A way with words

28th September 2001 at 01:00
The key stage 3 literacy pilot has an indefatigable champion in south Yorkshire, reports Elaine Williams

It's non-uniform day at Minsthorpe community college and English teacher Joanna Crewe is wearing jeans and a T-shirt. With as much bubbly energy as a champagne bottle about to pop, the 26-year-old mingles with pupils until lessons start. She then swings sharply into action. Stragglers are harried into their seats, white boards are quickly passed around and pupils are plunged into the task in hand: improving their powers of description. Miss Crewe doesn't favour the toe-in-the-water approach.

This is a Year 7 literacy intervention class for pupils who have left primary school struggling to attain a level three, part of the Government's key stage 3 literacy pilot scheme. But Miss Crewe does not spare them the technicality of grammar. Today, she says, they are to work on determiners and modifiers. The class appears unfazed by the intimidating terminology. They have grown up with it during literacy hour at primary school and Miss Crewe is keen to follow such good practice.

What are determiners? "A, the, an, some." Yes, good. She writes "the man" on a large sheet of paper attached to an easel. "Pretty boring," she says. "How are we going to make it more interesting? By using modifiers such as 'the wise man', 'the disabled man', 'the spooky man'." Pupils hold up their white boards, sporting a variety of such "modifications". Miss Crewe congratulates them. "So instead of just some bloke, we've got a sly spooky man and suddenly we've got a picture in our heads of a particular person."

She moves rapidly on, dealing out packs of word cards to students in groups - a selection of determiners, nouns and modifiers with which to make noun phrases. Within the first 10 minutes she has moved them on from "the man" to making phrases such as "a colourful, transparent bubble"; "an animated, biased politician", explaining and re-explaining the principles of description. White boards and word cards are the tools of the trade in primary school literacy hours, and so they have become at Minsthorpe, where Miss Crewe is key stage 3 literacy strategy manager, a key job in a school that has been acclaimed by Ofsted and the Government for bringing about rapid improvements in ethos and standards.

Minsthorpe college is a 2,000-strong school in South Elmsall, an ex-mining village in south Yorkshire dogged by drugs and unemployment. Despair and despondency moved in when the mines closed, but the school is doing much to galvanise the community into re-skilling itself. Inspectors who visited the school this year viewed the literacy scheme as an "excellent feature of the college".

Joanna Crewe supports the logic that children who have grown up on the literacy hour at key stage 2 should also benefit from such an energetic, quickfire approach at key stage 3. "I like the fact that it is objective-led, making explicit what we are trying to achieve and reinforcing every step. It's not just about reading and writing, it's about thinking as well.

"It's also about instant assessment. When students hold up their white boards I can see at a glance who's got it and who hasn't, rather than waiting to mark books when the student may have moved on and it's too late to pick up mistakes." The short, sharp dynamism of the starter and plenary sessions appeal to her style of teaching. "I like to keep things lively, play the comedian, keep the kids active," she says.

Her capacity for work is enormous. Apart from her management role, she has also been writing material for the starter boxes for Oxford University Press's key stage 3 literacy kit, launched this month. One third of the print run was sold within the first week. She became involved with OUP after the publisher approached Michaela Blackledge, literacy consultant for Wakefield, and Jane Flintoft, literacy consultant for Sheffield, both former colleagues at Minsthorpe, asking them what teachers would want from a literacy kit. Both said teachers would need support with starter projects. OUP asked them to write it and Joanna Crewe was asked to come on board.

She is keen to write more because she believes classroom teachers make the best writers of resource material. "We are doing it on the spot so we can trial it and adapt it as we go along."

Although she has spent much time cutting up word cards this year, getting down to business with scissors and glue to create dozens of starter sets, she does not resent the extra work. If it makes children better learners, then for her it has been worthwhile.

Joanna Crewe's first job after her English degree at Leicester University was in a bookshop. "I never intended to go into teaching," she says, "but after a year in the bookshop I realised that what I liked best was mixing with the people, helping them with their reading. So I took myself off back to college for a PGCE." Her first post was at Minsthorpe, where she is now in her fourth year, keen as ever and loyal to her profession.

Unlike colleagues who have been drawn into consultancy, she's committed to staying in the classroom. "That's where I like to be. I love helping kids to move onwards and upwards."

She is impatient of secondary teachers who believe the key stage 3 literacy strategy is too prescriptive and burdensome. "Change is scary, but I don't think it's about changing everything," she says. "It's about adapting the strategy to what you already do. If you can prove that what you do is better then go ahead, but I haven't come across anything better. You can look upon it as an imposition or as something intended to make students learn more efficiently. If you don't want to be a better teacher, you probably won't like it."

The Literacy Kit, including starter boxes (pound;50, plus VAT) is available from Oxford University Press. Tel: 01536 741068; fax: 01536 454519

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