Inspiring Reluctant Writers

Last year my school decided to target students from years 1-6 who were reluctant to write and see what we could do to increase their engagement and raise their performance. These weren’t students who had learning difficulties that prevented them writing, instead they were students who were able to write but just wouldn’t, or would take so long to start that they barely have completed a sentence before it was time to move on to something new.

After spending time working with these students, observing and talking with them to try to determine the cause of their reluctance, and also having reflected on our own practice as writers, we implemented a number of  strategies across the school to successfully engage them. 

As I reflect on it now, I realise they fit into 4 key strategies

  1. Flexible Learning Spaces
  2. Authentic opportunities to write using Web 2.0 tools
  3. Explicit teaching of strategies to help students to plan their writing and overcome writers’ block
  4. Scaffolding of writing in away that allowed students to write like a writer

In this post I’ll concentrate on the importance of flexible learning spaces.

While some students thrive seated at tables close to their peers, others find it distracting or off-putting when they write. We found that the close proximity to other students prevented some students from entering their ‘writers’ zone’, that particular state of mind where the ideas just flow, because they found the presence of others distracting. A few students even became self-conscious writing in that public space where their work could be viewed by others before they’d figured it out and felt that it was ‘ready’.

Introducing some flexibility into the classroom was a simple adjustment, which seemed to work for my students. I’m fortunate to have a large classroom, with plenty of little nooks and spaces away from the main student seating area. Whenever we had time to write I simply asked my students how they preferred to work that day. If they preferred to be in their own space away from the others then they could move into one. If they were preferred to stay at a desk in the main seating area, that was fine too. The majority of students did choose to stay in the main area, but each time they were given a choice, around 5 of my students expressed a preference for working alone, including one student who had particular difficulty starting or sustaining written work.
 
This particular student had a diagnosis of ADHD and found it hard to concentrate on any activity for longer than about 5 minutes. Somehow, when working away from the other students, he was able to focus for longer. He was even able to complete written tasks, something that had been quite rare before. I suspect that he found the presence of others overstimulating and needed to have a space of his own at times when he had to concentrate. 
 
It was not just the proximity to other children that seemed to cause difficulties for some of my students. The traditional teacher practice of wandering around, looking over shoulders, providing feedback and encouragement throughout the writing session seemed to be a hinderance to some. This again, can break the flow of concentration for some students, and hinder the creativity of others. I blogged about my own feelings when people watch me write last year. I hate it.  With this in mind, I asked my students how they felt, and again, while some didn’t mind it, I had one very talented writer who admitted that she found the regular check ups off-putting, and preferred to show me her writing when she had gotten it to a point where she felt it was ready for feedback. That discussion was helpful. I still  moved around the room, supporting students when it was needed, but before I’d intrude on their work, I’d check that they were ready for me to have a look. 
 
These simple adjustments I made, may not seem revolutionary, but for me they were transformative. I had to change my mindset, from being the teacher who controls and monitors to a teacher who trusts and supports her students.
 
By allowing my students to choose where they would work, and the amount and type of support they required from me, I was putting them in control. In a gentle way it forced my students to reflect on how they learned and to take responsibility for their learning. Instead of passively following directions, they had to become more self-directed, choosing the type of environment and support that would allow them to do their very best. They rose to the challenge every time.
 
 
 

 

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Making Maths Authentic

Budget

Budget (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

This year, my grade colleagues and I have been trying to find ways to make learning more authentic for our Year 2 students.

To help us do this, we purchased the imaths program which takes an investigative approach to teaching mathematics. The years program is broken into a series of investigations which require mathematical skills in order to succeed.

The first investigation we tried was ‘ShowTime’. Luckily there is a sample copy of it on their website for you to look at.. For this investigation the students had to plan a trip to a show or fair, like the Sydney Royal Easter Show. They were given a budget of $60 to share with a friend and had to examine the show guide to plan what they would buy, do and see.

My students found the experience of working within a budget challenging. When they realised that they would not be able to afford everything they wanted to do, some felt quite upset at the thought of having to cut some of the items on their wish list. However, by the end of the unit, they had all managed to come up with a workable budget.

They found the task of having to come up with an itinerary even more challenging. First they had to read analogue and digital time on the hour, half-hour and quarter-to/past. Then they had to decide when to visit each event, buy showbags or food and go on rides. While some of my students were able to plan quite logically, allowing time to visit different events, stop for lunch and snacks, and buy the showbags they wanted to purchase, others simply listed events and didn’t build in time for the shopping, rides and their all important lunch break.

Even though my students enjoyed the investigation, and could see how the maths we were learning in class related to the real world, it still didn’t seem authentic enough, so we asked the Year 3 teachers to help us. They agreed (thankfully because it was a BIG ask) to have their students put together a fun-fair for us.

They studied the types of events that occur at the Sydney Royal Easter Show and, working in teams, the students developed their own events for us to visit. These included ‘rides’ on the school yard climbing equipment, show bags, lucky dips, games and performances. They presented us with a program itemising each event, activity or product, along with a price for each. The Year 2 students were each given a budget of $20 and set about planning what they would do, see and buy. To challenge them further, they had to ensure they had enough money left to  buy a ticket for a musical performance at the end of the show.

While our Year Two students practised adding money and seeing how much they could buy with $20, our Year Three students practiced simple monetary transactions and calculating change.

It was an excellent, authentic learning experience for both grades that wouldn’t have been possible without a culture of teamwork and collaboration. I feel very grateful to work with a group of colleagues who are so willing to work together and try new things.

Aside

Making a Difference

Sometimes the demands of school life can become so great that it becomes easy to lose sight of the reason we are there.

We aren’t at work to please our colleagues, our boss, the parent community. We’re not there to be popular, approved of or well-liked. We’re not even there to be the most perfect teachers, with the most innovative, rigorous programs and the most immaculate classrooms. It’s not a competition.

The core business of schools and of teachers is our students.

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It’s the final week of term in Sydney. With that comes many distractions. I’m battling tiredness, the cold I regularly get at the change of season, and have quite a few deadlines that I need to meet.

As I go to work each day this week, I plan to ask myself this question:

How can I make a positive difference to my students today?

When I keep that question in mind, it helps me get past all the distractions and I remember why I’m there