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.
 
 
 

 

Starting with Student Blogs – Creating Learning Journals

Last week I wrote about the importance of  allowing time and opportunity for students to reflect upon their learning. It is this reflection that allows for deep rather than superficial learning to occur.

I reflect on my learning through blogging. The routine I’ve created of having to write an update every week forces me to stop for a moment, think and consider. The process of explaining my thoughts helps me synthesise my ideas and move forward. So it made sense for me to use blogging as a platform for my students to reflect.

On Monday I set each of them up with a blog using the NSW DEC ‘s Blog Ed. It’s not a great platform, but it was one I could start straight away with as the DEC issues an account to each student enrolled in public schools, and the permissions have already been taken care of. Their blogs are private, however they can log in at home if they wish to show their parents what they are doing. I asked each student to write about one thing they had learned this week. or about something they would like to learn.

Here are a few of their posts:

‘I  learnt that I need to take my time for writing.’ ‘

I learnt to Do some hand print art. I learnt how to retell a story.’

‘In maths groups some girls and I have been practising finding change. We did a video. It was very fun.’

The posts weren’t very detailed,  but they were fine for 7 and 8 year olds writing their first ever blogs. I loved the fact that each one was different. It gave me a good insight into what they valued in their learning this week.

Writing for many 7 and 8 year olds is still a challenging task. I realised quite quickly that this wasn’t really allowing them to reflect in the same way I can while writing – they become preoccupied with finding the keys on the keyboard, working out spelling etc. So I decided to try recording video diaries as well.

At the beginning of the week my maths students chose a learning goal related to our unit about money.  At the end of the week they had to make a video that would teach a concept to the other students.

Unfortunately I can’t show you their actual videos, but I’ve used the transcript of one and put it into Xtranormal to give you a sense of what they created.

My students loved making the videos. They also proved to themselves that they learned something new.We’ll be uploading the videos to their  blogs this week.

I’m just getting started with this so would love to hear from anyone who is using blogs with their students to reflect upon their learning. Please let me know your ideas in the comments section.

Aside

Reflecting on Learning

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the importance of reflection. I NEED to take time out to reflect upon my teaching and my learning. It’s the way I process events and ideas, and discover what’s working or what isn’t. Sometimes I discover answers,  more often I discover new questions.Through reflection, I find inspiration. It’s what moves me forward, allowing me to grow and develop my practice.

We need to give students the opportunity to reflect upon their learning too.

A quick google search for “Why reflect on learning?” led me to great website by Dr Helen Barret in which she reviews the literature about how reflection supports learning. She says,

Jennifer Moon, the most recent researcher on reflective practice, provides the following definition:

Reflection is a form of mental processing – like a form of thinking – that we use to fulfill a purpose or to achieve some anticipated outcome.  It is applied to relatively complicated or unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution and is largely based on the further processing of knowledge and understanding and possibly emotions that we already possess (based on Moon 1999)

Moon points out that one of the defining characteristics of surface learning is that it does not involve reflection (p.123). “

Read the rest of Dr Barret’s article here.

Dr Barret’s website led me to this great wiki about using digital portfolios with K-2 students. This is an area I’ve been wanting to explore, as I mentioned here,  but I’ve hesitated to try because I wasn’t sure how to begin with such young students. All of the 6 year olds in teacher, Kathy Cassidy’s class have personal blogs which they use to reflect on their learning and build a digital portfolio.  She has plenty of examples and suggestions for getting started on her wiki.

I’m pretty excited about the possibilities.

Here’s a brief reflection on my learning:

My first Xtranormal project –  I think I’ll try this with my class!!

What I learned on Twitter this week – How Twitter inspired me to start students blogging

People often say that if you learn one thing at a course or conference which you can take back to your classroom, then it was worthwhile.

Since I started to build my Professional Learning Network on Twitter (PLN) I can honestly say that I have learned things almost every day that I can use back in my classroom. Through my PLN I am exposed to ideas daily that challenge the way I think about my teaching practice, that cause me to reflect, learn, change and grow.

For me, Twitter is like being at a conference every day.

Take this great article, shared on Twitter by @gcouros, that made me think this week.

The author, high school English teacher  Shelley Wright, makes an excellent case for teaching blogging as a persuasive text type. In fact, she suggests it is the new persuasive essay. She goes on to give a great explanation of blog structure which is very helpful for anyone planning to teach blogging to their students.

Her article really made me think. Should we be including blogging as one of our text types throughout the primary school? Most of us wrote our last persuasive essay at the end of high school or university, and those were generally written for exams.

The amazing power of blogging is that anyone can create a blog, and put their message out into a public forum. A well thought out, well written blog has enormous influence. It’s an exciting and empowering tool. And what is the purpose of education if not to empower and equip our students to function as effectively as they can in society?

I’ve used blogging with my class before, but I’ve created all the content, and their role has merely been to respond by commenting on it. However, I’m  now inspired now to get my students started on creating their own blog posts. I’m a little apprehensive about how to do that with a Year Two class, but I’m going to search the web to see how other K-2 teachers are making it work.

Do you use blogging with K-2 students? I would love to hear what you do.

Aside

Libby Gleeson questions if Literacy Education is Killing Storytelling

Last week I wrote of my concerns that some of our common teaching practices may actually be counter productive when it comes to teaching writing.

The link below allows you to download an excellent article by the acclaimed writer, Libby Gleeson in which in which she raises these issues and more. It was written for a conference in 2007, but it is still current and well worth reading.

