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
- Flexible Learning Spaces
- Authentic opportunities to write using Web 2.0 tools
- Explicit teaching of strategies to help students to plan their writing and overcome writers’ block
- 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.