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!

“Islands of Certainty” – Learning Sight Words

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Sight words. Flash words. Fast words. Word wall words. Popcorn words. High frequency words. Dolch words. Fry words. Whatever you want to call them – they are the words that appear most often in printed materials. Having a solid core of automatically recognized  sight words makes a huge difference in fluency and comprehension. It allows readers and writers to navigate text more easily, and spend more energy focusing on constructing meaning, problem solving and writing more complex words.

Marie Clay referred to words that children know instantaneously as “islands of certainty, in a sea of print”. She writes that, “in the familiar story the child locates a word he knows and builds a response around it.  Then the child’s reading of text comes to be controlled by particular words even though he can only recognize one or two words” (Clay, 1991). This reminds us of the importance of making sure that everything we do is in the service of meaning. We can’t simply teach kids lists of words to memorize or put these words on flash cards. We have to focus on teaching these words in meaningful text and show our readers how these known words can be “islands of certainty.” We have to help our readers and writers see how to make these words theirs, and how they can use that knowledge in their reading and writing.

Once I’ve determined which words are already known and automatic for each child, I plan the words to introduce for each student and/or group. I typically introduce a new word at the end of a guided reading group, or during interactive writing, but occasionally I do this in a one-on-one reading conference. Regardless, I always make sure it is introduced within the context of meaningful text – either a book we are reading together or a piece of interactive writing.

Selecting a word to teach:

-look at your pre-assessment to determine which word to teach

-choose a high frequency word (four-letter words are easier to learn, don’t start with two-letter words – Marie Clay speaks of this in Literacy Lessons, II. She states that the four-letter words that are frequently used, like: “‘come’, ‘look’, like’, ‘here’, and ‘this’, provide a better introduction to how words work in English than two-letter words like ‘to’, ‘is’, ‘at’, ‘on’, ‘up’, ‘it’ and ‘me’. In some ways, two-letter words are hard, exceptional, and they do not contribute much to dealing with the sequencing or clustering of letters in the language.” (p.41) Also, two-letter words are often visually confusing (on/in, is/si, no/on))

-look for one that occurs in a book the group has read (connect to the known, keep meaning first)

Teaching a new sight word:

Breaking a word into letters:

-teacher quickly assembles a word with magnetic letters on a board on the right hand side of the board

-the teacher demonstrates, with deliberate movements, breaking out the letters – sliding the letters, one at a time, from first to last, to the left on the board – building the word again – then read the word while running finger under the word

-invite a child to try building the word, carefully observing and supporting the left to right movement – then reading the word together

Tracing a word:

-teacher writes word with dry erase marker, then reads the word

-invite child to trace over the letters with her finger, ensure left to right tracing

Connecting to meaningful text:

-look back in the book you’ve read to find the word, search and locate the word on several pages

Connect with writing high frequency words:

-explain that we can learn to write words by learning to look at them carefully when we read

-tell the student to look at the word (either written or the magnetic letters) – run your finger under the word and read it slowly

-ask the child to read it slowly and/or run his finger under it – “Look at it carefully.” – ask the child what they notice about the word

-ask the child to take a picture of it in their brain – ask the child to close his eyes and see the word in his head.  “Can you see the first part? The next part? The last part?”

-ask him to open his eyes and look again at the written word – “run your finger under it and say it slowly”

-invite the child to write the word without looking – if he is hesitant, tell him he can look where you have it written, if he needs to

-the child should say the word slowly as he writes

-compare the word in the book to the one with magnetic letters and to the one the child has written again, reading the words – talk again about what they notice

-remind the child that this is one of their words now, it’s in their brain and they will be able to read and write it from now on and forever!

 

What’s most important is that kids have time to then practice reading these new words in the books they read. They need to see how reading these words fast will allow them to pay attention to other challenges in the books they read and the books they write. They need to have time to read, talk to others, and make meaning from texts that are just right for them. This is when knowing the sight words has the most power – allowing the reader to focus on making meaning, problem solving and constructing a reading processing system.