ASLA XX

 

Are we hindering our students’ ability to write well?

I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by my students in my efforts to help them learn to write.

A few weeks ago, I asked my Year Two class to write a recount of the excursion they went on the day before. We’d done all our brainstorming and modelling. All the scaffolding was in place. I had images and key words written on the IWB, and some models of recounts on large posters that could be easily referred to by students. The class were up to writing independently and there were about 20 minutes left until the bell.

As they wrote, I circulated amongst them, providing encouragement where I could, and help when it was needed. Every now and then, I would read someone’s paragraph aloud, hoping that it might help others to come up with ideas. I’d look over their shoulders as they worked,  and occasionally I would notice a few students who weren’t writing. Some of them would stop mid sentence, others at the end of a paragraph, and just sit there.

Conscious that the time was running out, I would coax them to keep going. I’d ask them if they knew what they wanted to write next and help them with ideas.  They would pick up their pencils and continue.

It was a nice lesson. Not spectacular, but it achieved the outcomes.  They all completed their recounts and in so doing demonstrated a growing understanding of language and text structure, as well as at the subject matter. I was happy with the quality of their work and chose a couple to post on our class website.

However, it occurred to me that real writing isn’t like that at all, and perhaps, even though they are common practices, my attempts to support my students are counter productive for some.

When I write, I HATE people looking at what I’m doing until I’m finished. I posted about that here. If  some does look at my work before I’m ready  I freeze up and find it  difficult to continue. I lose the flow. Is this how I affect my students when I check on their progress?

While writing this post, I have stopped several times. I need to in order to collect my thoughts – to work out what it is exactly that I want to say. I need to stop and read back through my work to see if it makes sense. In classrooms, ruled by bells and crowded schedules there is little time for students to stop, think and reflect. Stopping is discouraged because you’ll run out of time. Stopping is discouraged because the student may be “off task” or “disengaged”.

I’ve also deleted large sections of this post while writing. I’ve deleted, rewritten and deleted again. That’s a little more difficult when you are a Year Two student writing in an exercise book.

If I was a student in my class that day, I don’t think I would have written well. I might have produced some technically correct writing, but the conditions I need to produce quality writing weren’t there. I need time to think. I need privacy. And I need to be able to make and correct mistakes.

If our objective is to help students to truly express themselves in writing, to put their thoughts into words, share what is important, clarify ideas and create new ones, to create worlds. If our students are to learn to harness the  power of the written word, then perhaps a different approach is required.

Promoting Reading in the classroom

It’s the National Year of Reading in Australia – a great excuse to promote a love of reading in the classroom.

Our class schedules are so full that while we all spend time trying to teach students the skills for reading,  I sometimes fear that we don’t spend enough time allowing students to read for pleasure. It’s going to be a priority of mine this year.

 

 

 

Some quick and easy ideas for promoting reading in the classroom.

1. Set up a reading space that is attractive and inviting. Make it an area your students will WANT to spend time in. Ensure there is a mix of genres, including factual texts, as well as a good range of ability levels. You can read about my little reading corner here.

2. Allow time every day for some independent reading. While the class are reading, spend at least some of this time reading for pleasure yourself. It will provide you with a nice quick break while being an excellent role model for students.

3. Share books that you enjoy with the class for no other reason than to have fun. While a discussion is good, don’t provide worksheets or insist that students complete written tasks for these ones. Click here for a list of 250 great books for children.

4. Encourage some interested students to start a book club, or facilitate one yourself. This website has some great suggestions for starting a book club for children.

5. Encourage students to discuss and respond to what they are reading.

  •  Photocopy covers to display on the classroom walls and surround them with comments and ratings from students.
  • Ask students to write book reviews for the class. Keep them in a display book in the reading corner for other students to refer to when selecting books.
  • Set up a class blog and invite students to post their own book reviews
  • Set up a class blog about the books you are sharing with the class. Ask the class to respond to simple questions, such as ‘Who was your favourite character?’ or ‘Did you think the book had a good ending?’ For longer books,this could become a term project.

6. Particpate in any national or international projects. National Simultaneous Story Time  and The Premier’s Reading Challenge are very simple projects for classes to become involved with.

A few helpful Websites

Reading Rewards This site will allow you to set up a home reading log and the opportunity for children to rate and review books. I’m thinking of using it with my Year Two class, but it will be particularly motivational for Stages 2 and 3. It might be a fun way to stimulate discussion about books, and an easy, fun way for students to log their home reading.

Bookie Woogie is a fantastic blog that has been set up by a dad, with his children. The different responses that the children provide are quite fun to read, and I love the pictures they draw in response to their books. I’m thinking of adapting this idea for a class blog project.
Love2Read is the official website for the National Year of Reading. Check it regularly to see what is happening across the nation. There may be some events you can participate in with your class.
Literacy, Families and Learning Trevor Cairney updates this blog regularly. It has some very helpful suggestions for promoting literacy both at home and at school.
The Children’s Book Council of Australia Here you will find links to the websites of many great Australian children’s writers, reading lists, childrens book award lists, Book Week information and more.

Goodreads – this is a social networking site for adults who love reading, but I thought I’d throw it in here anyway. After all, its hard to promote a love of reading, if we aren’t reading ourselves. If you sign up to this site you can rate/review what you have been reading and see what books your friends like. I get a lot of my suggestions for what to read next by checking out what my friends have been enjoying. You can see what I’ve been reading here.