Putting the passion back into writing

Misty Adoniou: The power and passion of writing (PETAA Conference 2020)

I’ll happily admit it – I’ve been a Misty fan for a long time. I heard her at a conference years ago and instantly connected with her humanity, her humour and her understanding of the day to day life of classroom teachers. So the idea of her kicking off my Saturday morning with a keynote in a virtual conference was heaven. This is going to be one of the those blogs that is part notes and part thoughts, helping me get my head around what I heard and think about what it looks like in my classroom.

Misty eloquently talked about the power of writing and gave examples of how writing has been such an important and huge space in the tumultuous 2020. Reading other people’s writing and producing our own, even if we don’t feel like ‘writers’ – chalk messages on footpaths, replies to tweets, long message conversations with far off families. Writing is powerful.

I love this reminder, the power of writing in our world, and not in the power to give you an ‘A’ on the test. I need this reminder particularly when I’m bogged down in writing reports and assessing students’ writing against ‘standards’. While it’s a necessary part of my job, it’s the tiniest part and we need to remember that any standard, regardless of how well written, can’t encapsulate what growing as a writer looks like.

So what is the point? Why do we teach children to write and what do we want to get out of it? Misty offered:

  • transforming ourselves
  • transforming others
  • transforming communities
  • transforming systems

Do our students know this? I know I’ve asked students in many classrooms I’ve been in but I’m curious – have I asked them this year? Particularly with their experiences of nearly 6 months of remote learning, what do my students think the point of developing ourselves as writers is? Do they feel powerful?

Misty reminded us that being a strong, powerful and successful writer is about ‘will, skill and thrill’ – perhaps our NAPLAN results are more about lack of thrill and will rather than solely lack of skill?

We need to revisit what skill looks like in writing, without leaving behind the will and the thrill. In particular, we need to not put the ‘will’ on hold while we teach the skill (especially in those students who are ‘behind’) – find what students want to say and want to write about and fill the skills in as we go.

Purpose trumps structure
Practical, transformative writing in our world doesn’t fit predefined text types, yet this isn’t the situation in many classrooms where students are required to fit their text into set boxes. Powerful writers need to understand the different purposes of writing and the range of tools and forms they can use to enact that purpose. Misty gave the example of a job application – part information, part persuasive and part narrative, all needing to read as a portrait of a person worthy of the role being offered.

Craft over output
Instead of having students churn out piece after piece of completed writing, focus on small pieces of writing to allow time and space to consider and practise the craft of writing.

As the keynote ended, I was both appropriately chastised and energised. Chastised that I might have allowed myself to slip into some poor writing teaching habits but with renewed energy to use the bits that have worked and ARE on the right path and continue them with gusto. The sign of a great keynote – a balance of challenge and inspiration. Thanks Misty.

Digikids and the quandry of the declining literacy levels

I watched the Four Corners ‘Digikids’ program last night and it got me thinking, as I’m prone to do, about the various literacy debates and where we’re heading.

To begin with, I felt like the program lacked a clear focus – it was about declining literacy levels but skipped from questioning whether this was a lack of direct phonics instruction to how well prepared teaching graduates are to what influence technology has on the whole equation.

And then I realised that perhaps that’s actually the crux of it – literacy education is complex with so many contributing factors. To run a story on just one component would have been an attempt to oversimplify a challenging issue with so many threads, yet that’s so often what people try to do.

Early on in the program, that comment was made that “the current system isn’t working for every child” and I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with this. However I don’t know that any one system ever will as students are all different, bringing a range of skills, experiences and dispositions so it is fair to assume that ‘one size fits all’ won’t work. While we also know a lot of about the elements that make reading instruction effective thanks to extensive research on the topic, there’s still ample discussion on how much of each element is needed and how they should be delivered. The way I see it, the key elements of reading instruction are the proven science of reading and the combination of how much, how often and what it looks like in the classroom are the art.

