Just as I am now, every year, I take some time to look back on the development of my Kindergarten writers over the course of the year. While the instructional decisions I make are based on weekly formative assessments and reflection on individual and group needs, it has been really interesting to go back and look at how far they’ve come and how they got there. I find that there is nothing more powerful than looking at student work as a way to develop even more as a writing teacher so I thought I would start to share some of these on my blog. Here are some samples from the writing life of one of my Kindergarteners last year, in chronological order.
HG’s development as a writer from September to April
At the start of the year, as was the case with most of my Kindergarteners, HG used pictures to put his ideas on paper. We looked back at the first writing samples together and he noticed immediately how much he has grown in his ability to add details to his drawings.
By mid-year, HG had started choosing his character or subject before putting marks on the page. He was able to discuss his color choices and point out details like parts of the body and shapes that he had purposefully added. He was beginning to experiment with strings of letters to represent words.
It wasn’t long before HG was using words that he knew, such as proper names of family, friends and familiar toys, and starting to use letters to represent initial and dominant sounds.
During our unit on all-about books, HG demonstrated an understanding that there are spaces between words and started crafting sentences to match his pictures.
HG recognizes that he sometimes forgets to do some of the things he already knows to do to make sure his reader understands what he’s written.
Looking at student work is one of the most powerful sources of professional development available. Collaboratively looking at student work increases that value beyond measure. Whether on our own or with colleagues, the time we take to look deeply at student’s writing helps us to develop a plan for how to support individual writers in their stage of development at a given moment. It also helps us develop our own understanding and recognition of the stages of development, as well as the many bends in the road for a developing writer.
It is so important to consider all aspects of the developing writer in the early years. Teachers can quickly become distracted by the amount of print that may or may not be on the page, or by the control the writer might exhibit over his or her drawings.
Here are two tips for looking at student writing samples:
Know the background: if it is your student, you probably already do. If it is a student you don’t work with, it is crucial to know more about the process the student has gone through, what he or she has said during conferences or at other times regarding the writing. So much of the “work” our youngest writers do is not detectable on the page alone. That which is detectable often needs the curation of an adult who was along for the journey. If collaboratively looking at work samples, I recommend using a modified version of a protocol such as LAST or ATLAS. Protocols such as these provide the opportunity to get a more inclusive picture of the “work” that has been done.
Resist the urge to compare writers: Unless you are looking to better understand what different stages of writing look like in the context of a group of students, I see very little value in comparing different writers. More often, the comparison of writers leads to a “ranking.” Such ranking often neglects the many facets of a writer’s development which are not immediately apparent when comparing one student’s writing to that of another writer. Alternatively, looking at several samples of the same writer’s work over time, brings his or her individual development to the surface and can be very powerful in helping us to make decisions about how best to support that writer. For me, this is also a very encouraging practice as I often see so much more growth when I see a collection of a student’s writing over time. The samples below are a collection of one Kindergartener’s writing over time.
What do you notice about the development of this writer over the course of eight months?
The Understanding Map is one of the products of the work being done at the Visible Thinking and Cultures of Thinking projects at Harvard’s Project Zero. It has been an integral part of the teaching and learning in my classroom since I first learned about it years ago. Its universal applicability and relevance make me consider it as perhaps the one tool I would choose as a teacher if I could have only one. Regardless of age group, context, style of teaching and learning or discipline, the Understanding Map provides a guide to deeper understanding.
I recently introduced the Understanding Map to a group of educators at a workshop on concept-based teaching and learning, which I facilitated with the amazing and deeply knowledgable @gioia_morasch. Working with these educators reminded me of how lucky I am to have received training from Project Zero and how important it is to share the wealth.
