2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment
My students in Year 5/6 are reluctant writers. Despite constant exposure to quality literature through Literature sessions, teacher read serials, quiet reading, shared reading and Library classes, they do not produce quality writing in any genre.
They appear to have had some negative experiences, both with criticism of their writing and poor peer-behaviour in writing conferences. Although they have some great ideas and are very good oral storytellers, they need lots of encouragement and modelling to produce quality texts. Their writing and oral storytelling are like 'chalk and cheese'. Several students have struggled to respond to my expectations of their writing with comments such as 'But last year ...' and 'Mrs. *** always let us do ...'.
Of course, they are used to writing recounts of excursions and the occasional report for science but have trouble with other forms of writing. Their writing still tends to the 'and then...' format, is very stilted or a minimal recount at best. From discussions and writers conferences, I believe they have been 'pushed' to write about every excursion, experience and science experiment, with less emphasis on creative writing, and thus have lost their eagerness.
We had been working on instructional texts and their role in our lives. While I believe recount is an important form of writing, it can be over emphasised and seems to take the enjoyment away from the experience itself. In an attempt to overcome this lack of enthusiasm, I had attempted to structure their writing around more interesting topics, including writing instructions for games and minor problem solving strategies for computer hardware, and had then branched out into writing instructions for computer games - all topics which were relevant and interesting to them. I wanted to build on these positive experiences and help them see writing as fun, useful and not just a sequence of facts.
As a link to our thematic work on Change, we made honeycomb. Before we started we listed the ingredients on the board and discussed the steps involved. I modelled writing the recipe and the instructions, aided by the students. (Several students actually brought recipes from home for other sweets!)
Then we actually made the honeycomb. As with junior classes, I felt for these students that it was important to not only ground their writing in experience but also to be able to link the instructional text to a recount. I was also trying to help the students see the humorous side to science and writing, and so I 'acted up' here (all good teachers are great performers in front of an audience after all!) allowing a few minor accidents to happen, and some amusing incidents to be noted. I don't normally get honeycomb in my hair, or spill the golden syrup on myself!
As we were eating the honeycomb, I prompted for memories and then 'stage managed' a class wall story - not a common occurrence in 5/6 - entitled 'The Day We Made Honeycomb'. (Wall stories, a group story written on the blackboard or on several large sheets of butcher paper are regular events in junior grades, but seem to have reached a 'use by date' well before students arrive in 5/6.) Students seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to contribute to a class story, there was no pressure on them to write, no ridicule, and all contributions were discussed and valued. The finished piece was then published and illustrated by the students.
The next day, we returned to the process. I read a story, 'The Doorbell Rang'. I specifically chose this text as it was short, related to cooking and was not familiar to most students. It is after all a junior picture storybook. Any text related to cooking in anyway whatsoever would have worked the same spell.
We discussed the funny side to the text, and to our honeycomb making experiences students were then asked to write a recipe for their favourite food, one they cooked at home or helped to make. Following this, they had to turn the recipe into a humorous narrative, 'The Day I made *******'. I was once again stage managing the situation, in fact scaffolding their writing by modelling risk taking, editing, the thinking and writing process, using humour and relevance as a link from their positive experiences of writing instructional texts for computer software to the mess I made with honeycomb and their own experiences with cooking.
Some of the titles were:
Well, these stories have turned out to be some of the best writing they have produced all year. Even the reluctant writers have come up with something. Of course, some of the humour is fairly weak, even juvenile (hey, they're kids after all!), but the task was valid and valuable.
I believe that the students responded enthusiastically because it was fun and it was linked to something they enjoyed - they all have a favourite recipe and they can think of a time when something didn't go according to plan. It also helped that I was prepared to make a mess and model the risk taking and editing involved in writing. All teachers know that sometimes we have to 'act' in order to get the best from our students. We also know that some students need more support, encouragement and directions. What we shouldn't forget is that students need to have fun, and that learning with fun and real life experience is a positive and valuable lesson for both student and teacher.
After re-reading this narrative, I am prompted to confess that I often resort to 'stage managing' and 'acting' in my classes. I firmly believe that children's learning should be supported by all manner of experiences, structure, modelling, concrete materials as it were, in order for effective teaching and learning to occur. As a grade 5/6 teacher, I have often felt the need to resort to what some would say are strategies more appropriate to the junior school. My reply is that I choose the appropriate task, strategies, materials and experiences necessary for the group of students I am teaching.
One reason why 'Honeycomb' was so successful is that I resorted to tried and true strategies - a picture storybook, a wall story, a practical experience, fun and food, modelling. I set the scene, encouraged experimentation, demanded involvement, encouraged risk taking. This allowed my students to be supported in their learning and encouraged them to 'have a go', knowing that there was structure and support to guide their writing.
I also believe that writing has taken a second place in the English curriculum. Yes, story writing does occur, but it seems to get lost in the crowded curriculum, becomes excursion recounts, science experiment write ups, a poem on Mother's Day but not true creative writing. We have lost the freshness of children's writing, their experiences and language.
Sometimes we need a reminder: in our hearts we know what works - let's do it!