitudes.

Thirdly, through some wonderful learning experiences, the vast majority of students have a better appreciation of traditional Aboriginal culture and a far better understanding of changes and consequences of cross-cultural contact over the last 200 years in Australia. As Year 7 teacher Richard Ashley concludes:

There are many misconceptions about Aboriginal people which some people use to create disharmony. This unit has put a positive spin on that. The kids are looking positively to reconcile–it's about the future rather than focusing on the bad things that have happened in the past.


Key achievements were:

  • Developing local partnerships
  • Reconciliation projects: for example Harmony Day, Aboriginal artwork, three flagpoles, Adopt an Elder scheme, Reconciliation Day, Reconciliation Garden (work in progress).

Factors contributing to success were:

  • Discovering Democracy grant
  • Supportive school administration and ASSPA committee
  • Existence of the Curriculum Coordinator role–classroom teachers would have trouble finding the time to apply for grants such as these
  • Enthusiasm of the four classroom teachers
  • A timetable structure that allows cooperative planning among year level teachers
  • Members of the community who were willing to volunteer time and knowledge.

Obstacles to be overcome included:

  • Some of our children, because of their religious beliefs, excluded themselves from learning experiences related to Dreaming stories and totems.
  • Many children found concepts such as 'Native Title' and the Mabo Case difficult to understand.
  • Sometimes it was difficult to assess group tasks.

What we might do differently:

  • Gather more 'hands on' artefacts for the traditional lifestyle focus area. We would utilise museum loans next time.
  • Group projects need to be more structured in terms of assessment and ensuring maximum participation from all group members.


  • Classroom teachers Alison Stoneley, Cameron Ross, Annette Stevens and Richard Ashley
  • The Year 6 and Year 7 children from Virginia State School
  • Queensland Reconciliation
  • The Zalewski family
  • Year 6 parent and school media liaison officer, Keryn Hugo