Spirituality on sacred ground: tertiary TESOL program design and delivery with Aboriginal Students from a remote community

AusELT member Marnie Wirth provides an account of partnering with her students to create curriculum. She shares her experiences of jointly creating an academic language and literacy program with Aboriginal students from a remote community in northern Australia.

Acknowledgement of Country

I would to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which we all stand. I pay my respects to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past, present and emerging. I extend that respect to all on this forum. 


I would like to share my experiences of jointly creating an academic language and literacy program with Aboriginal students from a remote community in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. I developed the program in partnership with the students to support learning within their various bachelor degrees. Students studied and lived on campus at Macquarie University, Sydney. For most students it was their first year at university and their first time living away from their ancestral lands. 

I will describe the context of learning and how we co-created a supportive learning network. As their TESOL teacher, I’d also like to share what I have learnt so far around the place of spirituality in Aboriginal TESOL practice. 

This post is sectioned under four subheadings: 

  1. Context
  2. Co-created program: Student and Community voices
  3. Considering Spirituality in TESOL
  4. Takeaways

Context: the students and their language groups

To help understand the context and main participants, it is important to introduce the students’ community and language groups. The six students are from a remote Arnhem Land community on the Roper River near the Gulf of Carpentaria, NT, Australia. Some of the students have close kinship to Galiwinku, also known as Elcho Island. The students live on campus studying bachelor degrees including: Business, Education and Performing Arts. 

The people in the community are known as Yugul Mangi and the common language among clans is Kriol. The traditional languages spoken in the community are Alawa, Marra, Warndarrang, Ngandi, Ngalakgan, Nunggubuyu, Ritharrngu and Wägilak. The use of English in the community is used for dealing with outsider institutions, such as government agencies.  For many students, English is their third or fourth language. 

Co-created program: student and community voice

Relationship building

Although I have been a long-term supporter of Aboriginal rights and tertiary level literacy development, as a non-Aboriginal person, I am an outsider to their culture. Therefore, creating opportunities to get to know each other was vital to the operation of the program (refer to the Coolangatta Statement).  We got to know each other firstly through conversation while doing activities like sharing stories about family life, bushwalking, shopping, and organising and decorating our learning space. These informal conversations were powerful in building bonds and getting to know students’ interests and preferred ways of learning. Observation of and listening to the students’ stories, politics and ways of seeing the world was invaluable (refer below to Guideline for Preparing Culturally Responsive Teachers, the Alaskan Native Knowledge Network). Given that family, totemic spirits and relationship are integral parts of interpersonal interaction for these students, authentically fostering the relationship between teacher and students is critical (Scull 2016). 

 How the learning sessions were arranged

The students expressed a desire for 1:1 learning sessions which was a functional way to work on their particular needs. To work on their academic language and literacy, they had 1 to 4 hours of 1:1 tutoring with me per week as well as 1 to 2 hours per week with their discipline specific tutors. Together, the students and I coordinated with the tutors and the Student Engagement Team to create a supportive learning network. Personal learning timetables were created for each student. These were shared with the tutors and Student Engagement Team and copies were placed on the walls in their learning space and in my office.

We also conducted weekly workshops every Friday to work on common areas of need, such as sentence structure, referencing, genre and reading skills. 

These workshops were relaxed environments where students assumed responsibility for the structure/organisation, for instance: background music, start with a laugh, food to share and they asked me to bring along my dogs, which the university supported. The aim was to create a supportive and upbeat environment in the weekly workshops (MacIntyre, 2016 p. 6). 

After the workshops, we Zoomed the students’ community Elders and family members. Given the wide cultural divide between remote community life and the big city university life, meeting the Elders and family members over video link was key. The weekly Zoom sessions enabled the Elders to share their knowledge, such as ways of working with the students. They also shared cultural and spiritual knowledge with me to foster understanding. Visually connecting to the Elders and family in real time reduced feelings of homesickness and supported morale. The Elders also used this time to uplift us all with supportive comments about the students’ journeys to date and the program itself.

It was a time to learn and listen to each other; to check in on student progress, to consider emotional wellbeing, to reflect on program structure and aims, and at the least to catch up on each others’ news. 

Arranging the learning demonstrates a recognition and respect for these students’ Aboriginal ways of being and experiencing the world. 

Considering spirituality in TESOL practice

The term spirituality here is about how we find peace and purpose in our life and relationships, rather than doctrine or formal religion. Spirituality comes from the meeting of the natural and supernatural worlds. The Yugul Mangi believe nature communicates messages, warnings, and hope via spiritual presences, signs and symbols that dwell in nature and dreams. While working with the students, I began to learn more about their spirituality and how it is central to teaching, learning and program development, for example, kinship and community obligations around grief. Sorry Business lore meant the program needed to be flexible to give students time to fulfill their obligations and to grieve the loss of the family member.

Another example is an up-close visit of a willy-wagtail bird. In my students’ Aboriginal culture, a willy-wagtail signifies bad news. As the willy-wagtail danced about in front of the student she tried to dodge it, saying ‘Leave me alone you. I don’t want your bad news’. Because of the distance between community and the university, this sighting led to a flurry of text messages and video call conversations with family members back in the community to ensure all was well and to forewarn family to take care. Signs such as these are taken seriously by the students and the community; hence as a person working closely with the students, I needed to acknowledge this and allow time for conversations between kinship groups. Sadly, within 3 days of sighting the willy-wagtail one of the students’ family members suddenly passed away.

Contribution to TESOL professional development: What are the take-aways? 

TESOL programs will have better outcomes when students’ spirituality and cultural lore are acknowledged and supported in an authentic way (Scull, 2016). Authenticity comes from community and student involvement in the design and implementation of programs. 

  • Reflect on the ways in which spirituality influences your own TESOL practice. For further on this: 
Farrell, T. S., Baurain, B., & Lewis, M. (2020). “We Teach Who We Are”: Contemplation, Reflective Practice and Spirituality in TESOL. RELC Journal, 51(3), 337–346https://doi.org/10.1177/0033688220915647 .
  • Become familiar with key documents on the teaching and implementation of education programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as:
The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Education (1999)  
Indigenous Literacy Foundation (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storybook publications)
  • Increase your understanding of indigenous education globally with documents/resources such as:
The Alaskan Native Knowledge Network 
Na Honua Mauli Ola – Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments 
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2008)                        


Alaskan Native Knowledge Network. (nd). University of Alaska. https://www.uaf.edu/ankn/ .

The Coolangatta Statement on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Education. (2006). In What Good Condition?: Vol. Aboriginal History Monograph 13 (p. 229–). ANU E Press.

MacIntyre, P. D. (2016). So Far So Good: An Overview of Positive Psychology and Its Contributions to SLA. In Positive Psychology Perspectives on Foreign Language Learning and Teaching (pp. 3–20). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-32954-3_1 .

Jurgita Antoine. (2013). Na Honua Mauli Ola: Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments [Review of Na Honua Mauli Ola: Hawai’i Guidelines for Culturally Healthy and Responsive Learning Environments]. Tribal College25(2), 48–. American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Scull, J. (2016). Effective literacy teaching for Indigenous students : Principles from evidence-based practices. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy39(1), 54–63.

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