Teachers abound in Yolanda’s prekindergarten class. When Joshua announces his need to create a house, Jazmin and Katie answer the call.
Joshua: I need to make a house.
Jazmin: I know how to do it. Here…let me do it for you.
Katie (interrupting): I can teach him. You do it like this (makes a house on her paper). You make a square.
Jazmin (angry) to Katie: That is not how you make a house!
Katie (defensive): Yes huh.
Jazmin: That’s a little one. I do big ones.
Katie (angry): That’s how you make a house Jazmin!
Jazmin: Joshua…look…this is how you make a house.
Jazmin (gives Joshua a blue crayon): Here..use this.
Jazmin and Katie confront each other in this exchange with Joshua. Jazmin is the “house-drawing” expert in the classroom and her classmates know this. “House-drawing” is part of her writing identity. And she is proud of her ability to successfully draw homes. Katie, who just learned how to make homes (mostly by watching Jazmin) intrudes on Jazmin’s writing territory. Homes are Jazmin’s domain and Katie is a trespasser. Eventually, Katie backs off and allows Jazmin to take charge. But this short burst of conflict reveals the power struggle that happens when young children take ownership of certain written symbols.
How do students negotiate power and identity in a writing classroom? In a classroom where peer teaching is valued and encouraged, interesting conflicts emerge. Students who create symbols that are admired by classmates relish in their classmates' desire to learn from them. But such peer teaching comes at a price. When kernels of knowledge are offered to others, and imitation becomes the standard practice of the learner, the peer-teacher becomes less defined, less identifiable. Jazmin is not the only house-maker in the class. Katie now joins her. Jazmin must battle to retain her authority and she is successful in this exchange. Joshua retains Jazmin's counsel and Katie backs off. Jazmin has held on to her power….for now.
In a fifth grade classroom Jack, Brandon, and Bo engage in a peer revision group. Each boy shares his writing and asks for specific feedback. Jack shares his alien story and wants to know what he needs to add to make the alien invasion more exciting. Brandon shares the next chapter in his growing graphic novel and asks the other boys to help him make it more funny. And Bo discusses his informational how-to about various skateboarding moves. He has five cool moves illustrated and labeled and needs ideas for other moves.
When the discussion dissipates I lean in and ask, “I noticed some great discussion happening in your group. What did you learn from one another?”
Jack, “I wanted the alien invasion to be epic. I already had about 1000 ships landing and the aliens taking over the Earth. And Brandon gave me a good idea about the aliens having these huge, ginormous eyes and whenever a human looked into their eyes the aliens would have mind control. So I am going to add all sorts of ways the aliens started controlling the humans. And turned them into their slaves!”
Bo, “And I got some new skateboarding move ideas. I already wrote how to do an ollie, a grind, a carve, a goofyfoot. But Brandon told me about a kickflip so I’m adding that to my book. And he also explained a McTwist to me. So I’ll put that one in there, too.”
I wondered, “What the heck is a McTwist?”
Brandon, “Oh, well when you’re up on a ramp, you like launch yourself up really high and hold your board and turn around like 3 or 4 times. I can’t do it yet. But one day…”
I ask, “So, normally you confer with Ms. D about your writing, but today you had a chance to talk with one another about your writing. In your experience, what’s the difference?”
Brandon, “Ms. D is a great teacher and she has a lot of great ideas to help you with your writing, but she doesn’t also get my humor. So, when I’m working on my graphic novel I don’t think she really knows how to help me make it funny.”
Bo, “And she has NO IDEA about skateboarding!”
The boys laugh until Jack speaks poignantly about the difference between a teacher-led conference and a conferring led by a group of peers. “Ms. D knows a ton about writing. A ton! And she gives us lots of great ideas about beginning a story or ending a story to keep readers into it. She’s really good at telling us places where she’s lost and where we need to add stuff. But there’s a lot of things she doesn’t know that Bo and Brandon know. Like, she really has no idea about skateboarding, but we do! So we can give Bo much better ideas about other skateboarding moves. That’s why we like meeting in groups. We can teach each other.”
We teachers don't have all the answers. That's why we need to make space for many teachers in the classroom. Sometimes, the best teacher for a boy writer is another boy writer.
This past month, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed, I saw a post by Tanny McGregor about sketchnoting. As part of Smokey Daniels’s new book The Curious Classroom, Tanny offers her beautiful sketchnotes to summarize the information contained within each chapter. Her sketches piqued my own curiosity. So, I began to explore. First, I started sketching myself.
