3.2 Teachers continue to learn
2.1 Teachers plan for effective learning
I work in a fairly large state high school (enrolment 1500) on Brisbane's north-western suburban outskirts. As English Department Head, I teach three classes as opposed to the five or six of teachers on a full load. Currently, one of these classes is a Year 9 group comprising 28 students of a reasonably wide range of ability and it is on this group that this "snapshot" is focused. The school's timetable provides for 70 minute periods and English classes meet three times a week.
In the junior school (Years 8-10), my classroom practice is currently based on an endeavour to marry a form of process writing as advocated in Nancie Atwell's 1987 book, In the Middle: Writing, Reading and Learning with Adolescents, with a genre/functional grammar approach. At the same time, I also aim to incorporate the insights of critical literacy where appropriate. While the genre/functional grammar approach is consistent with the existing Queensland Years 1-10 syllabus materials, the attempted amalgamation with process writing derives from an analysis of my teaching practice undertaken as part of a course work M.Ed. completed at QUT in 1996.
At that time, my class programs consisted of a series of discrete units of work with the systematic coverage of a range of genres being the main organizing factor. Upon reflection, my major dissatisfaction with this practice was that it allowed little real choice for students and, as a consequence, students were frequently not really fully "engaged" in the writing and speaking tasks that the class program generated. In comparison, the essence of the writing workshop approach described in Atwell's book is that students basically learn to write by writing and therefore need to spend a significant proportion of available class time in actual writing. In an effort to achieve the real engagement with tasks previously perceived to be missing, I now have students work on writing tasks of their own choice rather than ones set by the teacher. The principle at work here is a version of the old adage that one volunteer is worth ten pressed men.
This does not mean that students are left entirely to their own devices. Lessons occasionally involve structured "topic search" activities and I regularly suggest possible topics to students. Often these will be tasks that would have featured in the more conventional units that I used to teach but are now merely options for students to take up or reject as they see fit.
Most of the time, two of the three periods each week are devoted to Writing Workshop and the third to Reading Workshop. This snapshot deals with a typical Writing Workshop lesson. Following Atwell's "recipe", each of these Writing Workshop sessions has four component segments:
During the "mini lesson" segment of a recent period we revisited Bill Pronzini's short story, 'A Dip in the Poole', to note some further features of an effective example of the genre - and one which is short enough to be comfortably handled even in only 15-20 minutes. When we first used this text earlier in the year, our discussion centred on generic structure, use and punctuation of dialogue, and the employment of first person narrative. We also noted that the author made effective use of specific details to evoke the setting of a luxury hotel for the reader. On this second occasion my intention was to use some of the concepts and terminology of systemic functional grammar to make the writer's technique explicit for the students. The point of analysis of models of good writing, whether it involves functional grammar or not, is of course to encourage students to emulate effective techniques in their own writing.
The previous week, the bulk of one period had been devoted to providing the class with an introduction to functional grammar and, in particular, the transitivity system. This was done by way of a Powerpoint presentation utilizing a laptop computer connected to a recently acquired 80 cm TV through a "converter" that enables the TV to function as a monitor. I had prepared this Powerpoint slide show as the first in a series that I plan to use to in-service all teachers in the department. This is a project that I have had on my "to do" list for quite some time but was motivated to get around to making a start after attending the ASFLA Spring School held at the University of Queensland towards the end of the September vacation. Besides effecting the necessary and long overdue in-service for my teachers on functional grammar, a secondary aim with this project was to demonstrate the potential of the Powerpoint software and encourage teachers to use it for presentations to their own classes in lieu of the more usual visual aids of OHP and board.
Even though it was planned for a teacher audience, the presentation was not overwhelming for the class since, at this stage, both groups are still novices as regards knowledge of functional grammar. I did point out to students that it was merely an introductory overview; that I did not expect that they would master all of the terms after only one exposure; and that we would progressively apply the concepts and terms as we discussed various texts in the course of the term. On our second examination of 'A Dip in the Poole', I initially guided the class to identify the participants, processes and circumstances evident in the first couple of paragraphs. We then investigated how the author had utilized the potential of the nominal group structure to pack specific details into both participants and circumstances and so effectively evoke the setting. Nominal groups were identified and the constituents labelled. My aim was to have students realize the opportunities for adding modifying details that enable the writer to show rather than tell.
I think this vignette demonstrates how explicit knowledge of the way that meanings are realized by the grammar in various genres can be incorporated into what is basically a process approach to teaching writing.