Language and environment

There is another part of this story too, the larger picture. When I spoke with the deputy principal about a second project and a possible cash contribution from the school, he tells me that the school is in deep trouble with staffing because of decreasing enrolments. The area the school serves is mostly housing department houses but lately they have been selling houses to private buyers. The private buyers 'never send the children to Erehwon'. Enrolments dwindle, the principal position is downgraded so they will be transferred, they will lose all their temporary staff and some permanent staff positions. The residualisation of schools in the public school system creates hierarchies of schools, and even more enormous disparities between private schools and residualised public schools. When school choice was initiated as a seemingly inevitable process of the marketisation of public schooling, those who could afford it, moved to schools of choice, driving their children to more prestigious schools. Erehwon has become yet another residualised school in the erosion of public funding of public goods that characterises what we have referred to as advanced capitalism.

And yet, when I visited the school to take part in the music therapy and drama lesson with the same class a term later I witnessed a remarkable change. The class was asked to create a grid on the floor with two intersecting lines forming four quadrants. They were invited to label each quadrant with an emotion and they chose happy, sad, angry and scared. Musical instruments were available to accompany the exercise - a piano, drums, a tambourine and cymbals. Children were invited to take turns to act the emotions, first in response to the music, and then to lead the music. Other children took turns to play the instruments, sounding the emotions first to lead the children and then playing the emotions in response to the children's acting. This time the small Aboriginal child who had been running around the room on the first occasion was totally different. When he had a turn to perform the emotions he was the first to demonstrate, with his whole body, the emotions of scared, angry, sad and happy. He played the piano with care and attention.

In the lesson that followed he didn't cope so well. The children were reminded of their language mapping and their revised maps were spread out on tables for them to view. This was clearly enjoyable for them and they were very proud of the now very brightly coloured-in maps. Hayden in particular, wanted to be photographed with his map held up in front of his chest. The children were then gathered onto the mat to talk about making a map of social and emotional languages. Just at this point I was called out by the deputy for a conversation and somewhere in that space and time Hayden deteriorated, 'had a meltdown' and had to be removed by his aide, only to return later a different and visibly much more disturbed child. He would not speak to anyone else, nor would he participate in the class activity. The emotional and social language map he had produced was indecipherable, as deeply troubled as his emotional state.

I tried to engage him in conversation but could not, until I remembered about his drawings in a book produced from another project in which the children learned about and planted plants from the remnant Cumberland Plain. How did this child, I wondered, who appeared so troubled, produce such detailed bright and meaningful drawings? I said to him that I had seen his drawings in the book about the Cumberland Plain and he responded immediately, 'what book?', clearly not quite sure what I meant. I said the Ecosystems Matter book, and he looked bright and engaged, becoming very real in that moment, 'oh yes', he said, 'the plants', and talked about his drawings. In one he has drawn how the Cumberland Plain looked when it was owned by Aboriginal people. He drew the Aboriginal flag, trees, birds and tracks. This very brief encounter, together with his music and drama performance, added up to two moments of possibility for me in this moment of existential despair in which I wanted to do justice to the very diverse energies of this child, to understand the intensity of his engagements.

In the Cumberland Plain project students in years 3 to 6 replanted about 30 species of near extinct wildflowers and native grasses around a 1,000 square metre stand of trees in the school grounds. They learned about the traditional uses of the plants from an Aboriginal elder and were taught how to use GoPro cameras to film a documentary of the project. The children's artworks and stories were presented in a book and exhibition about the past, present and future of the Cumberland Plain woodland. The first part of the book tells about Erehwon School Aboriginal English initiative. It acknowledges that Aboriginal children speak many different languages and dialects and the majority of Aboriginal children going to school today speak a form of Aboriginal English in the home. From our invited language project, it says too that one of the most influential ways to improve learning outcomes for any student is to include their home language in the curriculum. The deputy principal and the Aboriginal Education Officer introduced Aboriginal English classes for all children in the school. The story of the Cumberland Plain is told in Aboriginal English and Standard English:

Long ago da Cumberland Plains on da Darug peoples land Dere was tree aroun ebry where an da animals libed dere. I drawed di caouse ebryone nees to no ow animals libed. Wen dem fullas dy noked up dem dere houses da plants for food and da animals r dyin, no tree, no animals, no food.

(Office of Sustainability, UWS, 2013, p. vii)

When I think about my existential despair in relation to violence against children, my disorientation and getting lost in relation to Erehwon, about Hayden and the school, and all of the other high needs children from despairing troubled families, and the inevitable decline of residualised schools, I turn to Braidotti's possibilities within a politics of location and a reconceptualisation of desire. The possibilities for Hayden are both minute and immense in their relationship to the world of market forces and commodification that are so stacked up against him, and yet they offer a new form of desire as plenitude for me. I desire a better life for Hayden and the children like him, I desire to do good research, where I do not turn only to the easy answers but keep asking the hard questions. I desire to be able to write and tell stories that keep close to the uncomfortable and disorienting materialities of this place and these children.

Learning cross cultural competence, or even more accurately, learning how to live well with different others, is possibly the most significant aspect to emerge from the mapping of children's everyday language practices. The mapping itself is educative, and the pedagogies that can be developed within this research can become an enduring resource for schools. It is important work within the 'crowded curriculum' which values performance on standardised testing and league tables with little time to attend to children as subjects in their own right. When teachers do this it is very pleasurable and engaging for the children. Even the very small amount of collaborative research we have done with this school has produced new learning for both teachers and children. But this is not my main learning from children in this project. It is about how the violence against children in Iraq, in Ukraine, and in Palestine forces me to ask the hard questions and to change my focus to encompass social sustainability as a powerful framing device for the work of mapping children's everyday language practices. It seems in returning to my beginning point that the violence against children that I witness in Ukraine, Iraq and Palestine derives from the same core problem of advanced capitalism as the violence against children in Erehwon. It is only in Erehwon that I can begin to have the smallest insights into how the children themselves experience this violence and only here that I can do something very local to respond to the enormity of these global questions.

 
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