Kid Writing: Fostering Independence in Young Writers

“What a child can do with help today, a child can do by himself one day.”

~Eileen Feldgus, Ed.D., Author of Kid Writing in the 21st Century

Listen to this blog post here.

Last week I attended a National Writing Project Institute sponsored by the National Writing Project and hosted by the Philadelphia Writing Project on the University of Penn Campus in Philadelphia.  I was invited to participate in this institute as a Teacher Consultant for the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project and as a long-time advocate for the content of the institute’s intent. The four day institute centered around a systematic approach to phonics, spelling, and writing workshop that is very near and dear to my teaching heart: Kid Writing.

I was first introduced to Kid Writing about fifteen years ago while working in a K-2 school just outside of Philadelphia. This unique primary center was home to thirteen kindergarten classrooms – all under just one roof! In case you weren’t doing the math, that’s well over three hundred, five-year-old bodies functioning in one space. A wonderful and exciting teaching and learning environment…but not for the faint of heart.

Nonetheless, it was within those very lively learning walls that I first discovered the joy of kids actually writing: choosing a topic, drawing and discussing the details of their story, and then actually getting their thoughts onto the page- phonetically! However, over the past several decades, varied perspectives to how kindergarten children should be taught in regards to early writing have often, in some classrooms, gotten in the way of the ultimate goal: helping kids write and grow as writers within their unique developmental stage.  By not affording kids the opportunity to think through stories, stretch through words that they want to spell, and write the sounds they hear in the words they want to write, we rob them of the instructional independent writing time that is so vital to their development as a learner. Focusing on the sounds they hear in the words they speak is the very fiber of what they ought to be doing at these very early developmental stages in their learning process.

The question Eileen Feldgus, author of Kid Writing poses:

How do we bring children who come to kindergarten without even knowing the alphabet to high levels of writing (and reading) quickly and joyfully?

As teachers of young readers and writers, we are cognizant of the brain research and evidence that support the fact that we map speech to print…not the other way around (Speech to Print, Moats, 2000). Children first learn to read through speech and language, not print. With that said, the process known as orthographic mapping guides not simply the what, but also the how of early reading and writing instruction. As defined by Dr. David Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties, orthographic mapping is the mental process used to store words for immediate retrieval.  It is the mechanism for sight-word learning. It requires good phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, and the alphabetic principle (2015). Understanding how we develop letter-sound knowledge and how we map phonemes (sounds) to graphemes (the letter(s) that represent the phoneme(s)/sound(s) we hear in words) is the instructional foundation in which we can help our young writers map their speech to print.

Kid Writing is a systematic approach to phonics, spelling, and writing workshop that does just that. Through the Kid Writing process known as “stretching through,” young writers are taught to develop strong letter-sound knowledge while becoming independent of their own learning for future success and transfer. That said, children are not just taught the skill of stretching through in the moment, for a one time use, but rather, taught the skill to transfer to independent writing time as well.

In Kid Writing, Eileen Feldgus introduces the process of stretching through by emphasizing only the sounds that the teacher thinks someone in the small group will be successful with, whether accurately or through phonetically logical reasoning.  Early in the year, these may be only the easier consonant sounds and the pure short /a/ sound. (p. 31)

Eileen instructs that emphasizing sounds in this important process can include the following:

  • Sometimes saying, “watch my mouth”
  • Speaking the target sound louder
  • Elongating or dragging the target sound: continuants and vowels like /s/, /m/, /f/, /h/, and /l/, not stops like /d/, /p/, /b/, or /t/

Eileen models that an example of stretching through with the word lightning within a child’s message may go like this:

Teacher emphasizes         Child writes

l:ightning                           l

light:ning                           lt (child adds t)

lightn:ing                           ltn (child adds n)

lightning:                           ltng (child adds g)

In contrast, if we were to stretch the sounds of the word lightning in isolation, we then would be telling the child what to hear, not teaching them how to hear it. In turn, this would create a baby bird effect where the child would “open wide” imploring the aid of the teacher or peer each time a phoneme/grapheme match was needed in a word he/she was trying to spell. In our absence, dependency would be the result and the writer would be stuck, with no tools or toolbox to draw from. In addition, through the stages of spelling development, the child would not be able to developmentally map his/her speech to the print associated with the long /i/ sound heard in the word lightning, i.e. the phoneme long /i/ with its grapheme –igh.

As Kid Writing is an approach, NOT a program, this systematic approach can be applied as the child writes across varied modes of writing and moves through the phases of spelling development: from pre-communicative in which spellings may often include “letter-like” forms or scribbles, i.e. T or ps = eagle, to everyday conventional spelling. (p. 142,143)

When I facilitate Kid Writing trainings for various schools and districts, I often get into the discussion of exactness and correctness, over agency and risk-taking.  In saying that, Kid Writing affords young writers the opportunity to become independent of their own learning, what I’m really saying is that we as teachers should be promoting and fostering agency in our young writers, not obedience.  Take for example, a student who wants to write about their dog which just happens to be a big, beautiful Doberman Pinscher. If we put that child in a class which focused on obedience and correctness, that child might write a sentence like this, “I have a big dog.” However, plant that same child in a classroom that promoted agency over obedience, that child might take a bigger risk and go for hearing as many sounds as he/she could by stretching though the sentence they really want to write, such as this, “I have a big, beautiful, Doberman Pinscher named Oscar!” The actual phonetic representation may look more like this, “I hav a big, beutefl dobrmn pnchr namd Oscr.”  What would you rather see your writer attempt and produce? The process of stretching through gives kids the tools they need to not just stretch words and hear the sounds in the words they want to write with you sitting right next to them, but also gives them access to those same tools in the repertoire that you helped build for them to utilize in your absence as they see fit.

