Writers Playshop

Playing a story with clay

I’ve been playing around and exploring the idea of Writers Workshop being more like a makerspace or play space for several years. Katie Wood Ray, my number one mentor of writing with young children, speaks of writers “making stuff” in many of her professional books, and I’ve always loved this. While I fully embrace the idea of kids making books, I don’t privilege book making over other making – writers “make stuff”, and a list, a puppet or a lightsaber might be exactly what that child writes today. As I thought about how my thinking surrounding Writers Playshop has evolved, many mentors come to mind. Karen Wohlwend’s work in Literacy Playshop was one of the first books I read that challenged my thinking about workshop. Brad Buhrow and Anne Upczak Garcia showed me many different possibilities for writing in their book, Ladybugs, Tornadoes and Swirling Galaxies. I began to use their ideas many years ago when I taught first grade. This is one of my most often revisited professional books. Angela Stockman’s Make Writing was the first book I read that helped me to really envision what this might look like in the classroom. Her work continues to inspire me and make me question, revise and reflect on my practice. A few years ago, I saw Michelle Compton and Robin Thompson speak about their story workshops – they now have a wonderful resource called StoryMaking, that was published last year. When I discovered the amazing Opal School’s work at a NCTE conference three years ago, and saw the beauty that is story workshop unfolding in magical videos, articles and stories, I was in awe of what’s possible for our writers. They continue to inspire, challenge and guide my thinking. Opal School, and the resources they provide, are truly a gift to educators and to children. Building on best practice, new learning, new thinking, questioning, wondering, playing, kidwatching and reflecting, I continue to transform the way our Writers Workshop – or Writers Playshop looks. Here’s a peek into Writers Playshop in our kindergarten classroom.

Sharing a book

Our Writers Playshop is a scheduled hour every day, although kids often choose to write and do Writers Playshop activities during Explore, our free play times. We start with a short, whole group focus lesson (mini-lesson), that might be on craft, process, mechanics, genre study, interactive writing, introducing a new material, modeling a way to play out a story, oral storytelling, looking at a mentor author or reviewing routines. Then we move into our Playshop where kids are finding their stories through play of all sorts, making books, making posters, writing letters, making puppets, reading, making art or creating in some way. I confer with kids, play with kids and occasionally meet in small guided writing groups. We end our Playshop with sharing. This sharing and celebrating time often becomes another focus lesson with the kids leading the class to teach others what they tried today. You’ll notice the structure and foundation is solidly built on workshop teaching as written about by Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, and others, with choice, time, response, identity and community at the heart of the workshop.

Writers making books and making “stuff”

If you are new to writing workshop, or an experienced workshop teacher, this is an excellent resource. I’ve also written about writers workshop, here, here and here – listing many of my favorite resources. The older posts speak to my foundational beliefs about teaching writing. While my thinking has evolved and expanded over time, I still hold these beliefs true – all children are writers and writing can start on day one in kindergarten (and all grades). I start our Writers Playshop by helping children see themselves as writers and establishing identities as writers, authors and illustrators. I start this on day one in kindergarten by introducing blank books and inviting children to make books about something that is important to them – just like their favorite authors do.

Making books
Sharing a story made with painting and puppets

I then begin to add in the play component of our Writers Playshop. I slowly introduce new materials as possibilities to make stories (clay, blocks, paint, loose parts, puppets, dramatic play, etc.) – often modeling them to make a story in Writers Playshop, shortly after I’ve introduced these materials in Explore. I invite the children to find a story in these materials during Writers Playshop. I then always follow up with the invitation, “after you play your story, you could write it in a book if you want it to live forever!”. The kids take it from there!

Playing a story with loose parts
Playing a story with loose parts

We made an anchor chart together to show the difference between our Explore (free play) time and Writers’ Playshop. This helped kids I noticed weren’t yet making a story or an information text via oral storytelling or written bookmaking during Writers Playshop. I felt that it gave them a little nudge when they knew the expectation was to find a story and think of how they might share that story. We also made anchor charts about where stories live and what a story might be. Their story might be something that happened to them, a make believe story or a true story about something they know a lot about, like squirrels or winter.

How are Explore and Writers Playshop different and the same?
Ongoing “where do stories live” chart
What is a story?

Writers Playshop is a favorite time of each day! My kindergartners find stories in so many things, and are inspired to make books (and many other writing pieces) that will “live forever”. They see themselves as authors and illustrators. The making and play space of our Writers Playshop is accessible to all, and highly engaging. It is playful literacy and pure joy.

