Thursday, 23 January 2014

Yes, We Can Get Our Boys to Write!

My last post was about dyslexia and why some students, who love words, did not find their school writing experiences positive. This post on being an effective teacher of writing, looks at how we can address some of the problems for writers. 

It's great when you come away from a course excited.  It's even better when you feel like that even though you should still be on holiday. And it's "fantabulous," when your colleagues feel the same way.

Like many others, we've identified that our students, as a group, are weakest in writing achievement. Our qualified hunch is that this is because our teachers could be better teachers of writing.  But how do you address this?

When I first arrived at the school three and a half years ago, the focus was writing.  Our first step was to introduce a more robust assessment tool and we chose e-asTTle.  The last three years have been about unpacking the tool and looking at how we unpack a piece of writing.  The new e-asTTle writing rubric came out, so we spent time adapting to that.  We knew moderation was important, so we hosted interschool moderation workshops and had a lot of practice and discussion within our own staff.

But we all know that testing and being better at testing, does not make a writer who is passionate about writing! I am very aware of this need.  I can see that not everyone on the staff shares my passion for crafting words into word pictures; word pictures that engage readers and take them away on a magical video in the cinema of our imaginations.

We identified and talked about this need with our change team; it was suggested that Gail Loane might be available before the school year started.  Our principal shared our needs with Gail , on the phone.  Some of us had attended her two hour seminar on Boy Writers last year. Like our students, we wanted a workshop that would be interactive.

I set myself the goal of reading "I've Got Something to Say," Gail Loane's book on writing, in collaboration with Sally Muir.  It had sat on my shelf for two years. Recommended by other colleagues, it was always superseded by the best pulp fiction I could find to take my brain on holiday over the Christmas break.

As expected, I'm embarrassed I didn't open it earlier. Gail and Sally have created a primer for effective writing practice that embraces effective pedagogy, samples of writing, how to present and unpack them and surrounds them with real experiences with students.  Interwoven is Gail's obvious passion for writing and unrelenting belief that every child can write, has a story to write and has a story he or she wants to share.

And that's how she ran the workshop.  I enjoyed recognising pieces I had discovered in the book and knowing that the ideas I wanted to revisit - and that's all of them - were all in the book.

She asked us to question whether we believed that some students' lives were not rich enough to have their own starters and bemoaned the fact that so many draft books were short on work and short on completion. We read the poem "That Was Summer" by Marci Ridlon.

We clarified meaning; not everyone comes to a piece with the same set of experiences and understandings. We used topics that students can relate to: summer, playing hide and seek, building huts and playing a sport. We unpacked and co-constructed criteria that everyone can use.

We wrote our stanza in about ten minutes. We shared and read it as a group poem. We were all writers.

(I've attached my full notes from the day on a Google doc as well as the storified tweets from teacher Kassey Downard @kasseylee11 and myself @mrs_hyde.)

Further note - I was excited when I read, at the start of the book, that Gail had attended a workshop run by Ruie Pritchard in the late 1980's. So had I. I was blown away to discover that we were on the same week-long inservice at Waikato. How marvelous that she has carried it further, so that I may again pick up the threads so many years later.