Standards for Teachers of English Language and Literacy in Australia
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3.1 Teachers demonstrate commitment

3.3 Teachers are active members of the professional and wider community

How does the teacher model and promote language as a source of curiosity and pleasure?

How does the teacher sustain and renew commitment to students, teaching and professional life?

  Teaching through modelling
Year 12
Patsy Bopf

This sequence of two lessons was part of a Semester One unit with a streamed, 'top level' Year 12 class, working within the requirements of the Queensland English syllabus. Within the school itself, emphasis was on challenging bright students in this streamed class and engaging them in activities which developed a love of English as a subject, along with a willingness to think critically and creatively. More specifically I believed that modelling was a strong teaching method which could develop student confidence and sense of risk taking, as well as demonstrating processes of thinking and writing. Briefly, the whole unit involved:

  • a study of King Lear and appropriate aspects of drama,
  • reading of Snow Falling on Cedars and related activities,
  • links with appropriate media articles, references, film (Hick's film in Brisbane at time),
  • study of investigative report writing ,
  • writing of major process task - an investigative report into own choice issue,
  • performances by students of scenes from Shakespeare's play,
  • extended reading of literature and
  • study of poetry.

These aspects of the unit were loosely held together by the concept that "Nothing will come of nothing". Students were aware that the unit was intended to challenge them to think beyond the obvious, to be prepared to be divergent thinkers and develop strong critical awareness as language users.

Prior to these two lessons, the students had been reading the novel Snow Falling on Cedars, as well as studying King Lear At this stage of the semester, a student teacher was working with the class, but since she was in her first week at the school, observation lessons were the focus and my objectives were twofold:

  • to teach a model lesson/demonstration lesson for the student teacher.
  • to develop critical understanding of poetry.

My strategies

Since the students had been working from the text Focus on Poetry in Year 11, I began with that text, with the intention of studying a poem from both a critical literacy and literary criticism perspective, as had been the case in the previous term. That is, I intended to "pick up from where the teacher left off". Prior to this lesson, I had enjoyed a very active discussion with the class using Marvel's poem 'To His Coy Mistress', focussing on contextual influences to interpretation of text. The strategy here was to discuss contextual influences on a writer's choice of words, dependent on association.

The book fell open at a page which illustrated development of associated ideas in a word map based on the key concept of 'mother'. I chose to develop my own word map on the white board, explaining to students that since my elderly mother was staying with me at the moment, it was a very meaningful key word. From that point on, I did not use the class text and the lesson changed direction completely. The very thought of critical analysis of a poem became horrific. There was this wonderful class of bright, interested students, waiting to be bored. I therefore indicated that I would illustrate how the word map of associations was constructed, while explaining my thought processes, not to mention the context.

I asked for their patience while I took a key idea from the word map that seemed to trigger a response in me - that of control - and wrote a poem on the board in front of them.

This is the first draft I later copied from the board:

Then...... .

Electric jug cord in hand
She chased me up the street
Back to school. No sympathy.
Sore legs.

Customers said, "Good morning Mrs N.".
No cheek there.
Pleasantries skimming the surface
Of straight-backed honesty.

Grey face and clammy skin
Clouded her vision
Nothing to see but
A dead husband.

Now...... .

Clouded eyes focus
On garden spade and ironed clothes
On doctor's prescriptions.
And a scared child
Running from one side of
The brain wall to the other.

After reading the poem aloud, I tried to reflect on my thought processes for the other writers, noting the use of a chronological pattern or the emphasis on the strong associations with critical periods in my life with my mother. There was strong emphasis on the need to develop some structural control to help ideas merge. Essentially, I was also suggesting that my brain was running its little video camera in slow motion and I was trying to use words to reconstruct brain images on paper. (That's the way I try to explain this kind of writing to students.) The emphasis was on 'show' not 'tell'.

As the students started their own writing, along with the student teacher, I made a few adjustments to my poem and copied it from the board. The students completed their own word maps and started their poetry, with some interaction and very productive conversation. A couple of them were very strongly analytical thinkers, quite unenthused about this challenge, but prepared to give it a go. This was mainly due to the fact that they knew me from being in my class in Years 9 and 10, so were more used to me and my methods. In fact, half to three-quarters of the class were students I had taught before. A few were quite committed and enthusiastic about writing poetry (one had been the state winner of the Dorothea McKellar competition in Year 9). So I did have some evidence that maybe my methods might work. At the same time, the students were very creative and might have done all this without any help from me.

The students finished their first drafts for homework and arrived at the next lesson ready for response. By then I had revised and redrafted my poem. As the photocopier was broken, I had not put it on an overhead transparency, so read it aloud.

Time hurts
Then...... .

Electric jug cord in hand
She threatened me with worse than
The "First Day of School".
Back, or else.


Customers said, "Good Morning Mrs N&".
No cheek there either.
Pleasantries skimmed the surface
Goaded by her prim straight back

Later even......

When her dead husband's grey face and clammy skin
Clouded her responsible vision
She lay on hard domed cushions
'Neath the black and white horses framed for life.


A scared child runs from one side of the brain
To the other,
Fingering prescriptions and safe repeats
Watching time passing between dates.

Clearly this strategy of modelling revision and editing would have been much better if I had both poems on an overhead projector, or both on a sheet of paper for students to read. But they were less than fascinated by my writing anyway, because they wanted to get on with their own. They listened while I explained changes and reasons, but then began solid work on their writing, working in pairs and threes, while the student teacher and I worked with individuals.

Over the next week or so, poems dribbled in for response and dribbled back as I found time to work on their writing. This was possible because there was no dreaded Assessment here. We were writers working together and when I handed poems back, I gave them the option of rewriting and publishing. The student teacher also completed a draft, to which I responded. This then became the model for her Year 11 writing lesson, not that we planned it that way initially.


What was achieved?

  • Students wrote poetry that was not assessed.
  • Students interacted with me as writers.
  • Students thought about their thinking and their writing.
  • The student teacher engaged in the processes of writing and learning about teaching simultaneously.
  • I enjoyed myself and I know some students did.
  • Some students were glad that I had "got it out of my system for a while".
  • All students constructed very interesting, individually creative poetic texts.

My conclusion? Some lessons are better when you trust your instincts.

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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