Against the tide opportunity in a time of indifference

"Our task is to educate their (our students) whole being so they can face the future. We may not see the future, but they will, and our job is to help them make something of it."— Ken Robinson

The last part of this statement points to the inalienable right we all, as fellow human beings, have to a future that offers fulfillment of the things we seek in common.

With that right I believe, comes a responsibility to help others, regardless of their background; to lay the foundations that will enable them to make something of that future.

Access to a meaningful education is part of that foundation, as is access to clean water, food, shelter, clothing, a stable and safe family and societal environment where individually and collectively life can be lived free from political, cultural, racial, religious or gender based oppression, harassment, abuse and discrimination. Issues that are broadly identified as Human Rights.

For children and adolescents the barriers faced to accessing the aforesaid are complex and divergent. In an educational setting students arrive in the classroom presenting with a range of disadvantage that can be learning, language, trauma or status based: behavioural, psychological, economic or cultural. In to this mix is thrown the moral compass of the school, the individual teacher and the ability of both to identify and provision for a students particular circumstance in a compassionate and informed manner.


From Afghanistan. Life Skills / Support study pathway / Studied Design

Shkulla arrived in Australia with an identified learning disorder. She was enrolled in our Special Education unit and placed on a Life Skills study pattern via mainstream integration. In the art faculty she studied Visual Design and Photography. I was her Design teacher.

On her first day she made two things clear to me. One, that she was really struggling with the language and two, that she was terrified of being sent back to Afghanistan should she not do well in her studies.

Although her mother was quite fluent English was not spoken at home and this was a big hurdle for her in terms of learning the language and also the main barrier to her learning at school. I was never told what her diagnosis was but over the course of working with her I discovered a bright, curious and adventurous young woman with a sense of humour who was simply glad to be alive.

Picking up the listening / speaking, reading / writing components of English was going slowly despite having support allocated to her. She worked hard but was frustrated with subject related terminology. Together we worked with translation services and apps for both Dari and Pashto and discovered that we were up against a significant difference in the way specific languages force the speaker to think.

It was Shkulla who struck on the idea of working with a Pashto keyboard. One day she said to me " if I have a keyboard with Pashto on it you can show me what to do and I can make it into what I understand"

Pashto digital keyboard

So this is what we did and this is how she learned fundamentals of design theory and applications like Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator. She had an exceptional visual memory and retained everything she was shown and was now able to make notes in her native language.

One day early in term two she came in with a big smile on her face and said "Good morning Gary. How are you today?" She was getting the sense of what to say, when to say and why to say it. In her turbulent world some understanding had arrived.

She was a devout Muslim and as her command of English improved she began to speak openly about her faith and about the beauty and progressive nature of Afghanistan before the arrival of the Taliban whom she disliked intensely. She characterised them as 'bad men"

Girls on the way home from school. 1960's. Some wear chadri after school but they were not permitted to wear it on the way to school.

All went well for some time and I was getting used to being regaled often with how her English was improving and it was.

Late in the year she came into class one morning in tears and told me that her father was sending her back to live with her uncles in Afghanistan unless she could show evidence that she had made significant progress. She asked me if I could copy all her completed work from the school drive onto a USB that she gave me.

There were a few days of frenzied negotiations with the school. In this instance her mother was powerless and her father whose English was poor would only speak to men in the executive and refused the services of a translator. It was hell.

She disappeared for about two weeks and no one knew what was happening. Then as suddenly as she had gone she returned; subdued, but glad to be back. She explained that her dad was impressed with what she had shown him from both Photography and Design, she said he could SEE the improvement.

On graduation day she didn't wear chadri. It was the first time I had seen her hair out. She was radiant.

Her final project with the Design class was a book dedicated to her father which spoke of her love and admiration even through what were clearly her darkest hours.


Rozhin came to Australia with her mother from Iran. Her father, an Iranian scientist, didn't arrive until about 6 months later. He'd been waiting for clearance.

She had very little English to speak of and struggled against the perception that because she had completed a two week Accelerated English course on arrival here that she required no further help from the school community and indeed had she been deemed to be in need of assistance there was no means of provisioning because she didn't fit into any of the funding categories.

This highly intelligent young woman was my first serious baptism of fire in terms of understanding and to some degree resolving the difficulties faced by students from particular language backgrounds.

Having Rozhin in two classes meant that I saw her nearly every day and was able to see the impact failure and success was having on her,

To better identify the struggle she was having with understanding task requirements I got her to highlight on coursework handouts across all subjects everything she didn't understand. The task ahead appeared insurmountable.

Eventually it came down to this. She had no one in her extended family that was able to translate for her, no one who could give her nuanced explanations. Significant and subtle differentiations in content and context were slipping away from her. Many of her teachers has simply put her in the too hard basket She wanted to succeed but that horizon just seemed to be getting further and further away.

So I searched the internet and iTunes store and purchased some desktop and mobile apps and began translating handouts and assessment tasks across all her subjects. For the most part, my translations of tutorial scripts and theory content and assessments into Farsi (Persian) provided Rozhin with some hysterical moments.

Rozhin's first painting, She had no knowledge of Western Art. Knew nothing of it's traditions & practices or the materials used by artists. Studied only calligraphy in Iran.

In many of our discussions about art I would find her just looking at me as though I were from another planet. At that point I'd stop and find myself saying "you didn't understand any of that did you? " she'd just shake her head.

Often I would explain that what she was experiencing was normal "imagine me going to Iran trying to learn Persian to teach or study, I wouldn't have a chance" It takes time. Bur time wasn't on her side, assessment tasks and exams were not waiting.

