Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices
During the project many students started to attend classes on a more regular basis as students were enjoying their lessons more and curious to get to know a pen pal. They were particularly excited after exchanging the first letter.
Interactions between students were positive as they engaged in the scheme and developed deeper connections with their peers. Equally, the connections among their teachers grew and they had a deeper sense of belonging and engagement with learning. Writing to a stranger required sharing stories and experiences, which also contributed to improving self-esteem and self-confidence. Over time some deep seated negative personal narratives began to become more positive, and confidence improved. The act of receiving a letter was more personal than the barrage of spam and what was often perceived as the inauthenticity of social media posts. Letter writing came to symbolise an investment of time, care and effort. There was also an enhanced sensory experience involved in holding and reading a personal handwritten letter.
It was thought that students might enjoy their lessons more, particularly after the receipt of the first letter. Attendance improved as lessons built on the project themes and ideas.
At the start of the course, students suggested that writing was something they had not thought they enjoyed. However, the teachers found that once students engaged in self-expression, they made deeper connections with their new peers. They said they found it difficult and did not think they were successful at it; nor could they identify clearly with the difficulties they experienced in their writing skills.
A piece of free writing revealed that the majority did not produce pieces of writing beyond 100 words and the writing itself had a high proportion of spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. The sentences in the writing were mainly short or very extended and the ideas communicated were simple and not always coherent. In their everyday lives, most students said they did not engage in writing beyond messaging or on social media. Very few students had ever received a personal, handwritten letter or postcard.
From a wider perspective, behaviour in the classroom was often characterised by low level disruptive behaviour and disengagement and few students were genuinely motivated to improve their skills.
Some students also asked questions that provoked discussion and debate. Students actively planned and reviewed their written work. This led to the development of skills such as peer marking. Some students chose to read their letters out loud in class and confidence grew with this. They were more able to articulate where they needed to improve, and some students chose to develop their skills outside of class time. The letters they sent became livelier and more interesting, as now they were being written for an intended audience and were therefore more carefully compiled. There was also a greater awareness of the value of quality handwriting and the craft skills involved.
For many students at the end of the scheme, letter writing started to symbolise an investment of time, care and effort. There was also an enhanced pleasure in holding and reading a personal, handwritten letter.
The new Functional Skills Level 1 English Guidelines were used in assessment, with a focus on spelling, punctuation, grammar and writing composition. Work was assessed by teachers at each stage of the project.
As the project progressed teachers exchanged observations about learners’ developing skills, confidence and enjoyment of the project as the letters were exchanged.