Creating enthusiastic young writers

OUP ANZ would like thank Kayti Deham and the students at Tennant Creek Primary School for giving us the opportunity to share their story.

For teachers working in challenging classroom environments engaging students might be difficult but not impossible. Tennant Creek Primary School introduced the Read Write Inc. program just over a year ago, and it has been credited for turning students at the school into confident and fluent readers. Kayti Denham tells us how King of the Birds (a Blue Set 6 Storybook) was the seed and the sprout of the idea for her Year 5 students at Tennant Creek Primary to write their very own book.

Kayti Denham, Year 5 Teacher, Tennant Creek Primary School, Northern Territory on Otto’s New Shoes: The issues around fibbing and friendship come alive in the classroom.

Background

Tennant Creek Primary School introduced the Read Write Inc. program just over a year ago. This is a literacy program of systematic synthetic phonics that has been proven to create fluent and enthusiastic readers. Importantly for a school like Tennant Creek, it includes classroom management strategies that assist teachers with creating an engaging delivery. The element of fidelity is one of the strongest components and for teachers working in difficult classroom environments it can be challenging, in the establishment phase, to meet the needs of the students and the program convincingly.

Otto’s New Shoes

The short story ‘Otto’s New Shoes’ was borne out of the need to create this balance. Students in the Blue Group had already been in school for six or seven years and had been exposed to a variety of literacy teaching models. Some students had developed competency in decoding, some were active storytellers, while others where meeting the systematic processing of phonics for the first time.

As the term progressed it became clear that to retain engagement in the learning for the students I had to encourage some form of investment or ownership that extended beyond the success of achievement in learning.

The book King of the Birds details a familiar tale of a fib getting out of hand and in responding to this work with the RWI worksheets, students displayed some humour by creating outlandish responses.

This got me thinking: If they find this funny, they are learning. I learnt very early on in my teaching career that students learn quicker with a smile than a frown. So I proposed to them that they create their own story from these sentences they were making.

Their initial response was that ‘other’ people write books, not kids, and who would read it anyway? I shared with them a story of my friend and one-time housemate who is now a well-known children’s book writer, who also contributes to the Read Write Inc. series. The seed and the sprout of the idea for the students was knowing that a teacher could have a friend who writes stories that become books and that people who write stories do not live in a separate world. In other words, if Miss Kayti’s friend could write a book, could they too write a book? The enthusiasm grew, especially when the idea formed that a book could be sold for money, and money could be used to build a better playground.

So, based on the RWI worksheet, the name Otto remained, and over the next three weeks Otto came alive on the whiteboard as he navigated the treacherous path of the small fib. Discussions were lively, from the choice of the names of his best friends (‘All beginning with J because books do that’), to the brands of shoes that are cool, quite cool and most cool. What would Otto desire most and what would his friends have?

Two thrilling aspects (for an educator) became apparent. The first was the way that students used, then modified their choice of language. In discussion the language choices were familiar to the community, but in writing the students questioned if ‘their’ language would be ‘allowed’ in the book. Students were supported to use their language as long as it could be understood in context by other readers. We looked at some of the language used in the Read Write Inc. books that is familiar to a British readership but unfamiliar to a Northern Territory reader: words like ‘moor’ and phrases like ‘darts match’, where meaning can be derived from context.

The students decided that some words should be left out, but it made sense to leave others in. ‘Deadly’ is possibly the most familiar, and the use of ‘guts’ to mean stomach or nerves as well as the location ‘Sport and Rec’ remained. Other language which could have had offensive connotations was omitted. This indicated quite clearly that the level of what could be perceived as offensive language has a different currency in these students’ lives. Over-familiarity has devalued certain terminology that is, in other contexts, divisive and offensive. While there was a clear understanding of what were truly offensive phrases, the casual use of crude language and the appropriateness of it was questioned.

The second aspect that students were thoroughly engaged in was the premise of the story, a fib that grew bigger. What could be reasonable and believable, yet untrue? Personal experiences of fibbing and being fibbed to were shared, and the reasons as to why Otto may have fibbed incurred a sensitive and empathetic debate on the subject of not feeling ‘cool’ at school. It was here that the decision was made to leave the phrase ‘shame job’ out, but the word ‘shame’ remained as it had become a central theme in the story. The concept of shame as used by the students extends beyond the understanding in non-indigenous usage and can literally overwhelm and disempower. ‘Shame job’ is about embarrassment, being caught out or even being chosen in class to share something, ‘shame’, on the other hand, appears to dwell inside and be a feeling that incorporates discomfort at being noticed as much as the feeling of guilt in the common, non-indigenous usage. Otto felt shame about his footwear but also shame over being discovered lying.

The discovery of Otto’s fib occurs in Otto’s absence and his friends, understanding Otto’s rationale, fix the problem through the help of an older brother. This was very simple for the students: this is what family does, no questions. The tricky part came when, in fixing the problem, the truth of the fib was revealed. Here the students wrangled over authentic reactions to this. Would his friends just brush it off? Most agreed with this but one student did not. Otto had lied and if his friend had done that he would be ‘pissed off’ (again we left that out!). He would be annoyed that Otto lied, not because it was a lie, but because of the friendship. Friends do not lie to each other, and he, the student, needed to say that and Otto needed to say that. It needed to be understood that friends don’t have to lie about stuff like shoes because, and this was important to the student, we should love our friends no matter what they have or do not have.

With my scratchy illustrations, created each lesson to set the intention, screenshots from the whiteboard and the students’ words, I created a PDF for printing. It was at this point that I sent an email to my writer friend to show her what my students were capable of. Her response was immediate. ‘I LOVE this book,’ she responded. I asked her permission to include this comment on the back page and she agreed.

Then it was off to the printers.

We used a similar font to the Read Write Inc. books and kept the illustrations as they were. Essentially the students now have a RWI booklet that is written by them and for them and they are already envisioning a reprint, committing to use the funds from the first round of sales to print more and for the second round of books to be sold to raise money for a new playground for the school.

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