Teaching Touchy Topics

Yesterday was such a wonderful learning experience and I would firstly like to thank Jo Henwood for organizing the professional development program. The main aim of the day was to hear from a range of professionals on, as the name suggests, teaching touchy topics. Here is the list of where we went and what we discussed:

1. Australian Museum -Anti-Science

2. Sydney Jewish Museum – The Holocaust

3. Cell Block Theatre – Prisons and Asylums

4. The Wall – Homosexuality

5. Always Was, Always Will Be – The Invasion

6. Victoria Barracks – Enemies

7. Centennial Park – Final Discussion

As you can see it was a very busy day covering some intense subject matter. I thought the best way to summarize the ideas and discussion points was to give a quick overview of the topics alongside my reflection.

1. Australian Museum

Standing in the Dinosaur Hall at the Australian Museum provided the perfect backdrop to discuss issues of teaching science when faced with claims of anti-science. The first half of the session was dedicated to discussing some conflict-resolution techniques. We were then divided into groups and handed a list of scenarios to work through. Our group spent the most time on the topic of allowing creationists to volunteer or work with a dinosaur collection at a natural history museum. Basically, our conclusion was to establish an understanding of why they wished to volunteer/work in this environment and what they were hoping to achieve. All of the scenarios involved some level of open communication and discussion.

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2. Sydney Jewish Museum

I have heard Marie Bonardelli, education officer at the Sydney Jewish Museum, speak a few times over the past two years on the issue of Holocaust education. She is a fantastic speaker and had some great ideas/insights to share. The basic crux of her presentation was how to teach trauma without traumatizing. For this reason, shock images of dead bodies etc are not utilized as much as other atrocity images. These can include, for example, images of public humiliation. Allowing open critical discussion is one way that students can form their own ideas about the Holocaust rather than learning a prescribed story that may not resonate. Reflecting on this workshop reinforced this idea of allowing students to make their own meanings that can transform and grow over time.

3.Cell Block Theatre

I had absolutely no idea this next place existed and I am so glad to have visited. The National Art School is now housed in the old Darlinghurst Jail. It is a truly remarkable heritage site right in the middle of Sydney and completely free to wander around and explore. In this space we discussed prisons and asylums. I found this section particularly useful for my work on Cockatoo Island. It was great to learn how to transform the history of prisons from a sort of Horrible History-esque feel into something more meaningful. It is not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but rather, something far more complex. Being able to explore this in my tours will provide a fantastic opportunity for children to think deeper about the past and its connections to the present. Rather than generalizing, looking at specific individuals and what circumstances led to their incarceration can have greater potential and be less damaging.

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Old Darlinghurst Jail Gate

4. The Wall

At The Wall, we had a group of year 10 students perform a short play. Utilizing historical newspaper and police report sources, each student explored a different identity involved in the male prostitution ring that operated from this site. As opposed to the previous site that recommended role playing not be used in teaching touchy topics, this section argued the opposite. I am still undecided as to which point of view I agree with most.

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Year 10 Students Performing The Wall

5. Always Was, Always Will Be

At the “Always Was, Always Will Be” building on Oxford Street we had a great discussion with Tracey Skinner (from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority) on the British invasion. Through cartoons, rather than photographs of actual individuals, Skinner provided us with some tips on how to discuss the First Fleet etc. She reinforced how powerful language can be when talking about this issue. Colonization sounds nicer than invasion, but, their definitions are very similar. The power of a word in this instance is something that I will continue to reflect on as its connotations continue and will continue to have an impact.

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6. Victoria Barracks

I was quite excited to visit the Victoria Barracks! Their museum traces the history of Australians at War (obviously) and is currently undergoing some renovations. In this context we heard from Jeff Fletcher from the National Maritime Museum on the subject on enemies. We were asked to reflect on who we consider our enemies and why and how difficult it is to teach about war etc without knowing your audience. We were provided with real-life scenarios to discuss. I really enjoyed the workshops with scenarios as I felt they were both challenging yet generated fantastic discussion.

7. Centennial Park

Our final stop was Centennial Park where we had a short debrief. We discussed how important it is to have a policy in place for dealing with touchy topics and how such policy could be structured.

Overall, I felt as though I gained many valuable skills from the development program. I now feel a lot more confident tackling some of these issues in my tours, obviously when appropriate. A huge thank you again to Jo and everyone involved in the day!

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