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It’s All About The Topic: Two Exciting And Relevant Writing Tasks

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In Term 4 2021, teachers from the two Year 5-6 teams at Golden Sands School (a decile 9 school in Papamoa, Tauranga) shared some writing that super-impressed me.  It particularly bowled me over because much of it was written by students who could generally be described as ‘reluctant writers’.  Some had specific learning disabilities; others were just disengaged with school and learning.  They were lovely students – I had worked with many of them – but for some, that Year 6 syndrome ‘I’m over primary school’ had set in.

Here’s what the teachers did and here’s a selection of the students proudly sharing their writing.  

Golden Sands School’s Activity

Although the teams worked separately, both focussed on environmental themes (combining science, social studies and English) and worked hard to come up with writing topics and tasks that would motivate and excite their students; well, most of them anyway.  

The Blake team (team leader Kristy Grootjans and three other teachers) focussed on the huge oil spillage that had happened locally in 2011 when the MV Rena capsized on the Astrolabe Reef just off the coast of Tauranga and skilfully led their students toward writing about it from the perspective of a Motiti Island penguin.  They encouraged their students to generate a ‘highly descriptive and emotive piece of writing’ that captured a distressing moment in the poor little penguin’s life.    

The Mahy team (team leader Naomi Davoren and three other teachers) explored the theme of Changing Landscapes and strategically encouraged their students to describe an imaginary but rather vile creature that had the capacity to do extensive damage to the landscape.  They suggested that students had a go at engaging their readers through clever use of figurative language (especially hyperbole, metaphor and personification) and rich vocabulary in order to make this imaginary creature come alive.

The sequence of lessons that teachers in both teams used was similar.  Teachers in both teams:

  • Ensured that their students had sufficient background knowledge of their selected theme to understand it fully.  This was especially important for the Blake team as many of their students were not born in 2011 and knew little about the Rena disaster.  Within their reading programme, they used the Level 2 2012 School Journal article ‘What a Disaster!’ to help students gain the requisite knowledge.
  • Launched their topics through sharing and discussing some great motivating texts.  In the case of Mahy, they shared two (almost riddle-like) descriptions of imaginary creatures (the Road Snake and the Urban Sprawlosaurus) from the teaching resource SOS Planet; and the Blake team read and discussed the delightful picture book Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill (by Debbie McCauley) with their students.       
  • Shared exemplary text models with the students so that they clearly understood what the expected writing outputs might look like.  Blake used the afore-mentioned texts from the SOS Planet teaching resource for this. Mahy used a text that one of the teachers had composed as a modelling example (click to open PDF).  In both cases, students analysed these texts looking for ‘what makes quality writing’.  They did this to help develop specific success criteria for their task.
  • Used some other great instructional practices (such as vocabulary building, workshopping and ongoing sharing) to scaffold and help build success.

 

Mahy Team Texts and Audio

Here’s a group of students from Mahy team (Tehila; Annie-Jean; Harvey; Will) proudly sharing their work (on film) and presenting themselves as published authors. 

Watch & Read Tehila’s Story

Link to external video: https://vimeo.com/676140353/fa284bd928

Read Tehila's story (pdf)
Read Tehila’s story (click to open in external pdf)

Watch & Read Annie-Jean’s Story

Link to external video: https://vimeo.com/676140295/58b3f36bf7

Annie-Jean's Writing Text
Annie-Jean’s Writing (click to open in external pdf)

Watch & Read Will’s Story

Link to external video: https://vimeo.com/676148882/6586ad57cb

Will's Story Writing
Wills writing (click to open in external pdf)

Watch & Read Harvey’s Story

Link to external video: https://vimeo.com/676140190/5c3601c10f

Harvey's-writing
Harvey’s-writing (click to open in external pdf)

 

Blake Team Texts and Audio

Here’s a group of students from Blake Team (Lucas; Flynn; Keira; Cooper) also proudly sharing their work (by audio) and presenting themselves as published authors.  Cooper was a bit shy to be recorded, but we wanted to include the text and photo.

Listen to & Read Lucas’ Story

Click to play audio

(!warning audio quality may require loud volume!)

Lucas' writingClick to enlarge text

Lucas

Listen to & Read Flynn’s Story

Click to play audio

(!warning audio quality may require loud volume!)

Motiti-blue---FlynnClick to enlarge text



Listen to & Read Keira’s Story

Click to play audio

(!warning audio quality may require loud volume!)

Keira's writing

Click to enlarge text



Cooper’s Story

Cooper's story

Click to enlarge text


 

The Outcome

Teachers from both teams were thrilled with these shared examples – remember, some of these students normally struggle with writing – so I asked them what they thought had happened to make these lessons successful.  These were some of their responses:

“We’d chosen topics that really worked”. 

In the case of the Blake topic, it was because it was local, was about an animal in distress and featured a shipwreck which really interested a lot of boys.  For the Mahy topic, the students loved the motivating stories from the Planet SOS resource.   

 

“There was lots of discussion during the lessons.  Hence all kids had great ideas for content in their writing”. 

Discussions in most cases revolved around the books that were read.

 

“We shared examples of writing that gave the kids an exact understanding of what they could do and what was expected of them”

Remember, in the case of the Blake team, they teachers had actually written the exemplary text themselves.

 

“Through the preliminary discussions, we developed lots of vocabulary with the kids and many of them used it successfully in their texts”. 

In the case of the Blake team, they developed a word wall with meanings and contexts.

 

“We made sure the task was manageable, especially for our more disengaged and struggling writers”

In the case of the Mahy tea, the task involved only writing three paragraphs around very clear criteria.

Many of these students have moved on to Intermediate in 2022.  It seems to me that most of them are now well set up for success in Year 7-8 writing.

 

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts about using this as a basis for lesson planning? Could you replicate this in your classroom? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts and how it goes if you decide to try this!

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