The components of Kid Writing:

  1. Draw and discuss your story (or information)
  2. Kid Writing
  • Stretch sounds in words
  • Kid Crowns
  • Environmental print in classroom
  1. Adult Writing
  • Praise successes
  • Print at the bottom of the page
  • Model correct spelling, capital letters, and punctuation
  • Ask the child to read the sentence with you
  1. Mini-lessons/sharing

Component 1. Draw and discuss your story (information)

When students draw and discuss their stories it gives them the opportunity to rehearse. As Eileen Feldgus so clearly puts it, “It anchors their thinking.” In Don Murray’s piece entitled, “Write Before Writing,” he speaks to the importance of the process of rehearsal. (College Composition and Communication, 1978) Don Murray references Dr. Donald Graves’ thinking on rehearsal, “Productive writers are in a state of rehearsal all the time. Rehearsal usually begins with an unwritten dialogue within the writer’s mind.”

Murray continues with highlighting first-hand observations of writing rehearsal,

“What the writer does under the pressure not to write and the four countervailing pressures to write is best described by the word rehearsal, which I first heard used by Dr. Donald Graves of the University of New Hampshire to describe what he saw young children doing as they began to write. He watched them draw what they would write and heard them, as we all have, speaking aloud what they might say on the page before they wrote. If you walk through editorial offices or a newspaper city room you will see lips moving and hear expert professional muttering and whispering to themselves as they write.  Rehearsal is a normal part of the writing process, but it took a trained observer, such as Dr. Graves to identify its significance.”

We, as a teaching profession, often spend the least amount of time in the place that is most needed by all writers – rehearsal. Often, we can be found delivering solid teaching points and issuing wonderfully differentiated compliments to our students in our minilessons, but then we sometimes set them off to write too soon. However, by slowing down to allow students to linger in the moment of their thoughts, draw the details of their story, and tell their story across their hands or in the air prior to having them write it down, we can provide them with the much needed rehearsal of their story before we ask them to put it on the page in written articulation. Very few young writers I know can easily write what they can’t first speak. Drawing and discussion is key to written production and later attempts at matching phonemes to their graphemes.

Component 2. Kid Writing

“Stretching through is the guts of Kid Writing.” Eileen Feldgus

Working in a small group of writers to stretch through words, enables peers to help each other. Language offered such as,

“Watch my mouth. What sound do you hear in friend?” Emphasizing the continuant /f/ in friend first.

“I hear an f,” one child in the group replies.

“Great job, write it down,” the teacher praises.

“But I don’t know what an f looks like?” the writer admits.

Using the alphabet chart/line, the teacher responds, “Can you find the fish?” The child finds the fish and forms the letter f on the page for friend.  The teacher then continues to help the child (and the group) to stretch through the word friend helping the child and the group identify the sounds in the word and match letter(s) to those sounds accordingly.

As teachers, it is best to be seated with the group, in very close proximity, preferably on the floor or at a small table. In this way, all students are able to intimately listen for sounds, watch the teacher for cues, help each other, learn from each other, use the alphabet chart to match phonemes to graphemes, and participate fully and actively in the writing process: 100% active engagement. Kid Writing is intended to be a social and collaborative process.

In addition to stretching through words with young writers, Kid Writing also utilizes Kid Crowns, a unique feature that sets Kid Writing apart from other approaches, to help students write frequently used words or word parts with irregular phonetic spellings. These high frequency words are introduced when kids need them in their writing. Initially these Kid Crown words may include: is, are, and was. Kid Crowns help with the frustration of using the stretching through process and then encountering irregularly spelled high frequency words when writing ideas and information on paper.

Environmental print in the classroom has writers up and moving around: walking to words!  The entire room is set up for students to engage with and learn from. As students walk to words they find numbers, colors, days of the week, months of the year, and commonly used thematic words referenced throughout the school day, week, and month, all at their disposal.  In teaching young writers to hear the sounds in the words they want to spell and match graphemes to those phonemes, use Kid Crowns to spell commonly used phonetically irregular words, and use their environment to walk to words they need, makes young writers independent of their own learning and successful with you at their side or in your absence: creating agency, not obedience.

Component 3. Adult Writing

The Kid Writing approach focuses on the process, rather than the product, however, modeling conventional spelling through Adult Writing is an integral part of the Kid Writing approach. It has long been a belief of the writing workshop teacher to honor student work by never putting a pen to a child’s writing. However, in early stages of spelling development, it is essential to model appropriate spelling and provide students with a conventional model. This model comes in the form of Adult Writing which praises logical approximations of the task and models accurate representation of the attempt.  The reason workshop teachers have a strong belief in never putting a pen to a child’s paper is due to its ineffective nature and the negative self-concept it creates in the writer. Pen to paper feedback usually comes in the form of written comments to the writer, long after the writing has occurred.  More recent research by John Hattie on feedback, informs us that this type of feedback is ineffective. Hattie’s meta-analysis of research in Visible Learning for Teachers teaches us three things about feedback. Feedback needs to:

  1. Be calibrated – given in tiny bits
  2. Given in the moment – as the learner is working on the task
  3. Provide opportunity for repeated practice

Adult Writing, in conjunction with Kid Writing Component 4, the minilesson/share, is designed to provide feedback just as Hattie describes as best for optimal student achievement and success. In Adult Writing, the adult praises what the child did correct, i.e. the sounds the child heard in the words he/she was trying to write represented by the letters that match those sounds. During Adult Writing the teacher may also praise spaces between words, appropriate capitalization, letter formation, punctuation, and content. Language that supports this praise in Adult Writing may sound like this:

“I love how you heard the ____ in ____. This is how adults write it.”

