PETAA PAPER 216

Author Adam Hall

Adam Hall

Contribute your experience or response to a teaching dialogue. If your are on Facebook, you can directly comment on or respond to this PETAA Paper in the comments below

Writing beyond the classroom using the community as a resource

By Adam Hall

Knowledge creation is a social process. Learning generally takes place in the classroom between students and teachers, and between students, but learning shouldn’t be confined to the classroom with students acting as passive consumers of information. Nor should learning be limited to the resources available in (sometimes outdated) reading rooms and libraries found in schools across the country. Indeed the Australian Curriculum requires students to be involved in face-to-face communication with the community, in order to fully develop their skills in English (ACARA, 2013a).

This paper focuses on the rich learning experiences that were created when members of the community were invited into a classroom and, using a multiliteracy pedagogy, students were able to develop and tell community stories in a This is your life-type performance. After introducing the project, I explain how the community was involved, and how the project supported students’ ability to think critically and reflect. I then describe how we integrated the language modes of reading, listening, speaking and writing to produce written and oral texts. Finally, I describe the scaffolding processes that enabled all students to engage strongly in the project.

Overview

This project involved community members sharing their stories, aspirations and inspirations with students in the classroom. Students then used this experience to create pieces of writing, designed to motivate them to engage authentically with their studies.

A multiliteracy approach was employed because, in an ever-changing world, meaning is made through the interaction of language, spoken voice, written text, sound effects, music and pictures (Duncum, 2004). In a multiliteracies-influenced literacy program, students draw on available designs — that is, existing design elements or schemas (Cloonan, Kalantzis, & Cope, 2010), which can be linguistic, visual, audio, gestural, spatial or multimodal (New London Group, 1996) — and harness them to make meaning for their own purposes (Cloonan, 2007). As argued by Healy (2004, page 6), ‘multiliteracies is a vehicle for travelling curriculum in ways that make sense to students and form a bridge between community and school text practices’.

The project

Initially students brainstormed a list of careers and occupations they believed were unattainable, ones that they thought were out of their reach. This was done to challenge perceptions about what is achievable and to develop aspirational thinking.

Parameters were set for the class discussion, as we needed to distinguish between jobs that felt unattainable and those that students just didn’t like nor want to do. We titled our brainstorm cloud ‘Jobs, Education, Endeavours’, and the following list formed the basis for identifying community members whom the students would ask to take part in the project:


TAFE/university teacher, lifesaver, ranger, paediatrician, prime minister, motorbike racer, pilot, truck/train driver, detective, dentist, doctor, surgeon, paramedic, professor, soccer player, mechanic, carpenter, electrician, MasterChef contestant.


To quote Vygotsky (1986, page 188): ‘In learning to speak, as in school subjects, imitation is indispensable. What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow.’ This project ensured that all students were engaged in the class discussion so that they could learn how to clarify their understanding of content with peers as the discussion unfolded and develop their interaction skills for a specific purpose (ACARA, 2013b).

Through discussion the students agreed that they could not become some of the things on their list. When asked why, answers varied from ‘I don’t know how to become a ...’, ‘I don’t think I’m smart enough to become a ...’ and ‘I won’t get in to university’ to ‘Other people do that job’, ‘That’s not a job people like us do’ and ‘I must work on the farm, so I can’t’. One student, Brian, argued that ‘We can do anything if we try hard enough’. Other students were not as positive.

The students discussed what and how people might achieve success in a particular career, and I shared my own journey to becoming a teacher, which didn’t begin until after I had worked in various other fields. In considering which community members to involve in the project, the students looked for role models with qualities they liked and whose path to success they felt they may be able to imitate. Discussion and research explored how people can attain different roles and career beginnings.

Together the class brainstormed a list of individuals they would like to see involved in the project. The final shortlist comprised:

  • a senior director of a direct selling company, Sue (class member’s mother)
  • the school principal, Bernice
  • a police officer
  • the mayor, Bruce
  • a federal MP
  • a lawyer
  • a Rugby League player
  • a famous person
  • the owner of a large car dealership (class member’s uncle)
  • a doctor
  • a dance teacher
  • a YouTube personality
  • a musician
  • a mechanic, Sonia (class member’s sister and a WorldSkills Australia 2017 winner)
  • the registrar of a local court, Jimmy.

Sue, Bernice, Bruce, Sonia and Jimmy were the final five community members who were interviewed. The concept was to collect and analyse their stories, and then present the stories to participants in a format similar to the TV show, This is your life (pictured below).

School students present the stories to participants in a format similar to the TV show, 'This is your life'

Photo: Students present the stories to participants in a format similar to the TV show, This is your life.

