SECTION 4: STRATEGIC INTENTIONS FOR LITERACY
4.5 CREATING OUTWARD-LOOKING COMMUNITIES
Promoting the participation of parents, the collaboration of youth service providers and the involvement of the wider community through links and partnerships in order to improve student learning outcomes.
The Middle Years: A Guide for Strategic Action in Years 5–9 (DEET, Victoria 1999)
Creating outward-looking communities for effective literacy education in the middle years involves cultivating effective and appropriate communications, relationships and partnerships that broaden learning opportunities and experiences, and that improve literacy and learning outcomes for students. An important aspect of this is connecting school literacy and learning to real life social, community and global contexts and purposes, and building on the community and popular culture literacies that students bring to learning. Schools also need to pursue productive partnerships that enrich the learning resources and the repertoire of learning contexts and experiences within school communities. The notion of partnerships is interpreted broadly to include those established with parents/caregivers, associate primary and secondary schools, tertiary providers, community agencies organisations and businesses, and various social and cultural groups and communities.
That, with support from education systems or sectors, schools create outward-looking learning communities that promote effective middle years literacy education through:
•= communicating about literacy education between home and school
•= valuing and building on literacy practices outside school
•= connecting school literacy and learning to the wider community
•= pursuing productive partnerships to enrich literacy and learning.
4.5.1 Communicating about literacy education between home and school.
Communicating about literacy education between home and school is of vital importance in valuing the contribution of families/caregivers in supporting and extending the literacy and learning development of students in the middle years. This involves keeping parents informed in ways that are culturally inclusive and appropriate, as well as in language that is accessible. It also means demystifying classroom and curriculum processes for parents/caregivers and recognising ways that they actively contribute to these processes.
Creating informal opportunities for dialogue about students’ learning, both between teachers and parents and between groups of parents, is another way of sharing perceptions and expectations, and provides teachers with an opportunity to mediate where there may be misconceptions about school expectations.
Middle years professional learning teams or clusters need to work collaboratively in exploring appropriate ways of involving parents/caregivers and communities in supporting students’ literacy development. At the most fundamental level, this means keeping parents informed of literacy initiatives in schools and teacher professional development or action research projects, especially where these are promoting continuity of literacy education for students in Years 5-9. Expectations of students relating to reading, writing and other aspects of literacy need to be made clear to parents. Opportunities for parents to participate in sessions out of school hours demonstrating ways they can support students’ progress are beneficial, where sufficient numbers of parents can attend.
Literacy assessment information needs to be incorporated into curriculum assessment and reporting procedures and communicated to students and parents/caregivers in ways that are
accessible. This is more effective where it is supported with information about how parents/caregivers can support students’ literacy development outside the school.
Communication and partnership between home and school is strengthened where parents/caregivers are also kept informed about homework expectations and where homework tasks are not an add-on but are integrally related to meaningful and authentic literacy and learning processes.
Research Snapshot #4.5.1
Many of the case study schools were concerned to develop stronger communication links and partnerships between home and school. School D was especially active in involving parents and families in events within the school community that profiled the literacy and learning activities in which students had been involved.
One annual event involves students researching a notable person of their choice and conducting a research project culminating in a presentation at what is known in the school community as the ‘Night of the Notables’. As it is a single-sex school for boys, this school also runs a program for fathers and sons which explores aspects of identity, relationships, self-concept, stereotypes and role models.
School B was preparing to change their reporting system to parents/caregivers by including a mid-year skills-based report. The school intends to use the DART as a basis for communicating information to parents in accessible language.
4.5.2 Valuing and building on literacy practices outside school.
Valuing and building on the literacies students bring to learning, including literacy practices students engage in beyond the school context, is an important foundation for new literacy and learning. Students are engaged in a range of contexts outside school, which are characterised by different literacy practices including family and community literacies, workplace literacies, technology and popular culture literacies, commercial and consumerist literacies, religious and liturgical literacies, and many more. Students’ literacy competencies outside the school environment are not always reflected within the classroom, or within the parameters of what traditionally constitutes ‘school’ literacy. Literacies associated with technology and popular culture are obvious starting points for teachers and students.
Teachers of students in the middle years need to find ways to recruit these literacy capabilities, and to value and build on them in the classroom.
Research into home, school and community partnerships in literacy (Cairney et al. 1995) has recommended that there be fuller investigation family literacy initiatives to support the diversity of parent needs and literacy practices, and addressing the mismatch between home and school literacy practices. A starting point for schools is to investigate students’ literacy practices and develop rich literacy and learning tasks that both build on these, while extending new knowledge and capabilities. An important aspect of this is supporting students in developing critical literacies through including in school curriculum content community and popular culture texts.
Research Snapshot #4.5.2
Much of the research into literacy and adolescent learners emphasises the importance of addressing the gap between school and out-of-school literacies. While the case study schools did not address this issue overtly in their research plans, they were nevertheless aware of the divide between ‘school’ and ‘beyond school’’ literacy practices.
Case study schools that included a focus on literacy and technology in their research, such as School A, School B, School I and School G, found that using technology engaged students interest and motivation and met many of the principles of effective middle years teaching pedagogy, including authentic purposes, autonomous learning, choice, and ownership. Several schools found that boys who were reluctant to read and write in more ‘school’ like ways were more likely to become involved in literacy activities when the purpose and audience was more authentic and involved the use of technology.
