Of all the great things we experience as teachers, I think trying out new things and stumbling upon new revelations about what works and what doesn't would have to be right up there. In my field (literacy) with my learners ('disengaged' students aged 16-18 preparing for work in the 'hard trades' area), the challenges can be steep and the rewards quite remarkable.
Three weeks into a new term in a new year, I've really been enjoying VCAL Senior Literacy. The curriculum I inherited part way through the second term last year (when I commenced) ticked all of the boxes when it comes to overall VCAL cross-curricular integration, but it had been built from a teaching and teaching team perspective with very little input from (or scope for negotiation with) the actual students. The result was a constant struggle for traction on a track the learners found themselves slipping and sliding all over (if not off completely, with the muffled sound of crashing amongst trees in the wilderness), in the end made to happen/work through the painstaking building of rapport and trust with the teacher.
Let me just point out that these sorts of programs are not inherently poor. A lot of painstaking work and sincere effort goes into them. They occasionally feature real gems and meet audit requirements admirably. They just don't always work all that well, and sometimes--based on over reliance on and misplaced faith in design and documentation features--it is the learners who get the automatic blame if they don't perform all that well within certain parameters.
This year has been very different.
The first formal outcome listed for Senior VCAL Literacy is Writing for Self Expression. This can be a hard one to pitch to lads who are disengaged from the broader high school landscape and want to qualify themselves to become tradesmen. Builders don't generally want to 'write about me' and young plumbers and mechanics generally don't want to engage in any sort of storytelling that isn't strictly audio-visual and available on YouTube.
Despite those challenges, writing for self expression is actually working this year, and here's how it has gone so far...
1. Starting with and focussing on the outcome
In a move that some teachers might find themselves instinctively disagreeing with, this year I have avoided an attempt at subtle 'embedding' or 'naturalisation' of the outcome. I've approached the learners from the same perspective I find myself approaching courses I've recently done or am currently doing -- qualification stuff that doesn't always passionately interest me but has to be done if I am going to get through and advance my prospects.
Basically, that means explaining the outcome in formal and logical terms somewhat similar to the way it is presented and documented in the official VCAL curriculum guide. To successfully pass this outcome, you need to do a, b and c (etc.).
So we start with a short screencast explaining the outcome...
... which is followed up by an interactive quiz in their Moodle coursework page to check what they've understood and how they think the outcome might be applied.
So far so good. My learners always respond well to screencast tutorials, and they seem to appreciate having the learning requirements spelled out for them. I'm not hearing (as many) complaints about having to do tasks as part of this outcome, and this is very different from the cacophony of objections I heard last year about having to write a work journal entry or respond to an 'expressive' newspaper article nailed down and pre-embedded in the curriculum.
Which brings me to the next consideration...
2. Learner-selected topics for self expression
As nice as it can be to have a limited number of ready-to-use writing topics and tasks that address the outcome and help to tick off outcomes in other parts of the overall VCAL curriculum (and as convenient as it can be to look at and grade learners according to consistent topics across the whole cohort), I've done away with this completely and let the learners choose and negotiate their own topics.
Of course, this can result in the blank stare and despair of not having a clue what to write about, so what I have done is create an extensive list of thematically grouped writing topics which they can pick and choose from and adapt and negotiate with me.
As you can see, this goes beyond a simple list of writing topic suggestions. It includes a range of suggestions covering things like titles, audience(s), purpose(s) and text types.
It also includes links to my own writing in response to some of these topics. Learners who really need samples to work through and emulate in terms of style and topical focus appreciate this, and I think most all of the learners appreciate the fact that the teacher is willing to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
So far, no complaints about not having a topic to write about (or not knowing what to write about in response to a topic), and that's a welcome change.
3. An emphasis on literary devices
Before the learners choose and write in response to topics, their Moodle course page includes an interactive tutorial about a small range of literary devices that can help make creative/expressive writing more interesting and effective. These cover, as a base, things like point of view, similes, effective use of adjectives and what I like to call 'expressive action words' (for example, saying a nailgun spat a nail into some wood, or a song roared out of the living room).
Extensive examples are given for each literary device, including ones from my own writing attempts (mentioned above) to help showcase them in the context of full length texts. The learners then need to create their own sentences applying each literary device via controlled practice and then an overall review incorporating them all.
Some of them have grumbled a bit about this, but most have had fun with it. The building and construction student who turned 'the hammer is old' into the hammer is as old as my grandpa's balls showed how creativity and vivid imagery aren't lost in/on trade students, but also sparked a useful conversation about the notions of audience, purpose and appropriacy...
Following first drafts I now ask students to point out the literary devices they've used. Some have had go back to the tutorial again to re-examine the devices and then make them the focus of an improved second draft. Most, however, are already using them quite readily in the first draft and can point them out to me on the page without hesitation.
Generally speaking, this emphasis on literary devices has resulted in far more creative and expressive writing right from the start (compared to what I saw last year).
4. Multiple text types and points of view
Given the outcome requires two or more complete writing pieces, I've asked the learners to ensure that each one applies a different text type and point of view (as in, writing 'voice' from the first, second or third person).
In essence, what the learners see and are expected to choose and plan their different pieces according to is:
So to meet the outcome, we need at least one of each text type, and one of each point of view.
To some degree the identification of text types in topic suggestions (see point 2 above) has helped the learners here, as has the emphasis and controlled practice with points of view (see point 3 above), but this has been a real revelation in terms of getting the learners to widen their writing experience and express themselves in different ways from different angles.
As an example, the plumbing student I have who always claims to 'HATE writing stories' found it was a bit of a different prospect to write one from the second person point of view. The challenge of writing the story 'to' a reader ended up capturing his interest and moving him away from his automatic dislike for story writing.
Another student discovered how much more freedom there was in writing an 'expressive' piece from a third person point of view (rather than the first), as well as protection (he could make it not look or feel like a 'this is me' piece). A couple of other students have written some quite fascinating stories based on (or 'inside') songs and video clips, with different points of view resulting in very different effects.
Some are struggling slightly with the two angles to consider, but the result has been a lot of questions and requests for confirmation in response to attempts to angle a piece of writing this way or that way -- not automatic or outright negativity.
I see more width and depth developing in these kids' writing (as well as overall critical thinking and empathy) based on different text types and points of view, and it makes my spirit soar.
5. Published pieces of writing in an e-Portfolio
Last year completed writing work was printed and stuffed away into a folder. This year it gets published on the Internet in an e-Portfolio platform provided by Mahara, which allows them to integrate their writing with images and video clips.
Third person expressive/narrative based on music clip (featured alongside)
I've written about these e-Portfolio developments elsewhere and it's a bit of an ongoing project I have going this year. Let's just say these notions of using technology and the cloud, applying multiple forms of media and actually 'publishing' finished writing are having a majorly positive impact on most of my students.
So all up, VCAL Senior Literacy and Writing for Self Expression have progressed wonderfully for us so far this year.
More to live and learn in this process, of course, but I suspect a lot more to enjoy as well.