“We need a basket of OUR books in the library!”

Here are a few more of my favorite resources if you’re interested in bringing play to your writers workshops: Opal School Story Workshop Blog Post 1; Opal School Story Workshop Blog Post 2; Story Workshop Video; Equity and Access Through Story Workshop; Starting With Story Workshop – Opal School Please share your stories of how you make writing a playful, joyful time in your day! Happy playing and happy writing!

Cell phones made during Writers Playshop
Puppets and a file folder setting to tell a story

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey – Renowned Early Childhood Educator

Our Day in K

So what does a day in a public, Title 1, kindergarten classroom look like? Part of why I love teaching kindergarten is the adventure that each day brings. I can make a schedule, have a plan, do a whole lot of prep work – and have that all go a different direction once my kids enter the room. That said, I do believe that a predictable structure, routines that kids help create and continually revise to meet their changing needs, and a co-constructed curriculum are important and essential. I listen and respond to what the kids bring into each day. I put a great deal of thought and big picture planning into our days, and then remain continually responsive to the children in our classroom and what I observe each day through kid watching and documentation. As I’ve written about before, I teach children, not a curriculum.

Here’s a general structure of our classroom – at least the one I left last week. When we return in January we will negotiate this again, and through conversations and observation, we will create a structure that works for who we are in January. There are a few non-negotiables that I have in our daily schedule. These are the things that I know are best practice teaching after 28 years in the classroom and my ongoing professional development. They are: play, recess, shared reading, read aloud, literacy & math workshops, interactive writing, and community meetings. How and when we do these things looks different over time as the children grow and change, but they are always a part of every day life in kindergarten. And yes, play is a non-negotiable, because, as we know, play is how children learn. The times are approximate, and our day is more fluid than this appears. For example, you will often see kids reading, making books, engaging with a science or social studies invitation or investigating a math concept during Explore – if that’s their choice for play that day. Oftentimes kids will come in with an exciting idea for a new book to make, or an idea for an art piece or a structure to build. Starting the day with Explore allows them to dive into whatever they are interested in as soon as they arrive. Here is an overview of how our day flows:

  • 8:25-8:45 – Arrival, breakfast, Explore (open ended play with options such as dramatic play, sand, sensory boxes, blocks, puppets, art, math )
  • 8:45-9:10 – News Show, Morning Meeting, Morning Message, Read Aloud (gathering together and sharing what’s on our minds in a whole class conversation to start our day, our daily letter, and a read aloud)
  • 9:10-10:10 – Explore (open ended play – I engage in play with the kids, facilitate an invitation on a content area (like counting collections, magnet play or squirrels) and meet with kids 1:1 or in small groups)
  • 10:10-10:40 – Mathematicians’ Workshop (whole group number talk and math routines, small group or individual exploration and play, whole group share)
  • 10:40-11:00 – Recess (on the playground structure)
  • 11:00-11:30 – Lunch
  • 11:30-11:45 – Storytelling (oral storytelling based on Vivian Gussin Paley’s work – children tell a brief story, I record it and then they act it out with children taking on the role of characters and settings as I read the story)
  • 11:45-12:45 – Specials (PE, Music, Art, Guidance – I am in collaborative team meetings two days a week during this time, the other days are common planning time with my team)
  • 12:45-1:30 – Readers’ Workshop (whole group interactive read aloud, shared reading and/or strategy lesson, inquiry into what readers do, individual and partner reading from book boxes, shared reading charts, classroom library, poetry notebooks, acting out familiar books with props and story language, whole group sharing – I meet with kids 1:1 and occasionally in small groups)
  • 1:30-2:00 – Recess (in a field and garden)
  • 2:00-3:00 – Writers’ Playshop (whole group focus lesson on things such as author’s craft, inquiry into a type of genre, finding stories through play, what writers do – then choices of making books, posters, various writing choices and finding stories in open ended play – I play with the kids, confer 1:1 and meet with small groups, ending in whole group share)
  • 3:00-3:20 – Friendship Workshop (whole group meeting with read alouds, puppets, conversations, problem solving – focusing on building a growth mindset, friendships, our One Big Word, community and the social curriculum)
  • 3:20 – Closing Circle, Dismissal (end of day math routines, songs, packing up)

I always find it challenging to write out a daily schedule because there is SO much more that goes on beyond what is listed. And our day just isn’t so segmented. For example, you might be asking, “where’s your science time?”. While science is not listed as a set time, there is a great deal of science happening throughout Explore, in small groups, in read aloud, shared reading and monthly walking field trips. We’ve been studying squirrels (as required by my district) for the past five weeks. The amount of knowledge our kids have is mind-blowing – not because of a 45 minute science block, but because of ongoing discovery, conversation and observation of squirrels. We danced the squirrel life cycle, observed & painted squirrels, watched squirrel TV (who knew?), went on walks looking for squirrel dreys, read countless books on squirrels, wrote our own squirrel books and played with squirrel habitats during Explore for weeks. My kids were so engaged during our squirrel study and are all quite the experts. While this was a teacher-initiated study, the kids had ongoing interest and explored squirrels well beyond the curriculum expectations.

