Friday, June 24, 2016

Writer's Workshop

Every morning, from October to December, and even into January it went a little something like this:

Boy enters kindergarten classroom crying, obviously stressed

Me: Buddy! What's wrong?

Student: Are we writing today?

Me: Well, yeah, probably.

Student: I hate writing!

Me: Why?

Student: Because I never do it right!

Me: You never do it right? What does that even mean, bud?

Student: It's so hard. Remembering all that stuff

Me: Well then, let's focus on the pictures.

Student: OK

And off he'd go for the day. Sometimes this conversation helped him, others, he would find himself crying and stressed at various times of the day.

Let me explain something about my teaching style. I'll let you in on a secret: I think a lot of people think I'm a lazy teacher because I don't really do much. That's not really true. Shhh! Don't tell though! What is true is that in certain aspects of my teaching I am pretty laissez-faire. And writing is one of those areas.

From September to December my main focus is on the picture telling the story. We work on detail, we work on developing our fine motor muscles, we work on straight lines and curvy lines. What we don't do is work on writing down words.

But, inevitably, one of the students will get it into their brain (either because of an older sibling or someone at home), that writing is only writing down those letters, and knowing all of those letter sounds, and letter shapes, and putting them all together. They don't think that those pictures we take our time working on are all that important.

And, for this young boy, that is exactly what happened. So every day, we would have this conversation, or one quite similar. As time went on, and some of us would start writing down those letters and sounds we knew, his stress level would continue to climb. It wasn't as if he didn't know these sounds or letters, it was that he was afraid to take that risk, afraid to experiment. And no matter how many times in class we talked about taking risks and trying new things, he would stress himself out.

I spoke to his mother on more than a few occasions, reassuring her that I was not interested in putting more stress on him. That's not what Kindergarten is about. It's about social and emotional growth. Yes we teach writing and reading, but the emphasis in my classroom has never been, and as long as I have my way, never will be on academic achievement- regardless of what people think they hear or read. Kindergarten is your first taste of school. I want that memory to be a positive one.

I am a firm believer that we learn to write by writing. So the bulk of my writer's workshop sessions are me giving them some paper, or a blank book, and letting them write. Whatever they want. However they want. Whenever they want. It doesn't take long before they begin to realize that the letters we've learned make sounds and the sounds work together to make words. It only takes me reading what they've written down a few times before they realize the letters in the words have to be in a certain order (this year we somehow can't grasp that AM is not spelled MA).

That's what I mean by laissez-faire. I don't stand over them, helping them sound out words. I don't have them report to me every day. Heavens, by March or April I really don't give them too much direct instruction. I just let them write, then I let them read to me what they've written, and I let them read it to the class if they want.

 I give them lots of time to write, and I give them lots of paper. And although we have a specific time in the day set aside to write, if they want to, they can write at other times as well. Writing isn't just about stories though. It's lists, it's poems, it's menus, it's whatever we do to communicate with paper and pencil/crayons/markers.

What am I doing while they are all writing? Well, I am writing too. I've re-discovered my joy of writing myself. So while they are sitting at their tables writing, I like to find a spot for myself, I take out my own writer's notebook, and I write. I am accessible to them if they need anything, and I am setting the example that writing isn't just a task we do at school. It can be something we find great enjoyment in. I show them some of my documents on Google Docs, I let them see that I write with pens, and I write with a computer, I write with whatever I can. By doing that, I am letting them know they can do it too.

I've gone through all kinds of teaching styles, especially when it comes to writing. And you know what I've found? Leave them alone works the best. Leave them alone, trust them to do what they can, and cheer them on when they've exceeded their own expectations. And guess what? They always exceed their own expectations.

That boy, who would get so stressed over writing? Here's what he wrote today, June 24:

(for those of you who don't read Kindergarten, let me translate: 
Jack N is coming to my house. Jack N is here. Me and Jack N are playing a video game. Jack N won Mario Kart)

I'd say he's going to do OK in Grade 1.

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