3.2 Teachers continue to learn
2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
A difficult Year 6 class with several behaviour problems and children ranging from highly able through to remedial; children whose idea of work was to do as little of it as possible. Sound familiar? An assignment, set early in the year, showed us that many of this group needed to develop skills, not only in organisation and presentation, but in how to use factual texts to gain information. Many children were unsure of the format of the books they were using and rarely used the glossary or index at all. There were constant demands on the teacher's time for assistance. One student even asked why I wanted her to read a book; that she preferred doing work sheets.
My team teaching partner David and I sat down to discuss how we could actively engage this wide range of students and go about developing their skills in a meaningful way. Our final decision was to ask each child to write their own factual text. The children would then be able to research a topic of their own choice (and interest) but to do this task they would also need to learn about and use the common features of a factual text.
We set about collecting a wide range of factual texts from the school library, including many big books. Then we divided the children into small groups, each with a pile of books, and asked them to go through the books and make a list of common features. In the next session this information was shared with the whole class and the features listed and discussed. We talked about how the authors had written from their own knowledge and from their research. David and I put forward the idea of writing our own books and the children started enthusiastically making individual lists of topics that they were interested in or had some knowledge about.
A few of the topics listed by certain individuals were of the 'How far can I push the teacher?' variety, but David and I didn't blink an eyelid, just reminded them that they needed to consider their own basic knowledge on the subject and how they could research the topic. We suggested that they discuss their ideas with their parents overnight, and we asked them to come back the next day with a decision about the genre they wanted to work in and which topic on their list they would choose as the subject of their book.
The following day children were handed contracts on which David and I (their Editors-in-Chief)) had set out what was expected as far as text features and presentation, as well as a time line for completion of the draft and published book. The children had to include a synopsis of their book and its possible sections, then the contracts were signed by the authors, their parents and by one of the Editors-in-Chief. It was agreed that contracts could be renegotiated by mutual consent during the book's progress, and everyone set to work. Copies of contracts were given to all the authors with the originals filed for future reference.
Topics were wide and varied, but everyone was keen to write and research their own special topic. We gave them time each day to work in class. The enthusiasm grew and grew, as the children became involved in research with library books and via computer. We held working meetings with individuals and groups as needs arose and discussed issues such as format, editing and the use of the glossary, contents and index. Anecdotal notes of progress were made regularly on each student. Workshops on editing, making a glossary, book-making, etc. were held at intervals, with children able to book into those that they felt they needed or that had been recommended to them at a meeting with the Editors-in-Chief. Children helped each other with 'Does this sound OK?' and 'I need another word for ...' and they offered each other ideas on presentation. The room was buzzing.
A few children did ask to renegotiate their contracts as they made decisions during the draft stage, particularly those who hadn't taken the task seriously at first. All changes to contracts were agreed to formally with both author and an Editor-in-Chief signing the changes. All authors were called to meetings regularly to discuss their progress and were reminded of the deadlines.
As the work progressed children starting talking in terms of contents, index, etc., and they compared the layout of their books to books in the library. They talked about who might read the books and what they might want to know, how best to set out pages for clarity and how a bibliography should be written. They were so involved, and were learning far more than we had hoped. One of the boys in the class, usually the most disruptive, was so enthralled with his own efforts as he developed a procedural text on karate, that he actually asked if he could start another book before the first was finished, as he had a good idea that he'd like to start on at home.
The books made by these children were amazing. We had books about animals, space, the environment, health issues, sports, the arts and mythology. There was a variety of informational and procedural texts - each one of them different. One child photographed his rock collection against several different backgrounds to see which looked best, another visited art stores around Melbourne so he could recommend suppliers in his book on painting. They were all so proud of their books and thoroughly enjoyed sharing them with the class. Comments from the rest of the class were constructive and insightful as they all understood the process each had been through.
Many of the books were used in the library for a part of the year - although all chose to keep their books themselves, rather than donate them permanently to the school. Some of these children did go on to write other books - one winning a prize at Dromkeen - and all grew a little in the process as they took ownership of their learning and became authors.
Just as there are moments in teaching that make you want to pull your hair out, there are others that make it all worthwhile. This narrative is about one of those times - a time when the classroom was 'alive', when students were enthused and eager to achieve, a time when I felt we got it right for this group of students.
We engaged the students in writing for real purposes. We gave them time, access to resources, clear expectations, opportunities for feedback and responsibility for their own learning. We provided them with models of text types, gave them choices of what and how to write and supported them in the writing process We negotiated the learning process and the students experienced success.
Being involved in the STELLA project has provided me with the opportunity to stop and think about my teaching, about why some activities have worked better than others. It has reinforced my thoughts about the engagement of students and given me valuable insight into how our beliefs and knowledge form the basis of the teaching and learning experiences we provide in the classroom. The students in this narrative took responsibility for their own learning and experienced success. Isn't this what it's all about? As teachers we are challenged to engage our students in the learning process and it is through reflection and discussion of the teaching experiences we provide that our understandings, knowledge and expertise grow.