Oonagh Sherrard's 11 Stories project: Transforming the way Hawkesbury kids learn.

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

On the water's edge, about a dozen teens in green uniforms are perched in ones and twos, humming, strumming, chatting and sketching.

It's not the standard classroom we're used to, but there can be no mistake that learning is taking place. Meet the Windsor High School students and staff who are taking learning and creative inspiration in both hands, thanks to Oonagh Sherrard's "11 Stories from the River" project.

The project has been a long-held vision for Oonagh, who has been running workshops with young people this year in the hope that a two-way exchange of learning and creative collaboration will take place.

Oonagh says, "This is an idea that I've had for a long time; ever since I heard about how people were making audio stories that you could download on your phone. I liked the idea of going to a place, and learning about it, in the world of your own headphones. You could have the magical experience of a place while you were there, rather than going to a museum."

Oonagh has had the idea for around eight years and while life got in the way for a while, she finally had the time in 2018 to apply for a grant that has allowed her to carry out this important work, which has the potential to not only add cultural hometown richness for Hawkesbury born-and-breds, but also create a unique tourist experience for visitors to the area.

She explains, "My idea is to bring people to the river and to raise awareness about it, because while it feels like a backdrop to our lives, it's actually central to our lives. We're not necessarily fully aware of that. I'm also deeply concerned about the river system, environmentally, and so that's a very big motivating force for me. I think that we understand a place better when we know what's gone on there."

Oonagh says that while stories about early interactions with the Traditional Owners of the land are available, people generally have to already be interested to access them and appreciate the full historical picture.

"I wanted to bring these stories of the Darug people and the environment to people in a way that is magical and is alluring. I wanted to do it in a way that still enables them to enjoy the place, and that's what the project is really about. I've done interviews with people, and I've worked with the school students as well, sharing stories with them, and getting other people to share stories with them."

Recent guests and contributors on the project have included DCAC principal Leanne Watson, Erin Wilkins, Professor Grace Karskens (UNSW), Dr Ian Wright (WSU), Dr Jason Reynolds (WSU) and author Sue Rosen.

Students have responded with a high level of engagement with the project, with some creating works of fine art or music which adds valuable new dimension to their learning.

Layla George and Aiden Harvy, music students at Windsor High, say that they didn't know what to expect in the early stages of the program, but found that exploring story and creativity meant that they engaged quickly and have enjoyed themselves.

Layla says, "We'd never done something like this before. It's so creative. It's like the most artsy thing we've done. It's cool. We've got instruments to use at school, so that's when we'll finalise everything we're doing today."

Aiden adds, "We're really thankful for the experience. It's great."

Music teacher Louise West says, "The kids are getting to know the river because it's so integral to the history of the area. It's great for the kids to understand the history, but also the place of it all in our society. I'm interested to see what the kids come up with, musically. I think it's really important for them to understand where they come from. Often we're very straight with the ideas we give them, and it can be restrictive. With this program, they're coming up with whatever they like, from all they've learned. They're learning from the experience of coming down to the river, and putting their own tack on everything that's happened."

Oonagh says that the completed works by young people from Hawkesbury schools will be incorporated into the final product; her highly accessible audio experience which will also include a visual element.

She says, "The ultimate idea is to bring the river to life, with stories and music... and bring people to the river. It's about personal interaction with the stories and with this place. Storytelling is an ancient art, and for the kids, being able to hear a story told to them means that something is passed between them in that space that you don't necessarily get from a book. So many of these kids mightn't have a reason to go looking for these stories, so this is all about just saying, 'Hey. Look what's here! Isn't it great that we have this?' "

Oonagh's running a Facebook page to share news and photos of her project.

You can find that page here.

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