Wednesday, 30 November 2011

End of term

It's the last week of the first term of my teacher education. My thoughts on the importance of ELA in the classroom have not changed too much since the beginning of the term, however, I did not realize at the beginning how important oracy is in the classroom, and how big of a role it could and should play.  Using audio technologies such as podcasting and voice threads seem to be a great way to engage students in oracy. 

 I found this image on google's homepage today to be very appropriate. Tom Sawyer ‘tricking’ kids into painting the fence, used in the article Tom Sawyer, Teaching and Talking (from Adolescent Literacies) as a metaphor for the teacher-learner relationship.  Teachers have to get students interested in the material so that work becomes fun, just like chores.  But more than that, it’s Tom’s high level ability to use oracy to convince his peers that something is fun and interesting that appeals to me; to give every student in the classroom the skills and confidence in their oracy abilities that they too can be a ‘Tom Sawyer’. 

I find it interesting that students have far less diverse vocabulary at school then they do at home.  Someone brought up the fact that in school, students are so used to being talked at, that they hardly get a chance to talk themselves. 

I envision my ELA classroom to not only be enriched with written language, but also spoken language.  Fostering healthy communication between peers, and facilitating meaningful group discussions is a way to start to build a democratic society in the classroom, which is the ultimate goal.  Students should feel like they have a voice, and through ELA learn to express themselves in many mediums and for many purposes.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Writing and Representing Balance

The most important, and often most difficult aspect of teaching writing and representing is, I feel, to create and maintain a balanced curriculum. Casey and Hemenway (2001) refer to this balance between “structure and freedom” in their study of writing students at the Linden School. A grade 3 class was given a balanced writing program, focused on creative writing and revision, with a final project of creating a class book. This project made even the hesitant writers in the class develop a joy of writing. During the next several years of their schooling these students were interviewed about their writing. To much dismay it was found that through middle school and high school, students' love of writing (and the ability to write thoughtfully for that matter) declined as students were made to only write expository pieces, mainly in the form of the 5 paragraph essay. These students were not writing their own opinion anymore, but merely what they knew the teacher wanted to hear.

Writing is a way of expressing personal thoughts and opinions as well as communicating information (Constructing Meaning, p. 238), and students need to be proficient in all forms of writing (ELA IRP).  Learning to write takes on many forms including using correct spelling and grammar, and the ability to get thoughts and feelings down on paper. Without a proper balance of the two approaches a student may either a) develop a negative attitude towards writing
(as in the Casey and Hemenway study) or b) lack the skill in formal conventions of writing necessary for life learning.

Within these approaches, different writing strategies also need to be balanced. Creating writing that uses a wide range of purposes, strategies, ways of thinking, and features is all part of a balanced literacy curriculum (IRP p. 5). Writing, like reading, is a cross-curricular goal and I think students need to be given ample opportunities to develop and explore all writing techniques and forms. A balanced writing curriculum allows teachers to “further students' thinking skills rather than merely extending their knowledge” (IRP, p. 8). Through writing students learn how to think, and communicate a purpose.

An authors purpose, combined with style and tone, forms the voice of a piece of writing. This voice can be expressive, poetic or transactional (Constructing Meaning, p. 263-264). Casey and Hemenway (2001) found that expressive and poetic writing in grade 3, with a focus on the revision process, made students enjoy their writing and the writing process. The heavy off-balance of mainly transactional writing in higher grades left the students yearning to have their voice back. Transactional writing can be enjoyable for younger students however, if their own needs and interests are taken into account. Julie Geller's grade 4/5 research project of local restaurants (Constructing Meaning, p 246-248) allowed students to engage in transactional writing in a variety of ways; from research, field notes, interviews, reviews, and resumes, to the final project of designing and creating their own restaurant for parents. I like this idea because it balances a fun and creative project with a purposeful voice. It is important, therefore, to teach students the many purposes of writing so that they can explore and find their own voice.

In order to have a balance of writing instruction for different purposes, a teacher needs to use a variety of writing strategies. For instance, many writers find it hard to know how to start a story. The use of writing prompts, writer's notebooks, journals, small pod sharing, and a communal writing idea wall are some of the different strategies in which students can draw ideas from to get their writing started (Class discussions, October 2011). I think it is important to teach student's that any idea can be the start of a great story and ideas can be drawn from a wide range of sources. If they learn to value and keep track of their own ideas and the ideas of others the students will be more thoughtful writers.

Students also need to have many opportunities to see their work, and the work of their peers, in different forms. In Sharon Creech's book “Love That Dog”, the main character Jack starts to appreciate poetry when he sees his own work typed up and presented as a 'published' poem that the whole class can read and enjoy. What began as merely an idea in a journal became a 'real poem' when it was typed up. (Love That Dog, pp. 22-24). This appreciation leads to ownership; as Jack began to write more and more poetry he started becoming concerned with it's presentation (p. 28). It is important to teach students that there are many ways of arranging and presenting ideas. Balancing traditional poetry with shape poems and small poems, for example let students experience and explore creative ways of presenting their work.

