The Gummy Bear song has become a favorite in our class to dance, sing and move with. Check out the #kinderchat Symbaloo “Just Dance” mix for more favorite dance videos that are great for indoor recess, impromptu dance parties, transitions, and just to have fun! Enjoy!
Writing has been a recent topic of discussion on the #kinderchat Twitter feed. I was honored to be invited to participate in the first #kinderchat Campfire Webinar series last week with an hour chat on “Writing Joyfully”. If you’d like to listen to our recorded discussion, you can listen here. For those of you who would rather have the “Cliff Notes” version, I’m writing this blog post to summarize a few of my current thoughts on writing with young children.
Writing, to young children, is play. It is natural, engaging and fun. Kids love to write. And they write like 3, 4, 5 or 6 year olds – not like we, as adults, may define “writing”. Their books, signs, labels, etc… are full of squiggly lines, pictures, scribbles, maybe some letters and even occasionally a word or two. However, when a child makes something, and you say, “Read it to me!”, he or she can “read” it to you. What they have put on the paper has meaning to them. And they love to share that!
I view writing in a similar way to how I view oral language development and reading. I think children need lots and lots of modeling in order to take something on as his or her own. We talk to our children from before birth, engaging with them in meaningful conversation, questioning, wondering and celebrating their first attempts at talking. We don’t insist on those early words being correct, and through lots of modeling, eventually our children become proficient speakers of our language.
The same goes for reading. We read to our children from before birth, immersing them in lots of bedtime stories, read alouds and play with books. We celebrate the first time our children “read” a familiar book – turning the pages as they retell a story they’ve heard many times before. We know they aren’t reading as adults read – but we celebrate this success and know it is paving the way to independent reading.
I see writing in the same way. In our kindergarten classroom, we have two distinct types of writing- community writing and independent writing. Community writing, which includes shared writing (where the children are deciding what we want to say and the teacher is doing all of the writing – actually scribing what the children are saying in a small group or whole group setting) and interactive writing (where the children and teacher are deciding what to say and sharing the pen to write the words, again in a small or whole group setting). Both of these go under the umbrella of “community writing” because we are composing text as a community of learners together. This is the time when I am modeling what writing is. The finished text for these projects is correctly spelled and written. The teacher is filling in what is out of reach of the children. (For example, if the word we are writing is “read” – the children might call out “r e d” – the teacher honors this approximation, has a child write the r and e, then takes the pen to write the a, saying “in this word there is an a that we don’t hear”, then allowing a child to write the ending letter d) It is a model of writing that becomes shared reading in our classroom. It’s essential that the writing is correct for that reason. I don’t want to display writing that is not correct for children to read and/or use as models for their own writing. The topics for these writing projects are mostly teacher driven – connecting to science, social studies, math or literature we have worked on together, as well as functional text for our classroom (schedules, labels, signs). I am modeling what correct writing looks like with the help of the children. It is an extremely supportive environment that helps our young writers in many ways. My students are seeing and hearing me think aloud as we compose the text together. Those children who are ready to write sentences have this opportunity to see what that looks like. Those children who are just beginning to label their pictures or are exploring letter/sound relationships also see this in our writing projects. All children are seeing the “in the head” thinking of a writer getting thoughts down on paper. It is a daily teaching practice that models writing and allows children to participate within their zone of proximal development. It is paving the way to independent writing and encouraging children to take risks in their own writing.
We also have a daily Writer’s Workshop, where children are engaged in independent writing. In our classroom, this is a time when we “make stuff”. Most of the time, this is books. I model what book making is by reading lots and lots of wonderful books by authors we love. We start on day one, with 5 blank pages of paper stapled to make a book. This format evolves as a variety of book forms are discovered over the year. During independent writing time the children are working on their own (for the most part – occasionally we have co-authored books with a friend), making books about topics of their choosing. We read lots and lots of good books to use as our mentor texts, and learn from authors we love about making books. The children work at their own pace – sometimes taking many days to complete a book. I confer with the children as they are writing and they share their books with me and with the class. I take notes for myself as I talk with my writers, but I do not write on their books. If I need to remember what they wrote to take note on whether they are staying on one topic or have an understanding of how a particular genre works, for example, I write it down for me in my notes. I do not write on a child’s book at all. I teach each child differently, based on what they are ready for as a writer. I honor the fact that they are five, and are writing like a five year old. If a child decides to make a book and then I do the writing for him or her (either by writing under his or her writing, transcribing a word or two, or otherwise writing on the book), it is sending a strong message that I am the one who really knows how to write – not the child. It takes away ownership from the book. A child can “read” his or her book just fine – if we let them – and if we change our definition of what “reading” might look like – perhaps the book sounds different every time it is read. That’s fine. The child is the author and they can read it however they like.
