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  What Works - The Work Program

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Bronwyn answers some frequently asked questions

How do we make literacy in all its forms explicit for and accessible by Indigenous students?

We choose literature that is well written and structured so that the authors' ways of writing are useful resources for our students. The texts also have to be at a reading level appropriate for the students' ages, rather than at a level that they can read independently. We work on a text until the students understand and are able to take over those resources and use them in their own writing. Our use of functional grammar gives us a language for talking about language in a way that is very powerful, and helps us to articulate what we want students to understand and take over. The repetition and careful talk about a text means that students are able to make meaning from, and read texts which are far above those they could read independently.

How do we make sure that our curriculum is inclusive of all students in our classes?

An often-heard criticism of scaffolded approaches is that the texts chosen are culturally exclusive of Indigenous students' experiences. One that particularly troubles critics is Mrs Wobble the Waitress by Allan Ahlberg. However, the texts we choose to study come from a wide range of cultural experiences, some Indigenous Australian, many not. That particular text is a narrative based on a traditional card game, but written with a contemporary twist. It is chosen for its clear narrative structure, the elaboration of detail (which is difficult for many children), because it opens up for examination issues of families, of male and female roles, and because the children in the story solve the problem! It demonstrates very clearly that authors have choices about the characters in their stories, and what they do.

The curriculum is inclusive of Indigenous students in two ways.

Firstly, it gives them access to powerful literate resources in ways that previously did not happen. They learn, for example, the power of metaphor, and how to build suspense in a narrative, and write impressive reports for their own purposes.

Secondly, the writing part of the scaffolding process provides ample scope for all students to bring in their own experiences and choices. The narratives that students write as part of scaffolding reflect their own experiences and choices as authors. Because we have given them powerful tools to represent their life experiences and language choices, the finished product ends up often reflecting their experiences in a more effective and accessible way than they would have previously been able to do.

What is a 'culturally appropriate' curriculum?

Two aspects of the curriculum need to be examined to consider whether they are culturally appropriate: the content, or what we teach, and the pedagogy, or how we teach. It could be argued that a culturally appropriate curriculum content is one which affirms students' life and cultural experiences, recognises, values and incorporates their heritage, and at the same time gives students access to a wide range of powerful cultural behaviours from which they can make their own choices. This includes helping students to develop a repertoire of literate resources from which to choose.

In such a curriculum, teachers and students work together to make conscious choices about the cultural and literate behaviours they want to use for social, economic, political and emotional reasons.

Through the critical literacy component of scaffolding, we work to look at authors' intentions and perspectives in their choice of characters, setting and words. As part of our study, we work on drawing in students' worlds as a resource for their writing. Sometimes students use aspects of their heritage, such as characters from dreaming stories or history. Sometimes, ideas come from everyday home or school experiences, or television shows they have watched. All of these cultural resources are valid and useful for different purposes.

How do we make sure that we cover literature, media texts, wider world texts, written and visual, in a way that empowers students, rather than leaving them overwhelmed?

We do not yet have an answer to this question. Our South Australian English curriculum requires that we introduce our students to a wide range of texts: literature, school-based, media and every day texts. However, we would like to cover them in a way that gives students control over writing in many genres, not simply reading them.

Because of the intensity and quality of our study of texts, we certainly cannot cover many texts at this depth in one term, although teachers do work with other texts at other times at different levels. We hope that the language and critical perspectives we develop to talk about texts will be transferred to other genres and modes of communicating. This seems to be working with viewing, because the results of our assessments in viewing show a steady increase in critical ability. However, at this stage we cannot say just how consistently this transfer occurs.

In Term 2, 2001, one classroom teacher is investigating the possibilities of scaffolding a wider range of shorter texts around the topic of toys: procedure, advertisements, historical exposition etc.

How do we affirm students' first dialect, Aboriginal English, as well as ensure that they access and master standard Australian English?

Most, but not all of our Aboriginal students come to school speaking Aboriginal English. Most, but not all of this group of students learn by about Year 3 to code switch, to switch between dialects. The inability to switch is one important indicator that students might be educationally at risk and we particularly watch out for this group of students.

Salisbury North R-7 School has a reputation for affirming Aboriginal students and their dialects. We do this by responding to the meaning of students' talk, rather than the way they say it. We talk explicitly about dialect and register, and how difference is important and valued. Several teachers are able to code switch and use Aboriginal English in appropriate contexts with an appropriate audience.

One of our teachers, who has spent most of her teaching life in Aboriginal education, has experimented with dialect study as part of her English program. Another teacher's class has rewritten their scaffolded text in Nunga and Salisbury North dialects to see how they look and sound. The Year 2/3 Aboriginal students involved were not very enthusiastic. Perhaps it felt a bit contrived. We will continue to try out ways of including Aboriginal English as a valid part of the curriculum. We are learning as we go how to spot specific difficulties students might be having with standard English, for example, with past and future tenses, with the word 'were' which doesn't exist in Aboriginal English, with pronunciation. We are learning to be more explicit about saying 'The way you said it is Nunga way. You have to learn to say it two ways, Nunga and standard English. This is the standard English way...'

How do we teach students to be literate when they don't come to school?

The issues of attendance and success in literacy are more complex than we thought; some students who attend regularly have not shown the great leaps that others have, some who have missed many days still manage to show improvement, some have started to come more regularly, we think because they have been successful at school.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to teach someone to read and write when they are not there. One of our students most at risk was present for 1/3 of DWRAT lessons for some terms in 2000. Our strategy has been to work closely with the ASSPA committee on this issue, make suggestions but follow their guidance closely. Last year for the first time ASSPA presented awards to the child in each year level with the best attendance for the year. In 2001 awards are made each term.

Our trainee AEW has created an attendance database, and we are experimenting with pie graphs which show parents the attendance rates of their students each term: present all day, lateness, absence for various reasons are all shown in different colours on a pie graph. The slice of the pie where students have actually attended all day is very apparent. We do not intend to present these graphs to all parents. Again, ASSPA is advising us on families where they think this might make a difference, and also who should hand over this information.

How do we keep parents informed about their children's progress?

Ongoing assessment has been crucial, both in helping us reflect on our classroom practice, and in keeping parents informed about their child's performance. We now have a school wide database which records and shows the results of every formal test the child has participated in. When the DART and Marie Clay tests are completed with the Aboriginal students in the school, a note goes into the Nunga newsletter, inviting parents to come and look at their child's scores and compare their progress with the previous year. Of course, many don't come, but that doesn't matter. Conversations about student performance go on at the canteen queue, or at home time, as well as parent-teacher interviews, at netball matches and football training. These assessments are also used in student reports in Terms 2, 3, and 4, to ensure that parents are honestly informed about the progress of their children in literacy.


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