Kindergarten Kickoff: Some First Books

imagesThis week our kindergartens begin a district directed 9 week “crash course” on the alphabet.     In 2010, Pearson and Hiebert unleashed their research that two-thirds of incoming kindergarteners already knew the names of the letters of the alphabet and over one-third of them knew the corresponding sounds for the majority of the consonants.  The children who didn’t know the letter names and sounds at this early stage were also the children destined for reading struggles.  In many of the schools in our district, the children are coming from strong pre-school programs and even more children already know letters and sounds.  But, there are some who don’t.  And most often, it is because no one has taught them the letters and sounds, not because they have difficulty learning them.  So, our kindergartens start off with a crash course on letters and sounds.  For the huge percentage of children incoming with this information securely under their belts, this is a review and familiar ground on which to start kindergarten.  For those who are shaky with letter names and sounds, it is an opportunity to level the playing field.  And at the end of the crash course, the few children who truly have difficulty learning letter names and sounds are clearly evident to the teachers and to the support staff.  It is a beautiful way to start off the RTI process in many ways.

But what about those children who DO know the letters and the sounds?  How can we make this a “plus-1″ for them?  And how can we connect this to the workshop and the powerful reading lives that we want our students to be building?

As my kindergarten colleagues and I have been talking and thinking about this, we’ve been making lists of the other core skills that we have on our radar screens: left to right, return sweep, one-to-one match, beginning sight words, early cross-checking and the ever-popular — looking at print not just pictures.  Then we began creating books to go with the letters from our crash course in the alphabet.  Books that could support us in the workshop as our students practiced those important letter sounds along with those other core skills.  We chose the simple sight word “a” to begin.  We’ll move to “the” shortly.  And we made books using clip-art to support the letters.  A quick trip to the photocopier, some snazzy stapling and we had books.

I’ve attached our first three (all using just the sight word “a”) here for you.  If you go back to this post, you’ll find some earlier iterations of this this idea that you can print as well.


Kindergarten Kickoff: Wordless Books

Beginning Reader’s Workshop in Kindergarten can be daunting — especially when our young students are really not yet readers.  In many cases, they have already been told by parents, older siblings and neighbor children that they are clearly NOT readers.  So, when we plop them down with a bin of books and ask them to engage in reader-like behaviors, they balk.  They do NOT see themselves as readers yet. They are awaiting the magical day when we will have taught them the secret and they become READERS.  On the flip side, we, the teachers, already see them as readers.  We already see that they recognize environmental print and possibly a sight word or two.  We have already noticed that they control the major concepts of print.  They may even have some letters and sound to begin anchoring some reading.  In our eyes, they are EMERGING readers.

One way to alleviate the conflict between our vision and theirs is to use Wordless Books to help launch the workshop.  By having a collection of wordless books available for the first few weeks of school, we provide a way for our young readers to practice the reading skills they have, while not triggering the “I can’t read” reflex.

With Wordless Books, our readers can

  • habituate the book handling skills from Concepts About Print
  • “read” a story and create meaning using the pictures
  • accumulate a story line and track a plot
  • practice retelling a story
  • practice reading with a partner and sharing the story-telling load
  • sustaining attention as a reader over time (building stamina)

I wandered around more than a dozen of the kindergartens that I work with and collected this set of wordless books. (photos all from Amazon)


Wordless Books

Touchstone Texts

This is the time of the year that all of us are selecting the read-alouds for the first month of school.  We’re literally charting the course for the school year with the texts we select.  The books we read now with our students will become the Touchstone Texts for our year with them.  We’ll refer back to them again and again as the year moves along. We’ve all had the experience of choosing a book at this magical time of the year and then, sadly, discovering that it didn’t work well for us at all.  It didn’t serve our students or our teaching as the year progressed.  What a loss!  We invested all of that time, all of that student learning energy into a book that fell flat before the year was over.  It didn’t make it for the long haul.

Recently our minister, Brent Damrow, preached on Touchstone Texts in our church one Sunday.  (Okay, he didn’t intend to be preaching on Touchstone Texts the way you and I think of them.  He had a different type of text in mind.) He did an amazing job of explaining how Touchstone Texts operate and why they’re so important.  Frankly, he did a better job of explaining it than I have EVER done.  So, I asked him if he’d share with all of you.