This is a brief overview of writing in my classroom. There are many more examples and thoughts in the Webinar. Stay tuned for another post about how I use mentor texts in my classroom and how I support my young writers through various tools in our classroom. Here are a few of my mentor texts that have transformed my teaching of writing – I highly recommend: Already Ready, Interactive Writing: How Language and Literacy Come Together, Engaging Young Writers, In Pictures and In Words, Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers.
So what are your thoughts on writing? How do you help your young writers thrive?
“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
Kindergarteners come to school with a huge sense of wonder. They are constantly questioning, pondering, discovering, wondering, exploring – it’s just a natural part of who they are. I absolutely love this part of working with four and five year olds! I think it’s my job to keep that sense of wonder alive and to encourage it as a part of the learning experience. While most of us have a curriculum and/or state standards to follow, I find that the standards are simply a departure point. If I only teach the standards as they are written, in order to “cover” an objective, I miss many opportunities to get kids excited about learning. I once had an instructor tell me, “if you’re only going to cover something, you may as well bury it in the backyard.” This has stuck with me and I try very hard to create learning experiences that are ongoing, meaningful, deep and full of discoveries.
Life cycles are a part of our curriculum. Our county provides us with an ant farm, which is a fun way to study life cycles, but I like to go beyond that by extending this study throughout the year. We start the year with monarch caterpillars in our classroom. We witness the amazing transformation to butterflies and then track their migration to Mexico. In the winter we bring “baby beetles”, commonly called mealworms, into our classroom. The children observe the tiny wormlike critters go through their transformation into large, black beetles. We count, record and observe the changes. We get them out of their habitat and look at them closely, feel them crawling on our hands and experience their life cycle firsthand. We get an incubator in the spring and learn about chickens – watching the baby chicks hatch in our classroom. Through these many experiences, students truly learn our required standard about the life cycles of living creatures. They also learn much, much more.
This year my class is extremely interested in dinosaurs. I started a dinosaur box the first week of school in order to appeal to this interest. I filled it with dinosaur books, toy dinosaurs, pictures of dinosaurs and fabrics, rocks & stones to create dinosaur habitats. We also have a dinosaur sensory box, an app on our ipads that teaches kids how to draw dinosaurs as well as an app that teaches kids information about dinosaurs. Out of this play area, many children have written books to teach others about dinosaurs. They have learned how to read nonfiction texts with graphs, labels, captions, and various nonfiction text features. They are continuously drawn to the dinosaur play because it is something that interests them. They want to learn more and they want to share their learning with others. Are dinosaurs in my curriculum? No, but through the dinosaur play many of my literacy standards are being met.
Another way I try to keep wonder alive in our classroom is with our “Wonder Wall”. I first read about this idea in the fabulous book, A Place for Wonder by Georgia Heard and Jen McDonough. We have a special board in our room where we can put post-it notes about things we wonder about. This is a way to keep track of our thinking and to remind us about things we want to talk about, investigate, explore and learn more about. I keep a close eye on the Wonder Wall and use it as a launching place for classroom units of study, books we read, websites to visit and experts we might know that can come and share their knowledge with us. It’s a great way to keep track of the many wonders that kindergarteners have!
Deep learning and exploring happens when children are encouraged to follow passions, explore interests, inquire and wonder. Giving children time to explore and honoring their investigations, thoughts and discoveries allows for real learning that will stay with children forever. I try to not get caught up in the push to follow pacing guides and “cover” the curriculum. I want my teaching to be deep so that the learning sticks and is meaningful and exciting for the children. I follow the children’s lead while making sure I am accountable to the curriculum, standards and expectations of my county. It’s a juggling act of sorts, and it’s not easy, but it’s something that I can’t do any other way. I strive to be that “good fairy” and give my children the gift of a lifelong sense of wonder and to keep my sense of wonder alive each day in our classroom. I can only do that when my focus is on the children in our classroom, their interests and their needs, at this moment in time.
How are you keeping wonder alive in your classroom?
This post is cross posted on the #kinderchat blog as part of the NaBloPoMo project. Early childhood educators from all over the world have contributed to the #kinderchat blog this month for daily posts about teaching children in the early grades. Join us for our weekly chat on Twitter – 9pm EST Mondays under the #kinderchat hashtag – and for a new Webinar series starting January 30. Katie will be leading a conversation about writing in the early years at 9pm EST January 30. Join us in Blackboard Collaborate for the first #kinderchat Campfire Webinar!
