PETAA PAPER 217

Tracy Grice

Tracy Grice

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Writing the future: authors in schools project

By Tracey Grice

Context

Concordia College is a co-educational Early Learning Centre through to Year 12 school in eastern Adelaide, with an enrolment of 1,300 students. The College is also an International Baccalaureate World School, which focuses on developing the whole child as an inquirer in the classroom and in the world outside.

In 2016, Concordia College’s primary school, St John’s Campus, established a language action plan that incorporated a strategic evaluation of the school’s approach to teaching English. During the evaluation phase, staff reviewed the English Curriculum, gathered information about the status quo of writing practice at each year level, and investigated evidence-based practices that aligned with current thinking in the teaching of writing.

After this initial review, St John’s Campus entered a trial implementation phase, in which staff collaboratively developed a whole-school philosophy for teaching writing. Significant resourcing was channelled into supporting staff to trial agreed practices. The school is now in the ongoing implementation phase of its action plan, supporting teachers by providing ongoing professional learning, modelling good practice and managing ongoing expectations. It was at the start of this third phase that work with the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) began.

In 2018, PETAA invited schools around Australia to apply for a Writing the Future grant. This grant, supported by The Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, was created to enable schools to experience a short residency with a published author. Concordia College was one of four schools chosen to take part.

During Term 3 2018, St John’s Campus was fortunate to have author Louise Park spend three days working with staff and students. Louise contributed to the school’s ongoing work in language, leading all staff and students through the writing process, and inspiring many young writers during her residency. This paper outlines the work that Louise undertook, with a focus on the Year 5 students.

Project goals

In a world where burgeoning technologies require students to produce texts in new and varied ways, what it means to be ‘literate’ is constantly changing (The New London Group, 1996). So, with the research component of our language action plan already embedded, our primary goal for this residency was to help teachers more effectively implement the practical elements of teaching writing.

In addition, the theme of the project, ‘Writing the Future’, had us contemplating what the future would be like for our current students. We are preparing them for jobs that don’t currently exist (Gunderson, Jones & Scanland, 2004), and one way of preparing students for uncertain futures is to give them voice and agency over their learning, empowering them to make decisions and to exercise their critical and creative thinking skills (Carver, 1997).

In a writing context, this translates to students producing texts that matter to them and texts that have significance for the ever-changing world they live in.

Related Publication

Standing on a book: Stories from classrooms around Australia

Standing on a Book: Stories from Classrooms around Australia

With this in mind, we used the research of Donald Graves to envision further goals for our project (Graves & Walshe, 1981). Our secondary goals were for students and staff to:

  • demonstrate a positive identity as authors
  • develop authorial agency over the writing process
  • build capacity as writers.

Staff were included in these secondary goals, so that we could all become teachers who write and writers who teach.

Writing principles

During the trial implementation phase of our action plan, we developed a set of writing principles to guide the pedagogical work of teachers in Foundation through to Year 6. These principles were co-constructed with staff after a rigorous review of current research, and they form part of our shared beliefs and language policy.

At St John’s Campus, we believe that:

  • We are all writers who write with an audience in mind.
  • Reading is connected to writing.
  • Individual choice is important.
  • Teaching techniques and strategies is empowering.
  • Everyone collaborates to support the development of successful writers.

With our writing principles established, it was an opportune time for students and staff to work with author Louise Park, and bring these principles to life in the classroom setting.

Planning and collaboration

We were thrilled when we heard that Louise Park would be our author in residence. With more than 100 published books to her many pen-names and a background in teaching, we knew that she would bring rich writing pedagogy to our community.

Louise and I spent considerable time planning how best to apply her expertise, with four year levels and eight classes selected to be a part of this exciting learning opportunity. As part of this process, Louise presented us with a menu of writing experiences.

Through further collaborative planning sessions with the identified year levels, the classroom teachers and Louise chose a pathway for the residency. Louise’s three days were full with a combination of in-class experiences and staff planning-and-debrief sessions, as well as a whole-school staff meeting. It is fair to say, we got our ‘pound of flesh’ from Louise and this opportunity!

Implementation: student writing workshops

To develop our Reading principle (Reading is connected to writing), Louise used a mentor text to teach our Foundation students how to read like a writer. She demonstrated how authors reveal their characters to their readers, and how characters can change from the beginning to the end of the story.

Together they brainstormed character traits and used these to construct single-, double- and triple-whammy sentences (sentences that expand a simple statement, using ‘because’ and ‘and’) to increase the quality and quantity of student writing. In subsequent sessions with Louise, the students transferred this new learning to their own writing, proving the value of our Teaching principle (Teaching techniques and strategies is empowering).

Our Year 1 students were treated to an author talk from Louise, in which she revealed her pen-names and the source of her ideas. From a collaborative planning session with our Year 1 teachers, Louise learnt about some of the characteristics of the learners she was working with, and how they would benefit from working on our Writer principle (We are all writers who write with an audience in mind).

