1.3 Teachers know how students learn to be powerfully literate
2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
The analogy of the Three Ring Circus with the teacher juggling the many issues that demand his/her attention is so true that while hardly humorous, it provides a focus for my attempts at drawing this narrative together. First, there are the disparate needs of the children and the need to cater for both ends of the spectrum as well as children with special needs due to STM (short-term memory) or behavioural problems. Effective planning to encompass the 'crowded curriculum', core learning, benchmarks, profiling, and communicating with parents are just some of the other hats the ringmaster, ie. the teacher, needs to wear. Above all, there is the challenge to engage the minds of the audience, transport them to magic places, and make the scene fun, exciting and challenging while ensuring no-one feels disillusioned. To do all of this would be sheer magic but what gives teachers the buzz is knowing that it's 'out there' and maybe, especially at the beginning of a new term or year, almost within reach.
All teachers are constantly called upon to critically evaluate and reflect on curriculum and planning decisions. However with English, learning and teaching encompasses not only the specific subject content of English, but is equally important across all curriculum areas as a tool or means of learning and communicating. My teaching judgements are based on the observation of individual learning needs, the language demands of the curriculum topic and the level of text suitability and difficulty. I always try to use metacognition with children and share the 'what' and 'why' of our learning and give them feedback on their attempts.
Each year a different group of children with their varying learning styles requires me to fine-tune my choice of texts and strategies. A great deal of English is taught through the integrated topics for each term although Learning Centres in Grade 3 (along the Early Years model) also provide the opportunity for the development and practise of specific English skills and strategies. I consider myself lucky to be responsible for library purchases and love the opportunity to browse and select from the fabulous range of available texts. In this way I am often easily able to select the 'right' book for that special child or situation.
I generally choose literature, especially serials, as a medium for discussion of social issues relevant to the grade. Many of the boys have a quite egocentric, scornful attitude to younger siblings or those children that don't belong to the 'sport' set. They became absolutely hooked on The Canterbury Tales series, which tell a family narrative from the perspective of each of the children. Once the serial was finished they were keenly sought for borrowing from the library, especially by the child who had originally prompted my concern. Buzzard Breath and Brains, on this year's shortlist, was a perfect choice for the grade to discuss the perennial issue of subtle playground bullying. Feelings, relationships, reasons and possible solutions were added to a concept map as the serial progressed. The depth of perception and involvement of some children never ceases to amaze me and we all benefited from listening to others share their thoughts.
The Reading Learning Centres are a favourite part of the morning. After a shared text we move into the group rotation. I work with the guided reading group while the other three groups operate independently. One group completes a response to the guided reading text, while the other groups work on the computers or the science task. Science tasks offer wonderful opportunities for the children to observe, talk about and record their experiments. These are regarded as the 'fun' activities although everyone likes to have that special small group time with the teacher. My 'almost fluent' readers are able to recognise the progress they have made in fluency, expression and using strategies to 'crack the code'. We also gather ideas as we look at the text from a writer and reader's perspective. This group while able to 'read the words' in informational texts need lots of practise in sorting out the key information and making use of it in another form. Activities such as matching captions to diagrams, transforming information from text to diagram and identifying the meaning of new vocabulary have been used within the context of the integrated topic to meet the needs of this group of children.
This term's topic of Water has once again been most successful in engaging the children's interest and providing a wealth of opportunities for linking current events, the children's daily life and an abundance of resources. My team partner and I had observed that many children's descriptions were just the bare bones. Teaching related to the use and choice of appropriate adjectives, verbs and adverbs has given the children a common language for talking about grammatical features and at the same time improved the quality of their descriptions. One of the children wrote about a magical, imaginary favourite water place and drew on some of the ideas and images we'd talked about when planning a joint text construction. I love the children's creativity and imagination and their ease with forms of writing I find quite inhibiting.
When planing their narrative based on the life story of a raindrop we also used the idea of storyboarding. By drawing their sequence of events they were then able to move more easily to using paragraphs for each event. Prior to commencing, they were asked to list five facts about the water cycle they were going to incorporate in their narrative. This was particularly important for my two boys with rather severe short-term memory problems. One of these children is a really gifted writer with a wonderful sense of voice. However his spelling and punctuation are usually put on hold as he gets his ideas down. It has been really important for him to receive recognition as a writer and for spelling and punctuation to be treated as one aspect of the writing process. Armed with his writer's word-list, proofreading prompt card and short bursts of help, we are also making progress on the spelling front. Of course the word-processor with the underline and spell check is also a great asset.
During the topic we focused on the explicit teaching of how explanations are written. This involved generalising, describing and sequencing. The Big Books and factual texts provided useful models, particularly when looking at visual text such as diagrams or flow charts, which support the written explanation. We modelled writing (planning, composing, editing and presenting) and shared joint text construction before children attempted to write their own explanations.
Learning technologies for researching and presenting information are a wonderful assistance and also allow for a great deal of cooperative learning and problem solving. However, it is essential to find time to read, enjoy and keep up to date and informed about children's literature and to find connections that make learning exciting and fun. While we can help children become proficient language users of a range of text types in a range of contexts, I feel nothing has been achieved if they never want to read or write for their own sheer satisfaction and enjoyment.