Several of the case study schools with significant numbers of ESL students, particularly new and recent arrivals including those with refugee status, raised the issue that students were often engaged in sophisticated negotiations with government and community agencies on behalf of their families or communities yet struggling at school.
4.5.3 Connecting school literacy and learning to the wider community.
Connecting school literacy and learning to the wider community, both in the local and global sense, is vital for students in the middle years. This involves expanding the boundaries of the classroom and school learning environment through connecting learning to meaningful and authentic contexts and purposes in the world outside school. This increases both the legitimacy and the authenticity of school literacy and learning, and promotes the development of rich learning tasks.
Research Snapshot # 4.5.3
In two case study schools the research involved connecting students’ learning to individuals and groups beyond school, and both involved the use of learning technologies, though for different purposes.
The major focus of the research at School F was connecting literacy and learning to valid and authentic learning tasks, particularly where these involved students communicating with individuals, groups or organisations in the wider community. Students were encouraged to take responsibility for these interactions as part of developing a broad range of social skills and literacy capabilities.
School A designed an integrated curriculum unit exploring local grasslands for middle years students, which combined literacy and learning outcomes in English, SOSE, Science, Technology and Mathematics key learning areas. The major curriculum and assessment task involved in this cross-curricular unit was designing a website. This task built on students’ existing technology and literacy skills, and forged strong connections between school literacies and the literacies involved in environmental science and natural history.
School B connected students in year 7 and 8, through the use of email, the internet and a dedicated website, to tertiary students for ongoing communication and conferencing over their writing. Writing for an audience outside the school community required students to be more explicit and more confident in their writing, while the technology engaged their interest. One of the tasks students developed was a student magazine for which they selected the topic, design and content. This drew on their knowledge and experience of texts both from information technology and popular culture. Having an authentic purpose and
audience for their writing naturally raised the level of effort students invested, which led to enhanced literacy development and outcomes.
Through their focus on presenting to a public audience comprising school leaders, parents and members of the wider school community, students in School D were not only engaged in learning with authentic purposes but were connecting literacy and learning outcomes to wider historical and cultural contexts.
4.5.4 Pursuing productive partnerships to enrich literacy and learning.
Pursuing productive partnerships to enrich literacy and learning extends the learning opportunities available to students in the middle years. Productive partnerships can be interpreted as those schools form with parents/caregivers and families, but also partnerships schools form with individuals, organisations and agencies in the wider community. This involves developing projects (often described as rich tasks) that encourage students to utilise off-campus learning as well as community resources, which promotes engagement in authentic learning tasks and expands the social and cultural contexts for learning.
Involvement in community projects also broadens the range of adult role models with whom students come into contact, particularly where projects involve sustained contact and ongoing links.
Research Snapshot #4.5.4
While all case study schools recognised the importance of fostering positive and productive partnerships in literacy, many secondary schools found it more challenging than the primary schools to pursue initiatives inthis area. Factors such as size of school, number and location of campuses, school and curriculum organisation, roles and responsibilities and allocated time allowances were all seen as to some extent prohibitive. This highlighted the need for schools to be fairly selective and pragmatic in pursuing curriculum projects and partnerships of most relevance and value to the school community, rather than attempting to succeed in a variety of different initiatives which may lack sustained support and co-ordination. Where this appeared to be most successful in case study schools, partnerships were focused, short-term and had concrete aims and objectives, which could be clearly monitored and evaluated.
School B established a virtual technologised classroom that connected Year 7 and 8 students with trainee teachers in a tertiary institution, in order to enhance students’ literacy development. This involved writing to an unseen and unknown audience and conferencing over the writing.
School A designed an integrated curriculum unit exploring local grasslands for Year 7 which involved students working with the Victorian Institute of Technology and the Wurundjeri people indigenous to the area. Another integrated unit at Year 9 involved designing a website. Both projects combined literacy and learning outcomes in English, SOSE, Science, Technology and Mathematics key learning areas. The major curriculum and assessment task involved in this cross-curricular unit was designing a website. This task built on students’ existing technology and literacy skills, and forged strong connections between school literacies and the literacies involved in environmental science and natural history
School E entered a productive partnership in organising a teacher exchange with its associate secondary school, School K. This involved the primary and secondary teachers swapping roles for one term to extend their own professional experience, and to extend the experiences of students also.
School L was partly selected for the research on the basis of a ten year history of school professional development activity in literacy education, with a particular focus on writing in the key learning areas. The
research focus in this school was a continuation of work begun in the Writing and Reading in Teaching English (WRITE) project organised by the Catholic Education Office, Melbourne. This project involved pairing an English key learning area teacher with at least one teacher from another key learning area to enhance the teaching and assessment of student writing in different curriculum areas. More recently, the WRITE project has focused on promoting continuity of curriculum literacies in the middle years, particularly in the Year 6 to 7 transition, through the pairing or grouping of teachers across associate primary and secondary schools. Where it is given adequate support and resourcing by education systems and schools, this project represents an excellent model for active and productive partnership between associate schools focusing on improving literacy and learning outcomes.