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.
Last week I was having one of those days where I was doubting a lot of what I believe that Kindergarten students can do. In hindsight, I realize that there were probably three things creating that doubt. It probably started with my own state, which was exhausted. Then, I was impatient. We were in week four of our #ibpyp unit of inquiry and I wanted to see more evidence of conceptual transfer. Finally, when I voiced my doubts, the response from some people was that I was probably aiming too high. I was ready to go hide in the book corner and surround myself Mo Willems’ pigeon when our guest artist, a parent of one of our students, arrived for her big lesson.
Conceptual Understanding Is Transferable
If you’ve read my recent posts, you know that our students are inquiring into how artists use their art to express emotions and ideas. You’ll also know that our key concepts are form and perspective. In hindsight, the unit has been going pretty well. Students have been exploring and discussing different forms within and outside of the discipline of art. They have been talking about the emotions and moods that they feel are represented in a piece of art. They have been acknowledging and appreciating each other’s differing perspectives. I realize now that I was looking for an opportunity for them to transfer all of this to a new and novel situation. The opportunity was still to come.
Bring In the Parent-Led Lesson
Our guest artist/Mom had been planning to share her expertise with us for a few weeks. She is a passionate artist who specializes in calligraphy. We were excited that our students would have the opportunity to be exposed to another art form, as well as to interact with an artist from our learning community. Our guest mom was understandably a bit nervous to share with a group of five-year-olds but felt confident that she had an idea that would keep our Kindergarteners engaged. From the perspective of a concept-based, PYP teacher, she had so much more than that.
The Perfect Provocations
Our guest artist set up the room with Kindergarten-friendly calligraphy tools. She had clearly put a lot of thought into providing authentic tools which were still developmentally appropriate for five-year-olds. There was a watercolor station with special “calligraphy” paint markers and there were stations set up with sets of color pencils, taped together to make multicolor calligraphy pens that had a wide grip. All stations had large sheets of plain paper, waiting for our students to transform them.
When the students entered the room, they saw their “atelier” set up and ready for them. They also saw that there would be a meeting on the carpet first. Our guest was waiting next to our screen, where she had a short slideshow to share with them.
The slideshow was powerful. The students were shown some images of calligraphy being used in environmental print around the neighborhood. They saw restaurant boards and signs on stores. Our guest asked our students to share their thoughts about the different signs. Students noticed that some of them looked happy or sad. They connected these feelings to the colors of the signs at first. One student pointed out that if you use red (see the photo below), it will make people angry. Our guest artist acknowledged this and then invited them to look deeper. “Have a look at the actual letters and how they seem to feel. Do they play a role?”
My teacher heart was bubbling over. Our guest was inviting our students to do precisely the type of slow and purposeful looking that we had been practicing for weeks. Sure enough, the students began focusing their attention on the form of the letters, the fonts if you will. A conversation ensued about how letters can feel happy or sad, silly or serious.
Our guest artist built on this by asking students which colors and styles they thought might express different emotions when creating art with letters. She demonstrated their ideas as they shared-silly would be yellow and swirly, for example.
Once a few examples were shared, the students were invited to visit the stations where they could express emotions by creating art with letters. One last thing before they went off as my teaching partner, with her lightening-quick instincts interjected. She asked the students to help us all remember which letters we had been learning and led them through a lightning-quick review, where they wrote some of those letters in the air or on the carpet.
Opportunity For Transfer
After our guest mom had packed up and gone in search of coffee, I realized how much our students had transferred. By sharing the environmental print with the students, our guest had given them the opportunity to transfer what they understood about the role of color, line, shape, and movement in fine art, to the role they play in advertising and other forms of print. Students were able to deepen their understanding of form and how the choices an artist makes creates what their art expresses. They also had yet another opportunity to explore their different perspectives on how they viewed a piece of art.
How lucky our students are to be a part of such a caring and sharing learning community. How lucky I was to have this opportunity to witness a fantastic example of how authentic parent involvement can enhance the learning in our classrooms. Even more, I am grateful for the reminder that even our youngest learners are capable of so much and how important it is that we continue to aim high for them. #yestheycan
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!
I’ve been thoroughly immersed in exploring the #IBPYP enhancements since the first previews have been available. I have studied and discussed them to the point of geek-like status, excited about the implications they bring for teaching and learning. There is a cushion for teachers and schools to transition gradually as they learn the new version of the program. However, the idea is that the IB has made improvements based on current research. Why not be proactive and start learning and implementing where I can? I’m grateful to my regional colleagues, who have participated in the #pypchat IBAEM recently. This chat has recently served as a forum to collaboratively unpack the enhancements and discuss implementation. I was particularly inspired by a discussion on transdisciplinary learning. This blog post, and the day in my Kindergarten class which it describes, is inspired by that discussion.
Transdisciplinary or Disciplinary?
I have been thinking about transdisciplinary learning for a long time. What should it look like? How can we support it? Do individual disciplines even have a place? I’ve heard many arguments for that one, by the way, and I am still not ready to take a stance. However, I am ready to explore making my program more transdisciplinary and I am willing to take some risks and see where they take my students.