Then, I watched Tanny’s and Shawna Coppola’s video from their #EdCollaborative talk:
As I watched the video, I sketched notes:
I started to bring sketching into my reading life as well. This past week I read The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This book features 8 characters—4 mothers and their 4 daughters. Each chapter is told from the perspective of each. And within each chapter were slice of life stories. To keep each character straight in my mind, I decided to draw sketches as I read.
In my doctoral program at the University of Virginia I took a seminar on Comprehension. And the one thing that I took away from that seminar was the concept that comprehension happens during the act of reading. So, to have students write responses to questions after they finished reading a text doesn’t necessarily capture the thinking that happens while engaged in reading.
At ILA this summer I am co-presenting a session about Infographics with Katie Kelley and Lindsay Yearta. I’ve always thought of Infographics solely as digital acts. But I was wrong. Sketchnoting, when done by hand, is also a form of presenting information graphically. And I thank Tanny McGregor for teaching me this.
Last night, on Facebook, Mary Howard and Travis Crowder asked me to consider the following question: "At what point are students taught to write well?" I decided to post my response to this question (with a few revisions) on my blog.
First, I love the challenge of contemplating this question. And I'm sure I'll have more to add as I keep reflecting on it. I did my dissertation work in a pre-kindergarten classroom. Sixteen four-year-olds gathered together, day-after-day, and wrote. What did their brilliant teacher do to encourage this? The teacher:
So: "When are students taught to write well?"
Students are taught to write well the minute they step into a teacher's classroom where these conditions are fundamental rights for the writer.
This blog post was inspired by two Twitter followers: Tanny McGregor who introduced me to Sketchnotes and Dan Meyer who made a recent post about tips from presenters: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/2017/presentation-advice-from-14-of-my-favorite-presenters/.
Here are my tips--in graphic form!
Today I played around with Reflection in a Kindergarten Writer's Workshop. I have four categories of questions I like to ask writers at the end of a workshop:
A writer's act of reflection is actually a form of authentic assessment for me. Each reflection teaches me something about writers and gives me insight into their thinking. If a child is bored and yearns for the energy of friends, I need to make sure to position him in a space surrounded by friends who might give him the jolt he needs. If a child is nervous about writing, I need to know why and what I can do to help alleviate her trepidation. If a child feels happy about herself as a writer, what is happening to make her feel this way--and might she offer suggestions to peers to help them foster this feeling within themselves?
Primarily, reflection is a self-evaluative act so the writer can step back and think inward. But it's also an assessment act that teaches me something I need to learn from my writers.
I wonder: In what ways do you reflect with your students? How can we make reflection a daily part of their Writer's Workshop?
Last week I volunteered in my son’s classroom. They are working towards publication and his book replicates the structure of Alison McGhee’s book Someday. My son writes a page about what he imagines his life will be someday, and explains how he’s working towards that goal today. He has only written a couple pages so far, but his pages include: Someday I want to be a professor and Someday I want to be a published author. As I flipped through the pages of his book, tears filled my eyes. I looked over at his teacher and she whispered, “He wants to be just like his daddy.”
When I read his beautiful pages, the tears that formed in my eyes were tears of fear more than anything else. They were tears of trepidation. My son struggles in school. Born seven weeks prematurely, he has struggled since the moment he breathed his first breath. His twin brother, always impatient, forced him out of the womb before he was ready. I didn’t realize how hard it is for little boys to catch up to their peers when they are born prematurely, but our nine years with my son tell us that prematurity has a profound effect. He has struggled to keep up with peers since day one.
He’s in second grade now, and even though he repeated kindergarten, he still lags behind his peers in reading and writing. He didn’t start speaking until he was four, and three times a week he spends time with a speech teacher. When he’s confronted with new information he needs to hear it a few times before he understands. His spelling attempts reveal how he hears the words in his head. I’m a literacy professor so I know about levels and benchmarks and where children should typically be at various ages. I know he’s not typical. He has an IEP, and receives a variety of school services. Each year I sign forms that remind me he’s exceptional rather than typical.
The word exceptional is a difficult descriptive word to take when I think of it ascribed to my child in a school context. It fills me with worry for his future. No parent wants a child to struggle through life and I fear his exceptionalities might hold him back from being a professor, or author, or surgeon, or whatever dream that leads him to a passionate, fulfilling professional life. I worry that the adjective that defines him in school might define his identity. Will a lifetime of struggle in school exhaust him from reaching his dreams? Will he persevere?
