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.
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!
Our second unit of inquiry in Kindergarten is “You’ve Got Messages.” We investigate it under the PYP theme, “How We Express Ourselves.” The central idea is “There are different systems to communicate and connect with other people.” The key concepts are form, function, and causation and the related concepts are communication, interactions and messages.
This unit is a well-oiled machine and has run in our Kindergarten for as long as I’ve been at the school (at least 13 years). As a part of the unit, Kindergarteners open a postal service in the lower school, which is always a much-anticipated event by the workers (our Kindergarteners), as well as the users (everyone else in the lower school). I was super excited to be on the “working” end of the service this year. I was also super excited to see how much I could get the students to drive their learning and how I could best facilitate conceptual understanding. Because, of course, #yestheycan
Invitations and Provocations
The Kindergarten team spent a lot of time making a plan and setting the stage for play and exploration related to our unit in our common area. Complete credit goes to my amazing colleagues, as I was not even there the day they set it up. They put out displays and artifacts as invitations to the new unit. This included a message-writing center and the transition of the role-play area into a post office.
I planned to use my student’s first experiences in the common area as an opportunity to hand control of the unit over to them right from the start. Experience has taught me that this would be much more successful if I did two things:
have clear questions articulated in my mind to guide exploration and discussion.
capture as many of the students’ actions and conversations as possible while they were playing.
Capturing the Moments
I have learned that capturing the actions and interactions of students, both with their learning environment and each other, is crucial to giving them genuine ownership. Over the course of an hour’s play, Kindergarteners are not always able to realize, let alone hold onto their noticings and wonderings. By recording as much of what I hear and see them doing, I can provide them with a record of their thinking from throughout that session. Students love it when we “catch” them purposefully playing and they love it even more when we quote them. This certainly supports their developing self-efficacy, which, of course, supports the learner agency we strive for.
In addition to building self-efficacy and agency, capturing the students’ actions and conversations ensures that I am building on what they are valuing as interesting and important to learn.
In this instance, I used padlet to record as much as I could of what I saw and heard as my students interacted with our unit invitations.
As the first experience playing in the common area was to provide the invitations to the unit, the questions had to be considered carefully. I planned a number of questions to help me be as prepared as possible to follow the students’ thinking, as well as to guide them to focus in on the unit itself. In practice, only two of my questions were necessary as the students had much to share. They noticed the connections to messages and eagerly contributed their ideas and wonderings related to the different types of messages and how they work.
The conversation was guided using the following:
What did you notice in as you explored the common area?
We are going to spend all the way until the winter break on a unit connected to what you explored. What do you think might be interesting or important to investigate, connected to what you explored in the common area?
The Kindergarteners Take Over
There were so many responses generated that we decided to sort them into groups and plan from there:
If you were to zoom in on the individual and groups of post-its, you’d see that there were many wonderings about how a post office system works (top, left). You’d also see quite a few wonderings about how to create and send messages, including an expressed desire to learn how to write the names of the people that the students wanted to communicate with (far-right). The third group of wonderings consisted of questions related to how people send and receive messages digitally, many of which were born from seeing their parents and older siblings on devices each day.
Ready To Learn
Once the students generated their initial wonderings and sorted them into groups, we let the kids know that they would have to help us plan for the learning. We asked for burning “Need to Knows” and for suggestions for how we could begin to investigate some of the wonderings on our board. Suggestions ranged from delivering messages in the school to learning how to write a greeting in writer’s workshop and quite a few things in between. Those are another blog post for another day but rest assured, every week we check in together, to see which wonderings have been addressed, which still need to be and of course, to see if any new ones have cropped up.
My blog has been suspiciously dormant for over a year. Since my last post, there have been many changes. My husband and I welcomed a daughter almost exactly a year ago. I was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with her full-time for the first six months and then worked part-time up until our summer holiday.
This school year, I am also working part-time so that I can be with our daughter as much as possible. I am incredibly grateful to be living and working in a country that recognizes and supports the importance of family life. Naively, staying home part-time, I thought that I would be able to spend tons of time reading and researching, honing my craft and blogging tons. I’m sure every parent out there is laughing their heads off as they read this. Lesson learned. A year later, I am trying to get back in the swing of things.
