Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Real literacy -the medium for 'seeking, using and creating'.

Julie Diamond -author of 'Welcome to the Aquarium'.

As well known American educator Deborah Meier writes on the back cover, 'A rare and special pleasure to read -capturing as it does why it is that some of us can never get enough of teaching.' Seems to me the our current Minister, her reactionary National Standards, her tame 'experts' like Mary Chamberlain, John Hattie, the Canadian woman 'expert', the phonics 'experts' ( Dr Tom etc) waiting in the wings, and all the new literacy advisers ( mercenaries) will make the joy of teaching extinct with their formulaic, anti creativity, 'best practice', 'cherry picked' research, imposed standardized and moderated approach.

Julie Diamond is breathe of fresh air - it is back to the future for me. The technocratic present is so depressing. The creativity of our schools, teachers and students is at risk.

At a creative school oral language, thinking, questioning, drawing and writing are at the heart of the 'emergent' inquiry programme.

And as Julie writes, 'the juice of real experience colours children's writing about real things. Their writing is informed by deep feelings, because the connections they have forged are unique and passionate. As they write and read about real things - not just about themselves - their writing takes off....When children study real things, their own interests and passions dominate their approach to the subject.'

And this writing ,assisted by the teacher, is the beginning of reading. This was once called the language experience approach, or 'whole language'. Julie sites Sylvia Ashton Warner and her vocabulary ideas as an important influence . Writing( and in turn reading) must have 'intense meaning' wrote Sylvia. This is also the approach of the Italian Reggio Emilia Schools Julie also follows.

Real experiences creates the need for focused writing and the search for the best words to use as they stretch their thoughts about the topic in hand. It is the 'lived experience that gives writing energy and muscle, style and personality.'

Forget working your way through genres - a programme based on real experience takes care of such things. Julie spends lots of time asking her students questions as and 'scribing' their thoughts. Such a lot of current classroom writing is lacking in depth. School language not real language.

Literacy develops in a culture that values the 'voice' of the students. As writing is developed Julie introduces knowledge of letters and sounds. Students remember word pattern through association. Julie sees her job to , 'introduce children to reading not to teach it.I encourage the acquisition of reading and writing but I don't push.I've seen too many children who weren't ready to read, pushed by parents or academically orientated pre-schools'. And now, in New Zealand, we have academics waiting to peddle their phonics approach on teachers demeaning meaningful experience in the process.

Julie believes in making children's first readers from their own thoughts ( a Sylvia idea) and once again encourages word attack strategies as part of the process of developing meaning. Her central goal is to ensure her students gain confidence.

During the year writing and drawing folders are developed - writing about authentic studies and experiences. Students needs dictate the appropriate feedback and help given to each student. This is a personalised classroom. Students are not herded in a 'four groups fits all approach' -an approach characterized by lots of children filling in time waiting for their group to get to the teacher.

Dictation of stories is a powerful tool and such dictation is at the level of each student - the deliberate teaching of word attack skills and conventions are introduced as individually appropriate. The 'artistry' of the teacher determines the level of help. Without instruction some children will be unable to progress but the point and purpose of reading must aways be kept paramount. Children need to become aware of Sound letter relationships and alphabet tasks in context and should build on and utilize what the students already know to maximize active rather than passive reading.

As writing skills become more sophisticated teachers should highlight writing conventions and teach techniques, and genres, to children who are ready to utilize them but this, Julie writes, should always be tied to actual purpose. High frequency words need to be available and increasingly learnt through use.. Instruction should aways support reading and writing - children genuine wish to communicate something that matters to them.

Julie resists the use of the term Literacy Block, preferring the term Language Arts, because classrooms dominated by literacy have little real time for the experiences that give children something to write about and supplant the richer multi disciplinary curriculum for mechanical seat work. All too often in such classrooms lessons are based on programmed sequences narrowing the professionalism of teachers. Jolly phonics come to mind!

Purpose for writing, and reading, comes when the children have a genuine purpose - it is as simple as that. Any explicit help should relate to the children's experience and need. Once again this points to the need for teacher artistry. In New Zealand much of the literacy block is spent by children rotating around literacy tasks at the expense of real learning

All this was once bread and butter for progressive junior teachers in New Zealand.Such teachers always considered what children needed to complete worthwhile tasks not to tick off checklists of standards or arbitrary levels.

Creative teachers respected their children's' 'voices' and stayed true to their beliefs - integrity rather than compliance is important. Such teaching put teachers professionalism central. Read, as a comparison, the technocratic jargon used to describe the current National Standards or levels

We need to honour the creativity and lived experiences of our students not supplant them.

It is all about respect and integrity and the valuing of children's' ideas. As Julie Diamond writes, 'The classrooms can then tap the raucous intelligence and the comparing, arguing and questioning that are normally heard outside school walls.


Anonymous said...

I think this stye of teaching is hard to find in our schools today but once it was the way many creative teachers taught.

Very interesting to read about her - thanks for sharing.

Bruce Hammonds said...

I would put a dozen or so teachers of Julie Diamond's philosophy against any dozen phonics type teachers any day. And as well they would learn more than how to read. The hard thing would be finding such teachers ( of Julie's sort) but if I could go back in time once there were plenty such people to choose from.

Today's 'literacy ' teachers are all 'best practiced out' - formulaic teachers with little feeling for the real world, questions and thoughts of their students.

Is this fair?