Louise then taught the students how she creates worlds for her own stories, and how she uses reader engagement strategies like creating trouble for characters and making trouble that isn’t resolved too quickly. Students were armed with new techniques, which enabled them to consider scenarios that would make their own writing more interesting for their reader.

On the reader engagement strategies ...

When I get stuck with my writing, I could think, What would happen if …?

— Mia, Year 1

Bringing to life our Individual principle (Individual choice is important), Louise demonstrated a highly engaging idea-generation strategy called ‘Go to the wall’ for our Year 2 students. She encouraged students to brainstorm story elements (characters, settings and problems) on sticky notes. These sticky notes were then sorted into categories and placed along a classroom wall (Figure 1 below). Any time that students were stuck for ideas, they would ‘Go to the wall’ for writing support, enabling the students to exercise choice, independence and our Everyone principle (Everyone collaborates to support the development of successful writers).

Sticky notes on classroom wall

Figure 1: 'Go to the Wall' strategy in action

On the 'Go to the Wall' strategy ...

It helped me get more ideas of what I could write about.

— Charlie, Year 2

During a collaborative planning session with our Year 5 teachers, Louise heard about some of the successes and challenges of teaching writing with these students. From this discussion, Louise was able to plan a sequence of lessons to help these young writers, covering topics such as:

  • developing characters
  • giving characters a backstory, plus when and how to use it
  • withholding information from the reader to keep them keen
  • giving characters flaws and weaknesses, and how to use these for dramatic tension and to drive the plot
  • knowing what your characters want above all else and making it as hard as possible for them to get it.

Considering our Teaching principle (Teaching techniques and strategies is empowering), Louise expertly helped these writers create emotional narratives using a guided meditation technique (see below). This process was so empowering that our Year 5 students used the same technique with their parents during a student-led conference, with astonishing results.

Each student guided their parents through the same meditation, with each parent then producing their own piece of writing. Many parents reflected on how powerful the strategy was in helping them to create descriptive scenes and characters, wishing this were a strategy they had been taught when they were at school.

Implementation: teacher writing workshops

Louise also led the staff through a process of considering their own writing life and the implications this has for classroom practice. Not only was this an important message for our teachers, but it also fed nicely into one of our project goals: that we are teachers who write and writers who teach.

To do this, Louise reflected on her own teacher training, recollecting that the skills of teaching writing should have been given more prominence. For this reason, Louise stressed the importance of teachers modelling their life as a writer, including all of their strengths and struggles. To demonstrate her point, she invited teachers to take part in a variety of writing activities, including ‘Go to the wall’ and guided meditation.

It was interesting to note the range of reactions from teachers, particularly when asked to share their writing aloud with the group. Some sunk in their seats, some proudly raised their hands, others conveniently needed to go to the toilet! To be placed in the shoes of our writers proved a powerful exercise, as we experienced first-hand the range of emotions our own students go through. We did, however, also uncover some amazing writers on staff.

Inspired by Louise’s message, staff bravely shared their writing with their students the next day, and it was clear that students loved learning more about their teachers as writers. This residency was a rare and powerful opportunity for us to learn from an expert writer.

More on guided meditation

In our Year 5 workshops, Louise used a powerful guided meditation technique to help students tap into all their senses before writing. Students were provided with the visual stimulus of a mysterious forest. They were then asked to close their eyes and visualise the setting and a character in this scene, while listening to a series of prompting questions. For example, how old is your character? What clothes is your character wearing? What can you see? What is the light doing?

This guided meditation was a process that many described as helpful, because it enabled them to become their character. After capturing this moment in time, students were invited to take part in a ‘brain dump’, downloading their visualisations on paper.

On the guided mediation technique ...

It helped me to think about my scene and character. I used to make it up as I went along, without really any idea for it – but once Louise showed us this technique, I could be more like my character and get into their shoes.

— Tyler, Year 5

From this brain dump, the first draft of a story was created, with students encouraged to concentrate on all their senses so that the scene could be described in the best way possible. They tried to capture the main character’s voice by detailing what was happening from the character’s perspective, and to convey what the character was feeling and why.

When their first draft was completed, students received peer feedback based on advice Louise had given during the introduction to the workshop. Students were encouraged to highlight examples of ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ in their peers’ writing, and provide constructive feedback such as ‘Show the character’s age through their voice’ and ‘Don’t let the character get what they want too quickly’.

Students also used an established feedback practice, highlighting green and pink on each other’s work (green for growth, or writing that needed development, and pink for any aspect of the writing they were ‘tickled pink’ to read) (Clarke, 2014). Armed with feedback, students then proceeded to write a second draft.

