2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
1.1 Teachers know their students
As the ACT Department of Education Literacy Field Officer, I provided resources, developed curriculum and taught small groups of students attending an alternative program for at risk students at a local 7-10 high school. The program provides youth at risk with the opportunity to complete their Year 10 Certificate in an encouraging and safe environment. These students have not found the traditional high school setting to be a place where they can experience success and feel safe in Years 9 and 10.
In the traditional classroom these students were not comfortable with the language of participation, permitting them to have meaningful conversations with the teacher and their peers. Often this resulted in misinterpreting instructions and completing activities incorrectly. Sometimes activities were avoided due to a perception that the task was too difficult. The situation facing me was how to establish small group activities to support oral language activities. These students were uncomfortable with brainstorming, asking questions, giving feedback and sharing ideas. These processes were crucial in developing their confidence and skills to engage in writing.
As I was a visitor, rather than their class teacher, my initial approach was to walk around the classroom and become a familiar face to the students. I felt that my goal of developing a community of learners had more chance of success when the students saw for themselves that I was not a passing figure but someone who was sincerely interested in them as individuals. Initially the students paid very little attention to me. I found this difficult as I had been used to the traditional classroom, where I had established a set of ground rules, indicated my expectations and felt basically in control. This place was theirs.
Over a period of two weeks I introduced myself, made conversation and when I could, answered a question or read a draft response to the modules that students were completing. By moving around and not imposing myself on the students' routine, I became aware of the need to be flexible in developing a literacy program that catered for a wide range of needs. Some students were focused on completing the set work, others spent their time colouring and talking to a friend. Others chose to be on their own and regularly without warning students would come and go, only saying that they would be back.
At the end of two weeks, I proposed to cover a unit which was giving most students difficulty. For the students this was out of the ordinary and a big risk as I was asking them to come together as a group. My goal was to encourage the students to talk to each other about their work in a group setting.
Two girls of indigenous background and four boys participated in the first session. The students were 15 years old and had displayed a positive approach to the individual modules. To encourage participation in the literacy lessons, I emphasised that their participation was voluntary and that they could enter or exit at any time. I was very aware that this was not the traditional classroom. I did not want to lose my students by imposing a set of rules. What I hoped to achieve was a partnership that emphasised negotiated learning in a supportive setting. I hoped that the experience of working together, sharing ideas and solutions would establish a network within the centre.
To emphasise the importance of instructions and to provide the students with a sense that this exercise was achievable, I chose for my first lesson a short text, outlining a set of instructions to a task. I sought to instil confidence in their ability to deconstruct the text and achieve success.
Unfortunately two of the boys were not interested in participating. One of the boys kept interrupting saying that the work was too easy. I replied that there was no obligation for him to stay and he could come in at a later stage when the work became more demanding. As an experienced teacher I felt very awkward and frustrated as he was unwilling to cooperate. I did not want to have a confrontation with him. His friend appeared to be more of a follower, waiting to see what would happen next.
I decided to ask him to identify a piece of work that he found difficult so that we could either discuss the difficulties with the group or on his own. This approach was successful, giving both of us an opportunity to withdraw and start afresh.
I orientated the students to the passage by focussing on their own knowledge of locating content and key words in a book or article. This proved successful because the students were able to focus on their own reading and became less reluctant when we began to compile a list of reading material that included video covers and CD liner notes.
After reading the passage for the first time, I focused on what the passage was doing, by referring to words and phrases such as 'locate', 'the next step is', 'the right details', 'answer some questions about it on the next page.' The discussion centred on the genre of the text, the audience and other contexts where this type of writing was found.
The students enthusiastically answered questions about the text as I read the passage. This provided an excellent scaffold to a discussion on whether they write instructions to their friends, siblings or parents and 'What makes a good instruction when writing a note to someone?' This was followed by a brainstorm of the type of situations where instructions needed to be written.
From the compiled list, the students selected a subject to write an instruction using the text to model their response. This was achieved by retaining key structures and crossing out words and phrases which would not suit the students' chosen context. This was the first time that they had physically manipulated a text. The process of rereading, vocalising their substitutions and negotiating with themselves and their partners the new meaning of the text reflected engagement, interest and surprise at what they were able to produce.
All the students found this scaffold supportive except for one male student. This proved interesting and highlighted the need to continually support my students. It is very easy to make assumptions, especially when students appear to be working well with you until the crunch comes.
For this student the writing segment became very difficult. It was as if a brick wall had suddenly appeared from nowhere. Even though he had contributed to the list of places where instructions were needed he still did not feel comfortable with the task.
After a few questions about his favourite past time, which he declared as having none, he affirmed that the only thing that he liked doing was smoking. "Do you want me to write an instruction on how to light a cigarette?" I replied, 'Why not?" which brought a smile to his face and a laugh from the others.
As this was the first time that the students found themselves engaged in formal group work, I was very aware of the need to maintain their interest and participation. I encouraged students to work in pairs. This provided a secure environment to explore with their friends the task and provided the less confidant with a model of what to do. This also encouraged students who were naturally vocal and confident to take on a leadership role.
The teacher and I provided individual support to students who preferred to work on their own. The process had to be flexible to ensure that these students were not disadvantaged. The completion of a set task within a defined period for these students could be problematic. Their participation in the larger group was encouraged without placing pressure on them. The ultimate aim was to develop confidence in sharing ideas and receiving feedback.
Those students who volunteered to read their work enjoyed the regular sharing of completed tasks. This provided an opportunity to model the language of constructive feedback. It was evident that some students had not been immersed in this experience. Their approach was to focus on their friendships rather than the task, being more critical of the peers they disliked.
The sessions proved successful in establishing a process of developing social, oral language, reading and writing skills outside the regular classroom context. This was achieved by tuning our pedagogy into the individual learning profiles of the students. We achieved this by scaffolding the tasks to suit the students' needs. By valuing a respect for the individual differences of students in the teaching / learning context we were also modelling cooperative learning skills as significant members of the group.
The strategy of modelling writing from a text promoted confidence in their writing. The experience of being able to produce a text by identifying the key language structures of the genre, and changing the context by introducing their own words, provided students with an immediate sense of success.
Over the next two weeks the students and I developed an excellent working relationship which became evident with humour and a willingness to tackle problems together. On one particular day, after the scaffolding work had been completed, the student who had difficulty with the writing task asked me to help him with his maths. I responded by indicating that I would be very happy to look at the question, but that I was no expert. He replied, "That doesn't matter, nor am I."
I felt that the work of the previous weeks was coming together and highlighted the importance of developing positive relationships in the classroom with our students and colleagues. It brought rewards for the students and me, by focusing on being successful in our endeavours. This provided confidence to take risks and seek greater challenges.