There are many good books written about Writers Workshops (see Katie Wood Ray, Ralph Fletcher, Lucy Calkins). Out of some necessity I’m sure, most focus on writing for all the primary grades. But you, like me, might be in a classroom where the expectation is that your kindergartners will write. Many of you might teach in schools where the children come with little or no skills with written language. In this place, I would like to address the specific components for a kindergarten writing workshop. These ideas come from books I’ve read, programs I’ve taught and years and years of experience teaching kindergartners to write.
Most writers workshop manuals talk long and hard about the “mini-lesson.” Throughout my site, I’m just going to call it the lesson. Every lesson in kindergarten is mini! Isn’t it? We do need to teach the children in brief lessons, guided by what their work is showing us.
From my philosophy: Look each day at the work generated, choosing the most sophisticated text from that day (might be a good picture, might be one letter, might be a name, etc). Use that text as the student sample for the next day’s mini-lesson. The most sophisticated writing and writing samples can and should drive the level of the curriculum throughout the year. It may not be that the child with the highest ability in writing is the one generating the most sophisticated text. Often the arrangement of the text or what the text is supposed to mean suggests a higher thinking process.
Depending on the genre or skills the children are working on, I feel it is appropriate, on some days for the lesson to be, “Go do what you were doing yesterday.” For kindergartners a slower pace of introduction of new skills is necessary. Give time for your lesson content to sink in. Give time for the children to work with the content you are guiding them through.
I only do lesson work when the children are gathered together at a dry erase board, without their writing materials. I expect them to pay attention to what I am telling them and not sneak work on something. Many, many days I use the overhead to illustrate a concept straight from a student’s work. I have found that even if I am going to show the children something not to do, if I speak with the child whose work I am using ahead of time, he still would like me to use his work as the illustration of the point. Gotta love kinders—just wanting attention!
My students sit at their tables, four to a table, when working on writer’s workshop. I know that many books suggest letting the children sit wherever and get comfortable. I just don’t feel comfortable with that for kindergarten. Kindergartners are not yet ready to be separated, thinking their own thoughts. Kindergartners need to be in a writing community, especially physically, so we can hear ideas, trade ideas, work out ideas. We need to talk and share and help each other. I need to be able to see everyone, at once, to gage who is actively working and who needs a nudge.
My students choose what to write each and every day. Even when I have introduced a cool new idea or concept or genre, the children are not required to work on my suggestions. You know how kindergartners love to finish. Getting “done” is like a gold medal to them. I find that kindergartners are more than willing to work on a new idea, “As soon as I am done with this one, teacher.” I keep reminding them, through lessons and as I observe writing sessions, of all the resources available to them.
Different books suggest different ways to share “published” work. In my classroom we have three main ways to share.
Author’s Chair: When a child has a book published (see below for my publishing explanation), she shares her book at Author’s Chair. There might be between 4 and 10 books ready for sharing on any given day. When there are few books, at the end of the writing session, we gather on the rug. The author sits in a high-ish chair and reads her book aloud to the class, showing the illustrations. At the conclusion of the reading the audience is allowed to make a comment or ask a question. We work on the difference between those two things. I limit the questions/comments to about 3 of each. While the questions that get asked usually mean some information was missing from the story, the story is already published. So any revision that is going to happen is going to have to happen by incorporating suggestions into a subsequent story. I’m perfectly fine with this for kindergartners.
When there are many books published in a day, I cut the author’s chair time into segments. We share a few before lunch, a few after lunch, a few right before going home. I like each student to have an equal chance at the attention of the class and if too many books get shared in a row, kindergartners lose focus.
Whole Group Share: Maybe once or twice each week, depending on the genre we are working within, the children meet in a circle on the rug at the end of the writing session. They come to circle with some writing they are going to share. While waiting, they read and reread their selection. Often kindergartners forget what they have written. I say, “Make it up. Think of what you meant to say and practice saying that. Be ready to read.” We take turns around the circle with each student reading a selection. I use this time for more teaching when necessary.
Partner/Small Group Share: Every once in a while, the volume of published writing just overwhelms us. When that happens I put the children into partners (maybe one who has published with one who hasn’t) or small groups. The groups then do a “Mini-Author’s Chair” including the question and comment segment.
