Before we get started, I think it is imperative to explain that I am not by any means an expert in primary instruction. In fact, when I was in my Masters Education program, the thought of doing a practicum in a Kinder or 1st grade class shook me with a trembling fear. I’ve always been comfortable in my upper elementary or middle grade classrooms, a place where your shirt sleeve is not a kleenex and random stories about finding a sock in a pillow aren’t discussed. Primary classroom is a world that is beyond unfamiliar to me.
That being said, I have also had a feeling that in order to truly understand the development of a young writer, I need to know what the writing journey is for students younger than 4th grade. Which lead me to my son’s school, a quaint Montessori school nestled in the bustling neighborhood west of Houston. While my son is only in the toddler classroom, their primary teacher is a fascinating educator who truly understands what it means to meet children where their abilities are and allow discovery of language to take form. I was honored when she invited me into her space to observe her kindergarten writers at work.
Here are some of my take aways from these amazing kinder writers:
#1. They get EXCITED about their ideas. I’ve seen kids get excited but the energy I observed was like fireworks exploding on students’ bottoms as they came up with ideas to add to a class story. When the group had just read “Stuck” by Oliver Jeffers and asked what kinds of things might be thrown into the tree, one girl had to jump up to show how the character might toss a bathtub into the tree. When asked if that element would be put in her own story, she smiled a tooth fairy wonderland of missing teeth and said, “You bet!”. During independent writing time, the room was buzzing of students sharing their writing with their table-mates, describing each detail of their illustrations or their written words. Because this group has varied levels of writers, some with strong word development and other who relied on using only pictures to write their pieces, the teacher used her individual visits to support each writer where they were.
#2. Spelling is a big deal….a very big deal. In my writer’s workshop I cared much more about the quality and development of the ideas that my students created rather than some of the conventions such as grammar and spelling. While these are important elements to successful writing, it always came secondary to the urgency of putting ideas to paper quickly. Spelling to me was something that came later.
However in a primary classroom, spelling is everything. Countless writers felt stuck as they carefully crafted each and every word, sounding out each part slowly to hear the letters. As I walked around the writing space, hands grabbed my pant legs, like a New Yorker hailing a cab, to get spelling help.
“How do you spell fish?”,
“Is this spelled right?”,
“Can you read this to me?”
My typical response when faced with these questions has been, Don’t worry about your spelling or my classic phrase, Keep going and do the best you can. The difference between my upper elementary students and these savvy primary writers is that they wouldn’t let me off the hook and just repeated their question as if I hadn’t heard it. Supporting these students required tools and luckily their teacher was prepared. In the Montessori classroom, they do not use traditional alphabet charts but instead use letter cards or a movable alphabet where students can select letters to create a word. One student who wanted to write the word fish slowly sounded out each sound and carefully selected each letter from the box. Once confident that she had the letters she wanted, she used her movable alphabet as her guide to write down the word fish on her paper.
#3. To a kinder writer, revision is optional. I’m naive when it comes to revision and students. I thought that anyone over the age of 7 that repulsed the thought of revision. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I had this vision that primary students were flexible and saw their writing as an ever evolving piece. Not quite. When one student excitedly shared his story about play dough exploding all over his sister with me, he pointed to all of the action in his illustration and his carefully written string of words at the top of his paper. His words were clear to him but confusing to me as they smashed all together resembling just one very long word. During our conversation I said to him, “I see you read part of your story to me and you said a lot of words. But when I look at your writing, I have trouble seeing each individual word. Do you think you might go back and find spaces to make those words easier to find?” This student looked at me and said, “No. I like it this way.”
I was taken aback, mostly because this author was determined in the way he wrote his story. He liked it that way and he didn’t want to change it. I admired that about this student. Not one to let go, I thought of a different approach. “Do you see the writing that your class did together?” pointing to the large chart paper that was written earlier, “I can read each word because there’s a bit of space in between the words. Can you go over there to see how much space we had between each word?” And with that, this writer measured the space to determine about a finger’s width was used. I continued saying, “It looks like you are ready to work on another story. This time do you think you might try putting in a space like that in between your words?”. And off he went to eagerly work on the second part of his story. At first I thought it was all for nothing and that he would write another long string of consonants and vowels, but to my surprise ten minutes later he returned, proudly showing me his new story with spaces.
#4. Author’s Chair is magical. As a writer, I am trepidatious about the thought of sharing my ideas and words with others. I scan the audience, worried that my words are simply not good enough. With these young writers, the idea of getting a stage to share is the gold medal they’ve been waiting for. And so, as other students gather from their work on the large carpet, a feeling of excitement sprinkles through the room. Writers sit patiently as they describe their story and read it to their peers. All eyes and attention are on the author. Because Montessori is a multi-age classroom, not every student is the same age nor works on the exact same activity together. Instead there is an ongoing flurry of activities that take place in other parts of the classroom and so, this gathering is the sharing of the work that has been accomplished. During my visit, the students’ writing was the focus.
There is a definite change in the air as these young writers share their pieces. They no longer are looking for correct spelling or asking, “Is this idea good enough?”. In front of their peers they are eager to tell their great story and showcase their detailed pictures. Without prompting, their classmates raise their hands and are intrigued with compliments and comments. No one is negative and everyone’s work is celebrated.
I’m not convinced that I belong in a primary classroom but my brief time observing has taught me that writers of any age behave in similar ways; they gather ideas, they draft, they are sometimes are willing to revise, and after all is said and done, they share. While the end products may look slightly different depending on the age of the author, the process is the same. I am so excited to see what amazing writing these young students have in store for us to read.