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Reflections Of An Overseas Teacher On Literacy Teaching And Learning In New Zealand

Over the past fortnight (21-28 October), I have had the privilege and pleasure of hosting a teacher from Sweden (Maarten Koops) as he undertook observations of writing lessons in 14 Year 3-10 classrooms and interviewed teachers and students as part of these observations.

Observations were undertaken at Balmoral School (Auckland), Clayton Park School (Auckland), Dominion Road School (Auckland), Ranui School (Auckland) and Rototuna Junior High School (Hamilton) and he and I were very grateful to the schools and teachers for being part of this project.

Literacy teaching and learning in New Zealand

Maarten, a special needs secondary teacher from Stockholm, intends to use his collected data as part of a dissertation on differences between literacy teaching in Sweden and New Zealand.

Toward the end of his visit, I talked with Maarten about some of the conclusions he was making.

When asked about his main observations of New Zealand schools, he constantly talked about:

  • the energy that he felt in New Zealand schools, coming from school leaders, teachers and students;
  • the enthusiasm for learning that he observed;
  • the warmth and friendliness of school leaders, teachers and students that he noted;
  • the fact that students who would probably be placed in special needs schools in Sweden are mainly mainstreamed in the NZ context, and some of the benefits of this. During his first day of observations he noted, for example, a Year 7 boy with obvious learning difficulties, being effectively supported and mentored by two Year 7 girls who were obviously more capable than the boy.

When asked about his main observations of the New Zealand teaching of writing, he constantly talked about:

  • the focus on story-telling (in its broadest sense) that he noted as a classroom approach to the teaching of writing. When we discussed this further, he had noted that the New Zealand teaching of writing appeared to be all about students ‘having something to say’ and using writing to say this;
  • the fact that writing skills appear to be taught within the context of real and purposeful writing tasks rather than as isolated exercises (often on points of grammar) which is the case in many European schools;
  • the prevalence of direct and explicit instruction through (for example) shared and guided writing. He had never observed teachers writing with students before;
  • the reasonably informal approach to teaching that he saw. He noted an almost conversational approach as teachers constantly talked with rather than at students. He especially noted how teachers used conversations (particularly questions) to motivate and engage students in writing topics, gather content around topics and build related word banks. Whereas Swedish students sit at the desks during lessons, he loved the New Zealand notion of students ‘sitting on the mat’ with teachers as they talked with each other and with the teacher;
  • the support he saw students giving each other in the classroom (such as in the example cited above);
  • the differentiated teaching that he noted as opposed to whole class instruction that he was used to. He was particularly amazed at how focussed and engaged most students were when working independently of the teacher as s/he interacted with small groups of students.

Different approaches to teacher-student interactions

He also pointed out, very politely and very positively from his perspective as a special needs teacher, that maybe New Zealand teachers were not so good at working effectively with students with various degrees of autism and maybe they needed additional support in this.

When I asked him what I would now expect to see him doing differently in his special needs class if I was to observe him in 6 months – which I will probably do – he talked about utilising different approaches to teacher-student interactions, topic and task selection, and direct instruction.

He said that he would especially love to have a go at undertaking ‘shared writing’ and leading ‘writing workshops’ as he has seen me and other teachers doing across schools.

I wish Maarten all the best in all of this.

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