Writing: It’s More Than Just Marks on a Page

Note from Jane: Thanks so much to Kayla McAllister, teacher extraordinaire, for writing this wonderful blog post focusing on one of her students.

When I was in Year 7, I was awarded a prize in a book writing competition run by my school’s local council. The pride I felt on that night as the Mayor shook my hand in front of the audience in the Town Hall felt like it would burst out of my chest. It was more than just ‘good writing’, I had achieved something. My ideas, my hard work, my humour, my personality, had been recognised as having value. I was important.

Receiving my writing prize in Year 7

17 years later, I was a tearful teacher applauding in the audience of the Town Hall, watching as one of my students was awarded the same prize. Hers, an even greater achievement than my own because of the barriers to learning placed in front of her by chance. This is her story, Nina’s story.

Our Literacy Program

My classroom is one of two making up the Disability Unit, or Learning Centre as we call it, at Kidman Park Primary School, a school of approximately 400 students located in Western Adelaide. The Learning Centre caters to students with Severe Multiple Disabilities, and is unique in South Australia in that we provide a full-time Conductive Education program combined with Australian Curriculum and a focus on communication. My class is a diverse group of 8 upper primary students, all of whom have Complex Communication Needs and use Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD) books across a variety of access methods. Each child’s developmental and support needs are complex and unique, and we do our very best to target each one of them as the individual learners they are.

As a team, we strive to keep up to date with best practice, and I personally am a strong believer in the statement made by writer and activist Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better, and then when you know better, do better.” At the beginning of 2017 we attended a 1 day introductory Comprehensive Literacy course run by Jane, and were simultaneously dismayed to find that the way we had been doing things was no longer considered best practice, and invigorated to change our teaching. Because once you know better, you do better. We immediately engaged Jane as a consultant to support us to develop a new literacy program, and remain passionate about its implementation.

So what does literacy look like in my class today? We have books of the week, predictable charts, student selected reading, letters of the week, dedicated writing lessons, dedicated shared reading lessons, and this year we began our first comprehension group and word wall lessons after 2 students in my class moved to a conventional literacy level. I also developed small literacy groups which students rotate though each week, to provide an even more tailored approach to our working with words block. Due to the unique nature of our site, providing Conductive Education all day every day, we have found that in order to cover all aspects of the Four Blocks program we needed to stretch it out to a fortnightly program, rather than weekly. While it does double the time taken to deliver the same amount of content, it means that content is not rushed or skipped, and we can provide a deep and meaningful literacy curriculum, which is what it’s all about.

Nina’s Story

Nina is an 11 year old student who has been in my class for almost 3 years. She is a funny person with a great sense of humour, headstrong, brave, and a great lover of picture books. When we first began using Comprehensive Literacy instruction, Nina was at Level 1 of the Developmental Writing Scale; she is now at Level 4. When we first introduced writing with the alphabet flip chart, there was a lot of confusion and frustration on Nina’s part. Why were we putting this page with squiggles in front of her all the time? Why did we keep saying these sounds over and over? What was she supposed to do with it? Sometimes Nina turned her back to us, sometimes she ripped up the paper we had in front of her, sometimes there were tears. But we kept going, and we modelled, modelled, modelled. Through modelling, it became clearer what you were supposed to do with this page with squiggles on it. Nina began selecting letters from the front page. She began to have fun with it, selecting ‘a’ over and over again and laughing, until her writing was a big long line of ‘a’s. When we read it back to her she squealed with delight, she had made something, and it was funny. We all laughed. There was pleasure in this writing thing; you could use it to connect with people.

Through all of our Comprehensive Literacy work, Nina began to see that writing has meaning, and that writing can be used to share your ideas with others. Nina began enjoying writing as much as she enjoys reading, something I hadn’t initially thought possible! She was always the most excited student when I announced that it was writing time, the first to start work, and the last to finish. She greatly enjoyed writing about photos of herself and her family, but what she enjoyed most was writing letters. Using the alphabet flip chart was slow, but she was never discouraged by this, often working solidly for the full 45 minute writing block. She had big ideas and often didn’t complete her writing by the time the lesson was over, so her project would carry over to the next lesson. Despite this she never lost interest, and would excitedly pick up where she left off. Nina wrote many letters to her family, telling them her feelings, suggesting ideas of things they could do, and telling them her dream of having a birthday party and inviting her classmates. Nina’s parents followed through on the ideas she expressed in her letters, and Nina learned that writing has value, her ideas have value, she is important.

Becoming an Author

Moved by Nina’s letters, her parents Afroditi and Stan shared them with Tamra Bogle, Nina’s Occupational Therapist. Tamra was working with Nina to improve her physical skills to directly access her PODD, and saw the opportunity to combine Nina’s love of writing, love of books, and OT goals. Together they began to write parodies of classic picture books, with Nina choosing the subject and content, and Tamra supporting her communication access and acting as scribe.

