Teaching Writing in Rural Canadian Classrooms
Peterson, Shelley Stagg, Literacy Learning: The Middle Years
Writing is becoming increasingly important in the social and work lives of all citizens. The need for effective writing skills for employment is growing every year, making the ability to write effectively using print and digital technology 'not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many' (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 11). Writing is more than a tool for students to communicate what they have learned; it is also a tool for thinking and learning (Shanahan, 2007), a communication tool for developing relationships with others, and a liberating, creative endeavour that builds students' self-confidence (National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003).
Yet, less and less time is devoted to writing instruction in the school day (National Council of Teachers of English, 2008) and, as an American national study of students' writing in grades 4, 8 and 12 shows, many students 'cannot write well enough to meet the demands they face in higher education and the emerging workplace' ((National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 16). Indeed, Applebee and Langer (2006) assert that 'we are living in an educational era where . writing has evaporated from public concern' (pp. 28-29). As such, writing instruction is worthy of the attention of all educators.
Equally important is research on literacy instruction with teachers who teach writing in rural communities, as Donehower, Hogg and Schell (2007) argue that literacy research is 'skewed toward urban sites and subjects. Many of our theories and research paradigms for literacy presume an urban or semi-urban setting and do not account for the experiences and realities of rural places and peoples' (p. 12). Furthermore, in spite of the strong community connections, strong social relationships and bonds, small school and class size, community to school connectedness, and increased parental involvement, rural students are not doing as well as their urban counterparts in Australia, Canada and the United States (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2010; Cartwright & Allen, 2002; Clarke, Imrich, Surgenor & Wells, 2003). This disparity, in addition to my own experience as a middle-years student and later as a teacher in rural communities, prompted my interest in conducting research with rural teachers.
This research investigates the ways in which 50 grades 4-8 rural teachers in Canada's 10 provinces teach writing within their particular local contexts. The study addresses these research questions:
1. What are teachers' perceptions of the role of writing within the community and how do teachers draw on resources from their local communities to teach writing?
2. How do teachers teach writing and how do these practices support teachers' goals for their students as writers?
A review of relevant aspects of multiliteracies theory, the framework underpinning the research is followed by an analysis of interviews with the 50 teachers. This paper concludes with implications for research and for enhancing writing instruction in rural communities.
Theoretical framework: multiliteracies theory
Multiliteracies theorists view literacy as a set of social practices influenced by the local contexts in which individuals engage in reading and writing and by broader, more global perspectives and values. As Street (1995) explains, multiliteracy theory views literacy as an 'ideological practice, implicated in power relations and embedded in specific cultural meanings and practices' (p. 1). The act of writing involves considering how ideas can be communicated to others using letters, grammatical constructions and forms of various genres, together with a consideration of the audience and purpose for the writing. The words and sentence structures that are used, the tone of the language, and the choice of fonts, forms, images, and layouts on a page or screen are all dependent on the writer's understanding of the social expectations of particular audiences and writers in particular social settings at particular times. These social expectations involve values, attitudes, feelings, together with the social relationships between writers, their audience, and others in the social environments in which they write (Barton & Hamilton, 2000; Cope & Kalantzsis, 2000).
Local expectations are, in turn, influenced by broader societal expectations and values (Barton & Hamilton, 2000; Pahl & Rowsell, 2005). Global expectations about writing include those that are communicated when students and teachers engage with the internet and media, those that are widely considered important in schooling, such as essays and book reports, and those that are mandated by provincial, district/board or schools through curriculum documents or large-scale tests. Across Canada, English Language Arts curricula require teachers to infuse digital technology for learning in their classrooms (for example: British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2006; Nova Scotia Department of Education and Culture, 1998; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2006; Quebec Education, Loisir et Sport, 2001).
Viewing writing as a social practice that is influenced by the values and practices of local and global contexts, and recognising the importance of writing using digital technology, multiliteracies theory provides a useful lens for examining the ways in which teachers teach writing in rural Canadian contexts. This study looks at teachers' writing instruction in terms of how teachers use the resources within their rural communities, and how their perceptions of the role of writing within their local communities influence the goals they establish for their students as writers.