This year, I have had the challenge of figuring out the best way of using the Understanding Map to support my Kindergarten students on their learning journey. I find that it is not so very different from how I use it with fourth or fifth graders. Here are some quick tips that work across the grades:
Eight Ways to Use the Understanding Map Right Now
Explicitly let students know that the moves on the Understanding Map are steps our brain takes to help it as it works to build understanding. Depending on the group, I may do this right away, or I may wait until they’ve heard me naming their thinking moves for a while. In either case, I remind them often why these moves are important. This continues until they start reminding each other…and they do!
Name the types of thinking the students are doing when you witness them doing it. “I notice that you backed up your idea with something you can refer back to in the text. Reasoning with evidence is one of the moves we use to help us make sure our understanding makes sense.”
Make connections between the map and what they know they already often do. In many cases, we start with wondering. This is often the easiest move for them to recognize in themselves. Further, by highlighting it as an all-important thinking move on the road to understanding, we encourage them to continue valuing that sense of wonder and curiosity.
I occasionally teach a minilesson to help the students understand what we mean exactly by a particular thinking move. It’s important to note that whenever possible, this is pulled from the thinking or actions of a shared context or the thinking of a peer.
Perseverance is key! Regardless of age, it can take months of consistently using the language and promoting the importance of a thinking culture in the classroom.
Parents are part of the learning community too! Share the Understanding Map with them and encourage them to use it when discussing their students’ learning at home. We use it at Student-Led Conferences as well.
Post the Understanding Map prominently in your room. With younger students, consider how you can incorporate visuals. At the start, it will serve as a prompt and a reminder for you. Eventually, you will find yourself referring to it alongside the students. Soon enough, your students will start referring to it independently!
In January, we had an in-service day at school. During the morning staff meeting, teachers were tasked with creating an exhibit that would communicate “Who We Are,” as literacy teachers. I decided that my theme would be my ongoing journey as a literacy teacher.
As I sorted through possible artifacts on hand in my classroom, I considered what has shaped and continues to shape my journey as a literacy teacher. I quickly realized that it is the questions that are always at the wheel, driving my interest and development.
I mapped my questions on the white paper you see in my final exhibit. Next I linked them to concepts and resources that drove my inquiries into each question.
I noticed that my questions evolve as I progress through my career. The first question was posed 20 years ago when I first began working with young readers and writers.
How best can I teach reading and writing?
What does the research tell me about language and literacy development?
How am I providing access to students for whom English is not their mother tongue?
How am I providing access for students with different abilities?
What is the role of language in my student’s identities? How does language instruction in my classroom affect this?
How do the frameworks, philosophy, and practices that have worked for me (and countless others) fit in with the philosophy and framework of the PYP?
What am I doing to ensure that my students have equitable access to the learning at our school? In our grade?
How best can our school support a consistent and coherent experience for our students given their transient nature as well as that of the faculty?
My artifacts included student work, some favorite mentor texts, recent professional reads and some old standards that I always have on hand. The exhibit is certainly not complete. Many of my professional texts and mentor texts are personal property and stored at home. The absence of some of my own mentors is conspicuous and had they been on hand, Lucy Caulkins, H. Lynn Erickson, Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, and countless students who have taught me so much, would also have been represented.
What are the questions that have shaped your journey so far? Who are your gurus?
The heat wave that has been plaguing Amsterdam has finally broken. I’ve been taking advantage of the cooler weather and a quiet weekend, spending the bulk of my time on the couch with Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst.
I’m just through the first section and find myself nodding in agreement, jotting down notes of my own, and following suggested resources. I can’t help but notice my own process as I read this text! Here are some of the things that I’m really excited about so far:
Rigor and Reading Instruction
Beers and Probst dedicate a chapter early on about rigor in the classroom. If I was using a project zero thinking routine as I describe my interactions with this chapter, it would be “Connect, Extend, Challenge.” I made many connections between the text and my work as a Grade 4 teacher. I feel as though I am more able to articulate what appropriate challenges are for my readers. I am inspired to make those challenges accessible to them.
