Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Personalized Independence

This week, English teacher Jennifer Walcott explains how she encourages students to customize the what and where of our Grade 12 Writer's Craft course to suit their needs and interests.

The Grade 12 Writer’s Craft course is an English elective, usually chosen by students who enjoy creative writing. As the course is process driven rather than content driven, students have many opportunities to make choices based on their interests and to develop a work plan that suits their schedules.

The recent non-fiction unit allowed students the option of what forms of writing they wished to learn, but also gave them the option of where they would complete their assignments.

All of the course steps and requirements were outlined to students in class on the first day of the four-week unit. The readings, quizzes, tasks, and rubrics were all presented with a weekly due date for each of the four tasks for the unit. Students then had several options they could follow. They had to select two forms of non-fiction writing from a menu that included: travel, interviews, opinion, feature, sports, reviews, and obituaries.

As is the norm in this course, students:
  1. Read expert guidelines for success criteria and complete two reading quizzes.
  2. Find six real-world samples of the forms of writing. I offered several suggestions of sources plus samples of magazines for these, but students had to secure their own.
  3. Write an analysis of how one of the samples met the criteria they had identified.
  4. Write two original pieces of their own and annotate them to show where they were meeting the criteria. Students were encouraged to create one of their pieces for the school newspaper.
Students were also provided a package of exercises to improve their diction, syntax, and punctuation. These were warm up activities that they could do on their own. Two peer editing sessions were built into the schedule as students have repeatedly said they prefer face-to-face peer editing rather than online editing.

Each student was invited to a conference with me and with a weekly due date for tasks, I was able to see how students were progressing through the tasks and to call in any student who needed additional support for another conference. Students were also able to request a conference during class time if they wished. I was always available during class time, and several students chose to work in the room where it was quieter and they could be more focussed. However, some students preferred to work on Writer’s Craft tasks late at night and used our class time to complete work for other classes as needed.

Writing is a fairly solitary task. Once you know what you are trying to do, it’s a matter of drafting and revising. This personalized and blended approach allowed students to work at their own pace - a few students completed tasks ahead of time - and when and where they found most conducive to the tasks. The challenge was time management. Those who planned were successful, those who did not, were less so as they lost revision time. However, with weekly due dates, I was able to contact those who needed help in managing time and the frequent check ins meant no one fell behind in submitting work.

At the start of the unit, students were offered a challenge to work as a group to create a magazine or newspaper and build their writing around a specific target audience. Three groups selected this option, but only one actually completed it. The others found the challenge of working together too much and gradually opted to work alone.  Interestingly, the group that stayed together to produce a magazine of their articles was made up of the students with the most mature time management and organizational skills. My challenge for the future is how to teach those skills beforehand so more students can have this real world experience.

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