Nina loves to use her PODD with Compass to communicate her imaginative and humorous stories. We initially started this process by reading stories together, getting Nina to be engaged for long enough periods and to independently turn the pages. Throughout the stories, key words were found and modelled from Nina’s Compass PODD to familiarise her with her pages. New words were always added to her PODD to increase her vocabulary. At first her PODD was just modelled, and then Nina started to reach for her iPad and tap the screen. Nina still finds it difficult to isolate her fingers, so we often work to access it together, with Nina directing me. And this is how our stories began! Nina’s stories often had the same rhythm or storyline to the book that was just read, but we would change the key points in the story to what Nina wanted. So instead of the ‘house’, Nina would want the ‘beach’, or instead of ‘Grandma’, Nina would want to have her friend Tessa in her story. Often her stories developed with questions from myself, such as “What happened next?” or “What did Mum do in the kitchen?”– Tamra Bogle, OT

Nina began bringing her books to school to share with the class, and her friends are always surprised and delighted when one of them makes an appearance! Regardless of which story is being parodied, the main character is invariably Nina, which always makes us laugh. Nina is always so excited when she has a new book to share, and her pride in her work and sense of achievement is clear.

The Award

Last year, my class had entered a book in an annual competition run by the local council, the Charles Sturt Mayoral Make-A-Book Challenge. This year however, we were busy on other projects when the time rolled around, but I passed the flyer along to Nina’s family and suggested that Nina might like to enter one of the books she had written at home. Nina agreed that she would like to participate in the competition, and the book she chose to enter was Who Tipped the Bike?, a parody of Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen (and guess who it was that tipped the bike??).

Several weeks later we received an email; out of over 400 entries, Nina’s book had been selected as one of the winners. Not long after, we all found ourselves sitting in the Town Hall, while Nina’s name was called and she went up to receive her prize and have her photograph taken with the Mayor. There I was, crying, heart bursting with pride, and experiencing the surrealness of coming full circle from being that girl standing in that room 17 years ago. Then there was the after party in the public library, and the exciting discovery that one of Nina’s prizes was a gift voucher for a book shop! It couldn’t have been a more perfect event for her!

Nina receiving her prize from the Mayor

It was such a proud moment for me, watching Nina get an award for one of her many stories, ‘Who Tipped The Bike?’ It was a really special moment to see Nina be rewarded for something she has worked hard on and that she is passionate about. Who knows, we might have a young, future, famous author in our midst! – Tamra Bogle, OT

After the award ceremony, Nina gifted the school a copy of her book. We had a book signing, and Who Tipped the Bike? is now a class favourite.

                                                                                    Nina signing the school’s copy of Who Tipped the Bike?

So what does Nina think about all this? I told her that I was writing this blog post and asked if she would like to contribute, she excitedly agreed.

I think that it was great going to the library to get my award. When Kayla says it’s time for writing lesson, I feel surprised. Then when I’m writing with my flip chart I feel happy. I might write my next book about the dentist. Writing books is the best! – Nina (dictated using PODD)

The Value of Writing

Teaching writing to students with Severe Multiple Disabilities and Complex Communication Needs is hard. It’s slow, it’s complicated, sometimes it’s frustrating, sometimes you feel like you’re not ‘getting anywhere’. Some people may wonder if it’s worth it, they may wonder if we would be better off focusing on ‘life skills’, they may wonder if we are wasting our time.

Teaching writing is valuable, through writing we learn so much.

From Nina reading and writing stories during our Occupational Therapy sessions, I found that Nina is more confident and familiar with using her PODD. These skills will hopefully be transferred to other functional uses, such as communicating where she would like to go or what she wants to eat. – Tamra Bogle, OT

But it’s more than that, it’s more than teaching transferrable skills, it’s teaching the intrinsic value of ourselves. It’s sharing our internal world with others, it’s affecting change in the wider world. It’s more than just marks on a page, it’s a person’s self worth, their self-esteem, self-confidence, pride, achievement, and sense of themselves as a member of humanity. It’s what I felt that night when my writing was acknowledged, that I have value, that I am important.

What’s the worst that can happen if we teach writing in our classrooms? Maybe our students won’t learn to spell during their time at school, maybe they won’t learn to spell during their lifetime, but they still benefitted from all those lessons they learned along the way. They still learned that they have a voice, that they matter, that they can achieve, that they are important. What would Nina’s life have been like if we all said “She can’t”?

Nina with her supporters. Clockwise from centre: Nina; Dad Stan; brother Trent; Learning Centre Coordinator Barbara Bayly; Occupational Therapist Tamra Bogle; Class Teacher Kayla McAllister; Mum Afroditi

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Comments (5)

  1. Reply

    Wonderful! Congratulations to Nina and all her marvellous team, and to Jane.
    Our gang are fixated on dinosaurs. Must suggest book parodies.
    Could Nina share ‘Who Tipped the Bike?’ on line?
    We love ‘Who Tipped the Boat?’
    Keep it up. Generating language is an essential life skill!


  2. Pingback: Who Tipped the Bike? | Jane Farrall Consulting

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