Handwritten student text with list of story items pertaining to senses

Figure 2a: A student’s writing process from brain dump (1)

First draft hand written scene for a studnet story titled 'Ark'

Figure 2b: A student’s writing process from first draft (2)

Handwritten student feedback on first draft of story opening

Figure 2c: A student’s writing process — feedback (3)

Handwritten scene from student short story titled 'Ark' re-written after feedback

Figure 2d: A student’s writing process — second draft after feedback (3)

Project outcomes and follow-up

One of the great joys of teaching in the early and primary years is seeing students become confident communicators, as they develop literacy skills that are foundational for life and learning. Thinking back to our goals for this project, in three short days Louise helped our students and staff develop positive identities as authors, with many students taking Louise’s infectious enthusiasm for writing home and continuing to write beyond the classroom. In fact, one young, once-reluctant writer who flourished during his time with Louise will feature in one of Louise’s new books!

We wanted our students to develop authorial agency over the writing process, and Louise equipped our writers with opportunities to write about things that mattered to them. Through sharing her craft, Louise taught students how to develop interesting characters, build tension and read like writers. Students could see first-hand how to apply these new strategies to their own writing, which helped to build their capacity as writers. When Louise led the staff through a process of being in the writer’s seat, not only did it take many of us out of our comfort zone (including myself), it also highlighted our other very important goal: we are teachers who write and writers who teach.

This was a rare opportunity for staff and students to learn from an expert writer. The three-day residency was featured at a national showcase in Canberra, where Louise and I shared the learning that resulted from the experience, and its impact on students and staff. Since Louise’s visit, the teachers have continued to implement the high-impact strategies that she modelled for us. The value of these strategies has been repeatedly demonstrated through improved student writing, as well as increased engagement and writing stamina.

On the three-day residency ...

Louise Park’s visit gave me greater insight into how to help students develop their writing scene by scene, using the senses to “show” rather than “tell”. Students found the strategies she shared not only extremely useful, but also an enjoyable way to put themselves within a scene and inside the body of the main character. So successful was Louise's guided meditation strategy for developing a scene, I have continued to use it with other students.

— Maria, Year 5 teacher

Louise has also kept in touch with our community by generously Skyping with our students throughout various units of work. For example, our Year 2 students are learning to become experts at reading ‘series’ books, in particular the many series books that Louise has written. What better way to launch a unit of work in reading a series than to have Louise introduce her books to our young readers in person! The students were so excited to see her again and to make their book choices based on Louise’s recommendations.

Our students read in book clubs and eagerly track their thinking of the writer’s craft. They have noticed things that are the same across a series and predicted how the story would develop, using what they knew about the other stories in the series. Louise was always thrilled to hear what the students had learned about Zac Power, Harriet Clare, Star Girl, D-Bot Squad and Boy vs Beast.

Studying Louise’s work as readers has helped students connect to our Reading principle (Reading is connected to writing). As a result of this work, many students wanted to flex their writing muscles by becoming ‘series’ authors themselves, constructing multiple books across a series.

It is difficult to quantitatively measure the impact an author in residence can have on a writing community. If I were to return to our Everyone principle (Everyone collaborates to support the development of successful writers), the qualitative evidence shows that this collaboration between PETAA, Louise Park and our school has definitely yielded writers who feel empowered and successful.

About the author of this PETAA Paper

Tracey Grice is a literacy coach and creator of the Writers Read podcast. She has undertaken various leadership roles including advisory support to independent schools, curriculum coordination within schools and university lecturing. Tracey has had the opportunity to work with educators across Australia and the Asia-Pacific rim in classrooms and schools, and at professional learning workshops and conferences. Tracey is currently leading whole-school change in reading in several South Australian schools, and is passionate about getting kids reading.

Author and educator Louise ParkAbout the author in residence

Louise Park draws from a strong background in education, literacy and publishing to produce her blockbuster bestsellers, including Zac Power Test Drives and Spy Recruit, and the Boy Vs Beast series. She has taught primary school children of all ages, trained teachers in literacy education, created and developed successful reading resources to help children crack the reading code, and been an education publisher for an international publishing house. She writes books for children aged 2 to 12, including Grace’s Secrets, the Harriet Clare series, the D-Bot Squad series, the Star Girl series and the Bella Dancerella series. Louise writes under her own name as well as the pseudonyms HI Larry, Mac Park and Poppy Rose.

References

The PETAA Project that supported the author-in-residence program was the Writing the Future Showcase

Each Showcase session — at the annual PETAA Learning Intensive — included a presentation by one of our Showcase Schools, with successful PETAA member schools having been selected from South Australia (Concordia), Queensland and Victoria, and a cluster of regional schools from Tasmania. Supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund, PETAA’s Writing the Future Showcase ran a project in each school. A visiting author worked with each school and students for three days to collaborate on a writing workshop. Each school then documented the three-day collaboration in some way and prepared this and the outcome/ product as a case study to be presented jointly by the coordinating teacher and the author as part of the PETAA Professional Learning Intensive in 2018.

Further related resources

Related resources from PETAA for PETAA Paper 15 include our Authors in Schools Guide and the video of the 2015 Donald Grave's Address where Lisa Kervin discusses ‘Children Writing With New Technologies ’.