Graciously, he said, “yes”.  Here’s his explanation:

What is your touchstone?  The idea of touchstone has always been associated with something precious as far back as ancient Greece, touchstones were used to measure precious metals. The touchstone was a piece of slate or flint, and when you rubbed a piece of gold or silver over that flint it left a mark that told you just how precious the metal was; Just how pure it was – whether or not you wanted to hold onto it.

In the 1880’s inspired by the character Touchstone from Shakespeare’s As You like It,that idea was extended by Matthew Arnold to apply to poetry.   Arnold was frustrated that the greatness of poetry was measured by its historicity or simply by who wrote it; rather than by its meaning or beauty.   And so Arnold suggested a few gems, like Hamlet’s dying words to Horatio, as touchstones against which the beauty and significance of poetry should be measured: A way of determining which pieces of poetry were worth committing to your heart.  

By the way,  I want to look at that term today is in the sense of something that you hold onto.  Something that in the midst of difficulty or stress points you straight to what its beautiful, true and worth holding onto.  Something whose touch calms you, grounds you, shows you peace or hope or love.  A touchstone is the rock you hold onto when the winds blow and the rains fall.  What is your touchstone?   Sometimes that touchstone is a memory or a song.  And sometimes it is something tangible that we carry with us.

So…. what will you choose as the touchstones for your classroom for this year?  What will you hold up to your students as beautiful, true, and worth holding on to?  This is our opportunity to choose for our students for this year… to create the anchors that will ground our work for the entire year.  Choose well. If you’d like to hear Brent (he’s really easy to listen to — engaging and animated — and as great as these words are printed here, they are incredibly powerful when Brent is speaking them) go here.

Real Life Revision: Tackle the Beginning Last

So here’s my final real-life revision strategy.  It wasn’t the last strategy that I tried, but it is the last strategy that I’m sharing.  Tackle the beginning last — seemed fitting as the last revision strategy of this series.

I can’t tell you how I struggled with the opening of this speech.  I simply could not get it to feel and sound right.  I finally gave up on it and wrote the other sections, revised them again and again, and generally ignored the fact that I needed a beginning.

Beginnings are hard.  I don’t care what kind of writing I’m doing — they’re just plain hard.  Maybe that’s why I love working in small moments so much.  Small moments don’t have a beginning, they just jump right in there.  Writing that needs a beginning is hard.  As an author, you have think about what do your readers need to know right up front.  You have to figure out how to give them that information without destroying the work that is yet to come — the body of the piece that you’ve crafted and revised.  And, despite the attempts by some young writer friends of mine, you can’t just say, “so before I tell you my story…”.  Beginnings are tricky things.  They require huge amounts of thinking, of skill as a writer, and of empathy for your reader/listener.

In my case, there was also the predicament of not knowing what would be said by other speakers in the hour or more before I spoke.  Ordination services have several speakers, each with a slightly different purpose, but still — whatever was said before me would shape how my listeners heard my words.  And going into this, I had absolutely no way of even guessing at what those other speakers might be saying.

So, I wrote my beginning last.  Literally LAST.  I wrote the beginning after I was relatively happy with the entire rest of the piece.  Then I went back through it and used some of my read-aloud revision strategies to make sure that the beginning sounded like it fit with the rest of the piece.  That version of the beginning was in the draft that I shared with my read-aloud buddy and with my feedback friends.

Finally, I printed out my speech the morning of the service.  I printed it in a huge, enormous font and double spaced it so that I wouldn’t worry about losing my place while I was reading it.  And I left some extra room at the top of the page, right before the beginning that I’d crafted.  I tucked a pencil in my purse and headed out to the service.  During the service, as each of the other speakers gave their thoughts,  I was able to make a few quick notes in the empty space to tighten up my introduction.  Writing my beginning was truly, truly the last thing I did before I stood to deliver the speech.  Write your beginning last — really.

Real Life Revision: Get Input

This one sounds like a no-brainer.  After all, we as teachers do this all the time — we GIVE input.  But I think that’s different than our students asking for input.  After I had done a massive amount of revision work and was nearly to the end of the process (meaning I had only a few short days before I needed to deliver this speech), I asked two friends to read it and give me feedback and input.

