Teacher Facilitated, Student Constructed Learning

Walkabout by James Marshall Vance is a captivating story about two American children who become stranded in the Australian Outback and then are rescued by an Aboriginal boy. Inevitably, their cultures, beliefs and values clash which ultimately brings tragic consequences for the Aboriginal boy. I taught this novel study unit in a grade 9 applied English class. The theme of survival in the novel was a good entry point into the content and once students became more comfortable with the narrative, we began to explore the underlying topics of gender, tolerance and respect for other world views and I encouraged students to make connections from those issues, as presented in the novel, to their own lives. I determined that deeper exploration of the novel would require extensive scaffolding based on diagnostic observations and data and also my understanding of where the students were. This was a unique group of students who could be reluctant at times to engage in reading and writing.
I believe that success for every student can be achieved. By applying the principals of cognitive and socio-cultural theories in our lesson plans, we can build on student’s previous knowledge and experience to teach them strategies for self-regulation and bring them together in an inclusive environment to foster a community of learners. The unit plan that I designed for this applied grade 9 English class incorporates many of the elements of both theories to enhance knowledge retention, encourage confidence and self-efficacy and offer opportunities for students to claim ownership of their education. In order to ensure success for my students, I incorporated strategies to enhance the learning of the male students. I employed a whole language learning model and introduced concepts of critical thinking. My goal was to give my students the tools they needed for success and to provide students with the opportunity to construct their own knowledge and share that knowledge with each other in a dynamic classroom environment, which plays a key role in the strengthening of a student’s personal investment in education.
This class had far more boys than girls in it, which presented some challenges as many students were reluctant readers and some had exceptionalities that I needed to accommodate. This topic had been addressed in length in some of our course readings such as “The Problem of Boy’s Literacy Underachievement: Raising Some Questions” by Anne Watson, Michael Kehler, and Wayne Martino. The theme of survival in Walkabout helped to “reclaim schooling as a masculine domain” and the very concept of masculine and feminine is examined within the novel as well, bringing the very issue of what is masculine and feminine into our class discussions (Watson, Kehler & Martino, p. 356) Walkabout was a good choice for this class. The main characters were representative of the students in the class by way of gender and age and the theme of the novel intrigued the students both male and female.
Students in this class varied greatly in their strengths and areas of need and there were many different learning styles present within the classroom making it necessary to be creative and vary teaching methods and techniques in order to reach every student. It was important to offer choices and capitalize on the peer relationships in the group which was why taking a whole language learning approach was a sound strategy for engaging these learners. The literature circles allowed students to uncover the material and construct meaning from each other, and from the connections they made to other texts and the world around them. Students also switched roles within the groups allowing them to try on different hats and assume various responsibilities that would enhance their skills. Literature circles also employ a multiple intelligence perspective which many students found to be very validating.
I used a number of activities and instructional methods in the class such as think, pair, share, jigsaws, four corners, graphic organizers, and foldables to keep students engaged but also to make the material more accessible for students. These activities provided many opportunities for students to unpack the deeper issues in the novel and develop their own opinions in a safe environment, paving the way for a critical examination of their own community values and the environment in which they live. Another way in which I engage students is through the use of various types of texts throughout the unit. I acknowledge the importance of incorporating multi-literacies in the classroom as outlined in “Mulitliteracies Meets Methods: The Case for Digital Writing in English Education” and in many ways, using various texts such as video, podcasts, blogs and interactive websites provides an entry point for many students with exceptionalities. For example, the video tutorial for the foldable project would be posted on the class blog for access outside of school. This would accommodate students with ADHD, hearing or sight impairments, students with anxiety or students with a learning disability. The comic strip exercise using http://www.bitstripsforschools.com/ allows students with language output issues but it also gives students who don’t feel confident about their drawing skills another way to demonstrate their learning. Creating short comic strips is another way to incorporate graphic novels into the learning environment as argued in “Graphic Novels in the Classroom” by Gene Yang.
I designed this unit to encompass all of the strands as outlined in the Ontario Ministry of Education Curriculum. The lessons contain elements of the overall expectations for Oral Communication, Reading and Literature Studies, Writing and some of the Media Studies components. The unit was preceded by an essay writing unit and followed by a media studies unit.  Throughout the unit, students were also working on their Independent Study Project which consisted of reading a book of their choice and completing four projects which is a reason why we had sustained silent reading every day. Each class began with a Coke or Pepsi question which served as a transition exercise to welcome the students into the learning environment and it was a part of a solid routine which made the students comfortable. I would sometimes make up the question myself if it served a purpose for issues like class management (electronics in class or no electronics) but mostly the students made up the questions and posted them on the parking lot board when they came up with new ones.

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