In this way, the teacher/adult is able to praise the success, while still modeling conventional spelling and concepts of print, i.e. left-to-right progression, spacing between words, appropriate use of upper/lowercase letters, and punctuation.

In the early stages of spelling development, kids need to see what they wrote in connected text with accurate writing. However, as students advance through the stages, writing underneath words is appropriate when only a few words require adult modeling of conventional spelling. In Adult Writing, the child is asked to read the sentence/thought/story back with you, not to you. As students may think and write at levels beyond their actual independent reading level, it is necessary for the child to read their writing back with you, rather than to you. Although reading and writing are reciprocal, encoding and mapping speech sounds to print is a different experience and skill than decoding. Encoding requires phonemic analysis and decoding requires phonemic synthesis. Both encoding and decoding require use of the phonological processor, but differ in purpose and use as subjective to the task.

Component 4. Minilesson/Share

How dare we not honor the writing before critiquing phonics elements?

The minilesson/share presents one more opportunity to honor the student writing while praising what’s important…the child’s message. The after minilesson share does many things, however a few things worth highlighting are:

  • It gives audience to each child
  • It provides an opportunity to identify and create a teaching point within each child’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) has been defined as:

“The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

  • It creates an invitation to “Question the Author.” For example, in the child’s story, “My brother is sad,” a way to foster elaboration through Questioning the Author might be, “I have a why question about your story. Why was your brother sad?” Over the course of the kindergarten school year, we want to achieve two types of stamina in our young writers: the first type of stamina is built slowly over time where students begin to write for longer and longer periods of time, and the second type of stamina is the stamina where we encourage and support our writers in digging their heels back into the learning process and making their piece sound exactly the way they’d hoped it would sound. The Questioning the Author strategy helps students revise in ways that are developmental to their unique phase along the continuum.

Training parent volunteers and instructional aides to support Kid Writing

It is important to solicit, recruit, and train parent volunteers who can and are willing to work with children during writing workshop to ensure its success. In my school, I train volunteers in a one hour training session where I help parents understand the Kid Writing philosophy, teach parents the stretching through process, show examples of student work, have-a-go with adult writing, and show a self-made video of our real Kid Writing classrooms in action! Once volunteers are trained, parents sign up to volunteer on either a Tuesday or Thursday from October to May.  They can choose to volunteer once a week, twice a week, every other week, or once a month, whichever fits their schedule.  We teach writing workshop utilizing the Kid Writing approach every single day, Monday through Friday, however, on Tuesdays and Thursdays we run our parent volunteer schedule. Parent volunteers come in on their designated day from 9:15-10:45. Kid Writing runs in two sessions from 9:15-10:00 and from 10:00-10:45 in our kindergarten classrooms.  Our parent volunteers, volunteer once in their child’s classroom, and then cross the hall to volunteer in another kindergarten Kid Writing classroom. The schedule remains constant from October through May. Typically, our kindergarten Kid Writing classrooms run with one teacher, one instructional aide, and two to three parent volunteers. Each trained adult stretches through and Adult Writes with a group of approximately 4 to 5 students. It works!

Frequently asked questions (with answers) about Kid Writing

Q. How many kids should experience instructional independent writing and adult writing support each day? How do I get to everyone every day?

A. The goal is to get to every child every day. Since the stretching through is the guts of Kid Writing, every child should receive instructional independent writing and adult writing each day. This can be achieved with the help of trained instructional aides and an all hands on deck parent volunteer system in place. In this way, each group of four to five students are supported by one adult during Kid Writing. This is particularly helpful for the stretching through process and the adult writing. (See training parent volunteers and instructional aides to support Kid Writing)

Q. How many kids share each day in the minilesson/share?

A. During the group minilesson phase of writing workshop, approximately three children have the opportunity to share their pieces with the class. In this time, a teaching point is chosen for each student. Eileen Feldgus utilizes the following in her approach: two praises and a push. The teacher praises two things the student has done well, and identifies and teaches towards one push or element where the writer is almost achieving success and teaches in that sweet spot.

In addition to the three students involved in the minilesson/share, partners can also share their stories in a quick share or turn and share with each other.  If partners are designated ahead of time, for example, Partner A and Partner B, then a quick share can be as easy as cuing, “Now, partners are going to share. Turn knee to knee and eye to eye. Partner A share your story/writing/information/picture with Partner B. Now Partner B share your story/writing/information/picture with Partner A.”

Q. Why is Adult Writing written underneath, rather than above student writing?

A. The space above student writing is reserved for revisions made with carets.

Q. How do I assess Kid Writing?

A. It is best to assess young student writing on a developmental scale with checklists rather than with rubrics. Rubrics are designed for teachers, not for students and often set students up to fail, i.e. with language such as, “approaching standards…” In addition, language used in a rubric can be very subjective and difficult to utilize when pinpointing next step instruction. In contrast, checklists set students up for success, directly pointing out what they have mastered, and affording students (and teachers) the opportunity to set (clear and attainable next step goals) and the vision to strive to meet those goals.

