Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Winter day poem - and teaching beliefs

  Posted by Picasa I was interested to read in Reading Forum No 2 06 Murray Gadd's article on ‘What’s Essential in the Teaching of Reading and Writing’.

I was only concerned with the writing aspect although I agree with the author that reading and writing are a reciprocal processes. All too often writing is a poor cousin in many classrooms.

The article was centred on a piece of writing called ‘Winters Day’ by Billy, a year four student and the teachers skill in helping Billy write such a piece.

A Winters Day

‘Goosebumps went up my arm. The wind whistles a tune in my ear. Grey clouds look like beards surround me. Tired trees cling on to pinecones. All the birds flee. My hands as stiff as stone. The grass sends shiver up my spine. Blue streaks rush through the sky. Trees sway from side to side. Now that’s a winter’s day.’

I wouldn’t’ know if this was written from observation or compiled after intensive thought suggestions by the teacher. The author says Billy’s teacher was pleased because he could convey ‘a picture in words clearly and vividly’ and, ‘used some wonderful imagery’.

The author writes about how the piece of writing comes about. It arose from a year 4-6 syndicates cross curricular study of ‘The Seasons.’ I do wonder why all classes are studying the same topic but that is another issue. The best writing of this sort often arises after students have become aware of a dramatic sensory experience they have experienced.

The teacher had shared selected poems on the theme of winter and had taken the children outside to use their senses and to note all the signs of winter. In class phrases from their observations were discussed and shared writing was used to demonstrate the process. Students were then encouraged to craft and redraft their ideas to convey ‘word pictures’.

All good practice as long as it is not overdone. One would have to see the writing of all the children to see if this was the case. It does concern me that the over use of process in art and writing is losing the individual students personal voice and style.

What concerns me is the author’s insistence that the quality of the piece of writing was due to the teachers knowing the ‘relevant curriculum documents’ and what her students ‘might be able to achieve for each strand and achievement objectives.’ This teacher, he writes, has evidently ‘unpacked all levels 1-3 achievement objectives into instructional goals that can be shared with her students.’ And her classroom was filled with exemplars defining expectations.

Then we get around to intense observation and recording of what each child can do and learning goals defined for and with each learner.

Does it all have to be as complex as this?

I have known creative teachers, vitally concerned with each student expressing their own voice, achieve such quality writing without all this reference to learning objectives, strands, learning intentions, success criteria, feedback (‘dollops of’) exemplars and obsessive observation and recording. These are important but they have almost become an ideology of their own!

You get the impression little quality writing would occur if teachers weren’t up to speed with all the current Ministry of Education advice – my feeling is that many teachers are simply swamped by it all.

The advice about writing given is still worth taking. That writing, ‘should be important to them’, be about an issue that ‘students feel strongly about’, or about, ‘a topic that really interests them’, and by making use of the ‘teachable moment’. One wonders though about four classes being interested in Seasons?

There was lots of good advice in the article but much that was claimed to be part of Billy’s’ writing I would wonder about. I did agree with the need for ‘meaningful, interesting and challenging contexts’. To my mind real, rich and relevant study topics are the heart of a purposeful classroom not the literacy programme. An over concentration on literacy (and numeracy) are, according to one UK educationalist, ‘gobbling up the rest of the curriculum’.

Perceptive creative teachers have always assisted their students achieve quality learning but never at the expense of student individuality.If the ‘student’ art I see on display in many classrooms is any example then there are issues to worry about.

It is claimed that Billy’s writing was a ‘result of his enthusiasm for reading and writing’ but, would it not be better, if it were because of his sensitivity and curiosity towards his environment as a result of his teacher’s guidance.

I guess it all depends on your point of view?


Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with you. I would suggest the possibility that this teacher is, firstly, creative and knows about powerful sensory imaging in order to be encouraging
its use in this way. If I am right, I would further suggest that
any reference to documents, objectives etc etc etc (and I have deliberately put three etceteras there) is merely to appease, or to comply with mandates. Starting with such mandates does not lead to creative learning. Starting with the children does. The time spent putting in the etceteras afterwards are time consuming and totally unnecessary. Worse still, they kill the joy of teaching and learning, not lead to writing such as Billy's.

Bruce Hammonds said...

Now that all those strange levels , strands and objectives are history, will the writing quality now degenerate? I think not.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I have just read a small interview with David Hill, a well known NZ chidren's book writer, who lives in out city.

Giving advice to young writers he says, 'You have to steal.' 'You have to pick a pocket or two'. He was teaching young writers, at a writers camp, to break the rules with their work, to write how they speak, sling in slang.And worse.'Swear words should be used sparingly, and to shock', he says.

He tells the young writers to, 'Turn nerds into heroes and cool one into losers'. 'What do you want to hear about -a successful moment or one where someone fails? Come on think about it.People love hearing about disasters'.

At camp he pushes students to extend themselves.'Dialogue makes a story race along at a cracking pace'. 'Stories need short and long sentences, but not too many words'. And, 'Revise'. Play jokes on your reader, write revenge. And don't give up, he advises.

Under teacher David Hill students are learning a new power.

This is the crux of education.