Involving the community

Teaching does not just happen in schools (Lee & Ward, 2013; McCaleb, 2013). There’s a wealth of knowledge in the community that goes largely untapped in the school environment (González et al., 2006). Potential teachers lie within our everyday contexts: parents, grandparents, sports coaches and community leaders, to name just a few. As educators, we are in the unique position of being able to bring these people into our schools and ensure their knowledge is shared among many, in a learning setting. This is important because not all students have access to this kind of knowledge, and no single student has access to all of it. Without the teacher working collaboratively with the students to make community connections, students miss out on the valuable insights people all around them have to offer.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2018) include: ‘Engage professionally with colleagues, parents/carers and the community’ (Standard 7). It also outlines what teachers are expected to achieve in order to develop fully in the domain of professional engagement. Guided by the best practice defined in the Standards, this project forged a strong link between the school and the community in the intellectual and social development of the students.

These ‘quasi’ teachers are experts in their fields and a potentially valuable resource to engage as the centrepiece for a unit of work. They largely walk unnoticed through our communities, carrying with them a wealth of knowledge that could be accessed to inspire our students and provide the impetus to address real-world issues that students find meaningful.

Critical and creative thinking

Central to this project was a commitment to measure outcomes, in particular any changes in motivation and engagement experienced by the students that could be attributed to working with the community. Measures were shaped by two main assumptions:

  • Students who are given the freedom to develop and create their own work take ownership of the learning and strive to achieve their maximum potential.
  • Students who struggle with conventional methods of teaching often give up, or do not apply themselves through fear of failure.

These assumptions were based on previous teaching experiences and the exceptional progress made in the literacy skills of several students, in particular two Year 6 boys. In recent years, all students had been given the opportunity to audition for the school play (The Hysterical History of the Trojan War one year and Beauty is a Beast the next).

On both occasions these boys — who were significantly below reading stage expectations, one with speaking and listening skills approximately two years below stage level — took on significant roles. In order to read and understand their scripts, and portray their characters to the highest standard, both boys displayed a dramatic improvement in engagement with their literacy studies. They were also hailed by their peers and the community as sensational standouts in the plays, enjoying a significant improvement in social standing within their friendship groups. This outcome had a ripple effect throughout the school, with other students striving to be able to perform as well as these two boys.

Potential teachers lie within our everyday contexts: parents, grandparents, sports coaches and community leaders, to name just a few.

In a similar way, this project aimed to stimulate critical and creative thinking alongside literacy capability, skills defined in the Australian Curriculum as essential for young Australians to live and work successfully in the 21st century (ACARA, 2013b). Students were required to generate and evaluate knowledge, clarify concepts and ideas, seek possibilities, consider alternatives and solve problems. Central to this project was the need for the students to think broadly and deeply to fulfil the task, using skills, behaviours and dispositions such as reason, logic, resourcefulness, imagination and innovation (ACARA, 2013b). Essentially, through the interview process, the students created their own authentic stimulus.

Analysis of the interviews involved developing various codes. This enabled students to focus on one aspect of the interview — such as relationships, aspirations or inspirations — and then come together with their peers to collaborate on what they had uncovered. This approach provided students with an opportunity to learn new skills, which in turn helped them apply previously developed comprehension skills to thoroughly analyse the interviews.

The significance of their work and the value of the community’s contribution to their learning quickly became apparent to the students. They chose to draw on their own life experiences, find connections with the experiences described by participants and make links with out-of-school knowledge to produce their end product, the This is your life performance. The process allowed them to engage with and see the relevance of learning through someone else’s life, and transfer that insight to their own lives. Students particularly wanted to produce an outcome that showed their appreciation to participants for sharing their time.

Connecting the reading to the writing

Reading can be viewed as comprising four distinct roles or practices (Freebody & Luke, 1990):

  • Codebreaker (students work to decode texts)
  • Text participant (students work to understand the meaning of texts)
  • Text user (students use the text for a specific purpose)
  • Text analyst (students analyse the underlying and unstated assumptions of the text).

Ultimately reading is a process that requires students to use skills and strategies to access and interpret spoken, written, visual and multimodal texts (ACARA, 2013). This project provided the students with a unique opportunity to interpret the spoken text and create written, visual and multimodal texts for others to use as a reading stimulus. Furthermore the project aligns with the literacy continuum (ACARA, 2013b), which incorporates two overarching processes: comprehending texts through listening (the interviews); and composing texts through speaking, writing and creating (the performances).

As this was a new way of learning for both the students and myself, their teacher, it was imperative to underpin the unit with a framework to guide the sequence of lessons and inform decisions about how to keep the students moving forward (Zammit, 2010).

The New Learning Environments curriculum framework shown in Figure 1 (Zammit, 2010) was developed to help teachers design units of work that engage students in learning processes involving multiple forms of communication and mediums. It was used as the foundation for this unit because, to fully engage with the project, students needed to participate in a range of processes: from initial brainstorming through to analysis of interview transcripts and ultimately to a This is your life performance.

