Tennant Creek is an eleven hour drive south from Darwin on the Stuart Highway. The town was officially established in 1934 during Australia’s last significant gold rush. It’s now home to three thousand people, about half of whom are Aboriginal. English is not always the first, or even sometimes second or third, language that a person speaks here.
In town, there’s a primary school and a high school. You can find a supermarket, and a post office, a gymnasium and a swimming pool.
“Coming here is a whole new experience,” says Maisie Floyd, Principal at Tennant Creek High School. Teach For Australia has so far placed eight Associates in the high school since 2012. “Each job generally has a personal and professional element, but here it’s a complete change and a potentially overwhelming experience,” Maisie continues.
Tanith Margetson (Cohort 2017) moved from regional Victoria earlier this year to Tennant Creek to teach Year 7 English, Humanities for Years 8 through 10, and also a voluntary Year 6 Chinese.
Year 7 students come into Tanith’s classroom with on average a year 1 reading level. This means that the curriculum generally set for Year 7s isn’t relevant in this context. “It’s assumed that if [the student] is in high school, they can read, but that isn’t the case up here,” she says.
This presents unique challenges. “Often a 12 year old wanting to read doesn’t want to engage with a book for year 1 transition students,” Tanith explains. So with a fellow teacher and Associate, Dennis Venning, she writes readers for their students because it’s so difficult to find something age-appropriate. “And if you can find something, it’s hard to get the funding to actually buy them. A high-interest low-level book costs $7-8 dollars, whereas a primary school reader is $3.”
They’ve started a school wide reading program, in which classes start with ten minutes of paired reading. Students read a set text to a partner, and their partner reads the text back, building fluency and reading stamina. In Tanith’s humanities class, she chooses a reading strategy each week to focus on during these 10 minutes to get students exploring and using a variety of reading comprehension tools. Students provide feedback to their partner on the reading behaviours that they observe.
But the reading program doesn’t work for all students: not all of the students in the high school know how to read. “A lot kids come in not knowing the sounds that letters make,” Tanith says. So another initiative that she’s started this year is a small group phonics program. Assistant teachers do “fun and game-based” phonics learning with groups of 4 students. The newly-founded literacy team tracks the sounds that students do and do not know in a spreadsheet, and monitors the student’s’ progress.
A bigger initiative Tanith has been working on is to get a Macqlit program up and running in the school. It’s a comprehensive phonics instruction, reading comprehension, and writing skills program from Macquarie University which had been run successfully in the school in the past, “but we’ve only got one teacher trained to deliver it,” Tanith says. Each student needs to be matched to a teacher they are responsive to for the program to be effective, but without teachers trained in the program, this is not possible.
Students are also now tested every six weeks to track their learning progress. This means that Tanith has heaps of statistics about if and how much the programs she’s implemented are working. So, the results?
But statistics aside, “it’s the human side that’s really cool,” Tanith says.
A teacher walking into a classroom cannot make assumptions about what students already know, especially in low-socioeconomic schools. Whether by writing readers that her students would actually enjoy reading, or developing a program that makes it fun for students to learn phonics, Tanith is making a huge impact by considering the diverse range of her students’ strengths and backgrounds.