It is probably important that when you read these blog posts you know for context that I am not ‘from money’ AND having been engaged in study consistently pretty much my entire adult life, I still do not have a whole lotta money. So much of what I do and share about is created on the cheap, and the same can be said for this activity which I am going to share with you.
When it comes to embedding Indigenous knowledges within education, one of the difficulties faced by students and teachers today is the amount of inappropriate resources which fill library and classroom shelves. Ideally you will purchase resources created by Indigenous people (nothing about us, without us) when it comes to learning about Indigenous people, and my last blog post has an not exhausted list of deadly resources for a learning journey as well as some tips for finding appropriate texts when you’re purchasing or downloading new.
But what about the resources you already own? Or ones you may be able to get cheap/second hand?
There are a lot of problematic resources which exist on the shelf and online. They don’t have to be ‘old’ to be concerning, some new prints and new sites are awful. These texts sit on the shelves along with all those beloved classics, and sometimes they themselves are beloved classics to some, but they were written at a time, and with a view, which very much positions the First Nations People of this land in a deficit, primitive, or even inhumane way. Or, erases Indigenous people from the story completely.
If you are hoping to engage and equip your students to have an accurate, valuable, and respectful understanding of First Nations people, culture, history, and events such as invasion then it is important to recognise that misleading and inaccurate books on the shelf can undo a lot of your hardwork and aims, and you won’t even know about it unless the student asks you about the book content directly.
These texts generally appear to be so innocent, they do not shout out to you that they are filled with racist lines, or outright lies about history, and it is easy to understand that as a teacher or parent/carer you may WANT to go through the texts – you might feel stuck, wondering…
“wtf am I actually looking at? HOW do I even work out what is and is not ‘appropriate’?!”
The same question might apply if you are a new teacher, or parent/carer, home educator etc. wanting to begin to fill up your shelves – but you want to access second hand book stalls, op shops and similar, maybe for environmental reasons, or maybe because thats the price point you need to look.
First up – even a really gross book CAN be an appropriate text, depending on how you want to use it. For example, teaching a year 11/year 12 class about critical thinking skills, or systemic racism, might be a prime time to bring out a book like the one I will outline the problems with below.
But when it comes to younger children, or a text which the children/youth may be reading solo/without assistance to gauge the context and reliability, it is part of the role of good teachers to ensure that these texts are reliable, reasonable, and not spreading myths about First Nations People.
For new teachers, just entering the field, without many pennies themselves to spend on resources, they will be naturally tempted to grab books from second hand stalls and garage sales, accept books gifted from friends clearing their bookshelves, or use those available to them via the school library. Knowing how to source good texts which are inclusive of Indigenous knowledges/people/histories is a great skill to have, and really important to ensure that the texts on your shelves are not undermining the hard work you have put into your lesson development and RAP.
So how to work out what is a wonderful bargain, which will bring value and quality content to your class? How to sort through the texts you already have?
I am not aware of a checklist or guideline which has been created specifically for New South Wales (which is where I live), however, as I mentioned in my previous blog, this checklist here:
is one which is created and distributed via the Queensland Government and (in my opinion) it is a great starter checklist to utilise to sort through the books already on your shelves, or when you are out and about looking to pick up books for your classroom!
This PDF checklist is free to access, free to download, and really easy to use. It goes in to each of the 5 points listed above in detail, giving examples of what to look for.
So lets take a look at how we would apply it.
Here is an example of one book I picked up a few weeks ago at a nice second hand book store, it was not a clearance item, it was placed in the history section as though it is a useful and reliable text.
Lets take a look at it…
Firstly, the introductory page states: ‘Australia in 1901, when it became one nation, was a huge, empty land, populated by only 3.8 million people’. This sets the tone and impression right away that Terra Nullius, an empty land belonging to no one is where the story of ‘Australia’ began. Which is of course completely false. Terra Nullius is a lie, that is not contested, it has been proven again and again.
Next up, it is over 300 pages long, but of these 300 + pages only two pages really mention that there are even First Nations People here at all. And within those two pages, ooof what a mess. Look at the language, ‘full blood’ etc. as well as the statements of Tasmanian extinction being presented as fact (this is not true). An intro on the issues with blood quantum is referenced in this article here.
This book is quickly found to be factually incorrect, and texts such as these when relied on are complicit in the erasure and misrepresentation of Indigenous people from the history of Australia. Another example of texts which fail the basic checklist is if you take a look at this corker by Bryce Courtenay ‘The Australian History Collection’, the story told and sold about invasion and the treatment of Indigenous peoples is really quite awful. I’m not going to photograph it, its blatant.
If you come across a copy, I suggest throwing it directly into the recycling bin.
Whenever I am out and there are second hand books to be bought, I purchase any which reference Australia, Australian history, art, anything which might include Indigenous people, knowledges, culture, or references. It doesn’t matter how horrendous they are, whether they are beautiful books, or truly and clearly repulsive, I buy them. I pick these books up sometimes for free, or maybe for $0.50 – $2.00 a piece, and slowly but surely my collection has grown.
However, I buy them with a purpose beyond throwing the horrid ones into the recycling.
As an example, today my family and I went to our favourite annual event, the Spring Fair! We love the White Elephant stall, which is just a hall filled with second hand treasures, and SO MANY books and every thing costs around $1. A great space to find books for my course. Today I grabbed all these books, a bunch of clothes for my growing kids, and a really gorgeous wicker basket – for the grand old price of $20. It was a good day!
So, what is the point of buying all these books? I collect them for a critical thinking task for the pre-service teachers I have the privilege of teaching each semester. Even adults love to be engaged in hands on activities, with real life examples, when learning new skills!
My collection has grown over the years, I am a book hoarder anyway, and so together with this large collection, when the time comes I also pack my children’s favourites, and I bring them all in to my class together – mixed up – for the pre service teacher to apply the checklist to.
This kind activity provides an opportunity to:
a) see the variety of texts which exist out there
b) recognise the ways in which Indigenous peoples are often erased, dehumanised, and misrepresented
c) have a hands on experience of using the checklist, involving the student teachers in the task enables them to understand the ways in which the checklist can be utilised
d) to question and workshop with their peers the varying content – as well as looking beyond the checklist for other triggers which may make them think twice about whether or not to include it.
I recommend to my students that they print out the checklist, as well as save it in their ‘favourites’ on their phone/device or social media, so as to have it on hand for when they are out and about and might come across some treasures worth grabbing! And that might be something you want to do to!
Check out this awesome Weetbix tin I also grabbed, this will be the new home for my anonymous notes in my course. Cute!
I love books, I love the way they can transport you, inform you, uplift you, engage you in escapism, they can be the most magical of resources for any home or classroom. This checklist and blog is not authoritarian, and within your home you may well have books that are treasured and which you can discuss content around with your children to ensure that it’s understood – and that’s fine.
But in this world there are so many amazing books, we aren’t limited in the amount of printed treasures which are available to us at every turn. You do not HAVE to rely on or hold on to texts which perpetuate a narrative which is false and harmful to people. And that’s where this activity and blog comes from.