The truth of course is that ideas are all around us ... The skill is in recognising them and making them your own (Gleeson, 2007, p. 19)
The study Using literature to engage all students was funded by the ALEA Research Grant where we, (Jessica Mantei, academic partner, and I, classroom teacher) investigated the ways children could be supported through literature to be creators of literature. That is, the ways we could inspire and support them to become authors of children's literature.
This study was conducted during the final school term of the 2010 school year with my Year 6 students. Mine is a 2-stream school in South Western Sydney, NSW and the school population is multicultural and diverse in socioeconomic status. I was new to the school at the time of the study and whilst many of my students were identified as having 'challenging' behaviours, I preferred to think of them as having high engagement needs. I had maintained connections with some of my University lecturers and took the opportunity that presented itself through the ALEA Research Grant to investigate the ways my students might be engaged through literature.
SUPPORT FROM THE RESEARCH LITERATURE
As good teachers know, there needs to be a framing educational philosophy if the designed learning experiences are to offer opportunities for deep learning and engagement in complex tasks. Professional reading was central to the study as we explored and negotiated our own beliefs about literature and the demands of authoring narrative text.
Libby Gleeson's Writing like a writer (2007) provided us with the philosophical frame within which we could encourage the children to both respond to stories and become writers of stories. Throughout the study, we discussed the Gleeson (2007) chapters, making connections to the unique setting of my classroom and the ways the framework could suit the needs of these learners. At each stage of the writing process, Gleeson's text informed the design of the classroom program, superficially through the types of activities themselves and more deeply through opportunities for the children to reflect on and plan for the next step of their learning.
The study was informed by an action learning methodology (See Figure 1). This allowed us to plan, teach and reflect on the students' learning. Reflection informed our teaching as our own understandings emerged about the demands these children were experiencing as they created their own children's literature.
[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]
The children engaged in the learning experiences during the daily literacy learning time in their classrooms, 2 hours per block, twice per week. Figure 2 represents the learning experiences from the teaching program.
This paper takes a focus on one part of the study in the before writing stage, where Gleeson (2007) tells us that talking, brainstorming, conceptualising, testing ideas and sharing are key to writing narrative. It reports on the use of interview to help the Year 6 children understand the likes, dislikes, preferences and expectations of their audience. The Year 6 children selected an audience within the immediate school community with the ultimate aim of having the stories accessioned in the school library.
Figure 2--Examples of experiences at each stage of the writing process. BEFORE WRITING Aims: * Develop an understanding of literature, its features and purposes (character, plot, positioning, stance) * Make connections between texts, own experiences and the broader community * Develop and understand of the ways literature is shaped by knowledge about form, audience, voice and purpose Examples of tasks: * Read and be read to a range of known and unknown stories * Discuss characters, plots, twists, language choices that position readers in certain ways build retrieval charts as a bank for later use * Identify a text's purpose and audience and supporting evidence * Design interviews for audience and discuss implications for the writing * Design storyboards for the story and mindmap character traits DURING WRITING Aims: * Design a story in response to the identiied elements from the before writing stage * Engage in conferencing, proofreading, editing to improve the story Examples of tasks: * Silent writing followed by pair writing/ conferencing * Illustration of key parts of the story * Comparison of interview data with story content * Teacher conference about character development and resolution AFTER WRITING Aims: * Create a inal product for sharing * Relect on the audience response and writing process Examples of tasks: * Silent writing/word processing * Illustration--a range of materials and resources * Book launch! * Reflection journal
For the students to be effective authors, they needed to start thinking like a writer and working through the processes a real author would. In the before writing stage where they were collating ideas for their stories, we asked the students some key questions:
* Who is your intended audience? (gender, age group, cultural)
* How do you know your intended audience will want to read your story?
The students realised they were not really certain their ideas would be suitable for their intended audience and that somehow, they would have to find out what this audience liked to read. Designing and conducting an interview allowed the Year 6 children to develop a real sense of what their audience wanted in order to be effective writers of literature.
As a class we brainstormed possible topics about which they could ask questions. The students then selected their 'top topics' and composed at least ive questions that would elicit interesting responses from their audience. The list of possible topics supported the composition of questions for those unsure of what to ask. Ideas central to all students' questions were:
--The length of the story
--The themes/subject matter
--Style (Humorous vs. Serious)
--Connection between image and text
--Relevance of moral/lesson
Students visited the classrooms of their identified audience, something that was pre arranged with the other classroom teachers. They recorded audience responses in their workbooks and on returning to the classroom collated and summarised the findings. As part of this study, we interviewed at the students as they returned from interviews.
Reflecting on interview data
The students reflected on their findings. Those disappointed by the results of their interview (both quality and quantity of information) re-visited their questions and conducted further interviews with audience members. When each student was satisfied their data would provide sufficient information for the next stage of writing, the class regrouped. Overviews of the developing stories were created and shared between and among the students. Conversation, questioning and sharing ideas was used to launch the students into the during writing stage.