My young writers continue to amaze me! We make books daily in our 45 minutes to an hour Writer’s Workshop and many children protest when it’s time to stop. But what about those friends who only last 5 minutes or so? You know them…you hand them their writing folder and before you’ve finished passing out the rest of the pile you hear it…”I’m done!” When I taught first, second and third grade we learned on the first day (a la Lucy Calkins), “when you’re done, you’ve just begun!” Children knew that writers were never “done”. They knew to add to the words or pictures, read their book to a friend for more ideas or start a new book.
But I think it’s different in kindergarten (and I would now argue in first grade as well…and even second grade…). Developmentally, 4, 5 and 6 year olds may not be ready to stick with making a book for such a long period of time. A lot of them are – but there are kids in every classroom who just aren’t there yet. The last thing I want to do is to force them to sit quietly and make books. All that’s going to do is make them hate writing.
When children proclaim they are “done”, I first ask them to read their book to me. Of course, at this point in kindergarten it’s usually reading the pictures. Then I ask them what they need to do next as a writer. I make sure my talk during this time continues to refer to them as writers, and helps them see different possibilities for what “writing” might look like. Perhaps they need to go find a stack of Mo Willems books to look at to get an idea for their next book. Maybe they need to get the toy dinosaurs out and create a scene to get an idea for their next book. Maybe they need to pull out the storytelling kit that goes with a favorite read aloud and make up a new story. I honor what the needs are at that moment, and make sure I’m not forcing the writing piece. I play the role of a gentle encourager, helping my young writers see possibilities for sharing themselves with their classmates and the world.
As I writer, I know that some days I just don’t feel like writing. I want to express myself in another way. I know that I will get back to writing tomorrow, but for now I need something else. I think our young writers feel this way too. Sometimes what my writers are doing during Writer’s Workshop isn’t making books. Maybe today as writers they are making crowns or invitations for the afternoon Explore time when the princess party will resume. As I chat with these writers, I may suggest that a “how to make a crown” book might be just the thing for the future princess party attendees. Maybe painting a picture similar to an artist we are studying is what a writer is doing. They are using a piece of art as a mentor text instead of a book. Another child may be talking to an iPad or computer as he makes a book in one of the many creative apps we have on our iPads or computers. Maybe a group of children are composing a dance to share the butterfly life cycle. They are drawing the cycle and deciding ways to act it out. Maybe another group of children are Tweeting or blogging and talking to children all around the world. The point is, writer’s workshop can (and does) look different for all children, depending on what they need at that moment as a writer.
While all of this is going on, many children are bent over their books and writing folders in what looks like a more traditional writer’s workshop – writing, drawing, creating. But others are moving, playing, talking, painting, creating like children do. And that’s OK. It’s the energy of children “making stuff”, as Katie Wood Ray talks about. And all of that “stuff” is and will become texts in many different modalities for children to share and express themselves through.
And that’s what really matters to me – that is the purpose of our Writer’s Workshop.
A young mother recently asked me if she should worry about her daughter who had just started kindergarten that week. She told me that her child could recognize and name all her letters and was very good with hearing most sounds, but when writing all on her own, she sometimes formed the letters backwards. Her preschool hadn’t done writing at all and so the child’s only experience with writing was playing in some workbooks at home that she enjoyed. Her mom happened to glance at a page where the little girl had filled in the first letters of cow, cat, snake, dog, and so on and more than 70% were written backwards. The mom had heard that reversals are a sign of learning disabilities and she wasn’t sure if she should worry about this or not.
Writing letters backwards is very normal for many children, but at what point do we put a stop to it and help out? When children are three and four years of age, I don’t interfere. But the kindergarten year is a good year for some intervention. I explained to the mom about many of the things the teacher might be doing throughout the day which would help her daughter start to realize that directionality does matter. Every single day in many of her activities, the K teacher will be modeling writing in front of the students. She’ll be talking about where to start the letter and how to form it as she does interactive writing and shared writing. While the students are creating a real message together the teacher may have them use whiteboards to form some of the letters for practice. There will be so many hundreds of examples presented throughout the day that usually those backward letters will begin to disappear.
