When Boon Wurrung elders shared an ancient, culturally marked tree with Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) as part of an exhibition about trees, it formed the centrepiece for a new approach to education.
Monash researchers and educators joined forces with Boon Wurrung Elder N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs AM, Yorta Yorta and Woiwurrung artist Moorina Bonini to explore Melbourne’s Tree School.
Dandenong Primary School students Niayesh, Lana and Sheryl gathered around a tree trunk, gnarled with age and weathered by time. Down the centre two oval-shaped marks were testimony to the cultural practices of the Boon Wurrung people.
The culturally marked tree lay horizontally, on display with permission from Boon Wurrung Foundation. It had been brought from where it had been felled some years back to Monash University and into the custodianship of the Wominjeka Djeembana Indigenous Research Lab.
It’s more than an object. It’s a living entity that reminds us of a past and for future generations to be able to experience.” N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs.
All around the tree, the children’s faces lit up with new ideas and new understandings. The tree felt magical – it was as if the children were entering another world.
Conversation flowed between teachers, artists, educators, Monash students and researchers. The tree became a guide to explore a new way of learning, the heart of an immersive art experience called ‘The Tree School’.
Tree School is a global initiative
A global concept, conceived by artists Sandi Hilal and Alessandro Petti, The Tree School is a place for communal learning and producing knowledge grounded in lived experience and connected to communities.
The tree, a living being with its own characteristics and history, creates a physical and metaphorical common where ideas and actions emerge through critical, free and independent discussion.
The Melbourne iteration was hosted in association with the exhibition Tree Story at Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) in March 2021. Tree Story brought together artists from around the world to create a ‘forest’ of ideas.
Local primary students – along with the teachers – visited the gallery to take part, alongside Indigenous knowledge holders, artists, MUMA staff, Monash Education researchers and pre-service teachers.
How The Tree School worked
At The Tree School, participants learned together ‘under the tree’. They drew on stories, knowledge and actions that support positive change and sustainability while contributing to cross-community wellbeing.
Rather than knowing how the project would unfold, questions were asked to inform the experience. These included:
- How can looking, touching, moving with, listening and learning from the Boon Wurrung tree reveal knowledge?
- What happens to learning when we consider the intentions of the ancestor who left evidence of cultural practice and presence upon the marked tree (as articulated by N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs).
- What stories can we share through being with the marked tree and other trees in our lives?
- How can we creatively engage with and learn from the trees in our community in ways that are sustainable and respectful within our classrooms and locales?
Topics were then developed by Monash pre-service teachers to create a child-centred Forest of Ideas experience around:
- Understanding trees as ancestors
- Why the world needs to plant more trees
- What we can learn from trees and forests through art
- Our favourite trees
- How we can best live together as a community and study, work and create in the most sustainable ways.
The tree’s gift was learning — an abundance of possibilities. And the structures in place with respectful protocols and practices created significant freedoms.
Applying four pillars of Indigenous knowledge
When N’arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs presented at The Tree School, the Boon Wurrung tree lay in the MUMA’s centre, revealing hundreds of years of weathered patterning and connections to cultural practices and ancestry.
N’arweet spoke of the tree as “more than an object … a living entity and witness” and asked participants to consider four pillars:
- Yulendj: thinking about knowledge “in a community sense, so community not just being the people around today, but also the people who were here 2000 years ago, 5000 years ago and the people who will be here in 5000 years’ time … an intergenerational community”.
- Maintaining connection to stories through “ensuring the stories that need to be passed down are passed down, and those stories remain constant for thousands, and thousands and thousands of years”.
- Djeembana: valuing community and diversity through djeembana, a place for gathering. This involves seeing “the things we have in common. What is it that brings us together? What is the thing we are trying to achieve?”
- Parbin-ata: valuing Country not just as “physical space” but as “all the things that have occurred for thousands of generations in that Country, and all the things that will occur into the future … If we can build that connection, then we harness that responsibility for Country, and we protect that Country”.
Tree school took a multi-pronged approach to learning
Learning with the Boon Wurrung tree was a multi-layered approach using The Tree School, Tree Story and Forest of Ideas Art-Reach in collaboration with creative practitioners including the Djirri Djirri dancers and artists.
A series of different responses and learnings emerged over time, as part of this process.
Moving with the Djirri Djirri dancers at Tree School
Around the Boon Wurrung tree, the Djirri Djirri dancers taught participants how to move with cultural knowledge. Dances were created to honour ancestors, family and Country.
Through gestures and movement, participants evoked animals (eels, lyrebirds, kangaroos), land and water — moving across time and place to Wurundjeri music and learning Woiwurrung language.
Inspired by the Djirri Djirri dancers, Monash pre-service teachers encouraged students to move with the patterns and forms of the tree, embodying the tree through movement. The children became a growing tree, a tree in the wind as well as the shapes of the carved areas and the elegant outline of the Boon Wurrung tree.
They then read ‘Welcome to Country’ by Joy Wandin Murphy – looking for marked trees, containers called coolamons, shields and canoes made from marked trees that are featured in the book’s illustrations but not specifically noted in the text.
The children felt the contours and textures of the Boon Wurrung tree, imagining coolamons and shields as they ran their hands along the perimeter of the carved out areas to develop a non-verbal connection with the tree.