Data collection and analysis
Data sources for this research were transcripts of telephone interviews with 50 randomly selected teachers--20 teachers from Canada's four Atlantic provinces, 20 teachers from the four western provinces, five from Ontario, Canada's most populous province, and five teachers from one of the handful of English school districts in Quebec, a francophone province (hereafter referred to as central provinces). The 2006 PISA definition of rural schools as those in communities with a population of less than 1000 (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 2006) was used in identifying rural schools for this research study.
The 50 teachers, 34 female and 16 male, taught in grades 4-8 classrooms in rural schools across Canada's 10 provinces. The breakdown of grades taught by participating teachers can be found in Table 1.
The interview protocol included 15 base questions concerning various aspects of teachers' contexts and practices for teaching writing (see appendix). Interview questions reflect well-recognised theories and models of writing and writing instruction: cognitive processes approach (Flower & Hayes, 1981); process approach to teaching writing (Graves, 1994); natural process model (Elbow, 1998); explicit teaching of skills and strategies (Graham, 2006); and development of genre knowledge (Donovan, 2001). Interviews, averaging 30 minutes were transcribed.
Data analysis of the interview transcripts involved a constant-comparison analysis (Bogdan & Biklen, 2003) of teachers' responses to each question. The first level of analysis involved identifying the key meaning units of each teacher's responses to the questions about their writing instruction, use of computers, community contexts, and goals for their students. These meaning units were then categorised and numbers of responses within each category were tallied.
Teachers' perceptions of local writing practices and values
All participating teachers described their rural communities as primarily working class, with farming and fishing being the primary occupation of their students' families. Five teachers explained that the majority of their student population was First Nations from nearby reservations. The breakdown of teachers' descriptions of their communities is found in Table 2.
There was a common perception that writing does not play a significant role in the lives of most of their rural communities' members. A teacher from an Atlantic province, one of 16 teachers who expressed this view, explained: 'Our kids come from rural areas, so writing may not be as much of a priority as it is in more urban areas.' A teacher from a central province provided further evidence of this perception: 'I think they are a very supportive, family-oriented community, but I don't think that support necessarily comes in the way of academics as much as it might in a more urban sense.'
Similarly, half of participating teachers voiced a perception that parents and other community members value writing, but do not have high levels of schooling and do not write extensively in their work or home lives. As a result, although they may have good intentions to support their children's writing, parents lack the skills and experience to provide that support. A western teacher expressed this view: 'Parents aren't able to give a lot of support for what we're doing in writing because many are not competent writers themselves.' Participating teachers observed that the types of writing practiced by most of their rural communities' members were not as extensive as those practiced in school. As a teacher from an Atlantic province explained, 'Parents depend on the school to give their children better than basic writing to advance them.' In teachers' views, the writing of members of their rural communities was primarily restricted to functional writing, such as writing grocery lists or invoices, as well as personal communication through letters or email, and the occasional letter to the editor of the local newspaper.
Six teachers perceived that only the community members who had professional employment practiced any writing at home where they would serve as mentors for their children. As a western teacher explained, 'Most of the community wouldn't do very much writing at all. There are a few professionals who of course, do letter writing and that sort of thing as part of their profession, but there's no writing community here. I think they value writing. There are just not too many mentors in this community.'
One Atlantic province teacher felt that the community placed a high value on writing because 'most people find it almost therapeutic. It's important for keeping the community, the heritage of the community strong; especially when our numbers are dwindling so much.'
Teachers draw on community resources to teach writing
In spite of many teachers' views of the limitations of the writing in which community members engaged, 30% of teachers (all were teaching in Atlantic and western provinces) provided examples of community partnerships that had been developed to support students' writing. Eight teachers from Atlantic provinces and two from western provinces invited local authors to present workshops and provide feedback on students' writing. A teacher from an Atlantic province said, 'There's a pretty rich resource here when it comes to authors.'
