Teaching Students, Not the Curriculum

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Thanks to Heather for sharing this timely quote!

I often say, “I teach children – not the curriculum, program or standard”. I can’t remember where I first heard this statement, but I love it and I truly believe this. My children – the ones I’m teaching RIGHT NOW – are first and foremost in my mind as I plan, set up invitations and provocations and determine the next steps in my instruction. I use a wide variety of resources provided by the state, my county, my school, my colleagues and my own professional library – but I believe they are resources, not a prescribed script to follow. My plans are constantly changing and evolving, in response to the five and six year olds in my classroom. This doesn’t mean that I wing it. Not at all! I spend a lot of time planning the framework of our day, looking at individual students and where they are in their ZPD and making instructional decisions based on my research, beliefs and philosophy of how children learn. But I don’t consider myself a “Responsive Classroom” teacher or a “Units of Study” teacher. You will see much of the philosophy of Responsive Classroom because I believe in a constructivist approach and that the social curriculum is at the heart of what we do; you will see a balanced literacy approach and you will see Writer’s Workshop and Reader’s Workshop because I believe (and have believed and taught this way for 24 years) in a framework of time, choice and response. But within that framework, every year looks a little different – based on the kids in our room that year. It’s kind of like building a house. The framework stays the same on most houses, but what’s inside is different depending on who lives there. The framework of my teaching is the same – a workshop approach, balanced literacy approach, constructivist, inquiry-based learning – but the details of how it looks each year is different, based on who lives in our classroom that year.

I worry that in today’s climate of one-size-fits-all instruction, with increasing kits, units and books that pre-plan lessons down to the minute being hailed as the “answer” to educational problems, that teachers aren’t being challenged to think. Are we reading the script or lesson that another teacher used with her kids, blindly following what “the experts” say to do?

Or are we reading the lessons carefully, reflecting on how it will work in our classroom, with our students, discussing and collaborating with colleagues about the lessons, and then planning a lesson that we own, along with our current students? I hope we are. I hope we are trusting ourselves and supporting each other. And I hope our schools are providing the time and support for all teachers, and especially our new teachers, to think deeply about instruction.

We can’t stop thinking, reflecting, questioning and challenging our own best teaching – and the resources we use. And we can’t forget that we teach children – not a curriculum.

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A project coming to life in Writer’s Workshop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing on Day One of Kindergarten

Writer's Workshop

Writer’s Workshop

“The fastest way to teach a child to read is to teach them to write.” -Mem Fox

In one week, I will start my 24th year of teaching with a group of eager, squiggly, excited kindergarteners. One of the things we do on the very first day is start Writer’s Workshop. I begin by reading David Shannon’s ever popular book, No, David! In the front of the book is an author’s note, explaining how he got the idea for No, David! I share that with my kindergarteners and then tell them that they are authors, just like David Shannon. And in our classroom, they will get to make books every day – just like David Shannon! I then pass out a 5 page stapled blank book to each student and send them off to make a book. After four years of doing this with kindergarteners, I have never had a student ask what to write about, say they couldn’t write or question this task at all. They get excited and carry on – making books. Just like David Shannon. It’s really quite amazing to watch.

Last year I was invited by the folks at #kinderchat to participate in their Campfire Chat series. I did two Blackboard Collaborate sessions and wrote a blog post about writing in my classroom. If you would like to hear more about the possibilities of writer’s workshop in kindergarten and beyond, check out Campfire Chat 1 and Campfire Chat 2 – Writing Joyfully. When you launch these, you may have to download the Blackboard Collaborate Launcher. Once the program opens, click Playback – Player – Play on the top bar. You will then get the hear and view the recorded presentation. Enjoy and have a great year of writing with your class!

Writing in Kindergarten

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.

Making dinosaur books

Making dinosaur books

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.

The Mitten - interactive writing

The Mitten – interactive writing

Week 10 039

Community writing to label book baskets

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.

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Angry Birds vs. Lizard – cover of a book

Writer's Workshop

Writer’s Workshop

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?

Expressing ourselves in Writer’s Workshop

Co-authoring a book to give to a child who had a birthday in our room. The crowns were made first!

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.

Playing with animals in Writer’s Workshop

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.

We make books!

Friday was the 9th day of school – and the 9th day of Writer’s Workshop in our kindergarten classroom. We make books every day after lunch, a routine that was established on the very first day of school. Our Writer’s Workshop begins by reading or revisiting a book and talking about the author. I introduced David Shannon as the first author we studied. We read No, David! and I shared the author’s note on the inside cover where David talks about how he got the idea for this book. I sent my 4 and 5 year olds off with 5 pages of stapled, blank pieces of paper to “make books, just like David Shannon!” Every single one of my kindergarteners then proceeded to make a book – and many complained when I called them back to the rug after 30 minutes of writing time. I had to reassure them that we would have time tomorrow and every day to write. We shared our books then – princess books, dinosaur books, truck books, kitten books, cowboy books – all of the children had chosen a different topic and made a book about the topic that was important to them. If I didn’t know better, I would say it was magic.

But it’s not magic – it’s carefully planned teaching and honoring children’s imagination, development and ability. I call my students “authors” from Day 1. I set up that first day of Writer’s Workshop as a time that is so special, so wonderful, so extraordinary that we will do it every single day! I want them to see themselves as authors and live into that identity. I want them to understand what a writer is and what a writer does. I carefully choose books and authors to study that can help build this identity. We talk about how authors write about what they know. Joy Cowley wrote Chameleon, Chameleon because she knows a lot about chameleons. So if one of my kindergarteners knows a lot about dinosaurs, then it only makes sense that she makes a book about that. I don’t need to dole out topics – children come to us full of things they know about and things that are important to them. I help them see how anything can be made into a book and how they can start living like writers. A story that is shared during morning meeting, read alouds throughout the day, something that happens in the classroom or dramatic play scenarios all get my response of, “wow, you could make a book about that!” I help the young writers in my classroom see themselves as writers through a great deal of talk, a lot of book and author sharing and modeling my own writing. As Katie Wood Ray says, “Children need to understand that everyday, ordinary people make books by doing everyday, ordinary things – writing words and drawing pictures – and that they can make them too.” (Already Ready, Ray & Glover, 2008)

How is your Writer’s Workshop going?

What ways do you help your students create an identity as a writer?