Here are the important bits about this:

1.  I was nearly done with the work.  I had already engaged in the revision strategies that I’ve shared previously.  I had already done some super hard work.  I was mostly happy with my result.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t “done”.  But it was in a really good place.  I think that when we give something to someone too soon, the feedback that we get isn’t as valuable.  There’s simply too much work there.  I’m pretty sure this is what happens in our classrooms when readers share rough draft material and get feedback.  There is so much that needs work that the feedback isn’t helpful.  It ends up either being too global to really help, or it involves prompting for Extreme Home Makeover type revision — and that frustrates the young writer.  By waiting until I was past those stages, there was less glaring awfulness for my friends to comment on.  I could find that kind of major work myself — that wasn’t what made my friends helpful.

2.  I chose my feedback partners wisely.  I chose people who know me well, but not too well.  They didn’t read it and immediately “get” what I wanted to say.  They were far enough away from me to be objective, yet close enough to me to feel safe.  Additionally, they were both friends who had some serious knowledge of what I was trying to do.  One was our minister and the other a retired seminary professor friend.  Both of them had insider knowledge of how ordination services go.  Both of them have done what I was attempting to do.  They could read my piece with expert eyes.  They caught things that I never would have caught.  Better yet, they could read my piece with the same mindset as most of the people who would be listening to it when I delivered the speech.  They provided a “trial” audience that resembled the audience that would be when I went live.

3.  My feedback partners knew how to give feedback.  I’m sure there was a lot more wrong with my piece than they alluded to.  I’m an amateur in this field — they are seasoned professionals.  There were probably hundreds of little things (and not-so-little things) that they saw and refrained from pointing out.  Instead, they gave me some positive feedback first.  They told me something BIG that was good about my work.  It was genuine and real.  It felt good.  It let me know that this thing wasn’t the disaster that I feared.  And, if I’m ever crazy enough to do something like this again, it was something I could do again in a new piece.  Then they gave me some specific things to think about.  They didn’t correct my grammar or my punctuation.  They didn’t tell me what to write or try to write it for me.  They make simple points and asked me to think about them.  They suggested places where I might clarify for the benefit of my listener.  And, best of all, nobody said “and then you’ll be done”.

Real Life Revision: Read it to Someone

After I had read my piece aloud a few times, I tried a different tack.  I read my piece aloud — to someone else.  Yep, I made someone sit and listen to me.  It wasn’t pretty.  Suddenly the whole awkwardness level was ramped up and things jumped out that hadn’t before.

Some of what happened was that I as a reader stumbled more with the pressure of a listener.  That helped me to identify more spots where my grammar and syntax were tricky and needed to be more clear.

But my listener provided instant feedback, even without commenting directly.  His face scrunched up, his eyebrows twitched, he grinned (at the appropriate place, thankfully!) I knew instantly whether or not I was being effective in what I wanted to communicate.  I penciled all over the text while I did this read aloud.  I starred the spots that had the desired effect.  I make exclamation marks in the margin for places that didn’t go over as strongly as I wanted them to.  I even noted a quick OMG in one spot that was disastrous during this particular read aloud.

After reading it to another person, I had a huge amount of revision that I was ready to do.  And that was before getting verbal feedback. All I had asked him to do was listen to  me.  And that’s all he did.  Wow, did I get feedback though.

Real Life Revision: Read it Aloud

Maybe this worked so well for me because it was a speech that I needed to deliver — in other words, it was going to be read aloud in the end.  I’m not so sure.  But reading my piece aloud helped me to see where I needed to smooth things out.  It highlighted places where my grammar and syntax were just a tiny bit funky and confusing.  I suddenly noticed that I stumbled in a few places.  Those were the places that needed some revision.

This revision work was very different than the other revision work that I’ve talked about thus far.  The previous revision work was huge, structural work — sort of Extreme Home Makeover for my piece of writing.  This work was more like a bathroom renovation within a pretty solid house.  It still required some major effort and work, but it didn’t rip apart the very foundation of my piece of writing like the other work did.

Early in the work I did some reading aloud of my piece as well.  It helped me to know that I wasn’t happy with the piece at all and that I needed to engage in some serious Extreme Home Makeover type of revision.  But later in the work, reading aloud let me play with the specifics of smaller pieces of the writing.  I could hear what sounded funny or was awkward to read aloud.

