Using a journal
Article by Hampshire Ethnic Minority Achievement Specialist Teacher
Home-school journals: more work or the solution to a problem?
This year I have undertaken thirty Bilingual and New Arrival Conferences. As a result I can speak with confidence when I say that the support strategy which teachers find the most useful is the use of the Home-School Journal.
This is one of the most blindingly obvious solutions to an ever- recurring problem. What do you do when your newly arrived EAL pupil attends your class, sits quietly, mimics the actions and responses of his peers, obediently copies a few words off the board - and understands nothing? Why, tell him in advance what he’s going to be doing, of course! This will produce a feeling of elation similar to that when you’re told the questions in advance of the exam.
Imagine the burden being lifted from your shoulders. Tomorrow it’s Bulbs and Batteries. You don’t need to swot up on a whole range of topics. (You can put Light and Sound and Forces on hold for a little while). You don’t need to practise spelling a whole list of topic words you may never need. You’re only going to need one topic with its associated vocabulary, words like demonstrate, connect, circuit, power, conduct. (All the kinds of words, in fact, that were missing from this morning’s Literacy Lesson on character development in Robin Hood). You can observe that interesting quirk of English spelling - that y changes to ies in the plural - at your leisure. You can study the connection diagram carefully and test your recall of the vocabulary you practised last night. Maybe you already learned how to make the light come on in your last school, in your first language. Maybe you even learned how to light up the bulbs in series and in parallel. You can try drawing the diagrams by yourself, without looking, and then check to see if you got it right. And you can practise all this the night before, with the best reference resources in the world- mum and dad. You can back them up with that colourful DK Science book you picked up from the library as soon as you were told of today’s lesson. And best of all, you can rehearse the topic in your mother tongue, translating the few key words and concepts you’re going to need. So that, on the day of the lesson, you know in advance what the teacher is going to say. You are already familiar with the ground she is going to cover. You can listen out for the words or phrases you checked out already. You have some answers to likely questions up your sleeve. You’re just waiting for her say, ‘Now, who can demonstrate how to make a circuit?’ Today might be the day when you finally put your hand up and volunteer an answer in front of your group – or even the whole class.
- So, how do we get started on this magic cure-all?
- What book do we use to write in?
- How do we set about setting it up?
- How do we know what to include- and what to leave out?
- And how will we know if it’s successful?
- Most importantly of all, how much extra work for the teacher is this going to involve?
The best book to use is a school jotter of the type used by the rest of the class for writing. It ought not to be too large, too attractive (to others) or intrusive.
The Journal needs a simple introduction on the first page. Inform parents of its purpose – to alert the child to the lesson about to take place. This could be the following day, or the following week. But the point is that it is going to happen in the future. It is not a summary of what has already happened. And make the point that it’s a working document. The class teacher may write the odd comment on the pupil’s progress, as she feels appropriate. The parents should feel free to write comments or ask questions too. (This is added proof that the Journal is being read). The Journal is also a good place to clear up informally the little misunderstandings that can occur from time to time without the hassle of arranging a meeting:
‘Jasel tells us the school is closing for three weeks extra holiday on Friday. Is it true?’
The introduction should explain that the teacher will give the learning objective for the main lesson of the day. The following pages are then used to convey the lesson plans. She might photocopy a whole lesson plan, or give eight or ten key words only. How much is provided depends on how much time is available and also on the impact that this has on the pupil. And this will vary from day to day. Some teachers will organise an extra copy of their weekly plans and send them home at the start of the week. Some will find time only for the minimum ten words. Others will make a big effort to send as much information as possible – and then watch to see the results before continuing the process. This can be expanded to several lessons, especially if there is an obliging LSA attached to the class who can help with the photocopying. Or it can be curtailed, if the pupil is overwhelmed by the amount of information coming his way. The amount of advance planning will depend entirely on the pupil’s ability and the professional judgement of the teacher. In practice, I have found, teachers expand their efforts to match their pupil’s own efforts.
In a secondary school there is much more scope for expansion as the Journal should be carried from class to class and left on the teacher’s desk at the start of the lesson, to be collected at the end. There will be no more time than to write 8-10 key words only - or to insert a photocopy of the plan plus any necessary resources. Remember, this will not put your bilingual pupils ahead of the class. It will simply lessen their apprehensions, give them access to your lesson, help them to participate more fully.
Some teachers have felt this to be an impractical exercise because they may have to change their plans at short notice and postpone lessons sometimes to a different week or even term. This is not in itself an insurmountable problem. A lesson postponed or even cancelled can be easily and briefly explained. The value lies in the lessons which were prepared for, and they will surely be in the majority.
I have personally monitored several journals and can testify to the gratitude of parents who were keen to support their children in the best way possible – through encouraging their use of first language to share, discuss and rehearse, thereby preparing their child for the curriculum.
A quotation from a Journal belonging to a recent new arrival who is a Tamil speaker in Year Three finalises the argument:
‘I like this Home –School Journal and I can understand what she learnt at School so I can discuss with her at home. Thank you.’
(Achievement Projects Strand © 2003)
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