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Currently – In Our Classroom

watching – tall block towers, pieces of art in various stages of completion, children making books, book boxes bursting at the seams, a vet clinic that has just about lost the excitement, legos that have been made into Bayblades and are spinning all over the room

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listening – to children talk about art, “I see….I think…I feel….”, and to children learning how to navigate conversations in authentic ways

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appreciating – the freedom to allow kids to play and a large space to give kids multiple spaces to play, work and live for 180 days

loving – the excitement around our field trip to the National Gallery of Art tomorrow

dancing – the life cycle of a mealworm, which is actually not a worm, but an insect – they become baby beetles

wishing – for more time to do documentation of all the learning that happens every day

planning – the launch of our next PBL – creating an geometry art museum

creating – a collaborative art piece on a canvas with blues and greens for the background – looking forward to adding more things to our mixed media piece

reading – Art Is…, Alfie: (The Turtle That Disappeared), Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, The Big Umbrella, The Water Princess, Sandy’s Circus: A Story About Alexander Calder, Action Jackson, Be Kind, The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, Love

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writing – nonfiction books, guided reading books for my kids about friends and things they love, labels for our beautiful stuff to create with

wondering – about Reggio practices, about culturally relevant teaching, about what worked well today and what didn’t, about where we are going next

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Day 6

What Kind of Class Do We Want?

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*Update: After presenting at the WLU conference in July 2018, several people tweeted out my “Who We Are” charts. I’ve revised this previous blog post with charts from the past 3 years and updated book recommendations. Enjoy!

I love the way winter break is like pushing the reset button. I’ve enjoyed relaxed days with friends, family, books and the mountains. It’s been fabulous. It’s recharged my mind, my body and my soul. I’ve allowed myself to step away from my classroom (physically and mentally) and now I feel a renewed sense of excitement, energy and possibility as I get ready to return in a few days.

My kids and I have enjoyed 17 days off. While it’s been wonderful, I know that January 3rd is going to be like starting all over again in many ways. Seventeen days to a five and six year old is an eternity. But I love the idea of a second “first day” of sorts. It’s a chance to re-establish our community, to get to know one another again, to reteach those things that were falling apart in December and to revisit what kind of class we are. It’s like a blank slate that we can create together again.

One thing I always do that first week back is to ask my kids, “what kind of class do we want to be? What kind of community do we want to have? Who are we?” Those are big questions, but my kindergarteners never fail to think deeply, to reflect on what was working and what wasn’t, and to create a promise of sorts that guides us for the rest of the year.

We start this conversation in our morning meeting on the first day back. I take notes on chart paper as we talk and start to determine what really matters to us. We read new books and revisit old favorites that first week back and talk about what makes characters kind and likable, or unkind and unlikable, and how that might look in our classroom. We talk about what makes us special and unique and about how we are different and alike. We talk a lot about how we treat each other when we agree and when we disagree. We read books like Grumpy Bird, Each Kindness, It’s Okay to Make Mistakes – and any Todd Parr book, Red, A Crayon’s Story, I Used to Be Afraid, Walter Was Worried, The OK Book, Elephants Cannot Dance, Ish, The Invisible Boy, Have You Filled a Bucket Today?  and Last Stop on Market Street – just to name a few of our favorites. Some more favorites to add to this list are: Love, Love the World, Sparkle Boy, I Am PeaceBe KindThe Big Umbrella, In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, Brave as Can Be: A Book of Courage, All My Treasures: A Book of Joy,  The Skin You Live InJulian is a Mermaid, Why Am I Me?, I Am Enough,  She Persisted, Be Who You Are, Not Quite Narwhal, Chocolate Me!, and A Unicorn Named Sparkle. The main idea here is to determine what would make our classroom a wonderful place to be, how can we respect and celebrate each others differences, how can we live in a joyful place together, how can we make a difference  – and how can we contribute to that.

We revisit the chart daily, adding and revising our thinking. After a week or so, we create our own chart – through interactive writing – that reflects who we are in this classroom. We always display it in a prominent place so that, as one of my kids said last year, “everyone who comes in here knows that this is how they have to be. You can’t be mean and come in our room.”

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Last year’s chart as a work in progress – adding things to it as we discuss. (2016)

This document serves as a class pledge or promise for the rest of the year. We read it and use it as a tool to solve problems, resolve issues and remind us of what kind of class we are. It’s a powerful tool to come back to when the inevitable problems arise.

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Last year’s  finished chart with photos! (2016)

How do you reset after a long winter break? Best wishes to everyone for a fantastic second “first day”!

Update: Here are the charts from 2017.

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And here are the charts from 2018:

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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

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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?