Over the next few entries, I’d like to make you familiar with the classrooms I conducted research in. We’re in France. In Alsace, to be precise. And we’re in a bi-lingual French-German nursery-primary school. I’ll provide what I call narrative snapshots: descriptive accounts of typical routines. Today we’ll visit the last year of nursery school; la Grande Section. Does any of this seem familiar to the contexts you know? As always, I’d love to hear from you.
The Grande Section’s daily routine ( 11th February, 2002, 15.15h-15.40h)
Teacher, Isabelle (T) and children (CC).
Isabelle and all the children are seated on a long v-shaped bench in the corner of the classroom, away from their tables and chairs. The interaction takes place in French.
T: Are all the children here?
T: Are you sure? We’ll see. Elisa, are you here?
Elisa: I’m here!
(Isabelle notes Elisa’s attendance with a tick in her register)
T: Victor, are you here?
Victor: I’m here!
Isabelle goes through the whole class. Whilst the register is being taken, the children fidget and whisper.
T: How many are we today?
CC (simultaneously): Fifteen!
T: How many girls? Who would like to count the girls?
Numerous hands shoot up and a few bottoms hover above the bench fervently. A girl is selected. She stands up, points her finger at each girl as she counts. The other children count with her. The procedure is repeated for the boys. Today there are nine boys and eleven girls. Two boys are missing. Isabelle chooses a different child to count how many children are present altogether. Some children join in too, whilst others chatter. Isabelle waits patiently.
T: So, we have more…
The girls cheer. The boys sulk.
T: Which day is it today?
T: Today is the first day of the week…
T: Monday, right.
Isabelle gets up. She walks over to a wall chart with the heading : Aujourd’hui nous sommes (‘Today we are…’). The heading is followed by the days of the week, each associated with a particular colour and a one-line poem. Handwritten day tags, of the same colour as the days on the chart, are pinned on the wall next to the chart. Isabelle chooses a girl to find the right tag for Monday. This girl finds the tag, takes it off the wall and places it beneath the chart. The other children begin to get restless. The noise level rises.
T: What is the date today?
The children guess various numbers. They seem to have forgotten the date they had on Friday (I hear a few whispered ‘Friday was the …?’) and over the weekend they appear not to have use of knowledge of this type. Still, they work it out in the end. Today is the eleventh.
T: How do we write eleven?
Isabelle holds out a bag of numbers written on square card. She chooses a boy this time to come forward, who finds the correct number before placing it next to the day below the chart.
T: Good. And the month?
T: February. Two thousand…
CC: … and two!
T: Two thousand and two. So today is…
CC: Monday, the 11th February, 2002.
Isabelle crosses the classroom to the blackboard. In the top right hand corner, she writes the date in joined-up letters, pronouncing each word as she does so:
T: Lundi, le… onze… fevrier… deux … mille … deux. Bien!
With a gesture, she signals the end of the activity. The children return to their tables, grouped to seat up to five children.
Activities in the Grande Section consist of a clearly defined blend of play-oriented skills acquisition tasks, with the morning and afternoon sessions consisting of four activity blocks: ritual, language work, worksheet, pre-writing exercises. A typical worksheet is Le trait vertical; the vertical line, which progressively structures the size of the children’s penstrokes in the ‘run up’ to writing:
My observation of this activity is accompanied by the following fieldnotes:
The children sit at group tables, are supposed to work individually, but mix their work with private talk, which, though tolerated, is punctuated by Isabelle’s frequent reminders as she moves from group to group: ‘not so loud! Concentrate on your work!’ At the end of each morning or afternoon session, the children’s work is filed away in their folders, stored in a communal area along one side of the classroom. The children go over to a big chest of drawers and put their pencils and crayons back in one of the drawers bearing their name.
Despite the significant space accorded to promoting the activity of writing, rigorous evaluation criteria are not applied to work in the Grande Section and no use is ever made of the red pen. The children self-correct as they gradually learn to manage the directionality and spacing of script. When required, Isabelle explains, sometimes using a separate sheet of paper, how to improve the writing, after which the child returns to his/her own sheet and attempts to carry out the recommendations.