Kid Writing can be assessed through Kid Writing in the 21st Century’s Stages of Spelling Development checklists, the Monster Test, and The Conventions of Writing Developmental Scale.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to Eileen Feldgus for her research and contributions to our important work as teachers of young readers and writers, to the National Writing Project for its commitment to research and practice surrounding writing across our nation, to the Philadelphia Writing Project for its continued work with coaches in supporting Philadelphia schools in Kid Writing, to my administrator and colleague, Dr. Rob Buffone for his support and commitment to this worthy work, and to my home, the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project, to whom I am eternally grateful. ~ Val Piccini

Visit and Explore

Eileen Feldgus and the Kid Writing Website

National Writing Project

Philadelphia Writing Project

Western Pennsylvania Writing Project

References

Feldgus, Eileen, Isabel Cardonick, and Richard Gentry. (2017). Kid Writing in the 21st Century. USA: Hameray Publishing Group, Inc.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. New York, NY: Routledge

Kilpatrick, D. (2015). Essentials of Assessing, Preventing and Overcoming Reading Difficulties. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Moats, Louisa C. (2000). Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Murray, Donald, M. (1978). Write Before Writing: College Composition and Communication. National Council of Teachers of English. Vol. 29, No. 4. (Dec., 1978), pp. 375-381.

Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Resources on Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

Adams, Marilyn J. (1990). Beginning To Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, MA: First MIT Press.

Adams, Marilyn J., Barbara R. Foorman, Ingvar Lundberg and Terri Beeler. (1998). Phonemic Awareness in Young Children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Gillon, Gail, T. (2018). Phonological Awareness: From Research to Practice. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Grace, K. (2007). Phonics and Spelling Through Phoneme-Grapheme Mapping. Voyager Sopris Learning.

Kilpatrick, David, A. (2016). Equipped for Reading Success: A Comprehensive, Step-by-Step Program for Developing Phonemic Awareness and Fluent Word Recognition. Syracuse, NY: Casey & Kirsch Publishers

Professional Development:

Val Piccini, M.Ed.

Reading Specialist

Teacher Consultant, Western Pennsylvania Writing Project

Founding Director, Writers of Westmoreland

www.writersofwestmoreland.com

Contact:

writersofwestmoreland@gmail.com

Twitter @WritersofWM

Working Together vs. Working Alone: Multiplying Our Instructional Knowledge Base When it comes to Teaching Writing in the Era of the Common Core

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Teaching writing in the era of the Common Core requires a relentless demeanor. Being content to just survive…to chill…to relax won’t raise the level of writing in our classrooms. Consciously realizing that we are in the midst of the most rigorous standards we’ve encountered in the history of education, a different spirit is in order.  Having been there, done that in terms of “quick fixes” that do nothing, but have us orbiting and then returning to the our initial launch pad unchanged, has left our perspectives somewhat flawed. However, refusing to make excuses when we have a chance to make an impact will honor both the intent of the standards and the integrity of the student writers in which the standards were designed.

Our place in this new world of writing demands should not be replaced with anything less than what authentic best practice looks and sounds like within the four walls of our writers workshops. While considering the standards which correlate with our particular grade level, we must honor the work set out for us as both teachers of writing and students of writing. In consideration of this, adopting a growth mindset- one of resiliency and one of agency, is in order.

Although, there is a lot to be said for stability, longevity and persistence as you travel along the same path, the late, great Yogi Berra once offered these words, “When you get to the Y in the road, take it.” So now to ponder this Y in the road… preservation vs. pursuit, I ask you…what’s your choice?

Relentless teachers of writing, willingly living within a mindset of pursuit rather than preservation of existing state of affairs, will elevate both teaching and learning expectations and follow through.

Sustainable writing success can be achieved in two ways: with many members on board or with just a few, but the one way success will not be imminent, is on a solo flight. Favoring the first, supports the pursuit of an ongoing and constantly reflective collaborative approach to creating life-long writers, not just state assessment writers, rote writers, joyless writers…safe, same old writers. However, there is something about knowing that you are teaching and growing as part of a team that gives you a different spirit. Co-collaborators refuse to make excuses when they have a chance to make things better – to make things right, even when that means doing things differently than they’ve always done them. Dedicated teams hold each other accountable for the growth and joy of the student and teacher population.

With the help of my team I’ve come to realize 2 things that teachers of writing must never be content with:

  1. Status quo.
  2. Watching from the sidelines. Alone.

Reflecting only briefly on the first of these two writing enemies, not much else needs to be said in terms of resisting becoming complacent and content with status quo.  There is important work to be done when we consider the standards. Being content in doing what we’ve always done is oppression of student needs, not a plan of pursuit for customization and rigor. We are not here to just let things macerate in mediocrity and same old, same old. We are here to make a difference. To bring joy to learning…so learning doesn’t just disappear when we are not around to fuel it.  We are here to grow independent learners, thinkers and writers in the 21st century!

Examining the second culprit of complacency is where the emphasis needs to settle. Recognizing that working in quarantine with one’s self does not produce a win. We must get off the bench. Get in the game. Refuse to sit on the sidelines when we can play in the game. Sitting back and watching other people change the world of teaching, doesn’t make us part of the miracle. Step up and refuse to watch success happen through other people’s actions and efforts.

Have you ever noticed that some teachers are loners and some are leaders and some relish in the constant support of their team in pursuit of becoming better at what they do, not in preservation of status quo? The posture of people who know they have banked a toolbox of strategic weaponry against instructional defeat alongside their team to strengthen their teaching of writing- of mode, and genre, and story, and conferencing, and revision, and minilesson are not on the defense…in contrast, they are offensive. Adhering to a posture of preservation will only lead one to fester in a stature of defense. And quite frankly, who wants to hibernate in a pothole of defense. Alone.

