2.2 Teachers create and maintain a challenging learning environment
1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
At the end of second term, I read the Year 8 set novel, Goodnight Mr Tom, and was moved by its power but simultaneously disturbed by its content. The challenge of how to integrate discussions of neglect and child abuse into my program for term 3 without sensationalising either concerned me. When I asked at the next faculty meeting how I should handle this text, I was handed an assignment of study questions and assured that this assignment would enable me to proceed smoothly.
I was teaching my own form of 21 girls whom I had also taught the previous year. By third term, I knew their collaborative skills had been consolidated. The program we had completed in Year 7 had been heavily literature based with many tasks completed in groups and presented both orally and in writing. Together with the other Year 7 forms, an innovative across curriculum challenge program had been enjoyed during pastoral care sessions. We knew each other well. Most students were avid readers; three were ESL, one girl had severe cerebral palsy and was working full time with a teaching aid. The class had used laptops since Grade 5 and was comfortable with the software. I felt impelled by the content of this novel and the energy of the class to abandon the set questions I had been given.
In first term we had read The Woods at the End of Autumn Street, a novel that detailed a young girl's experiences during World War 2 in America. Historical context had been a problem as most students were not aware of either dates or stories of this era. With a second text set in the same time but in England, it seemed some comparison of the involvement of the two nations could be understood if we interviewed family and friends who had lived at the time. First of all, I set a homework task: to find half a page of information on World War 2. We discussed this in the following class and distributed it to everyone.
In the next class we discussed interview techniques using models from television, and defined open and closed questions, positive feedback and the potential sensitivity of war stories. The girls worked in pairs to form their own questions to ask family or friends. There was great excitement. Lucy called out, 'Can I ring my grandfather in Germany?' And Nika, 'My Grandfather fought in Japan! Can I interview him?' I knew we had an opportunity to learn that had to be taken. We could record these stories and understand facets of Australia's involvement both then and now. 'I don't know what happened in Hong Kong but I can ask Mum tonight', another student enthused.
We had to read the set novel. I read the first two chapters in class with the help of volunteers and then asked for everyone to finish at home. I suggested we write our own novel as a class based in Australia, but that we couldn't start until everyone had finished reading. Every lesson we had updates of where each student had read to and did some detailed passage analysis at this stage. Everyone started to encourage those who were slow readers. Meanwhile we had read three newspaper articles on evacuees, some short personal recollections, and poetry including Even Hitler Had a Mother, Pigtail and The Evacuee.
Each girl presented a persuasive talk (a task on the curriculum) to the class detailing which elements of the two studied novels we should retain for our own. I wrote notes on the content of each speech, collating the class view from these speeches on the board as we listened. The students assessed each other's persuasive techniques and gave feedback. We decided that it would be interesting to find out about evacuees who had come to Australia and also how other children of our own families had participated in the war. We wanted to include some discussion of religion, hardship, friendship, country and city life, love and, of course, war. Child abuse was clearly not on their agenda as a topic they wanted to delve into. A decision was made to incorporate letters and to change narrators to give as many views as possible.
We were lucky to see actual letters from the period that had been censored. A newspaper of the time was brought in. Stories of grandparents and friends gave a perspective of the war in many different cultures. Nika gave a Japanese perspective, Lucy an Austrian one. Girls from Taiwan, Indonesia and Hong Kong explained their countries' involvement. Two members of staff were written to and invited to speak to the class (letter writing was also on their syllabus). The Head of Japanese explained the life of a teenager in Tokyo, displaying the head protection used in bomb raids, the survival food they carried, and maps of her country. The chaplain vividly recreated his experiences as an evacuee in the north of Scotland. The girls took notes under the titles of the chosen themes. Each speaker could have written a novel of their own! Of course we wrote letters thanking those who contributed.
We now set out to write. We selected characters, a plot, chapter headings, our themes and settings. Everyone's ideas were listened to. This took three lessons. Choosing the names of the characters took a whole lesson as we discussed the symbolism of names and changes in gender roles. The class structure of our novel took another lesson to work out. We then decided on the religion, occupation and education of each character - quite an array was decided upon. Each student drew a house plan and we selected suburbs and towns for our houses. We used the English country town where the mother of one of the girls grew up as the birthplace of our English evacuees. The Australian property they were evacuated to belongs to another girl's father and was in the family during the war years.
Another grandmother had remembered her voyages to England and back and helped with the chapter on transition. Someone else had been on a barge so we included a chapter (hers) on a barge. Even our school location was utilised! The students all agreed that we needed romance. We set out the conflicts that we would seek to resolve. We decided on the journeys to be taken. One girl travelled to London during the project and took photos of the Thames and Kensington, locations that we had selected. She gave a talk on these places to the class.
The most important aspects of learning were evident - ownership and enthusiasm. I typed up a plan of the allocated chapters so that we had a clear outline. We wrote the first one in five parts in groups of four, and then tested our collating procedures on the laptops. We read this out and then each girl started her own chapter. Two ESL girls elected to write an exchange of letters as their chapter to accommodate their level of writing skill. We conferenced and proof- read and wrote for two weeks.
Girls worked in pairs and groups to sort out challenges, suggest changes, look at tone and use of vocabulary, and to discuss ideas. Eventually we had a draft, which we read aloud over a couple of lessons. We discussed a conclusion and debated over this. Another week was used to iron out inconsistencies noted during the reading; the girls were very adept verbal editors. I helped proof read each chapter and offered descriptive assessment along the way. A few hitches (catching a virus, losing someone's chapter) occurred with our computers, but our IT staff helped, as did our vigilant use of back ups.
We wrote the conclusion as a whole class on the board. Lastly we debated over a title (ending up with Dare to Dream), front cover and fonts. We dared to dream about creating a novel we could publish in hard copy and on the Internet. We proudly launched this 22 chapter, 44,000 word, class novel at the local pizza restaurant.
I quietly forgot the set study questions requirement.