One of my big connections came when Beers and Probst described reading as “transactional.” In other words, the making of meaning happens through the interaction between the reader and the text. It also happens readers interact with each other over a text. Yes, yes, yes! Sadly, many of my students, not to mention their parents, see rigor as dealing with texts that are far too complex for them.
Parents, Students, and Rigor
At the start of this school year, I was dismayed to see the responses of my students when they were asked what they should work on as a reader this year. “I need to read harder books” and ” I want to read fatter books,” were common replies. The parent surveys communicated similar goals. Every year, I am confronted with parents of fourth graders who want their kids to read books like The Hunger Games or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I look coach kids who are trudging through texts which are way too complex for them, striving to help them find the texts that will engage and sustain their interest and foster the types of interactions that will give them the rich experience that skilled readers enjoy.
What Rigor Really Is
I am grateful to Beers and Probst for extending my thinking about this incredibly important facet of literacy education. They have given me the language to discuss what rigorous reading does entail. Here are some of my highlights from their chapter on rigor:
“Rigor is not an attribute of a text but rather a characteristic of our behavior with that text.”
“Rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text, not in the text itself.”
And, in a comparison to weight-lifting:
“The quality, rigor, does not reside in the barbell but in the interaction with it.”
After reading this chapter, I feel as though I have some ideas on how to help my students understand that success as a reader is not the complexity of the text itself, but the energy and commitment that the reader brings when interacting with the text.
When I first started working at my #IBPYP school, I was already a long-time TCRWP enthusiast. Having worked in a district in NYC at a time when we were mostly literacy-focused, I spent a lot of time at TC and with TC staff developers. My students have a much better experience in my class as a result of this.
The faculty at the project get to spend all day, every day, thinking about literacy and how best to support development in our young learners. Their insights and focus are invaluable, and I draw from them every day in my practice. I continue to learn from their work and find ways to apply that learning to my context as a PYP teacher.
I am on an ongoing quest to find the most powerful way to implement what we know works from TCRWP and from PYP. I know that there are schools out there who run the PYP and TCRWP side by side. The philosophies match in so many ways. But for a long time, I’ve been thinking that running them together is not enough. I wonder, is it truly supporting genuine, student-centered #inquiry? Are we grounding the learning in carefully selected concepts? What about when schools teach TCRWP units of study as they are published by Heinemann? Experienced workshop teachers can attest to the magic that happens when readers and writers get to experience the workshop approach but I worry about indoctrination. Even when something works well, isn’t it our responsibility to ask ourselves how could we make it even better? Especially when we work under multiple belief systems?
Looking back, one of the ways I have worked to integrate my reading and writing workshops into my program of inquiry is by lining up the reading and writing units with the transdisciplinary themes. I saw this as one way I could ground my reading and writing units in specific concepts.
Here’s an example of how I fleshed these out for the purposes of my own planning:
For the past several years, I have planned out my reading and writing units this way, starting with the transdisciplinary theme, then I move on to generate “central ideas” and “lines of inquiry” for each workshop. I then plan out the related concepts and possible/probable skills that will be taught within the conceptual constructs of the unit. This varies from year to year depending on the student’s prior experiences, as well as the evolving program of inquiry. In most cases, this creates opportunities for my students to make connections to the units of inquiry. Sometimes it doesn’t and the degree to which always varies. This makes me think that I need to continue on my quest to make my program even more transdisciplinary.
This year, when planning the “what” of my curriculum, my plan is to try to move away from fitting my “units of study” into my program of inquiry. I hope to work towards building a truly concept-based language curriculum that is open enough to student-direction. I don’t plan to abandon the valuable lessons from the TCRWP, rather I will take with me some of the core philosophies and attitudes, as well as the time-tested practices and structures and apply those to the “how” of my curriculum after I have planned the “what.”
As always, I’m on the lookout for collaborators and resources!