“Rozhin Sorkeh. ‘Photoshop Preliminaries’. “Adding Another Dimension”
“Rozhin Sorkeh. ‘Photoshop Preliminaries’. "Mixing design elements"

The road ahead seemed to be paved with frustration. I learned a lot about her native language and why machine based translations are rudimentary at best. I shifted my focus and spent more time working on expanding her vocabulary and comprehension. Rozhin had a razor sharp intellect, her results began improving and my translations were getting better albeit slowly and painfully.

However we got through it. She produced some extraordinary work. After completing her studies in Visual Art & Visual Design she continued on to undertake tertiary studies in Design in Brisbane and in 2015 started work with an architectural / design agency in Sydney, NSW.”

Recent works from Rose via FB

I taught Aidan across three subjects; Visual Art, Photography and Visual Design. For Design and Photography Aidan usually had an aide to help him with the organization, management and execution of tasks. Aidan followed a 'life skills' pathway in all three subjects due to experiencing significant difficulties with organizing and remembering scripted content.

He would often read instructions and /or steps in processes and forget them nearly immediately. The net result of this was that academic subjects assumed nightmarish proportions and became a reservoir of situations that promoted and perpetuated feelings of low self esteem.

Aidan was an avid online gamer and in his rare conversations with other people I discovered he had an extraordinary ability to;

  1. Work out how things worked without being told.
  2. Remember and describe very complex and detailed gaming scenarios, character traits and abilities. .
Screenshot of features from iTunes landing page.
Aidan learned and remembered through doing

This doing took place in a digital environment, so the 'ah ha' moment for me occurred in the 2nd semester of the development of Aidan's Body of Work in Visual Art when I was showing him some images i had made using 'Sketch Club' software and asked him if he would like to try it out. He had never drawn using 'software' before after a quick tour of the interface and a brief demo of 'what did what' I handed him a stylus and left him to his own devices.

After about an hour of trying things out Aidan's first images began to take shape. Three things came out of this; I understood:

  1. That he could draw directly from his imagination / memory without the use of any supporting material and that he had a very distinct visual sensibility,
  2. That he could get to the core of the workings of the app drawing tools and their modifications quickly.
  3. He was willing to experiment
This was the first image, made using Sketch Club, that Aidan was happy with.
Sketch Club for IOS

"Sketch Club is a powerful digital art tool paired with a vibrant community of artists across all skill levels. Ranging from professional illustrators and concept artists to students and hobbyists, creative people from all over the world join together in Sketch Club to create, share, and inspire!

CORE FEATURES • State of the art brush and compositing engines rivaling expensive desktop applications • Up to 64 layers with configurable blending, naming, and color tagging • Up to 4K canvas size with presets including standard 300 DPI print sizes • Brush, Blur, Eraser, Fill, Pen, Pixels, Procedural, Select, Smudge, Text, and Vector tools • Loads of built in tool presets plus thousands more from the community • Layer filters for color adjust, blurs, edges, noise, vignette and more • Layer transform with skew, shear, and tiling • Line, circle, and square shapes with automatic aspect ratio snapping • Horizontal, vertical, and dual mirroring modes • Canvas recording and export in full 1080 HD • Background autosave and persistent undo history • Universal binary supporting iPhones and iPads • Over 6 years running of continuous updates • No annoying in-app purchases or ads

TOOLS • Brushes with high resolution shapes, pattern textures, and input curves • Export sketches and presets to iCloud Drive • Create and share custom brush presets in community library • Pen tool presets include calligraphy, fountain pen, gel pen, and more • Pen and Vector tools include simplify for smooth lines even with shaky hands • Create smooth filled shapes and gradient with Vector • Procedural Sketchy and Smooth for amazing fast results • Procedural Bristles for realistic oil painting simulation

CUSTOMIZE • Configurable color themes to make Sketch Club uniquely yours • Customizable shortcuts for single tap access to your favorite functionality • Popup quick color swatch and size and opacity controls • Floating reference image with color sampling

COMMUNITY • New challenge every day and new competition every week! • Massive library of shared brushes, templates, and textures • Live stream and chat for feedback and fun while you draw • Learn through tutorials, speed painting videos, and live classes • Follow other artists and gain fans as you share your creations • Community whiteboard with realtime collaborative drawing • Annual awards honoring some of the best creations each year FOR THE PROS

• iPad Pro and Apple Pencil support • PSD file format export • RGB and hexadecimal color inputs • Bluetooth stylus support for Adonit, FiftyThree, Hex3, TenOne, and Wacom • Screen mirroring modes for presentations and demos • Draw in Multiply, Normal, Overlay, and Screen brush blend modes • Input curves with angle, distance, fade, pressure, random, speed tilt, and time • Adobe Creative Cloud import and export" @

The last images of the series demonstrated an increasingly complex understanding of how to use layered components to build a sophisticated and well resolved image that included the representation of environments and locations as opposed to static colour fields.

IPad 2 + Wacom stylus

After producing such a strong Body of Work it was hard to let Aidan walk away without having the means to carry on what he had started. I had asked him previously what he planned to do when he left and he said he didn't know because "people like me don't stand much of a chance getting a job" I asked him if he wanted to continue working on this series of drawings. He simply replied "I don't have anything to do it with"

So in the last week of school for Year 12 I deleted all the data from the iPad, renamed it Aidan's iPad, installed the drawing apps he had used including some he hadn't and gave him the iPad and stylus. After that point the journey was his.


All images Aidan Hawken & Rose Babakhanian, Photographs @ Gary Poulton

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