Keep in mind that when young children are learning to look at print, this is the first experience where order and directionality matter. Prior to their encounters with print, they are used to recognizing things in their world in various positions. Think about it. There is really no sequential order or direction that matters when viewing a toy car. The child will recognize it whether is it facing forward, backward, or upside down, and it is still a toy car, no matter what position it is in. However, with printed text, such as words and letters, order and direction do matter. A c is only a c when it is facing this way. An s is not an s if it is written backwards. I’m reminded of my own grandchild at 4 1/2 who wrote ‘cta’ on a piece of paper. My husband asked, “What does that say?” She said, “It says ‘cat’.” He told her that it really was only ‘cat’ when the ‘a’ was in the middle. She answered quite confidently, “No Papa, it doesn’t matter, it’s still cat.” She, too, will soon learn that in the printed world, order does matter.
Now a word to kindergarten and first grade teachers. This is the time to support children in learning how to form letters correctly. Does that mean I support 30 minutes of handwriting every day? No. In Chapter 5 of our text, Catching Readers Before They Fall, we talk about the comprehensive framework that we use in our classrooms. Please refer to that to see how Katie, in her primary classrooms, has always included directionality and learning letters and sounds through all sorts of reading and writing activities. If teachers are carefully observing their students during writing times, they can support them in learning ways not only to form letters, but also ways to become independent in checking on themselves. Problems only arise when children are left alone during their kinder and first grade years to make the backward letters over and over and over again. Marie Clay says, “Only careful monitoring will assure me that the child is not becoming confused and practicing inappropriate behaviors…..(A child) may practice behaviors day after day for a year, and that will handicap his subsequent progress.” (Literacy Lessons I, page 11.) Therefore, kindergarten teachers should be constantly observing their writers. It is so much easier to correct directionality issues at this early stage then to let it go and have a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade teacher try to ‘undo’ years of backwards letters and words.
I often recommend that K teachers make sure that the child has the letter ‘c’ under control. Why? Because ‘c’ is so useful in forming other letters that often become backward letters. Make an ‘s’ – “It starts like a ‘c’ and then down and around.” Make an ‘a’ – “It starts like a ‘c’ and then up and down.” Make a ‘g’ – “It starts like a ‘c’, then up, and the all the way down with a hook.” So how do we get that ‘c’ solid; going in the right direction? It’s best to stand the child in front of a large white board or chalkboard (making the letter LARGE first is very helpful.) If the child is right-handed, have her place her left hand, palm down on the board. With the marker or chalk in her right hand, have her say, “towards my hand, ‘c'” as she is making the letter. (Reverse, if the child is left-handed, saying, “Away from my hand, ‘c’.”)
One last tip. What about the famous b/d reversals? I teach how to form these letters in two different ways. When you teach both by starting with the stick, the child gets confused as to which side to put the ball on. I teach ‘b’ by doing the stick first and then the ball, but then I give the child an index card with the capital B on it. The child has to do the self-monitoring. Did I make the ball on the same side as the capital B? He now has a way to check it on his own.
For forming the letter ‘d’, I DON’T have them start with a stick. Instead I teach them to “start with a ‘c’ and then add the line.” You can even sing the first four letters of the ABC song…. a, b, c, d (emphasize the letters c and d) as you form the letter ‘d’.
Hope this all makes sense. It’s a lot easier to explain to someone who is right in front of me than to write it down. The whole point is that for this particular mom it was too early to worry. Her daughter seemed to be doing fine in all other aspects of literacy; she just had had little experience with writing. Hopefully with a strong kindergarten experience, the problem will take care of itself. If, however, a teacher or parent finds the problems persist to the end of kindergarten and into first grade, you may want to try some of the activities on pages 117-119 of our text. These would only be necessary in rare cases.
A few months ago I did a series of posts on Explore , a time for kids to play. I shared how we did this in my kindergarten classroom, and wondered how this might look in the upper grades. Well, two of my amazing colleagues, Devon Parks and Tara Boone, decided to take on the challenge of incorporating play into their daily lives – in 5th grade. Here is their story of how they started and what they are noticing in their classrooms. Enjoy!
“I feel like a Kindergartener!”
“Yeah it feels good, doesn’t it?”
-Two 5th graders commenting on upper grade play
How can we foster creativity? How can we encourage students to collaborate? What can we do to incorporate choice in a jam-packed curriculum? How can we foster a love of learning in ALL of our students? These are questions that we asked ourselves as we entered our second year of teaching 5th grade. Still feeling overwhelmed from the process of learning a new curriculum, and the pressure to produce high achieving students, we wondered what we could do in our day to address these questions and make school more enjoyable for both the students and teachers.