The world of teaching writing is hard. It has challenges. Attempting to hold your ground in isolation of what you’ve always done, will not afford you or your students the opportunity to take on new ground.

My principal just recently asked his staff to answer a reflective question during grade level professional learning communities. The question was perhaps unsettling for some and yet affirming for others. The question was:

“If someone already knows how to teach something, then why would they entertain a new approach?”

As teachers, the answer to this question should spark a “don’t be content” attitude if we are teachers who are forever seeking the answer to our very own question in return:

“How can I work harder to get better at what I do?”

All responses naturally leading back to the betterment of instruction for the sole purpose of providing only the best for our students. Fortunately we have the power to change and to evolve, as wealth of knowledge and support exists in each other as team members. However, constantly focusing on what is, for example: the problems in our classrooms, the holes in our curriculum, the past efforts that failed, won’t feed us or our students forward. Rather –we must choose to focus on what can be. We will no doubt have to battle through things to make a difference. But the outcome of the battle far outweighs the mediocrity of simply submitting to status quo.

When the odds feel against you and when teaching gets harder, your power from your team gets stronger. Working alongside your team will always be greater than working alone. Togetherness multiplies effectiveness when we choose to work side by side. Combining our talents with the talents of our peers ensures that our knowledge is multiplied by the knowledge of others.

We tell our students this all the time when we coerce a Turn and Talk in our lessons. In our classrooms, we attempt to foster communities of co-construction of knowledge, of discussion and teamwork, but often our pontificating of classroom tactics doesn’t match our emulation of collegial practice. Our intended work with our students can’t be separate from our professional relationships with our colleagues. We can’t limit our teaching lives to just our knowledge base. We must consciously seek and find wisdom in the knowledge and collaboration of our peers.

Often what is found is either overestimation or underestimation of the talents in our teaching lives. Overestimating results in limiting our teaching to just our knowledge base. Underestimating of talents results in not fully utilizing the talents that exist in our very own repertoire of skills. Together over estimators and under estimators can multiply the pursuit of strategic change through collaboration and tear down the walls of solitary preservation.

Amazing things can happen when we bring our talents together for the greater good of our students. Our efforts are multiplied and we do become stronger as educators and as a result our students (and us) reap the rewards.

So now let’s return to that Y in the road. In pondering preservation vs. pursuit, I ask you…what’s your choice? Turn and Talk.

~Val Piccini

Battling Boy Writers: 7 Keys to Victory

WOW LOGO PNG ColorAs a teacher of young writers, I can relate to the unique struggles that accompany teaching reluctant writers, specifically boy writers. However, as a mother of a 13 (soon to be 14) year old boy, I can also empathize with the idiosyncratic battle of the boy.

We’ve all heard the saying that begins, “The best laid plans…” and we know how it ends: awry. Well unfortunately, we as teachers frequently experience these moments of amiss in our teaching lives.  We’re innate planners. Minute to minute micromanagers. We endeavor to run a tight ship. But in reflecting candidly on our practice, we can ascertain the repeated path that our best laid “writing” plans take, especially with resistant writers. And all too often these unwilling participants, venturing down alternate routes, are comprised of a big heap of boys.

So what is it about the combination of boys and writing that mixes up the perfect recipe for teaching and learning defeat? A recipe that puts us on our way to losing the battle of the boys. How is it that we manage to engage these same complex creatures in climbing in and out, up and down, and all over the learning landscape terrain of our day, until we ask them to tighten their bootstraps and have their way with words? It’s when we round this forbidden corner, that they instantly signal the belay and without blinking escape the opportunity, descending down to the safety of the firm ground. Arms crossed and now unharnessed. Looking back up at us on our writing mountain, with heads turning left to right, over and over again affirming that they are not climbing back up.

We’ve all been there. It’s a helpless feeling. So the question, “Now what?”  finds its way into the echoing crevices of our teaching caves. How do we overcome the barriers of these stubborn boy writers?

Being blocked out by boy writers leaves us feeling a little inadequate, however, there are pathways to experiencing a breakthrough with boy writers. Nonetheless, winning this battle does come with a catch…and there is one thing we simply cannot win without. But first let’s examine the keys to crossing over.

Key #1 

Be flexible and open to detours.

Only plan so far…leave space for wiggle room, inquiry, choice, and detours that will result at the same destination. When you are at a pass, become passive. Relinquish control. Don’t plan every step for students, or you will be defeated.

Give a good lead on the rope. Make sure harnesses are not too tight. Don’t over belay. Let choice guide which groove feet get nestled in for leverage.  In doing so, sure-footedness will keep boys negotiating their moves up their writing mountain.

Key #2  

When you win a small battle, take a big bite.

Enjoy. Acknowledge. Celebrate. This will give the writer (and you) the energy to dig his heels back into the writing process.

Key #3  

Recognize that breakthroughs are overrated.

Many times we find ourselves let down after a breakthrough. Name breakthroughs for what they really are, posers. A breakthrough shouldn’t be confused with a victory, but it should be recognized as putting us in a good position to win the battle. We may have made progress, but we haven’t won the war. We must keep at it. Relentlessly.

Key #4

Let them know that you want them to win.

Remember, boy writers are competitive by nature.  The “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, just have fun” approach probably isn’t going to work.  Sharpen their tools, set them up to be successful and recognize that they can’t have fun unless they win…and you must ensure they will win.