Notwithstanding the argument that children insist upon the distinction between drawing and writing, writing development is channelled as ‘emerging’ from drawing, it therefore requires the children to ‘redesign’ their knowledge of drawing and we may clearly identify the different steps assisting the child through the activity to achieve a degree of accuracy which brings writing ‘within reach’. Although the child is required to complete such worksheets alone, the activity is nonetheless facilitated, or framed, by others, notably those who design the worksheets in the first place, and by the teacher, who will verbally prepare the child for the activity by explaining what needs to be done, and who will assist the child further in the event of any difficulties. The children, we note, are not yet being taught the sound of the letter, but are drawing, or ‘pre’-writing. The boundary between the illustrative and the semiotic, therefore, appears to be porous, yet the clear intention is to use drawing to ‘stretch’ the children to the higher developmental skill of being able to write. For the moment, reading remains ‘beyond reach’.
Framing learning and practice in La Grande Section
Classroom interactions send a plethora of messages; overt, covert, and even, at times, conflictual:
‘A classroom, for example, where young children spend considerable time copying letters beneath their teacher’s clear handwriting and are expected to get every spelling correct in the first draft runs on assumptions about learning that are very different from those of a classroom where children choose what to write and where children’s invented letter shapes and spellings are accepted and encouraged’. (Czerniewska, 1992:53)
The classroom as a zone of free movement (ZFM):
We may think about the classroom in terms of its functional availability and how adults structure a child’s access to this culturally designed physical environment.
With regard to literacy acquisition, this classroom comprises three main learning spaces:
i. grouped tables: the mechanics and meanings of writing are practised and appropriated with the support of worksheets like ‘the vertical line’.
ii. bench area: here, the registration routine encourages the recognition of key words associated with scholastic discourse. The bench area is also the space where the children may withdraw to discover or read books – but not write – on their own if time permits.
iii. whiteboard: forges a link between the tables and the bench as discrete seating areas. It channels the children visually to a limited space, from which they may take the knowledge the teacher places there.
We see, then, that the physical characteristics of the classroom are not arbitrary, but consciously designed to provide an optimal learning and working zone for teachers and pupils. Classroom design limits specific types of learning to specific spaces for learning in a systematic manner (unlike home). The classroom, however, also offers supplementary learning zones, which promote rather than limit the child. These zones can be considered a Zone of Promoted Activity and will be addressed next.
The classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA):
The concept of a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA) relates to the interplay of people and materials involved in interactions on offer within the environment which, rather than limiting the child’s development, are geared towards promoting the child’s development with regard to a particular activity. Let’s take a closer look.
There are a number of people on offer within the classroom environment. There are the children, the teachers, the auxiliary staff and the parents. These actors may be paired or grouped in a number of ways: children interacting with other children, teachers interacting with auxiliary staff and children, teachers interacting with parents, etc. Children’s talk among themselves, however, is only tolerated to a certain degree. The auxiliary staff are not charged with pedagogical responsibilities in this school, and the parents only pop in and out of class mostly to pick up or bring their children, with whom, as with the teacher, they may only exchange a few brief words before their departure. In practice, therefore, the potential offered by all these interactional partners is not fully exploited, and, as intended, social interactions within the classroom centre around the teacher-pupil dyad. In what follows, I highlight how teacher-pupil interactions are framed at this school in order to promote literacy development.
verbal and affective frames:
Children’s learning to write, along with their emerging identity as a writer, is framed verbally largely via question-answer routines, commonly referred to as ‘initiation-response-feedback’ (IRF), which channel, tease out and confirm the correct or desired reply:
T: Today is the first day of the week…
T: Monday, right.
With her statement ‘let us see if all the children are here’, or the question, ‘Elisa, are you here?’, Isabelle also subtly manoeuvres the children at the start of each day away from their private identities into their identity as learners in an institutional context, employing specific learning strategies and discourses that may, or may not, be familiar to the children from their home backgrounds. Getting the children to internalise school discourse prepares the children for the more imperative, analytical linguistic styles or registers later encountered in the course material for Year One.