Seven teachers described community cultural projects involving writing. In a western province, the local First Nations leaders had hired experts to give their native spoken language a written form and have created an official dictionary on a CD for their students to use in their writing. In other western schools, students had written and performed a Christmas play for the community, had contributed to a town history book, a collection of local stories, a collection of local poetry and music, and a cookbook. In another school, students had written letters to local heroes who had made the national news. In a Quebec school, students interviewed community members to provide information for writing a volume on the history of their community. The teacher described how 'people cried from the sentiment of some of the stories' when excerpts from the student-created history book were read at community gatherings and parties. Schools in an Atlantic province and in a western province held 'Meet the Author' night, inviting students' parents, grandparents and other community members to the school to hear students read their writing.
Additionally, eight participating teachers spoke of locally-sponsored writing contests that encouraged students to write about community issues and provided a community-wide audience for their writing. Seven of these eight teachers taught in Atlantic provinces.
Teachers' goals for their students as writers
Many of participating teachers' goals were competency-oriented. Consistent across grades and geographical regions of the country, the goals of 28 participating teachers were for students to write fluently and express themselves clearly to others. Ten teachers were more specific; they wanted their students to able to write a wide range of forms/genres. A grade 7-9 teacher from a central province for example, wanted her students to 'realise that there are different genres and different reasons to write.' Competence in using the mechanics of writing was a goal for eight participating teachers, with five of these teachers being grade 7 or 8 teachers who were particularly concerned with grammar and paragraphing. A grade 8 teacher from an Atlantic province, for example, said that his goals for his students included 'being able to write a good paragraph--the basics--clear, concise writing; organised with proper grammar and punctuation.'
Teachers' goals were also affective. Eighteen participating teachers said that they attempted to foster students' enjoyment of writing and 13 teachers cited developing students' self-confidence as writers as an important goal. A grade 5 teacher from a western province, for example, explained that she hoped her students would 'love to write and be happy with what they write,' and a K-6 teacher from a central province said that she hoped to 'make writing an enjoyable process for students because a lot of children are not that interested in writing. [She] would like to make students feel comfortable writing.' A grade 8-12 western teacher said that her goal was to 'encourage students to express themselves; to write because they have lots to say that they need to get out.' Finally, three teachers hoped to foster their students' creativity through their classroom writing instruction.
Some teachers identified more than one goal. A grade 3-6 western teacher provides an example, as she wanted her students 'to be creative and be able to be independent in their writing; and to use appropriate skills in different kinds of writing genres.'
Teachers' writing instruction
To help students achieve the goals that participating teachers held for them, the most common instructional practice involved providing direct instruction and opportunities to participate in writers' workshop (see Table 3). Direct instruction involved teaching grammar and paragraphing in some of the participating teachers' classrooms. For most teachers, however, direct instruction took the form of providing models of various genres and outlining the characteristics of the genre in the assessment criteria for students' writing. A grade 7-11 teacher from a central province outlines a process typical in many classrooms of participating teachers:
The way I set out my writing class is I would teach them the writing genre. If it were a personal essay, I would teach them the purpose of a personal essay. I would teach them the structure of a personal essay. We would go through the tone that the writer uses, the type of language you would expect to find in a personal essay, the content. And then I would give them a model and we would read that together and then we would pick out things. They would be asked to identify the types of language, the structure, the tone, the purpose, etc. Then they could brainstorm ideas of their own, like personal experiences on certain topics, supposing its changes in their life or something like that. They would brainstorm ideas and then we could discuss those and then we would go into the writing.
The writers' workshop approach (Graves, 1994), which many teachers identified as their approach to teaching writing, takes an approach that gives students greater choice in their writing, as students determine topics, purposes and audiences for their writing. They write multiple drafts, talking with peers and their teacher to get feedback on their writing before writing a final copy that is shared with the intended audience.
Whether participating teachers used a writers' workshop approach or not, they followed one of the important tenets of this approach: providing time for students to talk to each other about their ideas and about the effectiveness of their writing. Peer editing was the most common form of peer interaction during writing classes.