Key #5

Balance the equilibrium of expectation.

When they succeed vs. when they are ready to succeed. This isn’t meant to be a battle of the wills, but a differentiated model of learning.  Learning is personal. Growth as a writer is personal.  The writing process is personal. We all think and brainstorm, collect, rehearse, draft, edit, and revise in varied ways, utilizing different stages of the process at different points in the writing process. Sometimes our expectations won’t equal reality.

Key #6

Know that where each writer ends up is often different than where we thought he’d end up.

Believe it or not, we aren’t always right.  We don’t always have to be in control.  We can experience success and witness students experience success in a situation that is contradictory to our initial “plan.” Be on the look-out for approximations of task and praise student efforts towards the target.

Key #7

Disarm the reluctant writer of all writing negativity.

Empower them. Encourage them to bring to their writers notebooks what they’ve got.  Reassure them that they will win because they have you.

Ok. Now for that one thing

The one thing we can’t win the battle of the boy writers without is willpower. Drive. Want to. First on our part…then on theirs. I’m going to do it no matter what. I’m not going to stop because my purpose is serious. Our students are shouting- show us your will. Fight for us.

Willpower. Get your fight back. Shout -I shall. I must. I can. He can. He will.

We can’t hide behind pride and allow passive behavior to dominate. Business as usual in a time of war is not the solution. We can’t linger behind the appearance of good teaching, we must activate good teaching.

As educators we have the honor of wearing the experience of defeat. We have had kids in our class that have turned away. Challenged us. Gave us a run for our money. But we can’t make excuses for boys who won’t write. Who don’t write.

Don’t limit them. Defy that. Win anyway.

The unique thing about teaching is that one conversation can change a life. One conversation can change a writer’s life. If they know you are for them, they will succeed.

Be committed to winning the battle. Be committed to the climb. Show your willpower through intention, initiative, expectancy and innovation.

Be victorious over the battle of the boys.

-Val Piccini

Hello from the Other Side…

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Connection is the product of investment: somethings only makes sense from the inside.

As teachers, when fostering a growth mindset, we can’t just look through the window at other peoples’ efforts. In this case, the “people” I am referring to are our students.

It’s different on the inside.

Consider this line of thinking:

  • Are you on the inside?
  • Do you think it is easier to teach from within?
  • Is identifying and then mentoring student writers in a conference more manageable from the inside?
  • Do teaching points come more naturally while navigating on the inside track, alongside your students?
  • Is pedagogical dialogue more effective to have with colleagues who are on the inside?

If you answered yes…consider why this is true?

Understanding what goes on, on the inside…as a learner, as a reader, and as a writer is critical to the growth and success of both the teacher and the student.

Contemplate this. You are trying to lose 15, maybe 20 pounds and your best friend tries to give you advice. The only problem is, she doesn’t have any weight to lose…nor has she ever even had to think about how many calories she consumes in a day! Do you even listen to her? Her advice may make sense, but you are annoyed by it…by her. She says she’s seen every Dr. Oz show on weight loss and she knows how it works…but does she really? What personal experience does she have with trying to lose weight? The answer is -none.

The same holds true with what we teach. Does our knowledge of writing far exceed our experience of it? Do we “teach” kids how to write without ever picking up the pencil and writing ourselves? Now I’m not just talking about modeling a conclusion, a hook, or a detailed sentence or two that we magically craft in front of our students. No, I’m talking about the nitty-gritty, down and dirty of process writing alongside our students, step by messy step.

Writing in perfect form in front of or out of view from our students and then utilizing our work as an exemplar sends a false message of what writing is really like. It isn’t neat, pretty, or wrapped in colorful paper, topped with a bow. Writing is raw, personal, unpolished, and a constant work in progress. Affording students the opportunity to see us struggle, to hear what we wrote last night in our writers notebook (what we really wrote), to watch as we turn page after heart-felt filled page of beautiful imperfection, to see us find a line we fiddled with from last month’s poetry unit and fit it perfectly into the narrative we’ve been working to craft is the good stuff! The real stuff. Raw, authentic and true to what the process actually looks like…warts and all.

This transparency of thought and vulnerability of intention demonstrates the elbow grease that earns us the right to teach in a conference. We’ve been there, we’ve done that, but we’re also still doing it! It gives students a sense of, “I can do this too!” And as a result, it consequently makes us better writers and better teachers of writing. Our rewards can be found in the empathetic ear we now possess as we listen and coach from “within” when conferencing with our writing cherubs! Teaching points will become clearer as we carefully reflect upon each unique student piece, and the next steps that will feed each writer forward will flow from the hands-on, experienced, knowledgeable mind of the writer within us…all of this because we’ve crossed over from the other side. Welcome to their side. Welcome to the inside.

Hello from the Other Side…

-Val Piccini

Wild at Heart: The Subtle, Yet Striking Connection between Raw Hunters in the Wild and Teachers

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Ok. Figuratively speaking…I’m sure stranger things have been compared right?

I recently watched a “hunting” video (of all things) that a friend forwarded to me. This friend, a hunter himself, simply sharing his passion, sense of fulfillment and glimpse into his wild hobby. Admittedly, I would not be telling the truth if I said I was chomping at the bit to watch it. Quite the opposite was the case and after staring at its’ subject line for a day in my inbox which read “This was the video I was telling you about,” I apprehensively clicked…p-l-a-y.