At another level, feelings are harnessed in order to promote learning. We are talking about affective frames. The feelings solicited often try to evoke a sense of fun to take the sting out of learning. The registration ritual, for example, is designed to feel like a game; the children cheer, play at sulking, laugh. Pre-writing exercises are made to feel like drawing rather than the serious business of learning to write.
Wall work, as an interface between parents, teachers and children, and thus between the home and the school, may also be harnessed emotionally. By talking about their work on display, the children may not only proudly demonstrate their abilities to their parents, but also see the interest of their parents validated by talk with the teachers. Verbal framing, moreover, has additional affective attributes in that the children, once repositioned as pupils, are supposed to feel differently; in particular, they should feel that they are at school to work, yet may look forward to learning via activities and interactional strategies that are intended to be enjoyable, and therefore motivating. Fun and games notwithstanding, the school does not feel like home, so that, even at the emotional level, different zones may be identified.
Not only the teaching materials employed or the potential interactional strategies seek to tap into children’s feelings in order to promote their learning, but the classroom design itself constitutes an emotional frame. The children sit in groups, whose members are rotated so that the children may learn to learn, and make friends, with different people. The physical and social climate of the classroom will feel quite different in Year One, due to frontal, individual, and definitive seating arrangements.
Material frames: the classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity:
There is a link between the physical and social properties of the classroom and how they promote literacy activity. Unlike the objects referred to in the Zone of Free Movement, designed to limit activities (e.g. activity x is only performed in space x), within the Zone of Promoted Activity, as the name suggests, new spaces are provided that promote development in a non-binding manner. I don’t believe it is essential to remember the terminology. What we can remember is: some areas promote learning by keeping a tighter hold on it, others promote learning in a less controlled manner. The two zones, ZFM and ZPA, may, and do, overlap: objects on offer within the ZPA form an interface with the ZFM in that they are part of the physical equipment of the classroom. But as explained, they are used differently:
– coatpegs: bear the children’s names, and to which the children return several times a day as they arrive and leave school and come in from or go out to play.
– wall space: wall space showcases samples of the children’s schoolwork at the child’s eye-level, inviting, but not demanding, the children’s attention. The children must, therefore, actively decide to interact with these literacy spaces and ‘opportunities’, and in so doing, they are interacting proactively, even though they are not writing. (Other materials, by contrast, lead to the children interacting reactively. These are the materials such as worksheets, wall charts, cue cards, or indeed classroom rituals as teaching material, which solicit the children’s responses, but do not allow them to instigate.)
On the one hand we have carefully structured, goal-oriented interactions, on the other, we have more holistic opportunities for more child-initiated interaction. The children are, therefore, being sensitized in different ways towards diverse forms and functions of writing.
Notwithstanding clear curricular specifications, in practice, there still seem to be conflicting messages about what really counts as literacy. I note, for example, the inherent discrepancy between minimal correction of classroom work on the one hand, and the selection of conventional, error-free samples of writing for public display, on the other. The teacher does not systematically write according to the official model, although she only selects work which corresponds to the norm for public display. It seems that one aspect of what counts as literacy is accuracy in the display of skills. Moreover, there appear to be two levels of skills display involved. On one level, the worksheets, later filed away in the children’s folders, document the progressive acquisition of writing skills and provide a reference point on display for the children. On another level, the selection of perfected writing for public display document an additional, more official interface between:
- the children as a community of learners, and the school as an institutional, evaluating and evaluated organ
- the children and parents, hence the home and school
Thus, the question of what counts must be pursued by for whom? The answer to what counts relates to who is seeing, and judging, different texts.
An image of how the child is being shaped as a writer begins to emerge from all the facets analysed so far. It is of the child as becoming rather than as being a writer. I hope this blogpost has helped you to take a fresh look at the pre-school classroom, above all at the physical, verbal and affective properties and at the shifting perspectives of thought and action for everyone concerned. Has this post made you think of anything you would like to share with me? I’d love to hear from you.