Our workshops follow the foundation established by Donald Graves, Mary Ellen Giacobbe, Lucy Calkins, Nancie Atwell, Katie Wood Ray and others, with the key elements of: time, choice, response, identity & community. They have a predictable structure and begin with a short focus lesson, move into independent workshop time and end with coming back together as a community to share. But this is all done in a way that is appropriate for kindergarteners. And not all kindergarteners (since we know children are vastly different), but the kindergarteners I have at this moment. Playful, joyful, learning and discovery has to be at the heart of this work. The last thing we want to do is to turn off our youngest learners by focusing so much on a curriculum that we forget these are four, five and six year old capable human beings. The independent workshop time looks very different every day during our literacy and math workshops. It might be independent reading, creating stories while playing in dramatic play, a small group shared reading, interactive writing of a letter to a friend who has moved away, building a structure from blocks and loose parts while writing a book about it, playing with Magnatiles, exploring patterns with a variety of tools, reading a leveled text, playing and retelling a story with puppets, or counting collections – just to name a few possibilities. But the work that children are engaging in always goes back to the elements of workshop: time, choice, response, identity and community.

The laser tag project – started in Explore and continued in Writers’ Playshop for several weeks

I wrote this blog in response to numerous requests by teachers to share what our schedule is and what our day looks like. Many of these requests were by teachers who shared that they just didn’t have time for play, or that play wasn’t allowed in their district or they didn’t see a way to do all the academic requirements that are now a reality in kindergarten, along with play. As I wrote before, I believe that play is a non-negotiable. It’s as essential as lunchtime, in my opinion. It is how children learn. As teachers, we have to advocate for our kids, read the research, be informed, share our thinking with others, and at times, be subversive in our relentless pursuit for what children need to grow and thrive as happy learners. I hope this gives you a window into our day and perhaps opened up some possibilities for how you might think about your day, with your kids, to make sure every day is filled with joyful, playful learning and discovery.

It’s Their Day, Too

2014-12-05 12.41.58I recently read a blog post written by a mother, sharing how frustrating some days can be. I related to this post not as a mother, but as a teacher. It’s easy to get caught up in things that can suck the energy out of our teaching – the trainings that often don’t directly relate to the work we do with our students, the new mandates and requirements that are handed out, the lack of planning time, the lack of support from our administration, colleagues, (or even our nation), the slow response of systems that are supposedly in place to help our kids, the constant addition of things we must do, the lack of time to do these things, the endless assessments, the constant raising of the bar, the negative perception of how we do our jobs and how we all just need to work harder/better/faster. It can be exhausting.

2014-12-05 14.36.46When I find myself getting sucked into this frustration, I have to stop and get grounded again. It’s not all about my day and my huge to-do list and my deadlines, benchmarks and expectations. It’s about the kids. It’s about being present and in the moment. It’s about listening.

Our children come to us each day to learn, to grow, to have fun. To laugh, to explore, to be in awe of something. To discover things for the first time, to have that “a-ha” moment, to change perspectives, to open their eyes to a new way of thinking, to find a passion. It’s their day, too.

2014-12-05 14.36.50Some of my best days of teaching look nothing like what’s on the lesson plan. They come from listening to my kids, following their lead, and remembering why I am a teacher. Some days the lesson plans and assessments need to be pushed aside and I need to sit down with my kids while they explore worms in a nature box. I need to be there to help them find a worm book in the class library and listen as they wonder and investigate the worms crawling on their hands. I need to laugh with them, wonder with them and encourage them.  I need to run to the art room for paper to cover our play stand because they decided a gingerbread house needs to be built today. Not next week, but NOW. Because NOW is where five year olds live. I need to stand back as they gather all the gingerbread men books we’ve read to decide what characters they should make to put inside the gingerbread house. I need to listen and be responsive to what they need.

2014-12-05 12.41.51Now. In this moment.

Because it’s their day, too.