Leery of its content, not certain of what to expect, but hoping that I could stomach it in its entirety for the mere justification of at least relaying to my friend that I had indeed watched this piece that was important to him. Expecting a wild, cold, manly, grunting, blood-thirsty, hunting documentary, I braced myself for the next 20 plus minutes I’d never get back. Check that one off the list I thought.

However, as I slowly swallowed my predetermined reservations and let the unexpected heart-felt, passionate words of the hunters’ collaborative account of their soulful journey sink in, my mind and heart instantly softened recognizing the echoing chords of the striking similarities to the work we as teachers do each and every day as we too pursue our passion, our livelihood, our hunt.

Ugg -the admittance of this connection alone (between wild hunters and teachers) I realize makes one appear, well, nuts, to say the least. But then to turn around and attempt to synthesize its connection…in written form, is just certifiable. Call it what you will, but these incredible warriors of the wild practiced merciless, laser-focused determination and skillset to discover common trends between two things: their love of familiar western style hunting and hunting in their home in the wild, rugged woods of Pennsylvania.

Within the first minute and a half of the video, these incredible words of wisdom were brought forth from the mouths of these wild hunters, “Why couldn’t we take the skills we’d learned hunting the west and apply them to our hunts at home?” Continuing, they added, “With all our hard work behind us, it was time to put our theory to the test.” Those words took me directly to the words and the work of Calkins research and philosophy which concludes…everything we teach and learn should be transferrable to another time and another day. Yes! I thought. This is exactly what we want for our students. It’s why we work so hard to foster reciprocity between reading and writing across the content in the learning lives of our students. To read and write with the same recognition that exists in our English Language Arts literary lens in science texts, in social studies texts, and even in math! Why not? Isn’t that what we are constantly trying to help our students recognize through authentic modeling and application of these skills, common across the content…from one subject to another, just like these hunters?

Although I haven’t researched this, I’m fairly certain that hunting in the wild west can be vastly different than hunting for Whitetail Buck in the east, just as it seems reading and writing about a science or social studies text can encapsulate vast differences when compared to a literary novel, slice of poetry, or memoir for example. Nonetheless, the brilliance of strategically attempting to conceptualize the concrete and intensely innate similarities of the process, structures and tactics involved in the craft of hunting to a totally different landscape is purposeful and productive work to say the least. It is hauntingly and affirmingly evident that this same congruency also exists within the efforts we as teachers make in trying to create seamless fluidity of learning across the school day for our students.

I recently taught a unit in information writing which focused around six structures of organization:

  1. Pros/Cons
  2. Compare/Contrast
  3. Cause/Effect
  4. Problem/Solution
  5. Types/Kinds
  6. Parts

These six structures were explored at length in reciprocity in our 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade ELA reading/writing workshops utilizing a social studies current event theme related article on Hurricanes. Slowly…but surely, shortly after this immersive study of structure occurred, sightings of synthesis and coagulation of similar thinking transferred to science classes when addressing global warming concepts, in social studies when utilizing current events of all types, and in its purest language arts roots when analyzing and interpreting pieces of narrative literature. Alas, transference of skills and practice and common language married in fluidity of purposeful and authentic application throughout the school day, not just in designated classrooms, on designated days, related only to designated subjects, designated teachers, and designated texts. Alas…a glimpse of harmony was spotted. Aha moments of excitement from teachers who internalized this process were noted. Now, please don’t misunderstand the message here, the war on block schedules, and isolated closed content classrooms is not in any way shape or form won…but there is definitely progress towards this powerful transition of unearthing. Experimentation and trial application is a buzz in pockets among teachers in the building. It’s invigorating! It’s contagious!

In the case of our hunting warriors, they spent an entire off season “putting boot leather on the ground” so that when hunting season opened, they were ready. Isn’t that exactly what we as dedicated teachers do? Passionate teachers, just like these passionate hunters, participate in workshop labs with students and colleagues, seek and attend professional development, read professional literature, design, test, discuss, and reflect upon new curriculum, and meet collaboratively with colleagues pouring over data and anecdotals and co-constructing responsive next steps in teaching and learning. Essentially we do exactly what these men of the wild woods do –ready ourselves for our open teaching season!

As this documentary continued to play, it unfolded the secret to their hunting success: passion, drive, and sheer persistence to achieve their ultimate and mutual goal – the Whitetail Buck. At one point, I found myself actually hanging on to the edge of my seat, cheering (come on guys, you can get one)…and sending up silent prayers that this endearing, strong, and strategic hunter would ultimately snag his prize. To draw you further into the moment, it was the last day of archery season and only 2 out of the 3 hunting heroes had “racked-up” no pun intended, their prize. Now, you might assume that the confidence level of this 3rd deerless hunter would be diminishing by now…crushed, and to some degree it was fading, but never gone, never defeated. However, considerably more important to note was the underlying, felt sense of support and genuine empathy and good will from the 2 prized hunters towards their fellow hunter. The 3 warriors hunted, grew, celebrated and struggled in a tightly knit pack. Each prize won was a success for all, each struggle was a struggle to attack as a pack. Each pack member clearly owned the ups and downs and causes and consequences of their fellow hunters.

Having viewed this, has also brought me to arrive at this additional summation, hunters hunt in a pack. Teachers hunt in a pack. We rely on each other to grow, to learn, to succeed. If we are growing, our pack must be growing too. If our students are growing, the students of our pack must be growing too. That collaborative ownership is a lesson not left unnoticed in the success of the hunters’ journey. This band of wild brotherhood offers much to emulate. They commenced their journey with these wise words, “Looking back on this past season, it is very evident that the harder you work at something, the greater the reward. We are blessed with an unforgettable season, and a new obsession for chasing big woods bucks.”