Here’s the thing: My son is exceptional. Whenever someone passes by him walking a dog, he smiles and asks, “Can I pet your beautiful dog?” He holds doors open for strangers. He says “YES!” whenever I ask if he wants to try a new adventure. He can shoot out of a starting block in swimming and launch his lanky, skinny body across the pool faster than most. He can patiently put together a complicated Lego set. He says, “Thank you” generously. From his speech teacher to his reading interventionist, to his classroom teacher, to his Sunday school teacher, every single person who interacts with him tells us the same thing, “I absolutely love that sweet soul.” He is loving and warm and sympathetic and caring and funny and charming and handsome as hell. He’s….well….exceptional.
As I type this, my beautiful boy sits across from me at my wife’s childhood home. He’s playing on the ground while the ocean horizon illuminates his silhouette. He pauses for a moment and glances at me. My eyes float up above the screen to meet his. A broad smile stretches across his face. A smile stretches across mine. His heart is full and so is mine. So, instead of worrying about Someday I think I’ll stay here in the present for a while. I’ll focus on Today. Today my little boy is exceptional in so many ways. And that’s what I choose to embrace.
(This is Part 2 of Lessons Learned from the Slice of Life Challenge. I posted Part 1 yesterday. This challenge has been a powerfully profound writing experience for me. Thank you to the incredibly innovative teachers who envisioned this project and had the persistence to continue making it a reality year-after-year.)
Lesson 6: Writing is Art
Too often we think of writing as a science,
Sentences constructed with subjects and predicates.
Capitals at the beginning, punctuation at the end.
A collection of nouns and verbs and adjectives and adverbs,
Combined to fit in perfect, neat packages.
Well, to hell with that!
Writing is an art,
Art that is beautifully subjective.
And the best artists break the “rules.”
I want to read art that is:
Show me a teacher who values those qualities in writing,
And I’ll see a classroom of students writing like warriors.
Lesson 7: Choice is a Fundamental Principle of Writing
In this challenge, every day was a new possibility.
No one told me to write--
About this topic,
In this genre,
For this audience,
For this purpose.
I was the decision-maker.
Some days I relished in endless possibilities.
Other days I just wanted someone to tell me what to write.
But I know—choice is my job as a writer.
And that doesn’t mean choice is the easy way out.
Abundant choices provided some of my biggest challenges.
Lesson 8: I Didn’t Need a Rubric to Assess my Writing
I would have felt constrained if:
There was a narrow rubric hovering over my posts,
There were components I had to include in each piece,
I had to tell my story “across multiple pages,”
Points were taken off for not including “linking words”.
In an effort to raise the standards of child writing,
In what ways do the standards restrict child voices?
If standards were applied to my posts,
So many posts would have been silenced.
And, I would have never made it 31 days,
If each piece was judged by an outside, sterile, objective rubric.
I think it’s time for us to rethink our practice of using rubrics
To respond to student writing.
Rubrics don’t measure anything worth measuring.
Lesson 9: Writers Need Communities
What a gift it was to have the warm embrace of a writing community,
To have fellow writers offer encouragement,
To have fellow writers nudge me forward,
To have fellow writers excited about a published post.
To have a fellow writer say, “I see you.”
Writing is lonely.
For hours it’s the writer, the screen, and a collection of jumbled thoughts.
So, when those thoughts coalesced,
It’s was a gift to have the community respond.
Lesson 10: When We Write Meaningfully, Our Lives Bleed onto the Page
Ernest Hemingway said, “There’s nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
This month I saw blood across many blogs:
Husbands who passed away too soon,
Children growing up too fast,
Retirements soon approaching,
Worries about losing identity,
Fears about a country many no longer recognize,
Joys about joyfully exhausting work,
Hope about what tomorrow brings,
Happiness in a life well-lived.
We write because we have something to say.
And in a world where many feel like their voices are tempered,
This slice of life challenge let’s writers roar.
(As we approach the end of the #SOL17 challenge, I’m feeling reflective about the lessons I've learned from participating. My last two slices of the challenge are reflective ones. I've learned 10 important lessons from this challenge. Today's slice is Lessons 1-5. Tomorrow's slice will be Lessons 6-10.)
Lesson 1: Writing is Exhausting Work
Some mornings I woke up eager to write.
Some mornings felt laborious.
Some days I knew exactly what to say.
Some days it took hours to unscrew the cap of my thinking.
If this challenge were a marathon,
And I was completing the last mile,
I would be limping towards the finish,
Tired and exhausted,
But so satisfied that I ran towards risk and reward.