Emerging from the process of designing questions, conducting interviews and reflecting on interview data was a clearly evident high level of engagement. Excitement built as the students returned from the interviews with a clear sense of purpose and vigour. When asked about their interviews, the students explained they were excited about 'getting into the writing phase' as they had a much clearer understanding of audience, and 'where to go with their writing'. It was particularly inspiring to see the students who had been struggling with ideas for writing develop ideas for their stories by examining their interview data.
The findings in this paper are discussed within the following themes:
--Identifying a real purpose for writing
--A developed sense of responsibility to the audience
--Conveying a message/moral
Identifying a real purpose for writing
The interviews helped the students see that their books had a real purpose. Following their analysis of the interview data, the students were able to articulate quite clearly the purpose and their book. The following examples are drawn from the students' reflections on the purpose of their story:
I want my reader to think of what they do when they lost something (Jessica). ... feel suspense, excitement and feel sorry for the character (Lara). They should feel happy (about the boy's talent) then sad that one of the family members died (Ben).
The process of interviewing audience members helped the students who were unsure of what to write about to really gain a sense of direction, to see 'where they were going' with their books. These clear purposes developed in the before writing phase guided the children in the way their plot would be developed.
A developed sense of responsibility to the audience
The interviews allowed the children to get 'excited' about the writing process. They were inspired that someone other than their teacher and classmates was going to be reading their work, but at the same time, they felt a sense of responsibility to meet their audience's expectations. The interview data revealed that they didn't need to necessarily write a lot, but what they did write had to be appealing to their audience. They were then able to reflect on their own writing in connection with the data to see whether or not it was going to satisfy their intended audience.
In the following example, Patrick identified a range of considerations as he planned to write a story suitable for 11-12 year olds. He had asked 5 questions of 4 children, then collated their results and drew together a summary of his findings:
1. What kind of books do you like?
2. Do you want lots of detail?
3. How long do you want the story to be?
4. Do you like stories to be funny or serious
5. Are morals important in a story?
1 2 3 Action Not much detail Medium adventure Magic Lots of detail Long Werewolves Not much detail Short Vampires Not much detail Medium 1 4 5 Action Funny Yes adventure Magic Funny Yes Werewolves Funny No Vampires Funny Yes Summary: People like action fantasy books. They don't like books with a lot of detail. People want books to be medium in length. People like funny books that have a moral.
From here, Patrick began a story about toys that came to life and when an accident happens with one of the toys they work together to solve their problem.
Conveying a message/moral
The interviews revealed to the students that their intended audience considered a moral or message an important part of a story. This was something the children often overlooked as they were planning and writing. Generally, the students would get carried away with the development of their storyline and it was not until particular areas were drawn to their attention such as the moral that they stopped to think of the importance of including one in their writing. For example, the following students identified their messages or morals as
... to know that everyone is not perfect (Fiona).
Act out the lesson of the story in their life (Ben).
They should tell other people about my story, about never giving up (Elijah).
This then linked back to the idea of purpose. Reflection helped them to consider: What am I creating this book for? What do I want the reader to get out of reading my book? It was these questions that empowered the children to 'twist' their stories, to embed surprises in their plots and to create more complex characters in their stories.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Interview was a valuable tool in the study because through it, the students gained a sense of audience and purpose in the before writing stage, which inturn promoted deeper thinking about language choices and plot through the subsequent stages. Upon reflection, I can see the ways I would change the experiences to improve the results. These include:
--I would take more time in the preparation of interviews, both the topics and composition of questions.
--I would have them 'test' their questions with each other before interviewing their audience. Types of responses (long, short, closed etc), although not related to the likely responses from the real audience, would give the students an idea of the way that an interviewee might respond.
--I would have them interview more students from their nominated audience. This would provide a larger and more authentic scope of information.
Interviews allowed students who did not see themselves as particularly 'good' writers because they were able to participate successfully in a writing experience. Gleeson reminds us that narrative is a difficult genre and that 'many students find the task of composing a whole story overwhelming (2007, p. 21). The students found the motivation to develop a whole text from a true sense of audience, which then grew the purpose for writing. From here, these writers were able to tackle the during writing stage.
More broadly, one of the most important outcomes of this research project as a whole was the engagement and excitement we saw in the students about their writing (we all know this is quite hard to achieve with Term 4, Year 6 students). The learning experiences of the before writing stage, particularly the interview, created a field within which the students could develop an understanding of their stories and an intention for writing. Conducting and analysing interview data allowed the students to develop a good sense of audience and purpose, which supported their creation of literature.
Gleeson, L. (2007). Writing like a writer. Teaching narrative writing. e:lit, Sydney.
Walshe, R.D. (1981). Every child can write. PETA, Sydney.
Bronwyn Cruickshank is a classroom teacher in the South West of Sydney. She has taught in the UK and Australia and, at the time of the study, she was the Year 6 teacher.