So fellow pack members, I ask you to reflect upon this line of thinking:

What’s your current open season looking like?

How does your pack function when one or more members are off-course?

When struggles occur, how does your pack attack?

What skills has your pack taken and applied to another day, another content area, another time in the learning day of your students?

During your off season, how do you and your pack prepare for the open season?

-Val Piccini

Root Cause Analysis: You can’t tell what it is… and you can’t tell what is isn’t

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Something happens when you get transparent with yourself…you change. Face the wrestling match within yourself – between your old self and your new self.

Synopsis

Many of us go back to school each fall with healthy ambition. We’ve kept up on our pedagogical profile over the summer months by reading widely, attending professional development and gathering and investigating fresh ideas to strengthen our instructional expertise in the upcoming school year. We begin ambitious, inspired, and inflated. Upon returning, what we now know and own as best practice begins to yield evidence of improvement, student engagement, and progress when we slowly test out our new strategies and modified (previously relied upon) methods of instruction. This slow transformation is transparent not only in our daily anecdotal observations of student collaborative dialogue, but also on paper in the varied ways we assess our students to check and proudly verify that learning is indeed occurring.

We’re excited. We’re renewed. We want to share. We decide to step out into the unchartered waters of reciprocal peer leadership with our colleagues.

What we find is that building community not compliance is not as easy as we romanticized. Despite data surveyed, results inventoried, action taken, and progress made, co-workers are reluctant, passive, and shockingly annoyed by the examination and synthesis of current instructional practice among the team. It becomes almost intrusive…invasive…and painful. Feeling like we’ve stepped on the toes of solid, set in stone, tried and true instructional choices that make up the varied curricular decisions of the unique members of our professional team is a consequence of the initiation and invitation to change.

As a result we begin to question our own motives in this quest for learning transformation. The instructional investigation and integration of best practice in terms of change is not going to occur through seamless metamorphosis as we had imagined or at the very least hoped for. On the contrary, it feels like it may not occur at all. At this point we pause, step back…and make an important decision. We decide not to use our environment as an excuse to why we can’t grow or change. We take on the empowered prospective of “people can’t limit us.” We tighten up our bootstraps, and as Colleen Cruz advises in the Unstoppable Writing Teacher, “We march onto the battlefield.”

Root Cause Analysis

It’s not where we’re planted that determines how high we’ll grow. It’s our persistence. Making excuses in relation to our environment is what inherently occurs. Educational resources in terms of materials, textbooks, “stuff,” can and often do become the reason…the excuse for why true change can’t occur within the four walls of our classrooms. However, the problem with assigning blame in this way is that there is always someone else in some other classroom, district, or third world country…that has less resources available to them than we do, and yet they still successfully find a way to produce outstanding results of student learning and growth.

If not the lack of educational resources at our fingertips to place blame, then we look to people in our environment to assign the blame: hierarchical leaders and outside stakeholders, parents, etc. This cycle of blaming continues to artificially affirm our right to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, whole-heartedly believing it is all we can do considering the environment we are provided. We believe that we are instructional experts and continue to assume our right to plug along as we always have despite the glaring signs of disengaged students in our rooms, flat-lined or poor test scores, and the continual and constant overall feeling of overwhelming resistance to change festering inside us.

Coming face to face with the devil of decision has not manifested itself into our rationale of “why” yet.

Decision…

Choice…

Environment is not an excuse. We cannot justify our growth and as a direct result, the growth of our students, by blaming our environment: people or resources. It is a decision that is executed, a choice we accept, and an excuse that is made.

Root Cause Reflection

We can’t pick what we didn’t plant…harvest what we didn’t sow. Look for test scores that yield prosperity in a field where opportunity for prosperity wasn’t the seed sown. We can’t go looking for something that was not put in ground. Expecting to pick an apple, when we deliberately planted oranges. We must come to the realization that we reap what we sow.

Possessing the kind of defiance in our professional spirit to do more than we’ve done up to this point is where real change will begin to manifest. In contrast, continuing to believe that if we leave something alone it will get better, is not the answer. Nothing grows if you leave it alone.

Solution

We must dig around the problem…the “it” and get to the roots.

Acknowledging that where the problem appears is not where the problem started is the first step. It shows at one level, but it is a result of the root that we cannot see. We must be willing to get down and dirty. We must resist the urge to keep trying to fix things at a level that can been seen and start digging beneath the surface.

The root of disappointment in progress made is a result of our own dysfunction. Digging out around “it” and getting to the root is the only way to establish real change. Identifying the “it” is the hard part, but it is also where honest transformation can begin to occur.

What is your “it?”

Many of us are hard wired to want the prosperity, but not the work that precedes it…the digging. We see the fruit of other colleagues, but we fail to see the root work that went into it.

Our problem has been planted for a long time, we can’t get frustrated and give up. We need to keep digging.

Continuing to think and to believe that we are disappointed in our job isn’t the answer because the root of the truth is – we’re probably not. The truth is we are probably disappointed in ourselves. Real change will occur when we stop blaming people and situations and make a decision to stop making excuses.  We need to stop focusing on what is on the surface and start owning our own dysfunction at the root.

In Summary

Stop being mad about the seed that didn’t grow. Start comparing what you see in the harvest to what you planted in the ground. Learn from a season of failure and harness and utilize that failure as fertilizer.

Food for Thought

Our schools are looking for real change through real leaders. Are you up for the challenge?