“For Reading” Basket: All published books go into a big basket at the front of the room. These books are available for any writing times, as resources, but also at any reading times. The children love to read and reread their own work and the work of their friends. For our spring Open House, we sort all the books back to writing folders, put them in chronological order (see Publishing) and read them to parents on our big evening.
My students use three different writing folders as part of a writing workshop.
Journals: (From Unit 1) Start with blank paper and a plain manila folder. My students use their journals as a way to save ideas, to get ideas started, to try out something they aren’t ready to publish. Our journals function as brainstorming, as pre-writing, as drafting. The children decide when to choose their journal over their writing folder.
Writer’s Workshop Folder: Our writing folders are a little more complicated. They have pockets inside. They hold a frequency word spelling list and a spaceman space holder. The writing folders hold ongoing writer’s workshop projects and planning pages for those projects. Both the journal folders and the writing workshop folders are in rolling carts in hanging folders so children can access what they need.
Diaries: Last year, on the spur of the moment, I decided my children needed yet another venue for collecting writing. I bought each child a stenographer’s notebook (because they were the cheapest, about 79 cents). I wrote the children’s names on the front of the dairies and put them in a basket all standing in a neat row. I explained that a diary could be used for writing ANYTHING! I spent a couple of lessons suggesting ideas and modeling writing in a diary. I made the rule that diary entries could not be read during Author’s Chair. But I reserved the right to read them at conferences. Liam, a prolific writer, would often write in his diary for several minutes and then switch to working on his ongoing project. When a child had a good diary idea, I requested the right to share it with the class.
I know these are for sale everywhere, but I just spray painted some tongue depressors and drew a little stick figure on them with permanent marker. The spacemen lived in our writing folder pockets. Not all the children needed them and for a couple of days the novelty of the thing made everyone use them. Luckily that wore off, but some children who did need Spaceman needed to be reminded to use it for most of the year.
Lucy Calkins (In Units of Study, Volume 2) teaches the children to spell some words “in a snap.” If you know how to spell “to” you spell it in a snap. The children in her classes use words from the word wall that might not be committed to memory just yet. I have found that a word wall has limited use for kindergartners. It has something to do with how removed the word wall is from the children. Just looking up from work to the wall is more than many children can manage. I created a “Snap to Spell” list for my students. We started with just two words; to, play. By the end of the year we had about 28 words on our list. The children kept the list in a plastic sleeve in their writing folder. When I saw that many children needed the same word, for example; because, I would put that word on the list and print a new one for everyone. We would take a few minutes at the end of a lesson to review our lists and put them into the sleeves. It’s not that simple however. Over and over I would point to misspelled words in text and say, “Find this on Snap to Spell and fix it.” (Click here for my Snap to Spell template.)
Each book that you read about Writer’s Workshop gives lists of mentor texts to use to teach the children how authors do it. I’m here to say; love the ones you’re with. Who has the time or money to buy all the cool suggested texts? For kindergarten, use the big books and trade books that come with your reading series, and math series and social studies series and science series. Use the literature library your school has developed. Use the school library. Use your classroom library. By all means, use your very favorites. They will work best for you because you know them the best. Think of what you’re trying to teach and find a book you already have to teach it.
I’ve read books and I’ve studied videos and believe me, all those professionals look like they are doing a great job of conferencing with one student. What are the other 20 or 25 doing? Especially in kindergarten! Goodness, the chaos. Here are my suggestions for conferencing when everyone is five.
Check-In: Kindergartners need to know that you see them. “Watch me!” could be our national kindergarten anthem. Each day, as the children are excused from the lesson to start writing at tables, I hang back for a moment to let them get settled. When I enter the writing area, I settle the stragglers with a soft word or a touch on the head or back. Then I begin to check in. I walk near each child and say, “What are you working on today? Do you need my help?” It’s funny, but knowing that they can have my help means most will not need it right then. I do the check in every single day. I attribute this one component for solving most of my management problems. (See Management involves some trickery on my philosophy page for another great management idea.) For the first three weeks of writer’s workshop, I do only the check in. No long conferences, not because children don’t need them, but because some children aren’t ready for me to not pay attention to them. You know, those same kids who scream when their mom is on the phone? Yeah, them.
