I have the pleasure of teaching in a semi-rural T-12 school in the Top End of Australia. Our environmental context is rough and this time of year our weather is either oppressively hot and humid or beautifully monsoonal. A vast number of our students spend their weekends on their quad bikes or motorbikes, traipsing all over the rural area in search of good fishing, hunting and camping spots.
This wonderful, outdoors and adventurous life of our students has provided my colleagues and I with challenges to support how these adventurous and rural students learn. Although they definitely do not want to be outside in the heat in their school uniforms and they relish the cold air conditioning when they reenter the classroom, many a times during a lesson they stare outside daydreaming of fishing, hunting, trekking, taking their quad bikes through the waterways and camping in some of the most beautiful parts of Australia. Who can blame them? This is their backyard.
To help my Year 8 students, a very lively and outdoorsy bunch of 12-13 year olds, I experimented with how we can use visualisation of familiar contexts to support their learning in a Media Study unit where we are inquiring into and reflecting on persuasive language and visual literacy conventions. Our inquiry is through the global context of Fairness and Development: the responsibilities of media creators to their audience and the right of the audience to critically question and reflect on the information delivered through media.
After we had wondered and made connections with the concepts of our unit and had begun to explore the chosen global context, we moved into the investigating stage of our unit.
To help my very bubbly and outdoorsy students, I put together a simple thinking routine using cardinal points to help students orientate themselves through learning new knowledge and developing Language and Literature skills, in our case, persuasive language conventions and applying this to an area they are passionate about while visualising a familiar Top End location.
We begin North – where we gain new knowledge. We then travel West where we wonder about this new knowledge and ask questions before travelling East where we begin to respond to what we have wondered about through exploration and experimentation – basically, students creating. The journey is wrapped up by heading South to share our new knowledge and skills and using the Ladder of Feedback give and receive meaningful feedback.
I had students begin with visualising a location where they like to sit and think, a place free of noise and interruptions. This is the place they can picture themselves in when they travel west to wonder about new knowledge and ask questions. Students came up with a myriad of locations:
- Their favourite fishing spot at Gunn Point
- Their families favourite camping spot at Yellow Waters
- Beside Edith Falls
- The gazebo in their backyard
- Their back porch
- Watching the reflection of the sunset in the creek behind their horse paddock
- Curled up on their beanbag with the aircon blasting in their rooms
- The list goes on …
I then had students visualise a place they can travel east of their wondering location to a place where they feel free to experiment and explore in response to all they have wondered about. Students once again came up with a myriad of locations:
- Family shed filled with tools and equipment
- Underneath the shade of a tree on their horses paddock
- In their bedroom surrounded by posters of NCT
- Taking their quad bike out to the water beside the trees at Black Jungle
- The Visual Art room at school
- The list goes on …
From here students visualised a place where they could travel south to meet others to share what they learnt through wondering and exploring. Their locations were once again primarily outdoors and in familiar surroundings they associate with friendship:
- Footy Field
- South of so-and-so’s family block
- Going to Macca’s after a hockey match
- Hanging around waiting for mum to pick them up after basketball
- The bus stop on their way home from school
- Family room at home
- The list goes on …
Using this North – West – East and South journey through our Top End context students were able to challenge themselves to learn new and unfamiliar knowledge and skills in a comfortable and familiar mental setting. Just thinking about their favourite places and making mental associations with the locations they chose, enabled students to relax into their learning and orientate themselves strategically to ask questions, apply new knowledge and collaboratively reflect on their learning.
As I’d go from table group to table group while the class was working, sunburnt and tanned students would be sitting with their headphones in their ears, feet up on their desk and pondering. I’d ask them how they are going and I had a myriad of responses that included:
- “Miss, I’m just visualising myself sitting on the concrete pillars on the Channel Island Bridge wondering how I can use colloquial language to manipulate my audience into believing what I strongly believe about the NT AFL players right to a fair go in the AFL.”
- “I’m just visualising watching the sunset at Lee Point wondering how I can use emotive language to persuade the principal to provide more time for art at school.”
When students were sharing and giving and receiving meaningful feedback, I saw instances like these:
- Two girls who had popped under their desks and were examining each others work and giving and receiving meaningful feedback. When I asked them why they were under the desk, they responded with “We have visualised ourselves just south of my families block sitting on the hay in the stable talking about our work.”
- And the two boys who had put their chairs side by side near our Ladder of Feedback poster who were “telling each other about our work like we talk after basketball at the basketball courts.”
I found my students were comfortable learning new knowledge and sharing this knowledge when they could pictured themselves in a familiar place. They were empowered to slow down, ponder and ask questions, connect new knowledge to their passions and interests while picturing themselves in a familiar and comfortable place. Although it would be great to take their Language and Literature learning outside the classroom – with extreme Top End temperatures this is very challenging – we were still able to achieve the learning goals while in the comfort of our air conditioned classroom. Using the cardinal points as a thinking routine, nearly all students were able to self-manage their way through learning new knowledge and applying new skills.
Connecting to the context of a student’s life, as much as is humanly possible, really does support their learning.