A few teachers used commercial programs and/or provincial exemplars of the writing standards within their provinces to teach writing. They explained that the programs were not the core of their instruction. These programs often provided the examples that teachers used in their mini-lessons. A teacher from an Atlantic province explained this process as she described how she used one of the programs, Write Traits(Spandel, 2005):
The program goes through samples of what good writing is and what bad writing is, and the students are given photocopies and sample writing and they are to mark it on a scale of 1 to 5 what they think it is. And then we try to get the students to follow the range of 3, which would be considered average and where they should fall, no matter what piece of writing they're doing.
For the most part, students in participating teachers' classrooms used computers to retype compositions that had initially been handwritten. Teachers' rationales for this practice ranged from concerns about students' spelling to lack of access to computers to the belief that being able to write by hand brought students closer to their writing. Some teachers who said that they had ready access to a computer lab still did not provide time for students to compose on computers because, as a fourth-grade teacher from a western province explained, 'I don't want them to lose the skill of writing with a paper and pencil or to not even develop it.'
Very few teachers provided opportunities for students to compose all drafts on computers and even fewer incorporated the development of websites and weblogs into their writing instruction. A number of teachers did invite students to create PowerPoint presentations, however.
Teachers' practices were consistent across grade levels and across the country, with the exception of relatively greater use of explicit instruction in the central provinces (in the form of providing models of genre characteristics and teaching writing conventions) and a corresponding lower use of writers' workshop than in the Atlantic and western provinces.
Conclusions and implications
Teachers participating in this study made a distinction between school writing and writing within the community. They also made a distinction between urban and rural writing. They characterised school and urban writing as involving a broader range of forms and purposes than rural writing. Some teachers believed that parents of their students, whom they identified as working primarily in primary industry-oriented occupations and being supportive of their children's writing, were often not readily able to help their children with their writing because they had not mastered the writing conventions, themselves.
These views of rural community members' writing as being inadequate or restricted are consistent with what Donehower, Hogg and Schell (2007) have identified as broader societal stereotypes. Further research is needed to examine what information and experiences underlie teachers' perspectives that align so closely with these troubling stereotypes, to examine the ways in which these stereotypes influence rural teachers' interactions with and expectations for their students, as well as the ways that teachers communicate with rural parents about students' writing, and make decisions about assigning homework related to writing.
Classroom activities to develop an awareness of the myriad ways in which rural community members use writing in their everyday lives could include students interviewing family members and other community members; keeping logs of all the instances of writing that they observe. In addition, stereotypical perspectives may be disrupted when teachers involve their students in community collections of stories and poetry and gain greater first-hand experience with the writing of community members. In addition, teachers who wish to support parents may conduct workshops to provide suggestions for working at home with their children on their writing.
Almost one-third of participating teachers did, however, describe ways in which they brought together school and community writing through, among other activities, writing contests, contributing to community collections, and holding an Authors' Night for students to read their writing to a gathering of community members. These teachers felt that the community partnerships helped them to achieve their affective goals of students' enjoyment, increased motivation and self-confidence as writers. The Authors' Night event is particularly important because it provides an authentic audience for students' writing beyond that of the teacher who evaluates the writing for report card grades. Research supports practices that make classroom activities relevant to children's lives and that place a value on the activities in students' communities and homes (Hidi & Boscolo, 2006), together with those that provide real-life audiences for student writing (Wood Ray, 2001). Such practices lead to positive identities as writers and ultimately to improved performance.
Teachers provided opportunities for students to compose multiple drafts of stories, essays, poetry and other types of writing (practices consistent with a process writing approach) was in evidence in all participating teachers' classrooms. They made no mention of fill-in-the-blank exercises, but provided many examples of student interaction at all stages of the writing process. Teacher-directed instruction, in the form of teacher modeling using examples of various genres and the standard use of spelling, punctuation and grammar, was a common practice in teachers' classrooms. Recognised as an important element of a process approach to writing instruction (Pritchard & Honeycutt, 2006), this practice addresses teachers' competency-oriented goals for their students as writers.