For students to become effective writers they need to learn how to share with others and how to give and receive constructive feedback. Working together to write a short story through group brainstorming can show students how easy and fun it is to write, and teaches them the value of other peoples ideas and how to work collaboratively (Robin Stevenson guest lecture, October 21, 2011). Students should also be able to work together when it comes to editing: The 'two stars and a wish' strategy works well as a way to have students peer edit each others work. Peer editing should be balanced with self editing drafts, supported by teacher-student writing conferences: Nancy Atwell's article “In The Middle” discusses how teachers can help students “discover the meanings they don't know yet” (p. 224). It is important that students learn how to edit and revise their writing, and understand that the writing-revising process is necessary for effective and thoughtful writing.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Podcasting in the Classroom

In response to my last post I have decided to try out some potential educational technologies and consider the possibilities of bringing audio podcasting into the classroom.  Below you will find a trial podcast of my own, talking about the use of podcasts, as well as some links to examples of student podcasts that I find interesting.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The IRP, Communication, and the Tech-Dilemma

As with many beginning teachers, I find the ELA IRP (English Language Arts Integrated resource package) to be overwhelming. This is due, in part, to the fact that I am only in the third week of teacher education and have not had enough exposure to fully grasp it, but also because of the way it is written. For the most part, I find the IRP to be quite 'wordy', sometimes unnecessarily so, and it seems to spend most of it's time discussing the philosophy and a small amount (5 pages per grade) actually detailing the requirements and learning outcomes, which are the more valuable aspect of the IRP. This philosophy is described, in part, by the use of 'empty' quotes; that is, quotes from professionals that are not provided with any context or support. These aspects, I feel, do not aid in helping a beginning teacher such as myself.

Aside from all this, the IRP does provide invaluable (and legally required) information for teachers, and lays out this information clearly, making it easy to find the required information within a given section (PLO's for example). Other than the PLO's, however, I find that there is not much information in the IRP that is not more clearly stated and described in the class text (Constructing Meaning), readings, and discussions.

In the IRP's rationale it states that "Language is fundamental to thinking, learning, and communicating in all cultures." (ELA IRP, p. 3), and these three aspects of language are intrinsic. ELA students need to be able to think critically, communicate those thoughts, and learn from the process. Communication is central to this process and, as Robert E. Probst argues, discussion is the best way for students to communicate and to learn; "...recitation is not discussion; interrogation is not conversation; the back-and-forth of question-and-answer is not the same as the give-and-take of egalitarian discourse." (Probst, Tom Sawyer, Teaching and Talking, p. 46). Unlike debate and bull-pen sessions, he says, true conversation and discussion is a valuable learning skill for children to master.

Learning to communicate effectively through the 'art of conversation' can help bring the ideas and abilities of a diverse classroom together; as is discussed in Constructing Meaning, literacy learning has to take on a 'social constructivist' model and use a diverse array of communication modes (Constructing Meaning, p. 15). These modes include the use of technology, which is continually becoming more and more prevalent in our lives, and in our classrooms; the IPR states that “The rapid expansion in the use of technology and media has expanded the concept of what it is to be literate.” (ELA IRP, p. 3).

While new media and technology may be valuable to literacy learning, I wonder where to draw the line. For instance, in the video “A vision of K-12 students today” ( we are presented with a rather bleak view of the state of student engagement in the classroom. Some believe that because students are becoming increasingly 'tech-savvy', so too must our approach to teaching. However, because the knowledge and applications of computers has become more of a life skill (similar to learning to drive, or operating a washing machine) should we need to teach their usage in schools? I would agree with Probst that discussion, real person-to-person verbal communication, is the most effective way for students to learn; and I feel that technology and mass-media can take us away from the basic human skills of communication, unless they are used wisely.

Students today want to learn using technology and can relate to mass-media, so as teachers we need to be sensitive to that fact, and show them how to use technology and new media to enhance their knowledge in productive ways. This is something that the IRP does thankfully touch on briefly (p. 13); rather then merely the ability to use technology (as this is a skill that most students gain in their everyday lives), it is more important that students are shown the positive applications of it, to better their learning, literacy, and lives, and to enhance, not detract from communication skills. 

The IRP is helpful as a reference tool for teachers; to look up answers to questions, and to consult the PLO's, even if it means wading through some 'wordy' philosophical paragraphs.  It does not, however, provide solutions to problems (perhaps rightly so), and leaves a lot of questions in the mind of a beginning teacher. These questions, such as my own 'tech-dilemma, can only be answered by practical experience and not by the hundreds of pages of 'theoretics' visited in the IRP.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Back to the start

Hi. My name is Andrew.  I created "31 pencils" to document my coming experiences and express my veiws as I learn to become an English Language Arts teacher.  A typical elementary classroom has 30 students, and 1 teacher, all of whom are there to learn, to teach, to write, to read, to observe, to reflect, to record, to study, to speak, to listen, to create, to analyse, to explore...

To me, English Language Arts is a foundation for learning.  Classrooms are filled with words; in print, on posters, chalkboards, computers, pictures, and books.  Words are used to comunicate and to express, through speech, poetry, music, drama, and literature.  Language is fundamental for learning, and to learn language and literacy is to learn how to learn

Language Arts is also a way of bringing together different areas of learning, from Drama and Art, to Math and Science, language is at the heart of every subject in the classroom.  Children need to be skilled in Language Arts so that they can learn to understand information, and create their own ideas, in order to become skilled, well-rounded, life-long learners.  This is a huge responsibility for an aspiring teacher such as myself, and I look forward to starting again on the road to learing English Language Arts.