S T E L L A
Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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3.3 Teachers are active members of the professional and wider community

1.1 Teachers know their students




Sensitivity
How does the teacher demonstrate care and concern for students in a context of fostering their linguistic competence?

Advocacy
How does the teacher articulate educational ideas and take action to develop support for policy and curriculum change in the school and wider community?

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Year 6
Alison Rees

This is the story of one child who put all the pieces together and gave us a glimpse of the thinker he can be. It is also shows the need to have faith and trust in the children we teach.

I was teaching a Year 6 class of twenty-nine students - thirteen passive girls and sixteen very vocalboys. My students were delightful people who genuinely cared for and were very supportive of each other. However (and you probably knew there was an however' coming), their strengths - particularly my boys - lay in the kinaesthetic intelligence field. Using problem solving strategies, or Bloom's higher level of thinking, was something they only did when someone challenged them to do it. (In other words, when the teacher dared them to try it!)

We, my class and I - I include myself in this as I think that sometimes I do more learning than my students - had been working on a unit that I'd casually entitled, 'Author Focus'. My aims were:

  • to focus on the variety of strategies that authors, particularly those who write picture fiction for older students, use to engage their readers and
  • to look at the levels or layers of thinking that an author can challenge a reader to use in interpreting, rather than just decoding, what has been written.

In doing this, we had looked at several authors, including John Marsden (The Rabbits, Norton's Hut, Prayer for the 21st Century) Gary Crew (Memorial, The Watertower, The Viewer) Margaret Wild (Fox), just to name a few. I wanted my students to understand that writing for others is a strategic, creative process, something that requires careful thinking and planning on the author's part in order to challenge and engage the reader. We used a variety of both picture fiction books and excerpts from texts to illustrate this point. Originally they were all ones that I selected, but as the unit progressed, my students became more discerning and started to bring in texts that they thought were interesting and relevant.

In order to show the variety of skills that one author has, and the way in which authors can engage a wider audience, I introduced my class to three of Rod Clement's books, Eyes in Disguise, Just Another Ordinary Day and Grandad's Teeth.

For each particular text we focused on:

  • the audience targeted,
  • the way in which the author catered specifically to that audience,
  • interesting ways in which the author kept the reader engaged,
  • the message - explicit or implicit - that might be received,
  • the strategies that the author used - choice of word, use of dialogue, etc., and
  • the use of illustrations to enhance the words of the text or to challenge the reader's thinking.

Whilst this sounds like a very long list, we managed to explore all these dimensions by engaging in a range of activities, including cooperative work and brainstorming.

When, for example, we read Just Another Ordinary Day, everyone had a sheet of 15 blank boxes. As I read them the text, I didn't show the illustrations the author had drawn, but instead invited my students to do a quick sketch of what they thought the author would be likely to use to engage the reader, thinking about the age of the targeted audience. For anyone who doesn't know this book, the text is incredibly simple, but the illustrations take the reader to a whole other level of imagination.

During the reading of Grandad's Teeth, I asked my students to pinpoint and highlight the subtle humour the author had included, through text and illustration, and the way he was using parody.

Before reading Eyes in Disguise, I asked my students to identify the environmental messages in this text. I also asked them to consider the different levels of thinking the reader could use to interpret the text, and how the author could thereby engage a wider audience.

I was really pleased with the thinking that my students used during each specific session and wondered just how many links had been made. So I challenged them with the questions:

'If you were the author, and you wanted your audience to be actively engaged with the text whilst reading, which 'hat' (De Bono's) would you want your audience to be wearing? What type of thinking would you be encouraging - through subtle means - your readers to be doing as they read each of your books?'

Sounds like a pretty disjointed set of questions when you see them on paper, but they made sense to my students - and that's a scary thought!

So we started with the easiest text.

Hands went straight up when I said, 'What about Grandad's Teeth?'

The response (in a tone that clearly indicated that there was no challenge) 'Yeah, Reesy, that's easy. You're wearing the white hat. The author wants you to be asking questions in order to solve the problem. You also have to wear a green hat too, because you're expected to believe that this could possibly happen.'

Don't you just love it when kids are confident?

Then we moved on to Just Another Ordinary Day.

Once again hands went straight up - Mexican Wave style. The consensus: green hat of course. The words were simple, but the pictures made the reader start to think about how else you could show every day, ordinary events in a world where anything could be possible.

So on to the third. My personal favourite, Eyes in Disguise.

When I asked what type of thinking the author was challenging readers to use, only one hand went up - Fred's (I've used a pseudonym for confidentiality). His hand went up so fast and with such confidence that it nearly knocked out the child sitting next to him! He knew the answer and he wanted to share his understanding with everyone!

Now Fred's the student who always makes you take a deep breath before asking him to answer a question. He's the student who can play class-clown, but whose self-esteem is so very low that you're always trying to build him up and are very careful when directing questions his way. He's also the one who knows when his mates are laughing at him, rather than with him, but tries not to let the hurt show. He's the student that you lead through a series of questions, rather than by asking him the evaluative or analytical one right at the start. He's the one you try to protect.

So what to do? Overcome by a severe case of short-sightedness, I ignored the waving hand and asked the question again. Still only one raised hand. So with heart in mouth I asked, 'Okay Fred. What type of thinking do you believe the author was trying to get us to use?'

Without hesitation the answer came, 'Well it could be two ways. It could be black hat thinking in that he wants us to see all the bad things that we are doing to the environment and what had happened to the fish. Or...'

My mouth had dropped to the floor at this point.

Fred continued, '...it could be blue hat thinking...' (this being the hardest one for kids to get their heads around!) '...and the author is wanting us to make plans for the future so that we can see animals in their natural habitat rather than looking at them in cages or bowls. You know, thinking about what has to be done.' With that, he stopped.

A spontaneous round of applause went around the room. Whilst he might not have been 100% correct from a purist's point of view, his explanations and justification were fantastic, and better still, his peers recognised, and wanted to acknowledge it as well.

I wish I could have captured his smile, the set of his shoulders and the blush on his cheeks.

I'd like to be able to say that the 'light globe' switched on for Fred from then on, but that would make this a fairy tale. However it did make me view him differently, and to trust his instincts and his ability to confidently take risks in class discussions.

It's moments like this that make teaching something special.

Reflection

In writing this narrative I wanted to share a success, a 'warm fuzzy'.

I wanted to demonstrate that teaching English in the Middle Years of Schooling can be as diverse and challenging as the students themselves, and that they (and I) are teacher and learner all rolled into one.

I wanted to show that I try to engage students in such a way that they're asked to think, form opinions and to make judgements about the texts that they read. I want them to compare and consider this learning and to make decisions about their own pieces in order to become better writers themselves.

In writing 'Light Globe' I was also providing justification for myself as to why I am a teacher in a climate where teachers are not valued and education is publicly blamed for each and all of society's problems.

Children like 'Fred' are the reason why I work long hours trying to think of ways to improve my teaching methods. As educators, we all have 'Freds' in our hearts and lives and need to celebrate the importance of them as well as ourselves.

 
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Australian Association for the Teaching of English A L E A ~ Australian Literacy Educators' Assoication
Department of Education & Training (Victoria) Education Department of Western Australia