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Dave Smith' design narrative : Writing from direct experience

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Dave Smith
5 April 2016

This design narrative forms part of an exercise for Open University H800 module.


I was a school teacher responsible for teaching English.



I was a supply teacher on a long term placement in a state secondary school (over several terms). The placement happened within the last five years.  I was covering a leave of absence and teaching English as a subject.   The class in question were around twenty five twelve to thirteen year old pupils (Key Stage 3, in the UK).


The class were variously described as ‘challenging’ and ‘lower ability’.   Within the subject in the school, pupils were streamed, and this class was in the lowest mainstream.   The class were described as ‘challenging’  because a large proportion of pupils had statements of additional needs many of which related to behaviour and emotional difficulties.


Lessons for this specific class were held in various classrooms around the school throughout the week.  I was therefore required to arrange the logistics of delivering books for every single lesson, with the aid of the pupils.  I taught English mainly within a French classroom, thus nearly all the displays related to France and the French language.


Around ten minutes were alloted at the start of each lesson for silent reading by pupils. 


As a supply teacher, I was the pupils’ second supply teacher within that year.  I had taught them for three months before undertaking the learning exercise described below.  I had built up a level of trust with the pupils and understanding of their individual needs.


Pupils generally hold a negative view of transient supply teachers, even those employed on a longer-term basis.  There is of course the issue of trust.  Can we trust this new teacher ?  There was the desire, on the pupils’ part and mine as a teacher, to build a good working relationship based on trust and respect.  This took many months to achieve.


Belief : Please note that an important assumption I make as a teacher is that within every pupil is a writer and that every pupil is capable of telling a story in writing.



I was trying to get the pupils to develop their understanding of the writing process.  I wanted the pupils to write about where they were now : this very moment, in the classroom, sitting at a desk, with their friends, in school, with a pen, their thoughts, and the sights, sounds and smells around them... describing their direct experience. 




I explained to the class that they would be having a picnic in class in two days’ time.   By picnic, I mean that I would allow the pupils to eat a snack and work during part of the lesson.  I explained that they would be doing some creative writing as a lesson focus.


(Effect – pupils were amused and surprised as they had never had a ‘picnic’ in class previously, but looking forward to the experience.  There was palpable excitement – not the fear usually associated with writing.)


At the start of the agreed lesson, I explained to pupils that they would be writing in their books about their experience in the classroom, describing what they saw, heard, smelled, thought etc...  (Effect – confusion, pupils not familiar with this way of working, excitement that they could have a snack etc).


I told the pupils that I too would be writing about my experience in the classroom... but that I would share all my writing with them immediately and live.  Thus I used Microsoft Word and ensured it was showing on the projector screen for the whole class to see.  The writing was enlarged to make it easily readible by the whole class.


Using my computer, I wrote freely.   I described what I saw and noticed in plain language.  I mentioned the pupil names where appropriate :


I notice a French flag draped above the door.  This is the first time I’ve noticed this flag.    B looks like he’s lost in thought, holding his hand against his forehead.  L looks at the ceiling, looking for ideas.


(Effect – the whiteboard writing caught the attention of pupils.  The use of humour in the exemplary writing on the board reduced the ‘fear factor’ associated with writing with this profile pupil).

Pupils likewise emulated this process of free writing in their writing books.

In my writing example, I quoted speech from people in the situation, making it as realistic and lively as possible, reflecting directly on experience as it was happening.


Obstacle.  As I was describing in writing the experience of the classroom, some of the pupils saw this as a means of ‘playing up’ so that they were named in the written exemplary albeit in a humourous tone.


After giving the example writing to pupils, I moved around the classroom, reading pupil work, encouraging, making suggestions.   At the end of the lesson, I took in pupils work for marking and for feedback during next lesson. 



As regards pupils developing their understanding of the writing process, the expected outcome was that most of the pupils were able to describe some aspects of their direct experience.  This was achieved as evidenced in their written work. 


Unexpected outcomes :  Describing what is happening in a live classroom, quoting people as they speak, has an engaging and humourous quality about it reducing the typical tensions associated with writing.   It also actively  demonstrates the use of speech and quotation, but it can become a distraction to the learning focus, as evidenced in my post lesson reflection.


Additional outcomes : Using the whiteboard to ‘live write’ as an exemplary for pupils led to much imitative writing.  This of course is a facet of writing that could be discussed in a future lesson (how one can imitate or parody other writing, for example).



Using the computer and projector to model ‘free writing’ in a live classroom context can be very effective as a means of encouraging the pupil/learner/writer.  With portable display technology (eg. an iPad attached to an Apple TV device linked to a screen) one could show pupils’ work in a similar live way on the screen during the lesson.    There is much potential here for formative assessment, peer assessment etc.


Fear is a major learning obstacle in English as indeed every subject.  Embedding this writing exercise within a picnic in a classroom may seem a little eccentric but this, along with the humour co-created in the experience, it helped make the learning much more effective because it didn’t seem like hard ‘classwork’ but instead it seemed more natural and more like ‘having fun’.  


One of the transferable metacognitive insights pupils can gain from this exercise concerns their own creative process in producing writing : recording their first draft (as in this lesson example), subsequently showing and sharing, re-drafting, developing, editing etc. 





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Paula Dumas
7:59am 9 April 2016

I enjoyed reading your narrative. I think the format and clarity of writing helped make it easy and interesting to read.

When it comes to possible implicit assumptions (as we've been asked to assess), in a different exercise you could have been clearly guessing at what your students were thinking about in regards to a) how they felt about supply teachers including you, b) how they felt about the possibility of eating in class, and c) that you modeing free writing in real time would be helpful. But with the actual task being free writing, in which you asked them to share their thoughts at the same time, you created a unique opportunity to see into their thoughts (at least those they were willing to share privately with you) and reactions without them having time to shape their writing and without it being affected by an audience of peers. Very interesting.

I think your stated results were absolutely grounded in the evidence of what happened and your experience and that your conclusions are well founded. You were able to get many of your students to write about some aspects of their direct experiences, even if in some cases the writing was an imitation of yours, and it was interesting to see how your role led to some students taking action simply to become part of your experience.

I liked that this design allowed the teacher to model what they expected of their students and that what the teacher was modelling was something that could be achieved by students of that level. By showing that it was simply a matter of writing, and making clear efforts to remove intimidation and fear of writing from the assignment, students were likely to be less overwhelmed or initimited and could mimic the teacher or go out on their own and just write.

Dave Smith
7:59am 11 April 2016

Thank you for the feedback Paula.

You wrote : You were able to get many of your students to write about some aspects of their direct experiences, even if in some cases the writing was an imitation of yours, and it was interesting to see how your role led to some students taking action simply to become part of your experience.

Yes, most were able to achieve the learning objective and write something.  The exercise was aimed at creating understanding about the process of writing, and imitative is fine as a style of writing.  People often find their writing voice by imitating other examples, and the explicit modelling of a writing example helped a great deal with this.

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