Volume 12 Number 2
Getting Beneath the Frail Cloak of Colour
01 April 1999
The Victorian Multicultural Commission recently launched a campaign aimed at getting students to value Australia's diversity.
The Victorian Multicultural Commission recently launched a campaign aimed at getting students to value Australia's diversity. It encouraged students to complete, on a postcard, two sentences beginning: 'Being an Australian means...' and 'If I could make a difference I'd...'
Stefan Romaniw, the Commission's Chairperson, admitted that the campaign might have backfired but said that the risk had been more than justified. Of the thousands of students who had mailed their cards more than 90 per cent expressed a positive view of the diversity of Australian society. In Victoria, 23.5 per cent of school- age children come from a non-English speaking background.
One card read: 'If I could make a difference I'd put a stop to racial discrimination. The world is filled with different colours and shades, but underneath the frail cloak of colour is a person, a person like you and me, someone who feels and loves and cares.'
Australian born, Romaniw is the son of a Ukrainian father and a German mother. From an early age, he learned the value of being involved in the broader community while remaining attached to his Ukrainian heritage. His career has followed the same pattern. After a period of teaching, he became manager of the Languages and Multicultural Education Resources Centre before taking up his present job. At the same time he has supported the Ukrainian community as President of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations. He has overseen the growth of after-hours ethnic schools which help sustain particular languages and cultures.
He sees the challenge for Victoria's schools as twofold: to provide new arrivals with the tools they need to play a full role in Australian society; and to provide a welcoming environment for new people and cultures.
Schools have long recognized the need for programmes in English as a Second Language (ESL). All teachers are expected to take account of the circumstances of individual students -- length of time in Australia, age, previous schooling in another land, background and so on. Clearly, preparing a programme for a primary age child from a newly arrived family is a hugely different task from meeting the social and educational needs of a teenage refugee from a war-torn homeland.
Romaniw says that two factors are crucial to effective learning: keeping up and improving a child's first language, which underpins the acquisition of a second; and building new learning on the child's existing knowledge and experience.
In primary schools ESL tends to be an integral part of the mainstream classroom. But in secondary schools separate ESL classes are taken by specialist teachers who have been trained to appreciate the life and learning issues their students face. How do these students cope in other classes where the teacher's language may not take sufficient account of such factors?
Romaniw has seen evidence of schools addressing this. It is not uncommon to find teachers of mathematics and science learning to use more appropriate language in their classrooms and questioning their own methods of presentation, he says. Some have begun to accept that they are teachers of English regardless of their speciality.
Victoria has also persisted, particularly in primary schools, with encouraging bilingual programmes where children learn in both their first language and English. But there are not enough resources to offer such programmes to all children. So Romaniw wants the government to keep up its support for community-initiated ethnic schools which help students to develop their first language and maintain contact with their cultural heritage. These take place out of normal school hours.
Part of Romaniw's role is to encourage schools to embrace the spirit of a tolerant, multicultural Australia. To this end, he urges ethnic groups to play an active role in society as a whole and not focus solely on their own group needs, important as they are. This also heightens the value that the general community puts on cultural diversity.
So he is keen that ethnic groups should take part in the mainstream life of schools. Over recent years the government has ensured that schools councils where parents from different ethnic groups are well represented have greater influence over the direction of the school.
Romaniw believes that different groups working together to resolve shared problems will have lasting benefits. His present position gives him the chance to give effect to this belief.