Working at a PYP school, there is often discussion around how we can incorporate quality literacy teaching and learning into a program of inquiry. Here is an example of how this can be done by using the unit of inquiry and key concepts as a base, and “workshop” style mini-lessons and engagements as a vehicle for students to develop their skills and understanding.
At the end of an inspiring two days with Georgia Heard and Kathy Collins last month, we were asked to reflect on our take-aways. Long-term, mid-term and immediate-I had so many ideas vying to be my main focus, but Kathy Collins’ session on close reading was right on time for the unit I was starting with my fourth graders that Monday.
As a part of our “How We Organize Ourselves” unit, we explore the marketplace. Our language integration for this unit focuses on persuasive speech and texts. The unit has moved this year, and now occupies a comfortable six weeks, split up by our February break. In the past, it would get crammed in right before the Christmas break, vying with holiday festivities, special events, and waning attention spans; along with all of the other “loose ends” that we wanted to tie up before a three week break. The time now allocated to this unit has it brimming with possibilities. There is more time for students to pursue their own inquiries into the marketplace, as well as for some in-depth exploration of language within and beyond the context of the unit. Students can be afforded compelling opportunities to become critical readers of (or listeners to) persuasive and argument language; as well as skilled users of this genre when their writing or speaking goal is to persuade or convince others.
We’ve always looked at different forms of advertising during this unit, and we extend the literacy integration to include persuasive essays and stories. This usually begins with an exploration of advertising gimmicks, such as slogans, logos, smart facts, spokespeople, etc. Students learn about these gimmicks and then use them to advertise their own products and services, which they work on developing and preparing to sell at our grade 4 marketplace. We then usually continue building on our understanding of persuasive language, by examining author/creator’s purpose, and craft moves for persuasive essay writing. We would read persuasive texts together, but there was never much time for a reading unit. This has always been frustrating for me, as there are so many amazing links to the skills habits our readers need to develop, but there was never any time. Until this year…
Coming up to this unit, I knew that my students needed to work on their critical reading skills, and to recognize the need to develop their own ideas about what an author is saying. While persuasive texts are not the only ones requiring these skills, they do provide a very concrete point of entry for fourth graders to develop the skills and dispositions to read/listen to what is being communicated closely, consider it critically, and make determinations based on their own experiences, knowledge and feelings related to the text.
Planning ahead, I developed three questions for students to use as they practiced close reading of/listening to persuasive language:
What is the author/creator trying to convince me of or persuade me to do?
What strategies is the author/creator using to persuade/convince me?
What are my thoughts, connections, questions and reactions to this?
Modelling and then releasing responsibility:
Students began using these three prompts as they watched television commercials on youtube. I first modelled “close watching” using a commercial from my childhood, for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. I pointed out the jingle (I know I’m not the only person out there who can sing the “Tony the Tiger” song by heart). I noted the use of healthy, active children, playing sports and showing off their energy. I talked about Tony, the spokes-tiger. I then modelled reflecting on what the advertisement was telling me, and what it was trying to get me to do. At this point, students were catching on and joining in, thinking along. We captured our ideas on the chart below and then I sent them off with a pre-selected collection of commercials from around the world, to practice this very same thinking.
As the students practiced close listening, I noticed that many were easily picking out the purpose of the commercials, as well as some of the more obvious advertising gimmicks, but many students found it more challenging to discuss their own ideas/reactions to the commercials.
The next day, we engaged in a similar engagement with a print advertisement. This was definitely more shared reading than modelling. As the students became more comfortable with the type of thinking we were practicing, they took on more responsibility.
As our unit unfolds, students are able to revisit the collection of commercials and print ads that I had curated for them during the readers workshop, as well as explore other persuasive, and non-persuasive texts. I will continue to look for ways to support them as they develop their understanding of persuasive language, how it is used, and how they can be critical consumers when they are on the receiving end. Very soon, we will start looking at all of these ideas as writers and creators of persuasive texts and language.