Oh how good it is to be back writing in a space that I used to cherish and make time for regularly. This is where i’d make a promise that i’ll be back here more frequently and writing and sharing and waffling on more often, however, as there is no certainty that that will actually happen, i’ll simply just not do that at this point in time. 😉
And now, to this post.
Last Monday saw my school and staff engage in what was their fifth CoP (Community of Practice) Day with our partner school. Since 2017 our two schools have come together to improve and build upon the already great teaching and learning that takes place within our settings. Over the years our thinking and foci have shifted considerably from what was originally work aligning towards redeveloping our whole school inquiry curriculum, towards then building and developing our own rich ‘guaranteed and viable’ curriculum in numeracy, and to where are now and have been for 18 months – improving students outcomes in writing. Our focus here has been to build upon upon the already strong instructional practices in place and to develop our curriculum content knowledge in the area of writing.
Over the years it has largely been myself and a close colleague who have led this work for our staff. I believe at times that school hastily seek external assistance and guidance when in fact they have the capacity and knowledge internally to facilitate specific improvements, whether they be small or large.
In saying this, we felt that for 2019 it was indeed time for our two schools to hear from someone else other than my colleagues and I. A fresh voice. A new face. And, someone who certainly has the “runs on the board” when it comes to leading literacy professional learning, Narissa Leung.
I have had the absolute joy and pleasure of working alongside ‘Riss’ twice over the years I have known here where we both mentored two distinct groups of educators via the DET’s “Leading 21st Century Learning” course as well as Google’s “Teacher Academy” for Google Certified Innovators.
Riss’ knowledge of teaching and learning and what matters most in these two very complex areas is outstanding. Her ability to present and engage an audience whilst at the same time empowering teachers and leaders to make effective improvements to practice, in a range of areas, is brilliant. And it is this reason why I reached out to Riss in the first place to assist us.
In more recent time Riss has been leading the ‘Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership’ courses around Leading Literacy and facilitating the online Bastow Literacy Masterclasses (3 of the 4) which were extremely well received. These are accessible via YouTube and embedded below.
Literacy Masterclass 3: Formative Assessment
Literacy Masterclass 3: Feedback in the Classroom
Literacy Masterclass 4: Classroom Discussion and Vocabulary for High Impact
The initial reasoning as to why our CoP changed focus, and pace, towards improving student outcomes in writing was simple. Data. Within my own setting, our students were simply not hitting the mark and the data showing clearly the the growth we were, and are, expecting our students to make was not happening. Our reading and numeracy data on the hand – smashing it! Just had to add that in… Our colleagues were also seeing something similar, yet a little different, in that their own students where actually doing quite well, however the growth being made was inconsistent and or not there.
In many discussions had we had decided that we could sum up our “Puzzle of Practice” via the following statement…
“How do we shift our students who are good at writing, to becoming greater writers?”
Valid question. We have students, a lot of them, who can write, and write well. However, they are not great writers. And there is a distinct difference.
Prior to Riss’ involvement with our schools we asked our students three simple questions to get their perceptions about being a great writer;
- What makes a good writer?
- What does good writing look like?
- What are your strengths as a writer?
Their responses are below;
Interesting responses. Responses that drove a lot of discussion initially and responses that also made some fairly strong links back to how we were teaching and approaching writing, as well as giving us an indication of the feedback we were giving our students.
Before we held our CoP Day Riss also asked us to survey our students about their perceptions around writing. This survey was more in depth and actually required our students to think deeper about the writing process and what it meant to be a good writer. Following a “I notice, I like, I wonder” protocol we pulled the student responses apart and found, in summary that:
- 84% of our students are positive about writing,
- That we have a HEAVY focus on spelling and handwriting,
- That students who didn’t like writing generally referred to spelling, handwriting or speed
- In reference to being positive about writing and they liked writing about – students referred to the “Writer’s Notebook” approach (also known as the Writer’s Workshop),
Now with the positives in any survey completed by anyone, always comes in tandem the “wonderings” and those that I had raised from what our students were saying were:
- The older our students got the lower their perceptions and feelings towards the writing process and writing itself: why?,
- Why do we have such a heavy focus on spelling, grammar and punctuation – the conventions?,
- That our students want more choice, more time, and more fun/interesting lessons around writing – how do we action this?,
- How do we strengthen the consistency regarding how writing is taught and assessed at our school – without losing students in the process.
Lastly, a LARGE theme that was continually discussed amongst our staff during the day (and not only on this particular CoP Day) was around how we as teachers have a greater impact in having our students write for a much more AUTHENTIC AUDIENCE and AUTHENTIC PURPOSE. Two things which we feel will support our students in developing a greater love for the craft and process of writing.
As a school we had initially discussed some time ago embedding a program that was structured and more… regimented, to assist us with teaching writing more effectively. We decided that this was in fact the wrong way to go about it.
We needed to embrace writing as a core curriculum area, focus on what good writing is and looks like, and focus our energies on HITS (High Impact Teaching Strategies) that will best support our students and teachers when undertaking the writing process.
One particular framework, not guide or program, that Riss led us through to support us all were the 6+1 Traits of Writing. Now for those who are unfamiliar with the traits, here are a few dot points that Riss shared:
- Originated in the 1980’s
- Researchers evaluated 1000’s of papers (all grade levels) and identified common characteristics
- Define good writing
- Consistent language
- Those qualities became the “six traits”
- Word Choice
- Sentence Fluency
- (+1) Presentation
What the use of the traits do for teachers but more importantly students is that they provide a common language, a CONSISTENCY, for teachers and students to discuss and talk about. We know that variation between classrooms in a school can be damaging and through having a consistent approach, we close that gap significantly. The traits also provide a focus for the instruction and teaching of writing which can be, and should be, based on what students can and cannot so. Additionally, the traits provide tools for students to assist them in revising their own writing. Tools that are not always given and or known about.
We spent a large part of the day unpacking the traits and getting to know them better. Getting to know what each trait explicitly was, which will certainly take more time and professional learning moving forward. We looked at Mentor Texts that Riss shared with us in the form of picture story books (and for information re: this work, please follow this Instagram Account Riss has created purely for this @ozlitteacher) and how we can use these to model and further explicitly teach a particular trait.
A large take away for me personally was how we go about teaching the writing process. That being – what steps do students actually undertake when drafting a written piece, regardless of the genre/text type.
It was identified that there are 5 core steps in the writing process;
- Pre writing planning,
From this we discussed that;
- The writing process can change depending on the AUDIENCE it is being written for,
- The revision and editing are NOT the same thing,
- That feedback comes at ALL stages of the writing process. This however does not have to always come from the teacher.
- And that the REVISION stage is the MOST important phase of the process. This is where the writing that is being done allows for students to really make their work shine and sing.
Moving forward we’ve identified that we have a lot to do. And that’s ok. Great in fact. We’d rather have a plan and to have to go on a lengthy journey, than not have a journey to go on at all.
We’ll be continuing to work closely with Riss in the coming months and closely evaluating, reflecting and improving our practices. I am excited and buoyed by where this will take us and the impact it will have on our students. Students who have the creativity and the ideas and whom need to develop the confidence and willingness to unleash that.
For schools potentially looking to engage with an exceptionally knowledgeable and supportive expert, not only for writing, but literacy as a whole, I cannot recommend Narissa highly enough.