Sharing the written word

Think about the last time you finished a real page-turner. What did you do?

If you're anything like me, you turned to the first person you could find to discuss the story, the characters, and the many twists and turns.

Engaging in discussion about the written word was something that Catherine Oehlman believed would be of benefit to her extension literacy students at St George Christian School in Sydney. Seeking to ‘meet a need', the educator began an online shared reading space this year, where she and her extension literacy students in Years 3 to 5 post reviews, recommendations and engage in in-depth discussions surrounding their favourite (or least favourite) titles.

The specialist teacher says her purpose for starting the space was to validate the deeper and wider reading choices of the students.

‘[I also wanted] to provide a space appropriate for sharing opinions,' she tells Teacher. ‘I don't expect every student to like every book … I do expect, however, that my students can justify their opinion about a text.

‘I remind students that their opinion is what matters most. Anyone can identify the author and title of the book, and summarising a storyline is a useful skill, but only they can offer their own unique take on the text. As they learn about each others' preferences for literature, they are also able to make increasingly personal recommendations.'

Oehlman believes this process of critical reflection is an important part of responding to literature, which is part of the Literature strand of the Australian Curriculum: English.

‘As my Year 3 students develop their personal preferences for literature, my Year 4s are learning to share their literary experiences and use appropriate metalanguage about texts, while my Year 5s [learn to] more confidently present a point of view using metalanguage. This all happens simultaneously and authentically in our online shared reading space.'

Students are also given the opportunity to critique their teacher's work.

‘It's only fair that if I contribute writing, I should also accept feedback,' says Oehlman. ‘Giving my students permission to critique my work is another way I prove to them that we are learners together. It also provides a rare opportunity for me to show them what accepting constructive criticism looks like.

'Some students are very intimidated by the whole notion of giving a teacher feedback, so I often ask a leading question in the comments section to get the ball rolling. I might post a poem and then add a comment like, "I'm not sure about the last two lines of my final stanza. Do you think they should be the other way around...?"'

Oehlman says that the online space, set up through the Haiku Learning platform, has resulted in an increased level of student engagement.

‘Prior to establishing our online space, a few keen students would thrust scraps of paper with precious poems scribbled onto them into my hands on the way to class. Now, almost all of my students are writing poetry by choice, in their own time. I can [also] see from the analytics that after a student posts a book review or a piece of writing, they repeatedly visit our online space over the next 48 hours to see if anyone has left a comment on their work.'

The educator feels that the online space has been a practical inclusion to her classroom.

‘[Before the online space] conversations about the novels my students were self-selecting for pleasure were limited, and certainly not documented. Now I can easily measure the quantity of conversations we have about texts, though measuring the quality of these conversations is more challenging.

‘[Plus], as a specialist teacher I see my students once or twice weekly. An online space means [that] opportunities for conversations about reading and writing can continue throughout the week.'

To ensure that the conversations continue throughout the school holidays, Oehlman provides her students with an additional online space. ‘Although some of my students need a break from school work, a few relish the time to read more and write even more!'

Do you have an online space where students can post their work, reviews and recommendations?

As a teacher, do you model how to give constructive feedback?

Do you share your own writing with students?