I have no intention to get into a ‘phonics vs …’ debate because I don’t understand why it has to be phonics vs anything. Why can’t it be phonics + other things? Reading is a complex act that involves not only working out what the squiggles on a page say but also what they mean directly and through implication. Phonics definitely has an important role to play but I’ve also experienced students who arrive in Grade 5 believing they are star readers because they can decode every word of complex text yet can’t tell you a single thing about what they’ve read. I’m also dubious of any method being suggested that involves a whole class of students sitting in front of a teacher repeating sounds over and over with no consideration of what they already know. Where I’ve seen direct phonics instruction be particularly effective it was with small groups of students where sounds and the required practise could be targeted to their needs and gaps.

I also couldn’t help but be plagued with an overwhelming feeling that some people are longing to turn back time to a utopian era where everyone was literate….that never actually existed. Implying that the current system is the only one that has ever ‘failed’ students is wrong – educational history is littered with people who didn’t achieve equally.

So I finish watching still with many, many wonderings and I think that’s a good thing.  One of my wonderings I’ll just leave hanging here as a blog post for another time – are literacy levels actually dropping or is what being literate looks like changing in our modern, digital world?

ALEA conference 2016 – day 2

I’m a little delayed on this blog post due to the enormity of thoughts floating around in my head after 3 days of intense learning. Forgive me. Here is as coherent a summary as I can manage.

The power of the word – Jenni Connor

This was my first keynote of the day and Jenni grabbed me early as she spoke of the importance of a childhood rich in books and literacy experiences, something I’ve blogged about before and which I am particularly passionate about. She talked of how, to truly grow a lifelong reader, we need to let them read rich and inviting texts, not necessarily those which are age appropriate or at the right level for them. She provided us with some rich examples of quality literature, in picture books I’d forgotten about, such as The Coat by Julie Hunt and Ron Brooks, but also in places you wouldn’t imagine, such as the powerful writing of Stan Grant in his speech for The Ethics Centre on racism and the Australian dream.

Jenni also ranged into novels and spoke of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Once‘ with its honest, raw and child centred portrayal of a horrific time in the world. This novel and all that it embodies sums up for me another of her key messages – the power of fiction really is in its lessons of empathy beyond our own lived experiences. As a young child, I was fortunate enough to experience actual life in both the UK and Australia but the diversity of experience I was exposed to was much broader thanks to the range of texts I read or had read to me.

Narrative and creativity: Where do they fit in today’s schools? – Misty Adoniou

I love hearing Misty speak and still count the keynote I attended at last year’s conference as amongst the most powerful professional development I have been part of.

To begin with, Misty spoke about the messy, competing demands and critical thinking required by engaging with multimodal texts in the real world then considered whether this was the case with those neatly packaged, single genre texts encountered by students in the classroom. In fact, it was a speech of considering contrasts – literacy as skill acquisition vs literacy as meaning making being the next. As a primary teacher, this is one I often grapple with, particularly in writing. While students obviously need to develop a whole range of skills and will need varying amounts of time and practise to build them, there is no point in developing such skills in the absence of meaning and purpose. Grammatically correct sentences with sturdy punctuation make no difference if there is no one to read them.

Misty finished with an idea that resonated that helped bring the contrasts to a point – perhaps part of our role in school is providing students with additional skills, opportunities and beliefs that, in conjunction with those from their home environments, allow them to exist in and create in a third space, separate from but informed by (and enriched by) both. I like that concept a lot and I think it helps me reconcile my role as an educator – not there to be the only element in a child’s education, just part of the complex mix that will support and extend their life choices.

Using picture books to explicitly teach about language – Robyn English

A thread that was very common throughout the conference was the power of narrative, particularly picture books, for learners of all ages. This session was no exception and provided both multiple great picture books as well as novel and interesting ways to use them with students.

