Making Measureable Differences in Literacy. The Power of Learning Through Collaboration.

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Today I publish an article written by quest blogger Chris Topher. Chris has published several books on spelling and comprehension and is recognized throughout Australia and the Oceania Region for her outstanding contribution to improving teachers understanding on the skills and strategies that students needs to have to meet the ever increasing demands of a world highly dependent on communication. Chris can be contacted either by replying to this post or at: [email protected].

‘To create a professional learning community, focus on learning rather than reaching, work collaboratively, and hold yourself accountable for results.’ Richard DuFour

Why the project? With the implementation of the Australian Curriculum: English, teachers have been charged with the responsibility of teaching about the conventions of language and text patterns through the Language strand.

‘all students need to develop their understandings of how language functions to achieve a range of purposes that are critical to success in school. This includes reading, understanding, and writing texts that describe, narrate, analyse, explain, recount, argue, and so on.’ (Shape paper, ACARA 2008)

Knowledge about language impacts students’ ability to communicate effectively and impacts results in NAPLAN literacy testing particularly in the Writing component and the Language Conventions assessment. An understanding of text structure and how language works also impacts a learners’ ability to make meaning from text affecting students’ ability to understand texts read.

Knowing the urgency for changed practice to improve student learning outcomes, a collaborative inquiry project Exploring how language works – empowering readers and writers was established. Over the past two years 150 teachers from Prep to Year 10 from 30 schools have participated in an inquiry. The goal of the inquiry was to improve student learning outcomes by developing teachers’ existing knowledge about language ‘knowing what’, and building on their pedagogic expertise to teach about language, ‘knowing how’, across a range of teaching contexts and all learning areas.

Professional learning model of inquiry and collaboration

The project was based on an inquiry model using a professional learning community process. It provided the opportunity for teachers and leaders from schools to deepen teacher knowledge and develop consistency of practice across schools to improve student learning outcomes in literacy by using an inquiry process.

Key questions for the project: How does knowledge about language impact on student learning outcomes? What do we need to know and do across a whole school? What might this look like in your classroom/school? How is this connected to the Australian Curriculum?

Continuous learning embedded in educators’ practice was the focus. Through deepening teacher knowledge and developing consistency of practice across schools student learning outcomes in literacy were significantly improved.

Teachers’ reflective comments about the process included: ‘excellent collegial discussions around developing a K-6 approach through shared vocabulary and shared understandings’; ‘learned lots from discussing grade level ideas with teachers from other schools.’

Teachers worked collaboratively in an ongoing learning community to explore ‘how language works’. The group came together 6 times throughout the year. The spaced learning model enabled teachers to learn from input about current research from our academic partner, Prof Bev Derewianka, then spend time exploring an inquiry question in their classroom before meeting again to discuss ‘what worked and why?’ Each session consisted of some input and reflection on the impact the new teacher learning had on student learning around knowledge, skills and understanding about how language works. The model built accountability, with teachers expected to return to each session with evidence of the impact on student learning from their classrooms. Teachers were clear about: •What that wanted students to learn – using AC: English curriculum •How they would know when each student had learned it – discussion and use •Returning to the sessions to discuss how they would respond when students experienced difficulty in learning

The following template was used to guide teachers’ reflection in the classroom. These reflections formed the basis of the conversation at the beginning of each session.

PLAN – Where am I going? Context – grade level and unit topic Learning intentions – What do I want students to learn? Success criteria – How will I know when each student has learned it?

ACT – What did I do? Modeling, joint construction and independent work Choice of text for modeling - Which text did you choose? Why?

NOTICE – How am I going? What worked? What evidence do you have? Did it work with all your students? What didn’t work? Why? What would you do differently?

REFLECT – Where to next? What have you learned? Has your thinking about language changed?

Robert Elmore reminds us: ..the knowledge we need to solve problems (in schools) often doesn’t reside close at hand; it has to be found through active inquiry and analysis.’

Teachers were challenged to find ways to introduce their new learning to the students with whom they worked. This wasn’t easy as the challenge was to make the learning meaningful as opposed to planning discrete disconnected grammar lessons. It was through exploration of the new ideas in the classroom, then collaboration at the sessions that teachers were able to devise successful ways to teach about language in the context of meaningful reading and writing.

