A week in a remote N.T. school

I have visited regional and remote schools before, but nothing as remote as Imanpa! 200km drive from Alice Springs, I pull up at Erldunda to call the Principal, Steve, as this is the last phone reception, and let him know that I am on my way, 70km to go. I drive 7km off the highway on a dirt road and meet him in the school bus at the football oval (red dirt, no grass) and after introductions, he says “interesting choice” of my bright red Commodore SV6 hire car, “they’re going to love it”. He immediately makes the decision that he will lock it away in his shed! Oh dear! A teacher, Lauren, from another remote school has come for the week PD also and Steve’s partner, Carolyn, is also a teacher at the school. I meet their 2 boys and have an afternoon hearing about the community and their lives as remote teachers. Some of the stories make me nervous. As there is no accomodation for 200km, Lauren and I share a 3 bedroom house in the community.

I watch the teachers go about their daily duties – opening up, checking the grounds, cleaning the toilets, blowing the dirt off the verandahs, cleaning, vacuuming, disinfecting, washing uniforms, checking for snakes, turning on air-conditioners, checking emails, doing paperwork, talking to the kids as they come in, the jobs are never-ending and teaching hasn’t started yet. As the students arrive, they go inside to their shelf and put on their uniform before playing outside. It is hot! 40 degrees on the first day with a strong, hot wind like it is coming off a furnace. Most of the kids prefer being outside in the heat rather than the air-conditioned classroom, but even they come inside for lunch. Last week they found snake tracks in the dirt, but they hope it was a python and not a brown. The water in the shower and taps smells strongly of sulphur and everything is covered in a thin film of red dust, Then the news that they have picked some lice off their kids’ heads – I am instantly scratching my head!

Day 1 we have 6 students, the teachers’ 2 kids and 4 indigenous students (one of whom announces “You got a red Commodore”!). I will admit I am a little disappointed, given the enrolment numbers are 16, but we have a fantastic day. For some students it is their first time ever on an iPad. Day 2, news has got out of the new iPads, and we have 11 students, and 13 on Day 3! Some students come who haven’t been for 3 weeks. They don’t even want to go home at the end of the day and ask at lunch when we are going back in. They learned so many new things, always asking me questions or for help (“Bev”, “Veb”, “Vev”, “Bronwyn”) and were willing to give everything a go with such a great attitude and much enthusiasm.

Over the 5 days, we go through iPad basics, set up some Accessibility settings for personalised learning (a shame we can’t use dictation or Siri or anything that requires adequate internet on the satellite setup). We set up learning journals for reading and Maths in Book Creator – the teachers love the evidence of learning with videos from Explain Everything! and all the multimedia that can be included. We took the learning outside for photos and videos, and AR (Augmented Reality) was a big hit, as was Green Screen and Stop Motion. For a Maths activity, we get them to organise themselves into height order and then we time lapse while they build a Lego Duplo tower to measure themselves with informal units. We then use Numbers to graph the heights and the older students experiment with which graphs best represents the data. They loved using Maths apps and particularly enjoyed drawing their own self portraits in Keynote. And on the last day I got out my Spheros  and they had so much fun – they were ecstatic when I said I was leaving them with them as a donation.

Time lapse of our height measurements 

For most of these kids, English isn’t even their second language, but their third or even fourth! Most speak Pitjantjatjara or Yankunytjatjara, and don’t speak English at home, but there are 4 or 5 languages spoken in the community, so their efforts in school are all the more impressive.

The challenges of a small remote school are many; one of which is internet and WiFi! The iPads were set up by Winthrop in WA https://www.winaust.com.au/education-solutions/ , understanding the unique needs of remote schools. For example, MDM to push out apps is just not an option with the limited bandwidth and even apps authenticating the first time they are used is an issue, so they have them all set up and authenticated before being sent to the school, so they were literally ready to go from the time we turned them on – brilliant! This school is lucky enough to now have a 1:1 iPad program.

Very remote teachers are a special breed! There are numerous challenges, isolated from family and friends, yet they work very long hours, and want to make the kids’ time at school the best learning experience it can possibly be, as they know how important education is.

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