One of the biggest challenges teaching senior “alternative” English classes is engagement. In the first week of school, that bubble of (barely containable) excitement heralding the arrival of junior classes is sadly missing for many of their senior counterparts. Some are repeating Level 2 English, some are ESOL students, most “hate” English and pretty much all of them “don’t read.” And so we embark on a sometimes tedious and (if you let it be) soul-destroying journey to teach and learn together.
Although it is always challenging, this is high stakes in more ways than credit counting. For many, it may be the last time they will study literature or attempt to craft writing which makes the quest to help them enjoy some sense of success and enjoyment even more pressing. After five years working with these students, I have learned to focus on the micro because for many attaining Level 7 of the NZC is akin to climbing Aoraki-Mt Cook – not impossible but a huge task.
So what can we do to try and inject some positivity into their learning journey? Course design is an obvious starting point. At an OATE PD day at the end of last year, wide ranging discussions were held on the inclusion of Unit Standards into courses (pros and cons), family expectations, school expectations, ministry expectations – lots of people expecting lots from these young people, many of whom continue to find basic punctuation a struggle.
At our school, we inform students and their families that for many, this is a two year course to ensure expectations are realistic. We are open to assessing work against Level Six and Seven of the NZC so students might pick up some Level One credits and we are picky about the extended texts we use in class. We’ve found that texts with an episodic structure rather than epic narratives work best. This year, we will try The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which lends itself to plenty of writing and research activities as well as being an extremely well crafted text in its own right. For many of these students, reading classic literature at school might score a high 10 on the moan factor today but they always feels a sense of pride when they finish reading these texts and, despite their preconceptions, engage readily with classics – which is why we still teach The Outsiders, To Kill A Mockingbird and the Lord of the Flies. They are timeless for a reason.
When it comes to short texts, I focus less on language features and more on content and meaning. We use lots of song lyrics that relate to themes we’re reviewing. Those that have worked well include: Hurt (Johnny Cash), You (Young Sid), Another Brick in the Wall (Pink Floyd) and Goodnight Saigon (Billy Joel). Wherever possible, I use visual texts so alongside Apirana Taylor’s Parihaka poem, we watch the kinetic typography clip. We also look at the earlier version by Jesse McKay alongside Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and then read/watch Tim Finn’s lyrics. Connections anyone?!
In 2015, we offered Vocational Tasks for some achievement standards which helped with what is an enormous barrier to success for many – relevance. I see more scope for using these in the future although found the tasks themselves were extremely sophisticated for these learners – writing a “website” or investigative feature article requires specific skills and for many, the structure of a persuasive essay is safer territory. Using their Career Quest generated findings (see upcoming post), some attempted to write a report on issues in their industry/career field using focus questions as subheadings. This research can also be used for oral presentations. To boost participation in this standard, we now allow students to record presentations to play in class and also give them the opportunity to work in pairs. This is a work in progress.
But above all, my big focus for Level 2 ENL is to help them become engaged readers. Over half of the Achievement Standards we offer rely on students reading independently and reflecting on their reading so that rather lofty goal has become my main focus via a series of small steps.
I keep folders in class of magazine articles, short texts, lyrics and poems organised via subject so that after getting to know students, I can steer them towards material that might engage them. (The bonus is that I have taught some students already so have a head start). I reinstated SSR and was thrilled when they all bought into this although not so thrilled that some opted to leave books behind in class… I took them to the library where the librarian presented a range of suitable texts with a focus on non-fiction linked to personal interest. This year, I plan to take this class to the library once a fortnight. If reading is key, this should be a worthwhile investment.
It is all well and good to say they should be reading themselves, but if they haven’t developed those habits, I’ll do my best to ensure they are reading at school. Who knows, even if the credits aren’t gained, maybe some will read a book or two and maybe, some might decide to keep reading beyond the confines of our classroom. It might not show up in a credit counting table but I’ll consider that a success.