One of the games I liked was a ‘grammar by dice roll’ game where students were given sentences from favourite picture books and, based on the roll of a dice, were encouraged to…

1 – change the verb

2 – add an adjective to the second noun

3 – add an adverb

4 – add a circumstance

5 – add detail to the subject noun

6 – add a circumstance that includes a conjunction and a pronoun

I could see this being a lot of fun, especially playing with language from texts that my student already loved and were familiar with.

Another activity involved using vocabulary from familiar books and asking students to discuss and justify which was the odd one out of each line. This takes the skills beyond just knowing what the word means and requires students to think more broadly and argue for their point of view.Cm5tHk-WIAA03wc

Overall, another great day of ideas and wonderings.

Day 3 post to follow soon…

How to grow your own word detective

I haven’t always been passionately interested in spelling. During my first year or two of teaching, I will admit to being similar to so many teachers – frustrated with my student’s attempts, reaching for commercial spelling programs and over-reliant on the ‘look cover write check’ method.

Initially, I put it down to the fact that I had been one of those children who ‘just got it’ when it came to spelling. And reading and writing for that matter. But it wasn’t something I was born with – it was a product of the environment I came from.

From a very young age, I saw the power that words held. They mesmerised my Mum when she relaxed on the couch and read, ignoring whatever yells and screams were coming from me and my sisters as we fought over something petty on rainy afternoons. They earned praise for my sister when she brought home writing from school to show my parents – those words on the page made them smile and say how proud they were of her. And they earned a lot less praise for my other sister when she brought home her school report. I didn’t know what the words said but Mum & Dad clearly did and it wasn’t good. Powerful things, those words.

Growing up, I began to understand how certain words could achieve different things, depending on where they were used and who you gave them to. If I used certain words or phrases at school, teachers listened to me more (for positive and not so positive reasons) and different words and phrases would get me attention at home. A whole other set worked with my peers. As a teenager, I realised that using a certain tone in my speaking and writing made others see me differently and allowed me to build a picture of who I wanted to be, no longer limited by socio-economic or geographic limitations. I saw the power of words take my sister through Year 12 and into University.

Wanting to use and play with that power, I chose to become a journalist where words were my only tool and the product that I spent so long crafting each day.

So I didn’t just ‘get’ reading, writing and spelling. I was raised in a literacy rich household where I had daily demonstrations of the power and wonder of language, almost guaranteed to make me curious. And my reflections on my journey through word curiosity is why I now am so passionate about spelling and words and literacy in general. Ultimately, language has power, whatever age you are and whatever your postcode is. Some children are fortunate enough to be born into environments swimming with rich examples, while others get demonstrations of how limiting it can be when you hold an incomplete set of tools or the wrong ones to do the tasks that you need. Getting children excited about words helps them fill their own toolbox and unlock that magical power that language holds. How can you not be passionate about that?

Picking your battles (aka – stick to the things that matter)

Out of all of the issues that come up in classrooms as I’m coaching, it is amazing how many of them are procedural and completely not linked in any way to the actual intended learning and teaching going on. It’s very easy to get sidetracked by things that, in the long run, don’t matter.

An example of this is pencils and their management, a familiar set of issues which raised my own stress levels as a classroom teacher on a number of occasions. Students lose them. They need sharpening. “She’s using a Grade 2 pencil and she’s only a Grade 1”. Students spend entire lessons rubbing out their work and then have nothing to show for their efforts at the end of the session (other than the lines still clearly visible on the paper). “He’s using a pen and doesn’t have a pen licence”. Reading through some of my favourite blogs recently, it was clear that this is not an issue just in the classrooms I hang out in but seems to be universal.

My take on this is quite simple – does it matter? Does a student’s choice of writing implement affect whether or not they’re able to achieve the intended outcome for the lesson? If they can’t find a grey lead pencil, would you prefer they spend the lesson trying to find one, stop you from conferring with other students while you find them one or write with something (anything!) else? Is writing in a green pencil, a pink marker or a purple biro going to affect the quality of their ideas? No – so let it go. Let them write with whatever they want to, as long as it is legible. There will be times when particular writing implements match the task better – teach them when that’s the case and how to make that decision.

