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

Interactive Storytelling

This past fall I attended a wonderful conference in Washington, DC. – the Children Are Citizens conference. While I left with much to think about and try in my classroom, the one thing I implemented immediately was storytelling. Georgina Ardalan, @georgina_in_dc, led an outstanding session on interactive storytelling. She shared a video with Ben Mardell using Vivian Paley’s storytelling and story-acting approach, and then shared how she uses this in her pre-K classroom. Finally, the participants got to experience this fun interactive storytelling. It was amazing!

I took this back to my classroom and started it the next day. The process is simple, but I’ve found it to be extremely powerful and so much fun. It’s definitely a favorite part of our day.

First, the storyteller thinks of a story. We have a storyteller each day and their name is on our calendar so they know when it’s their day. I encourage them the day before to think about what their story might be. The storyteller tells their story to me, as the class listens. I write it down as they tell the story – on my clipboard, writing fast to keep up with the story. This is not a shared writing. The writing is just for me. Most stories at this point in kindergarten are 5-6 sentences long. After the story is told, I read it back to the storyteller – one sentence at a time, asking them if that’s what they want it to say and making any revisions. The class listens and asks any questions or for clarifications they might need. This on-the-spot revising has been really wonderful in helping kids elaborate and use more details in their stories.

Next, we determine who the characters are, and what the setting is. We do this together. Then we decide what parts we need actors and actresses for. Often the kids want someone to play roles beyond the characters. For example, if a story takes place at the beach, someone will play the beach. If there’s a toy or piece of furniture in the story, a child will pretend to be that. I let the kids decide what roles we need people to pretend to be. The storyteller then chooses whether they want to play a role in the story or if they want to be in the audience. Then the other roles are assigned to kids.

Next, we move to the space on the rug where the audience sits, and the actors and actresses get on the rug space that is the “stage”. I give them a minute to talk and plan how they are going to play their roles, and then we start the story-acting! I read the story as the kids act it out. We usually have time to act out the story twice, with different kids playing the different roles, in our daily 15 minute storytelling time.

Through this daily storytelling, I’ve seen the kids have a much deeper understanding of and enjoyment with:

  • oral language and communicating with others in a clear way
  • community building through sharing stories that are important
  • characters and setting
  • beginning, middle and end
  • adding details to stories to help your reader or listener
  • revising to make a story clearer
  • adding dialogue to make a story even better
  • how to use movement and facial expressions to communicate an idea or feelings
  • listening and asking questions to understand a story better
  • listening and enjoying a performance – what is the role of the audience
  • creating stories on their own during Writers’ Playshop (I always remind the storyteller that they can make a book of their story so that this story will live forever – many kids choose to do this.)

At the end of first quarter, we did an assessment of the books that children have written. Every single child in our classroom is able to write a 3-5 (or more) page book, on one topic, with a beginning, middle and end. Many of the books had details I would expect to see much later in the year such as, dialogue and more complex story lines, characters and settings. I think the daily storytelling has played a huge role in this. The transfer from the oral, interactive storytelling to the children’s own writing is clearly evident. And the fun we have every day during this time is the best!

Below are two videos from storytelling in our classroom. Enjoy!

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.

Our Environment

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“In order to act as an educator for the child, the environment has to be flexible: it must undergo frequent modification by the children and the teachers in order to remain up-to-date and responsive to their needs to be protagonists in constructing their knowledge.”

Lella Gandini (1998)

 

One of the “big kid” visitors who stops by our classroom every morning before school asked me, “why do you have so many cool things in your room?”. It was a question that has stuck with me. Why do I have so many “cool things” in our room?

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I’m a firm believer that the environment is the third teacher, responsive to both teachers and children creating learning together. We co-construct and negotiate the curriculum together. My classroom can’t look like a cookie cutter model, identical to the one across the hall or identical to the classroom from last year. It must grow and evolve based on who is living in the space right now. I believe that our classroom environment can help shape the identities of the children in that classroom and their relationships with each other. Our space gives power and agency to the children in our room.