We provided opportunities for collective meaning making through dialogue at the sessions by grouping teachers from across schools and learning contexts, a particularly powerful group was our Year 5,6,7 discussions as these teachers worked across the primary and secondary contexts. The richness of these discussions and the impact on student learning was evidenced by teachers’ comments about how much they had learned from each other and requesting to continue the conversations in the next school year. One teach of teachers from across 4 schools worked together to develop a common assessment task and rubric which they later shared with the wider learning community.

As the collaborative culture progressed with teachers sharing expertise and perspectives on teaching and learning processes and examining evidence of student learning from their classrooms, they developed a sense of mutual respect and support enabling them to develop effective instructional ideas together.

To support this community of practice we developed an online, Fronter Room for teachers to share their resources from their unique settings. Teachers were able to use these collaboratively developed and shared ideas to lead others in their school as they continue to develop coherent instructional approaches.

The power of learning together in a spaced model with time to explore practice in the classroom enabled trusting, productive relationships to be developed between the teachers where group members believed that individually and together they were able to implement this new learning in creative and effective ways.

Teacher comments on the power of collaboration: Sharing of teaching/learning experiences provided ideas and confidence to trial I am a learner with my colleagues – we share and learn together and the children know this Useful sessions discussing grade level ideas with teachers from other school. I have found that it has been wonderful to have the support of my fellow teachers coming along to the sessions Produced excellent collegial discussions around developing a K-6 approach through shared vocabulary and shared understandings

The success of the model of collaborative inquiry was demonstrated at the final Language Symposium where 80 teachers from 23 schools proudly displayed and passionately and confidently shared their new learning with 200 of their colleagues. This was an amazing learning experience where once again a collaborative culture of learning was apparent. Teachers were learning from and with each other making new connections and sharing teaching practice.

Teacher comment: ‘The symposium was quite inspiring to see what we and others had achieved through the year. I went to school on Wednesday and trialled an activity that I had done earlier in the year with my class and put a science slant on it this time. I'm pleased to report it worked out brilliantly!! Thank you for the experience.’

Following are some excerpts from the Quick Write teacher reflections undertaking in our last session together. The reflective comments indicate the impact on student learning from teachers participating in this collaborative inquiry. Student learning Students (Prep to 10) have demonstrated a sense of engagement in the process of writing and a sense of empowerment as they make informed choices when crafting their writing. “My students feel empowered by their ability not only to construct purposeful and creative texts, but also to discuss the writing of others.”

The quality of student writing has improved, evidenced by the sophistication of sentence structure and the thoughtfulness of word choice as they expand and develop their ideas. “My students are more enthusiastic writers, they generally approach tasks with relish now rather than reluctance, e.g. giving them the scaffold of the sentence parts has enabled them to identify what makes a ‘proper’ sentence and they can then confidently add detail.”

“A focus on cohesion and sentence openings has improved the quality of writing with my secondary students.”

Students are transferring what they have learned about language to all learning areas. Students have a metalanguage to talk about language in reading and writing and use this knowledge to discuss, revise and monitor their own improvement in writing. ”Students transferring this to science reports and historical writing.” Students are using the language and are able to talk about the function of parts of a clause. They are using the questions - What’s happening? Who’s involved?

Teacher learning Teacher learning has shown not only a greatly improved knowledge of the Language strand of the English curriculum and the Literacy general capability but also an understanding of the continuum of language from spoken to written. Teachers have improved their teaching practice to be focussed, scaffolded and explicit, providing contextualised learning about language. ”I have a language to explain to students (and their parents) what they can do to improve their writing rather than ‘add more detail’… “

They have made significant connections between reading and writing for example, knowledge of cohesion in writing helps students make links with inference in reading. Many teachers have explored the idea of ‘bump it up’ walls to show students what ‘better’ looks like. Teachers report an increased confidence to teach about language in relevant and engaging ways. “I have learned the power of effective pedagogy and knowledge.”

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