Monday, 4 June 2012

Original lesson 21: The naked alien (explanation texts)

I ran a lesson on explanation texts last week that, I think, is one of the best I have taught, particularly in literacy. Explanation texts at first stumped me. I thought of it a bit along the lines of a procedural piece, but after a PD (professional development) staff meeting I understood that it is quite a distinctive text type in its own right. Explanation texts are about telling the reader when and why something happens. A procedural is more about how something works or is done.

This text type challenges me, and many of the fellow educators at that staff meeting, because in a 1/2 or prep class you cannot simply tell children to write an explanation on scientific things, like a water cycle for instance, because of the time it would take to provide them with sufficient background knowledge prior to the writing. Nevertheless, the ability to explain why or when something happens is critical when you think about the omniscience of that skill in everyday life, particularly when compared to narrative or procedural writing. So the challenge was to find a topic with sufficient simplicity such that grade 1/2s would have enough background knowledge to explain it in their writing.

The principal modelled an explanation text lesson to one of the classes next door two weeks ago and I thought that was brilliant for two reasons:
  1. I love that fact that a principal is modelling teaching in their own school - that is brave as well as a fantastic learning opportunity for staff.
  2. It was a very aptly simple lesson for 1/2 students to gain their initial understanding of explanations.
The lesson centred on a book about a piece of clothing called 'gloshes' (a type of boat shoe). The book describes when and why a main character wears galoshes. Students then were set the task of writing: 'I wear my red galoshes when .... because ....' and drawing a picture thereafter.

I started my lesson in a similar fashion. I initially asked students what they thought an explanation text was, following the principal's example, and then emphasised that the word explanation contains the word explain. I wore my vest to school and explained to the children that I wear it when I play guitar to look like a band member. I then passed my vest around the circle and asked children to imagine where and why they would wear a vest. After a few answers, I stopped the circle and sent them off to write about it, with the support sentence starters of: 'I wear my vest when...' and 'I wear my vest because...'

Here's the best part. When we returned to the circle about 10 minutes later, I put on my best storytelling voice, knelt down at eye level with the children and told a mighty tale. Here it is:

A spaceship has just landed, while we were writing about our vests, on our school oval [pointing to the oval]. An alien just walked out of it and he's .... [dramatic pause and whispering voice]...naked. To which the class erupted in laughter. He is really confused because he's seen a few students out there playing sport and they are wearing all this cotton stuff, shoes, t-shirts, everything. He doesn't know why and when we wear clothes. I need you explain to the alien when and why we wear clothes.

Both the quality and quantity of the writing in the session was absolute fantastic, to the point where I had to force students to stop and go out to recess. Some things the children wrote all by themselves were:
  • We wear clothes outside to keep us warm, especially in winter.
  • If you don't wear clothes people will take pictures and put them on Facebook or You Tube.
  • You need to wear clothes otherwise the police will come and put you in jail.

The best part of this lesson was when some of the children (who, academically, I wouldn't expect to have fooled) approached me and told me that I had been pretending because they went to look for the alien at recess and had not found it.

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