Entertainment From little voices and big heart grows Wilcannia school’s ARIA music teacher nomination

From little voices and big heart grows Wilcannia school’s ARIA music teacher nomination

Students at Wilcannia Central School made a music video about staying connected through tough times. Photo: Wilcannia Central School
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A moving rendition of one of Australia’s most-loved songs has earned the music teacher at a remote outback school an ARIA nomination – and an ovation from legendary singer-songwriter Kev Carmody.

Sarah Donnelley, 30, a teacher at Wilcannia Central School, 950 kilometres by road west of Sydney, overcame the pandemic lockdown and online learning frustrations to keep the school’s 98 students connected, both physically and through song.

Ms Donnelley asked her students, from kindergarten to year 6, to film short videos of themselves singing to her rendition of From Little Things Big Things Grow, the beloved song by Carmody and Paul Kelly.

As the song went online with verses rewritten to capture the lockdown experience in Wilcannia, population 700, Ms Donnelley devised a way to overcome unreliable phone and internet services and link the pupils, joining nine kilometres of construction safety tape through the dusty streets of Wilcannia and organising the kids to come outside and take hold.

Music teacher Sarah Donnelley has used music to keep her students engaged and motivated during COVID. Photo: ARIA

That ingenuity and determination, and her efforts to maintain school spirit, won her many fans in town and further away, earning Ms Donnelley an ARIA music teacher’s award nomination.

“I think this video came at a time when teachers and students all around the world were feeling the same challenges of not being able to be at school and having to participate in home learning,” she said.

“Music is so powerful and important for education and learning.

“It has positive effects on wellbeing and connections, school attendance, it provides a way to build confidence and it’s something that we can be proud of.”

Ms Donnelley is among the first four nominees to make the ARIA short list from more than 200 submissions, with another four to be announced next month.

Kev Carmody was moved by Wilcannia Central School’s rendition of his beloved song.

Interviewed on ABC Broken Hill radio about her nomination, Ms Donnelley suddenly found herself in a talkback conversation with Carmody, who told her he was moved by the version of the song released almost 30 years ago.

“I’m very pleased and so happy for the community and the kids at Wilcannia,” Carmody said.

“It’s become our song and what Sarah and the community have done is so empowering for the kids.”

Frustrated by unreliable phone and internet services during the pandemic lockdown and, Ms Donnelley and other teachers delivered the pupils’ schoolwork to their homes daily.

“We had teachers at school and at home doing anything they could to ensure there was continuity of learning for our kids because we didn’t have the access to the online learning facilities,” she said.

“In a small community, when you’re so involved in every aspect of our kids’ and our community’s life, to be all of a sudden, I guess, locked away in your houses – it felt really strange.”

Staying connected during COVID

Ms Donnelley, who is also acting deputy principal of the school and its predominantly Indigenous pupils, runs the music and singing program for children from kindergarten to year 6.

Since the music program began, she said, students had been more engaged, with attendance growing by 13 per cent since the start of the 2019 school year.

“I sort of embed music in everything that I do, whether it’s grabbing kids attention, a chance to have some fun in the classroom, or a way to engage them in literacy, and writing and reading,” she said.

Wilcannia Central School teacher Sarah Donnelley says music has helped maintain the morale of her students and the wider community. Photo: ARIA

Wilcannia resident and community radio manager Brendon Adams helped Ms Donnelley produce the video.

“The [version] was written locally and produced locally with all the community members and that’s what made it so special … I think that’s why it got the attention it deserves,” he said.

“It’s just overwhelming and I couldn’t be any prouder of her … and for all the hard work that she’s done, she really deserves that recognition.”

The ARIA winner will be determined by a public vote, with the award ceremony on November 25.