Text showing the inter-relationship of scaffolded, collaborative and independent learning

Figure 1: New Learning Environments curriculum framework with pedagogical cycle

So that the students could concentrate on each participant’s story, the interviews were recorded. This gave the students the opportunity to write clarifying questions while the interview was in progress, which they then asked at the end of the set questions. Additionally it made it possible for the students to experience transcribing the interviews and to begin their analysis via this process. The final texts that they created were biographical accounts, with a focus on each participant’s passage to their current career stage and the inspirations that influenced what they have attained to date.

The Australian Curriculum defines the standard text types that need to be studied across all years of schooling: that is, spoken, written and multimodal text types, including narratives, poetry, prose, plays and film (ACARA, 2013b). This project was an opportunity to develop a new way of integrating the text types and introducing a transformative process, in which the spoken text was recorded and (through analyses, writing and planning) finally published in a multimodal text. This transformative process was driven by key comprehension strategies that form the basis of our reading (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2017a).


Strategy 1— Activating and using prior knowledge

Students were required to formulate questions to pose to the participants. This involved building background knowledge to determine the purpose of interviewing each person and the information they might be happy to share.

Strategy 2 — Identifying literal information explicitly stated in the text

To produce the This is your life performance, students had to identify the literal responses to their questions.

Strategy 3 — Making inferences based on information in the text and prior knowledge

One of the most important features of the performance was to deliver the underlying message or theme from each of the interviews. Through their analysis, the students determined the key messages below.

Sue — Don’t let anything stand in your way. Go and get what you want.
Bernice — Never be afraid to ask questions to help you get where you want to go.
Bruce — Love what you do, and if you don’t – change it.
Sonia — Break down the barriers and stop letting stereotypes predict your future.
Jimmy — Develop a love of learning. It can last you your whole life.

Strategy 4 — Predicting likely future events in the text

When developing the interview questions, the students were required to predict and pre-empt answers to ensure they thoroughly covered the life stories of all participants.

Strategy 5 —Visualising by creating mental images of elements in a text, summarising and organising information from a text

To produce the This is your life segments, students had to summarise the important aspects of each participant’s life to ensure a succinct and accurate portrayal of all stories.

Integrating information and ideas in a text

Students were required to integrate the information they elicited from the participants with further research into their fields to ensure their portrayals were realistic and accurate.

Strategy 6 — Critically reflecting on content, structure, language and images used to construct meaning in a text

Students had to constantly ensure that their production was evolving, and were required to use multimodal forms of conveying meaning and sentiment. At the beginning of each This is your life presentation, a song was playing that aided in creating a cultural backdrop for each story. For example, the Maltese national anthem was playing as Sonia was being introduced, to represent her background, and the tune Loch Lomond was playing for Jimmy, to represent his family’s historical background in Scotland.


When talking with students, I often find that they have a compartmentalised view of literacy: reading is reading, writing is writing, a grammar lesson is a grammar lesson, and so on. The number of students who get all their spelling words right in a spelling test, and then spell them incorrectly in a piece of writing because they haven’t connected the two activities, is at times staggering. During this project, an explicit link was made between reading and writing, bridging a gap in understanding for the students.

By empowering the students to interview a variety of people of interest to read and interpret their stories, and then to create a biographical account of the participants’ lives, this project helped to decompartmentalise or unify their literacy knowledge. Students were able to create something (an interview transcript) that was, for them, worth reading, and then had the motivation to take on the other four roles of the reader (text participant, user and analyst) in order to transform each interview into a This is your life segment.

Writing the script for the final performance involved a collaborative effort, and the project became a writing task that saw teams of students working for a common goal. The experience was distinctly different from previous writing programs, and quite removed from traditional teaching and learning stimuli, because at the heart of the project was a stimulus the students had generated themselves: the need they felt to do the best job they could as a way of thanking participants for contributing their time and effort.

All the students helped to plan, draft, edit and produce This is your life segments that combined written, verbal, visual and audio text types, performed with a comical twist when appropriate. The performances were written in four distinct sections — early life, school years, career journey and retirement years — and most interview teams decided to share the writing load, dividing the tasks equally among team members and giving every student the opportunity to write a section. Based on observations, the whole class appeared to be authentically engaged in the project because they were immersed in work that had clear meaning and, as reported by the vast majority of students, work that had immediate value to them (Schlechty, 2002).

The process involved collaboration at the planning stage, so that each team member was able to contribute the ideas they had extracted from the interview transcript, and then drafting a script and refining it together using the scaffolding cycle developed for the project. Their writing was then 'published' as a performance in front of an audience consisting of the participants, and Stage 2 and Stage 3 students. For those students who normally avoid writing tasks, this project offered a strong purpose to contribute and in turn to write.

