When asked to look back at my own ELA learning, my second semester grade nine English class was one of the most refreshing, engaging and authentic contexts for learning in all of my K-12 experiences. In a year characterized by teen-angst my teacher supported us by establishing a positive atmosphere of respect and by recognizing us as responsible human beings. He allowed us to the freedom to manage our own time by handing our projects in at midnight the day they were due by giving long due dates. Recently, in my EDCI 302 class, it was discussed how most students never look at teacher’s comments but just look at their grade. My teacher would tell us our grade but would not give us our grade until we did all the corrections to our assignments. But, he gave us the responsibility to manage finishing our corrections ourselves, as this was due at the end of term. This type of support was realized in class discussions because we were learning how to become more responsible for our words and actions. We were able to delve deeper into controversial topics more fully than I had experienced in the previous semester with another teacher.
The text he chose for the term was John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night. My first impression after looking at the cover was that it was about adults but would be simplified for school-aged readers. I honestly was not expecting to enjoy the novel because it seemed out of date yet I finished reading it the day we were assigned it. We had read books about racism such as The Cay and To Kill a Mockingbird in previous grades but these novels are based on the child’s experience. It was refreshing to be given the responsibility to read and write about adult themes. During the winter term, we wrote our first long essay. Again, I was engaged by this because it felt authentic and was not the novel study I had been doing since Elementary school. My essay was on all the connotations of the title in the book and movie. It was probably one of the best essays I have written, one of the only essays that I can honestly say I consciously used the 5-writing steps for and the only one I finished without a late night. I got a perfect mark and it was displayed on the wall.
As a whole, the students were fairly strong English learners but it was mixed between people who had written essays before and those who had written page long reports. To support us in this, we were given time to pre-write and draft in class. We were expected to write our essays at home but were given a class to peer-conference or teacher conference if we needed it. All drafts and revisions were handed in as a computer printed, title paged, numbered and referenced essay. His expectations were clear. We were given both a page long assignment sheet with clear guidelines, topic choices plus a blank version of the sheet he would use to assess us. We were also allowed to monitor our own progress by marking our work. We used the same sheet he used to mark us and if we gave ourselves within three points (out of thirty) than he gave us, we got our mark.
The very first day of class our teacher gave us all a quick get to know you survey under the pretense that a number of students had been switched into his class and were new to him. It was quickly forgotten. He had used this survey to make a seating plan for the class that reflected themes from the novel. For over a month he had arranged our seats in way that all the blue eyed students faced him at the front, the rest of us either had to turn sideways or all the way around in our seats to listen to him at the board. He was more accommodating, friendly and developed a rapport with those with blue eyes. He had been short when responding to questions from the rest of us, would not say hello to us in the hallway and made sure we were always slightly uncomfortable as we had to turn completely in our seats and write in our laps if we were taking notes. According to Vygotsky, “learning occurs through socially meaningful interactions (Tomkins et all, 2011,8).” This hands-on activity allowed us to learn about racism through social experience and the following discussion.
This teaching approach, centered on the novel In the Heat of the Night, was resource based. He used Piaget’s constructivist learning theory when he built on what we already knew about writing paragraphs and taking that further to develop a full essay. He built a solid foundation for essay writing skills in every student by giving us class time to practice all five stages of the writing cycle. The final class discussion was largely student led. This type of hands-on experience is what Vygotsky described in his social-lingual theory when learning occurs through social interactions. Recognizing us as responsible students with a greater sense of self worth and confidence facilitated provocative classroom discussions. He supported our essay writing by giving us clear expectations, class time to develop our ideas, having an open door policy to answer questions and by giving class time for peer and teacher conferencing.