At a professional development staff meeting on play in the primary grades, we received the answers to our questions. During a discussion about play in the primary grades, our principal provoked us to think about how play could be customized to work in the upper grades. Why hadn’t we thought of this before!? After sharing ideas about how play could work in the upper grades with teachers in a variety of grade levels, we went to the masters of play, Kindergarten. We visited a Kindergarten classroom with our students and observed what play looks like in their rooms. We were delighted with what we saw. The Kindergarteners were working together to create wonderful projects using a variety of resources that had been left for them to decide how to use. They were using technology in ways we had never imagined with children so young. They were happy, they were collaborating, and they were passionately learning about topics that interested them. Play also created an opportunity for the teacher to work with kids one-on-one. We left Kindergarten that day excited about the opportunities we could create for meaningful play in our own classrooms.
We began our centers by going through each subject area we covered and thinking about what materials we could use from those units to open up as a center. At first it was difficult, but we soon realized as we went through our curriculum, materials quickly lent themselves as center items. Students now use the jars, measuring cups, leftover water bottles, milk jugs and funnels to create their own water station where they estimate the volume of containers and measure to confirm their predictions. Flashlights, mirrors, prisms and other materials from our light and sound unit are left for students to continue their explorations. Our science lead teacher gathered prepared slides and taught the students how to use microscopes to look at specimens. Links are posted and shared with students on our Blackboard site, opening another realm of possibilities for extensions of subject areas on classroom computers. Notebook files and Internet links that are easily manipulated on the SMARTBoard are available for use on the class SMARTBoard. Blocks and other materials allow students to build whatever structures they wish. A variety of art supplies are available for students to use at free will. All math supplies and games, as well as strategy games are available to students at this time as well. Students choose the center they want to work at and are able to switch between activities at their discretion. Now we barely have to think about what we could make available for play. The materials rapidly change as we move through our curriculum, keeping our students interested.
Since we implemented a time for play, our students have become masters of play. We spent about 20 minutes the first day going over how materials should be used and put away and what the classroom should look and sound like at this time. Visiting a Kindergarten classroom before we began really helped our upper grade students to understand how play should look. Students work with a variety of partners encouraging one another through challenging tasks. All students are engaged and working together while teachers are able to pull students for quick one-on-one attention.
The excitement and enthusiasm for play in our classrooms puts smiles on our faces and makes us feel like we are truly supporting and extending our curriculum in a meaningful and engaging manner. We are lucky to work at a school where administration, teachers and staff are all interested in the best, most meaningful ways to reach our students and therefore, to have the opportunity to incorporate play into our regular day. Although we can’t necessarily measure in numbers, the impact play has had on our classroom, we can observe our students engaged in a variety of opportunities for learning they would have never been exposed to otherwise. However, we are able to measure students making academic progress in many areas while incorporating play in the daily schedule. As it turns out, play has been the answer to our questions all along.
Last week I was in Asheville for Spring Break, enjoying running the beautiful mountain trails there. I met two women at a bike & outdoor shop bar one evening and we started talking. The women were on a mountain biking vacation from Canada and had left their children and husbands at home. It came up in conversation that I was a kindergarten teacher, and one of the women asked me if I could tell her the top 3 things she should be doing to prepare her 2 and 4 year old children for kindergarten. Without hesitation, I told her – read to them, play with them and talk with them.
She seemed a bit surprised. She said of course she was doing those things – but what could she do to really prepare them? And then she immediately stopped, took a step back, and said, “wait – you mean everyone doesn’t do that?”
I wish all of my children came in to kindergarten with 4 years of rich, enjoyable read aloud experiences – tons of imaginative journeys they’ve taken with forts in their living rooms, fairy houses in the backyard, castles built out of refrigerator boxes, blocks and Lego creations, cardboard arcades built, time spent running from dragons, swimming with mermaids or whatever else their imagination created for them – and hours of talk with family members who not only ask questions but stop to really listen to what their young children have to say, wonder about, dream up and talk about. But the reality is that many of our kids don’t. So that’s my job. I want kindergarten to be a time for my students to hear hundreds of amazing books read aloud, to play for hours with things that interest them and with their own imaginations and to have lots and lots of time to talk and to listen, to talk and to be listened to.
Of course there are many other things that I rank with high importance as well, but my top 3…read, play and talk. Those are the things I wish all new parents knew about and made a priority for their child’s learning and development.
And the things I wish all early childhood classrooms provided for their young learners.
What are your 3 things ?