Education journeys in the North West

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Just four weeks before this edition of ‘Revive’ went to print, Gail Cresswell packed up her things in Margaret River, in WA’s south west, and moved to Mowanjum, a remote Aboriginal  community in the north of WA on the outskirts of Derby. With a passion for education in Indigenous communities, she is starting up a Montessori program for kids under three.

Montessori is an alternative form of education that encourages independence by creating an environment for children to learn at their own pace. Gail said that the system focuses  heavily on learning by observation and involves lots of one-on-one interaction. “It’s about each child,” she said. “It’s a learning journey for each child.”

“It’s about the kids learning to be resilient and learning to be responsible to themselves.”

It is also a system that has been highly successful in Indigenous communities around Australia. Towards the end of August, Gail and her assistant, Daphne Gilbey, a member of the  Mowanjum community, will be attending the Thursday Island Montessori Summit where they’ll be exploring the benefits of the Montessori approach in Indigenous cultures.

“Everything has got to have a purpose,” she said. “So we grate carrots and we squeeze oranges. So it’s all for a reason – it’s not just a futile exercise.

“And that’s one of the things where I see the discord in regular education, is that most things for Aboriginal kids have got no meaning. And so they just do it because they have to.

“Whereas with this, they wash windows, they sweep floors, they do gardening. They do things that they see adults doing.”

Gail Cresswell waring a headband made for her by a student from the Mowanjum Community.

Gail Cresswell waring a headband made for her by a student from the Mowanjum Community.

Gail is not new to Montessori education; her previous position was as the principal at Margaret River Montessori School where she had just started up a similar program. She’s also  worked all over Australia, including as the founding principal for a school in the remote community of Pia Wadjarri, in the Mid-West region of WA. The Mowanjum Early Learning Centre,  run by the Mowanjum Parents and Community Engagement Project is a three-day a week program where Gail will also be training up women to work at the centre – a template  which is already working in the community at the Computer Resource Centre and Breakfast Club which have been supported by the Boab network, an outreach of All Saints Floreat  Uniting Church. Revive has previously reported on these programs, including the school holiday program where a group of people travel up to Mowanjum from Perth to run activities  for kids during the school holidays.

“It was the Boab Network that inspired me,” she said. “They come here every school holidays and they are amazing. I’ve never experienced the sort of support as what those guys give.  It is just fabulous.”

“The Boab network have got strong  connections with those kids. It’s just such a positive for the whole community.”

For Gail, this project all started back in May 2013 when Mowanjum celebrated the centenary of their relationship with the Uniting Church. Gail attended the celebrations and was moved  to give something back to the vibrant community. As soon as she returned home to Margaret River, she started making plans to set up the centre. Having received a government grant and support from the Boab Network, things have finally fallen into place. But it hasn’t been without its challenges.

Part of the reason why life is so tough up there, is the high cost of living  in the North West of Australia. A high suicide rate also brings an immense sadness to the community and  staggeringly low school attendance makes this program all the more worthwhile. In Gail’s program, she is finding that it will benefit the whole community as more and more people get  involved.

“Even though it’s for the little ones, everyone else drops in,” she said. “I’m often doing stuff with older kids.

“The greatest challenge for me will be connecting with the young mothers. We have mothers as young as fourteen.”

Having also taken on a role as a prison chaplain, Gail is able to keep a positive connection between the community and the prisoners, many who are related or are friends. She plans to  take photos from the centre to relatives in the prison to keep hope alive.

“Everybody has been so supportive,” she said. “All the women have been very keen, and the men too.”

“What we’re doing is we’re offering hope. And they really do appreciate that.”

Top image: Radkia Barunga and Syd Tija Ejai grate carrots while they learn at the Mowanjum Early Learning Centre

Heather Dowling

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