A Whole Lot of Learning

Host: Isolated Children Parent’s Association
Written by: Tallaya Wood

Save the date for the 2017 Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association Federal Conference to be held in Alice Springs, August 2-3. Hosted by the Alice Springs Branch, this promises to be a great conference in true Territory style. Find all information at this link: http://icpa.com.au/events/view/79/2017-federal-icpa-conference 

When I first thought about enrolling my kids in primary school I imagined one of the many two-story red brick buildings that litter Melbourne’s inner north. Those almost British buildings, black down-pipes traversing the aged exteriors, faded hopscotch pitches in muted yellow, urban gardens growing in raised beds with wooden pyramids draped in running beans dying slowly in the summer sun above them. Hipster dads with well-groomed beards and tight black jeans dropping their twins off in trailers attached to the back of their trendy old racers. I had heard that some of the local schools had Steiner streams and others were Montessori leaning, I was so excited about the educational opportunities of these public primary schools, glad that there were options within the public system for my kids and happy that we seemed to live so close to so many of them.

This pram pretty much sums up our move to the Kimberley, a little Melbourne style in a whole lot of country.

My eldest is now enrolled and attending kindy at our local primary school, ‘local’ being a rather relative term. We live a 150km from the physical classroom and most of his little mates live even further afield, mates he didn’t get to meet in person until his first school camp earlier this term. I don’t think I really thought much about the logistics of educating the kids when my husband was offered the boreman’s position at Blina Station. I vaguely remember a conversation I had with myself that went something along the lines of “Don’t think too hard, just say ‘yes’, this is going to be great for Jimmy and the kids . . . ” And it wasn’t just the kids’ education I tried not to think too hard about, it was king brown snakes, dams, and crocodiles too. But, I also knew that the bush would offer my kids something the city never could.

My husband was a station kid who did his entire primary schooling with Kalgoorlie School of the Air – and he and his siblings all did incredibly well at school, university, and in life. Some of the happiest and most successful pastoralists I know were educated through school of the air (no surprises there I suppose!). Everybody I spoke to who had experienced remote living with kids told me it was going to be great! So, when the first lot of set work arrived along with my home tutor’s kit, I sat at the kitchen table and tried really hard not to panic. I think now might also be a good time to mention that until recently I was a senior school English and Media Studies teacher and private tutor and that my kid was about to start kindergarten, really I should have had this in the bag. But, I didn’t. Maybe it was partly because it was my kid we’re talking about, perhaps partly because I was used to teaching kids in their late teens. I remember putting my head on the table . . . what the hell did I know about arts, crafts and the alphabet song?

Steven the friendly scarecrow. Making a scarecrow is just one part of the lesson, choosing which vegetables to grow and how to keep different pests out are all part of our school day today. Oh and picking and eating our own produce of course! 

Our first set was a little rough (each set consists of nine days’ work centred on a particular topic). There are so many cool activities and ideas for each set, sport, art, drama and just plain play but I chose all the ‘academic’ type stuff. There was a lot of sitting and crayon on paper and counting counters in those first few weeks. There were tears (mine and his), tantrums (mine, his, and the baby’s) – we were all exhausted and not at all very happy. That’s actually really hard to admit, even just writing it makes me cringe . . . what was I thinking? He’s only three and a half! At the end of that first set my bright and bubbly boy pretty much hated the idea of school and I had turned into Trunchbull, even the baby seemed a little frightened every time we went to the school room.

In the end it was our beautiful pre-primary teacher who saved us. She sat me down and talked patiently about the psychology of early childhood education, the importance of play and fostering a love of learning above ‘academic’ success at this stage. She explained about  guided and free play, sport and art, drama and craft, these were the things that would ensure my kids enjoyed learning, that would set them up to become confident, independent young people. She showed me how to teach while I was down on the floor playing with my kids, she encouraged me to encourage and nurture their natural curiosity, follow their lead and plant the seeds for a future where they can learn how to teach themselves. By changing my focus, I changed our days. Lessons are fluid and fun now, when something doesn’t work we talk about it and then try something else. If an activity is fun but differs from my lesson plan we just go with it, I work the learning focuses in where I can. We lose ourselves in games and make believe, we sing the alphabet song while we round up the chickens, a lot of learning is happening for everyone. Actually it’s a little Montessori leaning.

Making art in the school room. Even though she’s only 18 months Brigid is often in there with Billy, creating, acting, dancing, and learning.

School of the Air (SOTA) is what you make it, and you can make it better than the best education available. Here is a school that is truly geared to the individual child, where the day’s learning can unfold at the pace of the student. Once you get your head around those thick tutors’ notes, the work is plentiful, rich, and easily adapted to the needs of the individual. My kids are getting an education second to none, and actually so am I. It’s through SOTA that I have realised that so much of our learning actually happens outside the classroom, and often the teacher is someone other than me. Right now my eldest is out carting cattle with his dad and I know that he is consolidating his academic learning whilst also learning new stuff about people, about stock and land management, and about engines and vehicle maintenance – he’s learning life skills. I know that the crew will have him counting calves from the truck, that the boss will be teaching him about mastitis and the importance for de-horning and antiseptic whilst he sits at the tally table. I know his dad will be talking to him about how people talk to each other and what is kind and what is not. We are all learning with him, and we are all better for it – me in particular. I am a better parent than I was before we moved here and it has a lot to do with being my kids’ teacher. I am more patient, I am kinder, I‘m better at craft than I ever thought possible, I could seriously give Justine Clarke a run for her money. Actually I think I’d look pretty good up there with Eddie Perfect making sock puppets and painting giant storm clouds 😉

Jet packs and space ships? We can make those!

Everyday just before 10am we log onto Saba Classrooms and wait for the sounds of the school song and the laughing, joyful face of Mrs. P to appear. My little man writes his name as neatly as he can on a new page in his on air book and jiggles excitedly in his seat, ‘What will I learn on air today, Mum?’, his bright blue eyes big and full of anticipation and this is by far my favourite moment of the day. I don’t think anything will ever compare to the importance School of the Air has played in the lives of my family already and we are only just beginning. We are grateful and so lucky to be part of a school that supports students and their families in the way that KSOTA does and I’m so glad that even though we have moved we still live so close to so many great educational opportunities.

Making ladybirds in an on air art lesson.