Community

For many of my early years in teaching I spent a significant amount of time before school started designing the *perfect* behavior management system. I had the colored cards, boxes on desks with tokens, and one year an elaborate system that involved a fancy bulletin board and names on balloons that kids moved from level to level as I told them to “drop their balloon”.  And every year it was the same kids’ balloons/cards, etc. that were tattered and beat up from moving and turning them and the same kids who got to visit the treasure box or turn in tokens for rewards. Clearly, this extrinsic way of controlling behaviors was not working. Perhaps it created an illusion of an orderly classroom, (and oftentimes not) but there were always children who did not feel empowered and who were making decisions in order to “get something” or to avoid a punishment rather than to work towards a common peacefulness, community and mutual respect in our classroom.

Then, about 8 years into my teaching career,  I realized what really mattered in behavior management – and it wasn’t management at all. It was community. I really think that the heart of a successful classroom is a strong community. I don’t have a behavior plan, a behavior system, rewards, tokens, stickers, treasure boxes or anything else that, in my opinion, equates with controlling children. I don’t even have a class list of rules. Instead, I work very hard with my students from Day 1 right up to Day 180 to create a community of learners who respect, listen, care, are kind to each other and who can live together peacefully in a small space for 180 days.

So how do we do this?

We talk. A LOT. In class meetings, in role play situations, in short puppet skits that address behavior issues we need to think about as a class, and in one-on-one conferences with children who may need more guidance in becoming a part of a larger community – we work to build the relationships in our classroom. While I don’t make a list of class rules, we do create some charts together as needs arise. Charts that we construct together like, “What kind of classroom do we want to live in?” and “Words that Hurt / Words that Help” – help us keep track of our thinking as we have classroom discussions about issues that inevitably arise when many people share a small space together. I trust my kindergarteners to handle problems independently and often will say, “do you think you can handle this or do you need my help?” when a problem is brought to my attention. Most of the time, children want to be empowered to solve problems and will talk about it with their friend and come to a good solution that works for them. I want them to feel in control in our classroom and feel a shared sense of responsibility for how our classroom runs. When they do need my help we get out the puppets, do a role play, read a book that relates or have a class meeting. I turn it over to the kids with a “we have a problem in our community. How can WE solve it?”

Yes, this social curriculum takes time away from reading, writing, math, etc. But it is a critical piece of education – whether there is a standard for it or not. Children have to learn how to solve problems and how to work together in our world. They need to learn empathy, compassion, how to work through frustrations, how to build mutual respect with people they work with, and how to celebrate their successes. I want children to leave our classroom feeling empowered, with a strong sense of self-efficacy, equipped with tools to negotiate problems and issues they are going to encounter in the world. I want them to be thinkers, reasoners, questioners, problem solvers – who care a whole lot for themselves, the world and each other. Without this, it doesn’t matter what test scores, reading levels or report cards grades look like. We teach all the academic subjects, why not teach children how to create and sustain relationships, community, trust and respect. It will take them further than we can imagine.

Here are some excellent resources that I’ve read as I moved towards a child-centered, progressive classroom:

Choice Words by Peter Johnston

Learning to Trust by Marilyn Watson and Laura Ecken

On Their Side by Bob Strachota

Beyond Discipline by Alfie Kohn

Responsive Classroom materials

Playing with Books

Our read aloud time is one of my kindergarteners favorite times of the day. They love to listen to books and to talk about the books we read. Whenever I can, I will use realia or puppets while reading a book to my class. It makes the story come alive, engages all my kids and helps my ELLs connect with the book. Our Pete the Cat stuffed animal and Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet are favorites for the kids to play with after hearing the stories many times. I recently got props to go with Mrs. Wishy-Washy (a tin bucket, a cow, a horse and a duck) with the intention of using them during math for storytelling problems. While they are great for that, my kids started getting them out during our literacy stations to retell the story. They were retelling the story, sometimes using the book, sometimes not , capturing the different voices, dialogue and general storyline.  They pretended to be the characters, changing their voices to go along with the story and retold the story numerous times. This is going to become a regular literacy station in our classroom with props for other books available to play with as they retell the story or make up a new story. Thanks to a picture I saw on Twitter from @TeachLearnLive, I’m planning a Knuffle Bunny station with a cardboard box for a clothes dryer, a clothes basket and a Knuffle Bunny doll. Hattie and the Fox props are ready to go next week too. I’m looking forward to seeing what else comes out of this book play over the next several weeks. I plan on observing, listening and joining in on the play during our literacy station time. What books do you use props for? So many possibilities!