Redirect: I know that management issues are one of the key reasons teachers site for not doing writer’s workshop. In the manuals, it always sounds so easy. No one is throwing up, no announcements are being made over the intercom, no one is coming in late, or being picked up early. The children are all engaged in some excellent writing work, thoughtfully plugging along. Crap! If Ted is not working, redirect that guy. Ted might need to be redirected to a time out table. Writer’s Workshop is not so sacred to me that I allow a child to interrupt other children. Try to defer more punishment until you can have a little behavior conference with Ted. Remind Ted that being with his mates working on writing is much more fun and educational than doing nothing, and what after all, did Ted’s mom send him to school to do today? Hmm?
Suggest: I have said that the children work on writing of their choice each day. But if Ted spends all his time “thinking” and never getting to any writing, I suggest. I suggest that Ted work on a story about baseball and as soon as Ted thinks of something he’d rather write, he can quit one and start the other. Suggesting is real world writer’s workshop.
Conference: After the first month, for sure, I go straight by the textbooks, only shorter. I try to conference with 4 to 8 children each day. I sit close by and talk about the ongoing work. These conferences are specific to that child, but might give me ideas for future lessons. Be reasonable, make the conference short, 2-4 minutes. Make the information short, work on one concept. Do some of the work for them. I put in all the periods until about April, but teach as I go. “Oh, you need a period here because you have written a complete thought.” When you walk away, they forget what you’ve said. Here’s a little trick I use, I put a tiny colored dot, near each spot that we’ve discussed. You should only put about 3 dots. This is kindergarten!
Conference Notes: Everyone says to do it. I have to say, kindergartners, for the most part, generate such limited text that I have it all pretty much memorized. I would rather take the extra time to do another conference rather than write down the last one. But, if you have some requirement put on you about this—then do it.
Observe: Sometimes just watch your class writing. Who is doing what? What is the feeling tone of the room? Are there things you could say, lessons you could conduct that would create a better atmosphere in the room? I try to remember that not only am I creating writers, but I am creating students who will need to function in classrooms other than mine. Are they functioning as a group? Will they be able to work this way after they leave me? Take a few minutes a couple of times a week to ask yourself these questions as you observe.
Unit 4 is about my ideas for kindergarten revision and reading that goes along with this. Here are the things I think about publishing:
Writing Partners: I don’t feel comfortable, as some books suggest, with putting kindergartners into ongoing writing partnerships. Kindergartner writing skills, levels, attention spans and personalities are changing so quickly. We need to get to know each other, all of each of us. I say, “Each day when you sit down for writing, the person sitting across from you is your special friend. When you ask them for help, they will help, when you ask them to stop and listen, they will listen. If they hear something you need to know, they will tell you.” I control these daily and temporary partnerships by putting the nametags on the tables each day. I make sure cooperative and heterogeneous partnerships are created. I spend a lesson or two at the outset and a couple more spread throughout the year modeling the behaviors that partners should be displaying and the tasks that partners can assist with.
Published: When a child feels that a story or project is complete they have several tasks ahead of them. First, they read the complete work to themselves. I see all sorts of revision going on at this juncture. Next, they read to their table partner. More revision happens as an objective observer listens. I make the rule that a helper cannot write on your work, but they can tell you what to write. Once these two readings are complete, the child is allowed (and this is the only time) to raise their hand. I listen to the text. I might put in periods at this time, or even suggest more revision, but not too much! I staple the book, date stamp it and number it with a skinny colored marker. The number allows for easy chronological ordering by the children for parent conferences or Open House or for fun. The book goes on the Author’s Chair and that’s it! Kindergarten publishing—make it easy, make it quick, especially make it attainable in a reasonable time frame.
Jodie's Scope and Sequence
for Kindergarten Writer’s Workshop
a year-long journey with young writers
This series of nine units will be posted throughout the 2009-2010 school year. To receive an e-mail alert when the latest unit has been posted, please click here and create a profile at our on-line community that accompanies this page. Once you have a profile, you will receive an e-mail whenever a new unit is available.