The place of scaffolding pedagogy in this project

Research supports the idea that there is something about the nature of teacher–student interactions at the point of difficulty that matters to student progress (Rodgers, D’Agostino, Harmey, Kelly, & Brownfield, 2016). It is the interaction between teachers and students when teachers contingently support the student that enables the progress (Harper & Parkin, 2017). Scaffolding interactions take place in the zone of proximal development (ZPD), beyond a student’s independent performance (Vygotsky, 1978). One of the critical decisions when intervening with a scaffold is deciding when to intervene. Rodgers et al. (2016) argue that waiting too long before providing help might create frustration for learners, whereas providing help too soon or too frequently might remove important problem-solving opportunities from them.

Applying appropriate scaffolding requires insight, and teachers must carefully assess each student’s conceptual understanding and intentions (Calder, 2015). This complexity is evident in a study that used scaffolding to examine the ways in which thinking emerged from student-centred inquiry (Calder, 2015). The teacher in the study aimed to support the learners in their ZPD so that they transitioned to more independent processes, using questioning as one of the scaffolding strategies. Calder found that one question might simplify the task, while simultaneously alleviating frustration and maintaining momentum towards task completion.

The importance of scaffolding to this project can be related to the work of Maybin, Mercer and Stierer (1992), who argue that the role of the teacher is to act as a vicarious form of consciousness for the learner, until they are able to master their own control over a new function or concept. The students taking part in this project saw this as a new and exciting way to learn, and remarkably different from anything they had done before, as was the case for myself, the teacher, too. As mentioned above, this meant I needed to be equipped with a way to scaffold the learning, so that all the students were able to reach the goal of creating a This is your life segment, and I needed to be adaptive to the varying levels of support that would be required by the students. The scaffolding needed to accommodate the complexity of the project and the different modes of English — reading and viewing, writing and representing, and speaking and listening — that was contained within it. Furthermore the scaffolding needed to build the capacity and confidence of the students so that they could work on the project independently.

Given all classes tend to contain students with a range of ability, the scaffolding process was vital to ensure all students were working in their ZPD. To unlock the project's full potential and allow the learning environment to have as much positive influence as possible, I developed a scaffolding cycle (Figure 2).

It is based on an information process (NSW Department of Education and Training, 2017b) that allowed the students to constantly develop questions to ask their team and assume leadership roles within their team. Ensuring the students were able to use and understand the scaffolding meant that not all the power was invested with the teacher, and the students were able to play an active and creative role, exerting some influence over the direction of the scaffolding (Maybin et al., 1992). It also allowed the teams to function with minimal support from the teacher, with the students focused on problem solving and knowledge acquisition.

Teacher support was needed to keep the project flowing in manageable chunks; however, as students completed each stage of the project, they could work collaboratively to move the project forward.

Flow chart depicting scaffolding. From tjhe main question, 'Whjat is the purpose of this section', questions follow: 'What to I  want my audience to know?', 'How will I get that information,' 'How will I presnet that information?', 'Was someone else able to understand?'

Figure 2: Scaffolding cycle developed for this project

Conclusion

Feedback from the students indicated a positive response to the project overall.

‘Everyone’s story is important, no matter how long or short’ Kathleen

‘Sonia taught me that you don’t have to listen to what people say about you. Do what your dream is’ Jane

‘Bruce had so much courage. He said that whatever you want to do, you can do it – no matter what!’ Pria

When asked about their impressions of the project, many students indicated that they found the project fun. They stated that they hoped to be part of a similar project in the future.

‘The part of the project that benefitted me the most was actually hearing their stories and their journeys’ Brad

‘My overall impression of the project was that it was fun, joyful and a weird style of learning’ Zac

Students also self-assessed the impact of the project in three key learning areas (measured on a scale of 1 to 5):

  • Confidence to accomplish a task — 4.09
  • Ability to work as part of a team — 3.95
  • Motivation to succeed — 4.1

It is clear from the students’ feedback that looking beyond the classroom, to create opportunities for authentic, relevant and motivating reading and writing experiences, had a powerful impact on the class. This positive influence is expected to continue as the class uses this experience to further develop their writing skills.

References

About the author

Adam Hall has worked as a classroom teacher, assistant principal and deputy principal, and is currently a teaching principal in the NSW public school system. He has extensive experience with students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, and he is undertaking a Doctorate in Education at Western Sydney University, researching ways to engage and motivate these students to become lifelong learners. Adam is passionate about incorporating the creative and performing arts in literacy studies, having seen this approach help students thrive in their learning and build confidence.

Contribute your experience or response to a teaching dialogue. If your are on Facebook, you can directly comment on or respond to this PETAA Paper in comments.