In summary, within the limitations of the small sample and the use of interview data without triangulation using observations and other data sources, this research study contributes encouraging information about writing instruction in rural Canadian schools. Many research-supported practices are employed and teachers are using computers to some degree. Although dismaying understandings about rural writing colour many teachers' perspectives of the support and mentoring that their students receive at home and in the community, there are also many examples of school-community partnerships involving writing. In an era where writing is considered to be the 'neglected R', the implications for classroom instruction and further research arising from this study are important to bring the needed attention to improving students' development as writers in rural schools.
Appendix A: Interview Questions
1. What are your goals for your students as writers?
2. How much time do you schedule for formal writing instruction?
3. What happens in writing class in a typical week in your classroom?
4. What resources do you use when you teach writing? What commercial programs are available in your school? school district? How many of these resources have you used? Which were most useful and why?
5. How much time do your students spend writing in a typical day?
6. What kinds of writing do you ask students to do in language arts? in other subjects?
7. Talk about the community surrounding your school. What kinds of writing do you feel that members of the community engage in? What value do they attach to writing, in your view?
8. What kinds of support do parents of your students give to their children in their writing?
9. What do you feel are your students' most pressing needs in becoming successful writers?
10. Do you structure your writing classes so students talk to each other? How much talking do students do in your writing classes?
11. Do you use multimedia and computers in teaching writing? If so, how? Do students use computers and multimedia comfortably when they complete writing projects at home? Talk about some examples of ways they use computers and multimedia.
12. What kinds of writing do your students do outside of school that you know of? Do you incorporate these types of writing in your classroom writing expectations and instruction?
13. What genres/forms do you find students are most competent writing? Which ones do you usually teach? How do you teach them?
14. How do you give feedback to your students on their writing? How important do you feel this feedback is in helping students with their writing?
15. Do students give feedback to each other on their writing? How important do you feel this feedback is in helping students with their writing?
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Table 1: Grades taught by participating teachers Gr. Gr. Gr. Gr Gr. Gr. Gr. Gr. Gr. Gr. 4 5 6 7 8 3-4 4-5 5-6 6-7 7-8 Atlantic 0 0 1 2 7 3 1 2 1 2 Provinces Central 1 0 2 0 1 1 0 0 0 3 Provinces Western 2 2 4 1 1 1 2 2 0 3 Provinces Gr. Gr. Gr. K-6 3-6 8-12 Atlantic 0 0 0 Provinces Central 1 1 0 Provinces Western 1 1 1 Provinces Table 2: Teachers' descriptions of their communities Farming Fishing First Mining/ Tourism Forestry Nations Oil Atlantic 7 12 4 0 0 1 Provinces Central 1 2 1 0 3 1 Provinces Western 11 1 0 5 1 1 Provinces High Industry Military Unemployment Atlantic 0 0 1 Provinces Central 1 2 0 Provinces Western 4 0 0 Provinces Please note: Numbers do not add up to 50, the total sample for the study, because some teachers described their communities in multiple ways. Table 3: Teachers' writing instructional practices Provides Provides Uses writers' opportunities for models and workshop students to talk and characteristics practices give feedback on of genres in their writing mini-lessons Atlantic 20 9 8 Provinces Central 10 8 2 Provinces Western 20 7 13 Provinces Teaches Uses grammar and commercial paragraphing programs explicitly Atlantic 5 3 Provinces Central 4 4 Provinces Western 2 3 Provinces Please note: Numbers do not add up to 50, the total sample for the study, because some teachers described their writing instruction in multiple ways.…
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Publication information: Article title: Teaching Writing in Rural Canadian Classrooms. Contributors: Peterson, Shelley Stagg - Author. Journal title: Literacy Learning: The Middle Years. Volume: 19. Issue: 1 Publication date: February 2011. Page number: 39+. © 2009 Australian Literacy Educators' Association. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.