Lesson 2: Writing Requires Us to Form Habits
My typical #SOL17 routine was this:
I woke, took the children to school, made my coffee.
I sat, in my brown Lay-Z-Boy chair, and faced a blank screen.
Certain mornings, the writing flew out of my fingertips.
Other mornings I lingered.
On these mornings my fingers thumbed through photographs
In search of inspiration.
Occasionally, but not often, I wrote at night,
After my children went to sleep.
But my mind is foggy then and not as sharp as the morning hours.
It is, however, more reflective.
And some of my more personal pieces came out after the sun set and under a blanket of stars.
I formed a writing habit that I want to continue even after this challenge is over.
Lesson 3: When Teachers Write, We Learn Lessons to Carry into our Classrooms
If there were days I felt too tired to write,
There will be days my students feel too tired to write.
If there were days I struggled to draft,
There will be days my students struggle to draft.
If there were days I felt too blind to re-see my writing,
There will be days my students feel equally blinded.
Because I write, I better understand my student writers.
I don’t need a set of prescribed lessons telling me what to teach next.
I just need:
awareness of my own process,
observation of theirs,
thoughtful reflection and analysis,
and the knowledge that comes when I play around in different genres.
These are the important lessons I learn because I’m a writer, too.
Lesson 4: Writing Every Day Makes Writers More Aware of the World
Yesterday, as I walked my beagle Blanche, I observed:
The blossoms emerging from the dogwoods,
The blue jays and robins returning to the trees,
The creek overflowing from the thunderstorm the night before,
The sweet smell you can only sniff in a North Carolina and Virginia springtime,
The crack of a bat from softball practice in the ballpark behind my house.
The sights, sounds, and smells of spring in the South.
And, each sight, sound, and smell I experienced I whispered to myself:
Oh! I could write about that tomorrow!
When we write every day, the things we typically overlook,
Become writing possibilities.
Writing every day makes us more present and more aware of the world around us.
Lesson 5: Writers Need and Yearn for Response and Thrive when They Receive It
Each day, I felt a little nervous when I clicked “Post”
Worried about two things:
My heart raced a little faster,
Because I was excited someone read my writing.
I’ve come to depend on the energy I get from response.
Upset when I only got 1 or 2 responses,
Elated when I got 5 or more.
I didn’t realize how much importance I placed on an audience response,
Until I took this challenge.
Now I know:
This challenge is as much about reading and responding
As it is about writing.
All writers need and yearn for response,
And thrive when they receive it.
(Coming tomorrow: Part 2 of Lessons I've Learned)
It seems adults aren’t the only ones expressing rage these days at our government. Max, ten years old, is pissed off too.
In South Carolina where Max lives, a legislator proposed a bill that would require all public school students to wear uniforms. Democrat Cezar McKnight proposed the bill in January stating, “…peer pressure causes students to ask their parents to spend large sums of money to ensure they can wear designer clothes to school on a regular basis.” It also states, “…students have, regrettably, used particular articles of clothing on occasion to identify themselves as members of certain gangs, to the detriment of discipline and safety at their schools.” There’s a provision in the bill in which children who receive free or reduced-price lunches will be given five sets of uniforms.” Of course, the uniforms will be free as long as there is money in the budget. We all know how that typically works out for constituents.
Max heard about this proposal on the news and he immediately began to voice his rage to his mother. She offered a simple suggestion: “Well, the best way to speak out is to send a letter to the congressman who proposed the bill.” With a pressing purpose for writing, and an authentic audience to receive his ire, Max marched to the kitchen, grabbed a pencil, and wrote. His letter, written entirely by himself, is attached.
After a brief introduction, Max lays into the congressman with his concerns. First, he worries about his status amongst his friends. He needs to prove to them that he did, indeed, get a Miami Dolphins T-shirt for Christmas. After all, knowing which team has your loyalty is important in boy culture. It’s what you use to rib a friend for a loss or hate another friend for a win. For many boys, who they cheer for on any given Sunday says as much about who they are than it says about who they cheer to victory.
In boyland, your word is your bond. So if you tell friends you have something and they respond, “Prove it!”, you better damn-well prove it. Max knows this. And he pleads with his congressman to not make a liar out of him.
For many boys, verbal expression takes a back seat to physicality. A swagger says more than a speech. The wardrobe must match the attitude. “Nobody would know me,” is Max’s plea to not strip him of his identity.
We writing folks talk about the power of choice in writing topics, audiences, and purposes. Sometimes we forget how much those same foundational principles apply to all aspects of a writer’s life.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.