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As I look carefully around the room, I see reflections of the children everywhere. The rainforest was created by them, planned, designed and brought to fruition by the kids who took on this challenge. The block area was redesigned by moving it into a bigger space to allow for more children to build – again, initiated by the children. The huge kidney shaped table is a large collaborative work space for art projects – not a reading table with the teacher at the center. The linear calendar reflects important dates for this class – important events, birthdays, field trips, learning experiences that keep track of our shared journey through this school year. One of our bookshelves became an engineering center to store the marble run, the legos, and other building tools because this year the kids are avid builders. Our storytelling kits reflect dances we’ve done (like our baby beetle dance) and books we have read, with tiny toys to retell the experiences we’ve had. There is a basket of Pokemon cards and Pokemon toys that kids have brought in. The kid’s book boxes are overflowing with books that have been chosen by the reader of each individual book box. The classroom library is arranged and labeled by these kids, in a way that works for them. The chandelier that hangs in the center of our room has pieces of art that each child created that is representative of who they are. The photos scattered throughout our room are of children and their families and shared experiences we want to remember. And because I am also a member of this community, my small teaching table has a few things that bring me joy and that I want to share with this community – a picture of me and Judy Blume, a unicorn tape dispenser, a peacock feather, a bowl of shiny rocks – but it is also a work space for children. The mandatory teacher desk I’m required to have in my room serves a great purpose as a stand up work space for provocations and displays that the children create. Currently, it houses materials to build Calder-inspired mobiles and sculptures.

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So why do I have so many “cool things” in our room? Because I have a lot of cool kids. The classroom a reflection of who they are – as individuals and as a community. They own it, and more importantly, they know they have a say in it. Their voices are heard and they are encouraged to contribute and create. They help negotiate what is in the classroom, what goes on our walls, what the space looks like and what is available to explore and create with. Their lives and interests are reflected in the space and it evolves as the children evolve. It’s a collaborative experience of many identities brought together in a year of learning.

 

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Day 10

 

 

Leprechauns and Jaguars

It’s Friday afternoon Explore time in my kindergarten classroom and we have a lot going on. The room is buzzing with the happy sounds of children learning, talking, playing, negotiating problems and enjoying each other. It’s how we begin and end every day.

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A group of kids are working intently on building a leprechaun trap. They are debating ways in which to catch the leprechaun without hurting him. Or “her”, as the conversation turns to deciding what gender leprechauns are, because, “leprechauns can be girls, too…it wouldn’t be fair if leprechauns were all boys, right? Fairies can be girls or boys and leprechauns are the same way.” They decide that having a whole lot of tape on the walls, floor and ceiling will make the leprechaun stick no matter where it runs around in the trap. They then contemplate what will happen if we do catch a leprechaun. Will we build it a house…or maybe it can just live in the fairy house? That one is still up for debate.

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At the art table, two kids are carefully constructing masks to be jaguars in our rainforest dramatic play area. They are looking closely at a picture, talking about the teeth, counting the number of whiskers, picking out materials that will make the mask look and feel like a jaguar and making big plans for the jaguar play that will begin next week. (ummmm…that may be my SOL on Monday…yikes.)

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Meanwhile, a group of kids are building a structure with MagnaTiles and unifix cubes. The unifix cubes are Minecraft people who live in the structure made of squares, triangles and rectangles. The kids talk about what shapes they are using, how to make the structure stronger and deciding roles that each person will play as they go in and out of this structure. To be honest, I don’t really understand the Minecraft play, or the significance of 3 unifix cubes as a person, (and believe me, it HAS to be 3!) but the five kids deeply engaged in the play do. And that’s all that matters.

Finally, a few kids are making mobiles and sculptures inspired by Alexander Calder and our visit to the National Gallery. They are building their art and talking about what the shapes look like, what colors they are and how they could fit together. They are cooperating, collaborating and so very proud of their art.

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I stop and take it all in. Kidwatching. As I watch and listen, I am in awe, yet again, by the power of play. The thinking and creating that happens during our Explore time goes way beyond any standards or curriculum. It’s kid created, meaningful, authentic and deep.  I am grateful to be in a school where play is allowed, honored, encouraged and respected as a critical part of our early childhood classrooms. I wish all schools, and all children, had that gift.

Nothing without joy.

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Day 9