Hint:  This strategy required that I walk away from the piece for a few days.  Otherwise, my mouth read what I “thought” it said, not what I’d actually written.

Real Life Revision: One Section at a Time

I’m all out of order now in telling about my revision process, bear with me.  Remember that I used the familiar quote/passage to create the sections of my writing.  I put one part of the passage at the top of each page and then wrote that part of my speech, keeping my focus on just that part.

This was a vastly effective revision strategy even without the quote to support it.  Writing one section at a time, taking breaks and walking away in between sections, really supported my writing.  I had time to think about what I really wanted to say in each section.  I had space to decide what were the truly important points for that part of the speech.  I could jot onto post its or little note paper (or the back of receipts) to hold onto ideas.  I could focus on the turn of phrase or the specific word choice that I wanted.

Holding onto just one section at a time freed my mind to really do the work on that section.  I wasn’t trying to hold onto all of the other ideas or onto the need to keep things connected (remember the repeating structure ended up doing that for me).  I could do the work that was needed for that particular section of the speech.  It was very freeing.

Real Life Revision: Dictating to Dragon

At one point, I simply HATED what I had for a draft.  This was fairly far into the writing and revising process.  In retrospect, I think I had over-revised it.  You know, this happens to kids all the time.  They follow our revision direction (especially if we are doing more of the revising work than the child is actually doing).  At some point, the writing doesn’t even sound like them anymore.  It sounds flat and lifeless and just plain, old, wrong.  That was how my piece sounded at this point.  I had lost my voice in the piece and it sounded awful.  Since I had to deliver this orally, having strong, authentic voice was really important.  I couldn’t just ignore this problem.

My solution was to keep the structure that I had borrowed and to toss out that draft and almost “start fresh”.  I didn’t actually throw my draft out!  That would have been way to scary.  But I created a new document and started over.

This time, to get my voice back, I “talked” my speech, section by section.  I used the free Dragon Dictation app on my IPhone.  (True confessions, I was in the car — this works wherever inspiration strikes!).  I opened the app, talked out a section, and then emailed it to myself.  The Dragon app forces you into smaller chunks (it will only hold so much).  I numbered each email to myself so that I could put it all back together again on the computer.

Back at my desk, I opened each email and cut and pasted the dictated text into the new document.  It didn’t flow, there where places where Dragon did not understand me and wrote gibberish, but I had a draft of my thoughts with my strong, clear voice back again.  Since I had done SOOOO much work with the piece already, I lost almost nothing in content during this process.  I knew very well what I wanted to say in each section and it came out my mouth when I was talking to Dragon.  The huge benefit was getting back the rhythm and flow of my own natural voice.

Real Life Revision: Borrow Structure

After I had struggled with a few drafts that really didn’t work, I recalled something that I often tell my young writers when they are struggling.  “If you can’t find the words to make your idea sound powerful, try on someone else’s words a few times until you get a feel for it.”

I’m careful not to encourage my young writers to plagiarize, but trying on someone else’s words is a little like playing “dress up”.  You get to experience what it will feel like to use those powerful kinds of words and that powerful kind of a voice.  Its an effective strategy when young writers are struggling in exposition or opinion writing.  In this case, it wasn’t so much the words that were confounding me, but the “putting it together”.  So, taking a cue from my young writers, I decided to “try on” someone else’s words for structure.  I took a well-known passage and allowed it to structure my piece.

In my next revision, I literally cut apart that well-known passage/quote into smaller chunks.  I separated each chunk into a new paragraph or section of the piece I was writing.  Then, I drafted for each chunk.  At this point, it was a bit like when I ask young writers to put a moment from their story timeline on the top of each page.  They, then, draft within that moment for the duration of the page.  It isn’t perfect, but it creates something worth revising from.  (And it slows them down).

I let the quote slow me down.  Having one chunk at the top of each “page” kept me focused and thinking about that one part.   (I’ll confess, I wasn’t drafting in my notebook nor on paper.  The computer screen “page” was my tool of choice here.)  The revision strategy gave me a much better draft.  Still not one I was happy with, but a MUCH better draft.