While we’re on the topic, the same applies to using technology in the writing process. When I suggest to some teachers that allowing students to draft on a laptop or tablet is perfectly ok, I get responses ranging from ‘I’d never thought of that’ to ‘Oh no, that’s only for publishing’. As an adult, I rarely draft on paper and value the tools at my disposal when drafting straight onto the screen. I can have some of my spelling and grammatical errors corrected as I go and can move things around or add and remove text easily and quickly. If my text is going to be long, I find it quicker to draft that way and it saves me having to re-write things to get a ‘clean copy’ to edit later. Reluctant student writers may write more using technology, making the most of the supports it provides. And again, does it matter? If your learning objective is around handwriting practise, then yes, it does matter and no, it’s not the right tool. But if your aim for the piece of writing is more around content, structure and catering to the needs of an audience, let the writer decide what implements, tools and supports they want to use. Ultimately, it’s another way of providing students with some choice and responsibility for decision making in their learning, however small and insignificant that may seem.

What does a lifelong writer look like?

Modelling yourself as a lifelong reader to students isn’t so hard. Most teachers I know read something for pleasure – the newspaper, trashy novels, high literature or celebrity blogs are some examples of this but there are countless others. We all know the power in hooking our students into reading by letting them see into our own reading lives – if we take it seriously and get pleasure from it, it’s far more likely that they will too.

Modelling yourself as a lifelong writer seems to be a slightly harder stretch. This hit home to me recently when coaching in a Grade 5/6 classroom. I can happily and confidently tell students when I last read a book, skimmed a magazine or checked out a Pixar short online but when did I last write for pleasure? I really had to think about it. I blog (infrequently) and write in a journal (even more infrequently). I do keep a Writer’s notebook but generally only reach for it when I’m preparing for a class. Nearly all of my writing is for work or domestic purposes – emails to colleagues, grant proposals, shopping lists, lesson planning documents, University essays, notes from reading or professional learning – a long enough list of examples but none that I could say were purely ‘because I wanted to’.

This was a topic that came up for discussion at the ALEA conference earlier this year when a few of us on the Twitter backchannel were discussing whether we really needed to be ‘lifelong writers’ ourselves to be able to teach it well. I came to the conclusion that it certainly makes it easier. So I’m setting out to rediscover ‘writing for fun’. The fact that I was writing on a Twitter backchannel at all is part of that – I don’t have to and aren’t being paid to. I enjoy it. I like connecting with others, sharing thoughts and participating in conversations online.

With Summer holidays now stretching ahead, I’m throwing myself into the writing pit and, so far, am enjoying rediscovering my love of writing. I’ve spent some time scrapbooking which lead me back to journalling. I’ve added some things to my Writer’s notebook which has inspired me to attempt writing a picture book (illustrator needed – my inner artist is buried very deep!). And I’m here, back on my blog which I always enjoy reconnecting with, however sporadically.

Do you see yourself as a lifelong writer? What do you write for pleasure? Do you think it’s necessary to be seen a lifelong writer to enthuse our students in a similar way?



my new discovery – piclits

PicLit from PicLits.com
See the full PicLit at PicLits.com

There are so many brilliant tools on the web and I love having a play and thinking about ways they could be used in the classroom. I came across this one today through a colleague on twitter (thanks @MGEducator!). PicLits has a gallery of colourful pictures on a range of topics which you can add text to to make a bit of visual poetry. I can imagine using this as a great starter for a writing lesson, just to warm students up and extend their descriptive thinking. It would be brilliant to use with a unit on poetry – looking at imagery and trying to create a sense of the picture through writing. Placement of the words can also change or create meanings – there are some good examples in the gallery of work others have created.