Key Concept Drives the Day
Form is one of the key concepts for our current Kindergarten unit, “Communicating Through Art.” I decided to weave our focus on that key concept much more explicitly throughout our time together in homeroom and linked it to each part of our day. We started by discussing form in our morning meeting. Students then spent the day exploring form, and the idea that we can describe things by looking closely and that we can also make decisions to determine what our own creations are like. This is how the day focusing on form unfolded:
Art Exploration to Get Us Started
Our mornings always start out with open or guided play. For this morning, we set out a variety of art materials to serve as provocations for our Kindergarten students as they entered the room. They had access to fingerpaints, oil pastels, color pencils and markers, playdough and a variety of paper. They were not disappointed. Almost an hour of art exploration ensued, sparking ideas, generating vocabulary and inspiring creativity. Several students collaborated on a piece of art with fingerpaints, discovering how their technique could change the way their project looked and felt with each change they made.
Those artists were quite excited about their creation and were keen to share. We took a photo and posted it on the big screen in our meeting area. Then the whole class had a go at describing what they saw, using the Visible Thinking Routine, “Looking 2 x 10.” Of course, we discussed how their descriptions connected to the key concept of form.
A Little Math
Later in the day, students investigated their names. Again, we revisited the idea that we were focusing on form. They noticed and described how many letters they had, which letters were first, which happened more often or which didn’t happen at all. Next, they compared their names to other names in our community, noticing which names were longer or shorter. Some students started counting the differences as well. One Kindergartener pointed out that some names could be made long or short, using mine as an example. “You could be short (Jen) or long (Jennifer)! An investigation into which names could be shortened or lengthened ensued.
Form in Writer’s Workshop
Later in the day, we worked on this piece together at the start of our writer’s workshop. We selected the topic (when they buried a friend in the sand at recess) and shared the pen to create the text. As we continued writing, one excited writer exclaimed, “Wait! I noticed something! There’s a pattern, just like in Tabby Cat ” (the pattern book they had read the day before). I love those moments. You know, the ones where you feel sure that someone must have paid the kid to say what they did? In any case, this exclamation led to a discussion reviewing patterns, a concept that has been explored in maths and reading earlier this month and now was extended by connecting it to the key concept of the day. When it was time for the students to go off to their independent writing, many worked on using details in pictures, letters and words to make their stories follow a pattern, just like the ones they are noticing in their reading books and in our shared story from the minilesson.
Reflecting on the Day
Probably the best evidence for how explicitly weaving the key concept through the day and the disciplines worked, is in what the students said and did after. The next day, during the same morning play time, most students chose to continue to play through art. The effects were already showing. Our young artists were clearly playing around with form, manipulating and combining materials in new ways. The casual discussions with fellow artists were rich with newly acquired vocabulary as the students commented on each other’s use of color, the “scraping” technique and different materials to make their art look a certain way. Comparisons were being made between common elements in each others’ creations.
I will definitely keep finding ways to focus our learning through the key and related concepts as I can already see transfer across days, ideas and disciplines. Most importantly, I can see evidence of transfer beyond the context of our art unit! Next week I have a mini-case study of Mondrian planned, linked first to form and then to perspective. The inquiry is planned to integrate maths, visual arts, and literacy to start but let’s see where the students take it!
In the meantime, I would love to hear your feedback! I would also love to hear how other teachers are supporting transdisciplinary learning in their classrooms.
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.
I am a firm believer in collaboratively constructing assessment criteria with students in order to determine what has been learned. I also know from experience that the process of creating, reviewing, revising, and applying criteria with fourth-graders can be a lengthy process. It is also one which can lose effectiveness if we don’t maintain momentum. We need time to discuss, chart ideas, categorize, test-through-application, and revise our criteria. This year, as I prepared for 4JR’s first collaboratively constructed assessment, I decided to try using Google Apps For Education-GAFE.
Using Google Docs To Chart and Draft Criteria:
As my fourth-grade class neared a stopping point in our nonfiction and research unit, we started discussing how we would know what we learned. The students knew throughout the unit that they would do a post-unit assessment. They expected to evaluate what they took away from the unit and what might need to be reviewed or extended in a later unit. When it came time to discuss criteria, I gathered the students together in front of our SMART board and asked:
I set up the google doc prior to the lesson. As we discussed the criteria, an assessment tool was born. Where there was confusion, we discussed what could be observed to know if a researcher had met the criteria. These discussions were captured in the third column.
I originally planned to categorize the criteria at this time, but as we continued the discussion, I sensed they needed to work with the criteria first. I decided it was enough to generate criteria and discuss how we would know for now and to come back to categorizing later.
The students first applied the criteria to the post-assessment they had completed the day before. Once we had our working document, I immediately pushed the doc out to them using our Google Classroom and sent them off to assess their research skills and behaviors with their reading partners. Here are a few samples of what I got back:
After actually applying the assessment to their own work, evidence emerged on what students were doing as researchers. It also became evident which criteria students understood enough to discuss in detail when applied to their own work.
Ready to Revise:
We reconvened at the end of the session. At that point, I felt the students were ready to consider how we might organize our criteria. I asked them if any of our criteria could be categorized into groups. We use Project Zero’s Visible Thinking routine, “Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate,” often in our community, so this was a fairly accessible question. The students discussed how we could reorganize our criteria and we ended up with a “final” tool for future use. The students can now access this rubric at any time using our Google Classroom.
This lesson took just under 90 minutes. Some students did not make it all the way through the criteria when they were self-assessing but I was confident that they’d had enough interaction with the criteria and tool to discuss the categorizing and other possible revisions. Those students finished their individual assessments at home that evening for homework.
I will definitely use this process in the future. As the students become ready to evaluate themselves in more depth, we can move into more of a rubric than a checklist-with-explanation.
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!