Working part-time meant a grade-level change for me. This year I am teaching Kindergarten for the first time in almost two decades! When I found out last Spring, I must admit I was intimidated. What does Kindergarten even look like in 2018? What are five-year-olds into these days? Would I even remember how to talk to five-year-olds? How will I figure all of this out in three months, with a miniature dictator at home? How will it feel to go from the confident feeling that years of consecutive experience in upper elementary provided to the novice feeling of starting all over again? One thing was clear. If I was going to thrive, or even survive, I had to get to work.
I spent my summer reaching out to early childhood educators that I admire and reading tons of books, largely recommended by those people.
As I read and discussed, I realized that much of what I knew twenty years ago still stands. I also learned that I have much to learn. My questions include but are not limited to:
How best can we support Kindergarteners so that they can drive their own inquiries? We know that the littlest learners are the best inquirers but how will I get them to focus on the units in our curriculum?
What are the best strategies with play-based learning?
How do Kindergarteners respond to a three-dimensional curriculum?
How can I support conceptual development with students who are just learning to read and write?
Sadly, I’ve run into quite a few nay-sayers who think I’m crazy. Of course five-year olds need to acquire skills before they can start to engage in the understanding of concepts, I was told by one. Silly, Jen, it’s not like your fourth-graders, Kindergarteners can’t do that kind of thinking have said some others. While it may no longer be my area of expertise, I’ve known in my heart of hearts that this isn’t the case. Since the moment I knew I was headed back to Kindergarten I knew that my hashtag moving forward would be #yestheycan. Yes, Kindergarteners can drive their own inquiries. Yes, they can develop reading and writing lives. Yes, they are capable of conceptual thought and respectful communication. My job is to figure out how best to support them to do this.
If you’re interested in these questions to, then come back and visit, comment and contribute often. I’ll post quick snapshots and longer reflections as much as I can as the year progresses. I’d love to hear what you have to say as well. As always, you can also follow me on twitter @jrisolo.
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.
In the international school community, there are many opportunities for professional development. Big international schools like mine generally hire experienced and highly trained faculty, giving educators a powerful PLC (professional learning community) to begin with. They also tend to have generous professional development budgets which enable their teachers to learn from a variety of courses and conferences. A teacher in such an organization has many options if they want to continue to develop.
Of course, with these opportunities come challenges in any educator’s development, which could vary depending on the individual circumstances as well as the school. Ken Blanchard describes four stages that a professional might be in at any given time of their career, depending on the situation, as shown in the graphic below.
Blanchard holds that personal and professional circumstances/experiences affect the level of competence and commitment one might have in any given situation in their career. For educators, PLC’s are a great way to inspire and support strong commitment as well as increasing competence.
Reflecting on my own development, I realize that experienced educators who spend an extended time in one organization may move from D4 to D3 if they don’t reach out beyond the bubble of their own organization. It could be that things are going really well, and it would be easy to leave a well-oiled machine alone. Except that even well-oiled machines can be outperformed by newer models and upgrades. If things are going really well with the status quo, then this is an indication to branch out and take things to the next level; not to mention the fact that international educators should strive to be globally informed! There is a powerful argument for educators to reach out to find the PLC or PLC’s that will help them best develop!
Over the past two years, one of my goals was to extend my PLC in the hopes of learning as much as possible about how teachers in PYP schools are approaching literacy instruction. In this endeavor, I’ve had the opportunity to engage in a multitude of face to face as well as virtual conversations, and I’ve been exposed to a plethora of resources. I have learned so much, not only about literacy and the PYP, but about education in general, and I am filled with tons of questions to move forward with.
Many of my current and future blogs have been and will be informed by, inspired by, and a product of my collaboration with my PLC’s old and new. Here are some of the communities and resources that have, and continue to inspire me and help me grow as a professional:
My ECIS Literacy Coaches Cohort–a group of phenomenal international educators who have learned and collaborated together since 2010.
The Principal’s Training Center–my classmates and facilitators and the many resources on change management and curriculum that they introduced me to.
Adam Hill–a fellow PYP teacher and blogger and the #pypbookstudy group that he started.
My Grade 4 Team-because collaboration really is better than isolation and everything we do for our students is better because of the team and the talented individuals who contribute to it every single day.
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.