“I witnessed how learning about Indigenous knowledges and culture promotes reconciliation; builds cultural confidence and encourages us all (teachers, students, gallery staff, children) to be culturally sensitive and respectful,” Melissa Bedford, museum educator.
The Tree School helped children slow down, be gentle with their investigations and pay attention to their senses.
Extending the dancing into mural making, children then used large brushes to draw their response to the Boon Wurrung tree.
Pre-service teachers guided the children towards sensorial and immersive investigation, and towards deep and detailed looking with magnifying glasses. The children were curious and full of wonder – they smelled the Boon Wurrung tree and found living creatures within it.
We used purposeful dialogue with the children to help them find language for the contours and textures, asking: How does this feel? Rough, smooth, dry, muddy?
The children’s close attention helped them discover what was there to be found. Some discussed whether the tree was feeling sad or was like an ancient legend. Others noticed the patterns of the tree were reminiscent of other patterns occurring in nature (like waves) and painted what may have lived in the tree.
The children’s patterns and textures sometimes moved into stories about a spider, or how a girl could stand next to a tree and be friends. Some children added animals inspired by their dance with the Djirri Djirri dancers.
In this way the tree mural flowed into child-centred artmaking and helped us learn about the emergent nature of children’s artwork.
Growing a forest of ideas
To grow their own Forest of Ideas Art-Reach project, Monash pre-service teachers engaged with the tree as a point of inspiration, learning-to-learn with a range of curriculum approaches that pushed them beyond the boundaries of mainstream school curriculum to then curate their own Forest of Ideas Art-Reach project.
This saw Dandenong Primary School students attend Monash’s Peninsula Campus to explore local tree stories through art. With the pre-service teachers they furthered their learning by exploring cultural and historical connections to trees; local and sustainable practices with trees; trees as animal habitat and biodiversity; pattern and design options with and about tree parts; and the symbolic, storytelling potential of trees.
The atmosphere was electric.
What we learnt from The Tree School Curriculum
Teachers learnt about The Tree School Curriculum (pdf) process with special regard to protocols modelled between Indigenous knowledge-holders and participating educators.
For example, we were encouraged to touch and observe the man-made and ageing marks of the tree. The children’s learning became visceral as they engaged with the marks and wondered what they could reference.
The Art-Reach experiences were also influenced by yarning circles and self-guided conversations that asked important questions of the teachers.
- How do you position yourself to the Boon Wurrung Tree? How do you practice sustainability?
- How do you decolonise your mind, body and work?
- How do you acknowledge and engage with the Traditional Owners of the Country in which you live and work?
- How do you care for Country?
Being part of the Tree School project has deepened my capacity to appreciate the world from an Indigenous perspective.
Dandenong Primary School students later attended Monash’s Peninsula campus to take part in their own ‘Forest of Ideas’.
Connecting across curriculums
Deep respect for the Boon Wurrung tree and its capacity to nurture growth, understanding and knowledge was central to the learning. The multi-tiered approach led participants to explore a range of curricula, frameworks and pedagogical strategies to link mainstream curriculum with Indigenous ways of knowledge sharing.
The Tree School also worked with various aspects of the Victorian Curriculum. All educators involved in the Art Reach experiences called on the Cross Curriculum Priorities which revealed rich and practical ways to connect, link, layer and amplify learning with and beyond The Tree School.
We wish to thank Moorina Bonini for sharing The Tree School Curriculum with us and leading us in conversations about The Tree School.
The project also owes its success to the children and teachers of Dandenong Primary School, the Monash pre-service teachers, MUMA, Monash Library as well as some creative support from Michelle Ludecke and Helen Grimmett.
We are grateful for the opportunity that this special generative project afforded us in deepening our knowledge of Indigenous connection to material and creative practice of these lands for more than 60,000 years.
The Boon Wurrung tree continues to be held in the custodianship of the Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab where it is being embedded in teaching and learning.
Burke, G., Bedford, M., Boonini, M., Briggs, C., Day, C., Pestana, G. (in press). Learning-to-Learn-with a Boon Wurrung Tree. International Journal of Education through Art - Special Issue Art and Museum education.
Bonini, M. 2021. Tree School program. Tree School Curriculum Activities (pdf). MUMA.
Briggs, C. (2021). Welcome to Country. In C. Day and M. Ratcliff (Eds). Tree Story (pp. 3-5). Monash University Museum of Art and Monash University Publishing.
Martin, B. & Brook Garru, A. (2021) More than a guulany (tree), September 2020 (compiled by Jessica Neath. In C. Day and M. Ratcliff (Eds). Tree Story (pp. 68 - 81). Monash University Museum of Art and Monash University Publishing.
Murphy Wandin, J. & Kennedy, L. (2016) Welcome to Country. Black Dog books, Walker Australia.
MUMA, Wominjeka Djeembana Research Lab and Fancy Films (Director). (2021) Tree Story: New Commissions. [Vimeo; Tree Story: Brian Martin].
Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority (n.d.-a), Cross Curriculum Priorities, Learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.
Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority (n.d.-b), Visual Arts: Learning in the Visual Arts.