Though most kindergarteners arrive at school in September eager to tell their own stories, the idea of actually writing an entire story — complete with descriptive details and a beginning, middle, and end — can be daunting for these brand new students. Familiar with concerns such as How will I know what to write? What letters make which sounds? and How will my pictures help tell my story?, Hewitt’s kindergarten teachers work closely with each student on developing their storytelling abilities. To help kindergarteners answer their questions about writing and encourage them to become confident, independent, and successful storytellers, Hewitt’s kindergarten team looks to the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s (TCRWP) writing workshop curriculum. Based out of Columbia University, TCRWP’s research-based methods are organized into opinion, information, and narrative writing units that break down the writing process in a way that is easy to understand and developmentally appropriate for young writers.
At the beginning of the year, our kindergarten writing units focus on storytelling through pictures. As students practice writing letters and words, they also learn how to draw people and settings in order to compose a “wow” picture — one that includes important details about the people, activities, and places depicted in their drawing. After they have become proficient illustrators, each with their own artistic style, students then focus on learning about labels and how they can help add information to a drawing’s story. The kindergarteners get to work labeling their drawings, referencing alphabet charts to identify the letters they will need to write out their words. As they work on labeling, students are encouraged to speak their words aloud, stretching each one out like a rubber band in order to hear and write all the corresponding sounds. After the girls have finished labeling their drawings, their teachers lead them through the steps of turning the individual words on their labels into descriptive sentences. At this stage of the writing process, students learn to look at their drawings and labels and consider the question, “What is my whole picture about?” They use their answers, along with the words on their labels, to compose complete sentences that help tell the story of the picture.
In our second writing unit, True Stories, kindergarteners apply the drawing, labeling, and sentence-writing skills they have been working on to their study of how writers use events from their own lives to craft stories that are interesting for other people to read. In this unit, students learn the importance of oral storytelling and develop an understanding of how to incorporate common storybook language such as “one day,” “then,” and “finally” into their writing. They also practice sequencing events in their stories so that they make sense, and describing the feelings or reactions they had in response to the events they are writing about.
To begin the unit, the girls are given a planning sheet and invited to brainstorm examples of true moments that have happened to them. This year, some of the ideas generated by the students included “the first time I ate a mushroom,” “going skiing,” “driving my remote control car,” and “going to a Halloween party.” Giving students the chance to generate their own ideas and make choices about the topics they want to write about allows their personalities and voices to be heard throughout their stories, which in turn gives their teachers and classmates the opportunity to get to know them in an authentic way. Making room for student voice and choice in writing workshop also ensures each student’s story is different and unique, which are qualities we celebrate and embrace at Hewitt at every age!
After brainstorming ideas and settling on their topics, the girls plan out their stories with a focus on organizing their ideas into a beginning, middle, and end. This planning process is a crucial step in the writing workshop model because once students have a plan for what they want to write, they can more fully focus on the craft of writing, utilizing phonics tools such as alphabet charts and a word wall full of sight words to write their words. Once they have their story plan, the girls get to work drawing and writing their stories. As they engage in the writing process, kindergarteners confer with teachers to discuss specific writing strategies including adding more letter sounds to each word, remembering to add specific setting details to their pictures, and pushing themselves to add more descriptions to their stories by writing two or three sentences on each page. Each conference is personalized to the individual student, and teachers scaffold new skills so that the kindergarteners feel appropriately challenged.
Students also work with a peer writing partner who provides feedback by highlighting strengths and areas for growth. Peer feedback is a valuable part of the writing process that continues throughout lower, middle, and upper school. In kindergarten, we frame our feedback sessions using the “star and wish” method. After one writer shares her work, her peer partner shares one compliment, or star, and one suggestion, or wish, of what could be added to the draft during our next writing session. Teachers do a lot of modeling to help kindergarteners learn how to give feedback in a respectful way and receive feedback without attaching judgment or criticism. After planning, drafting, and incorporating feedback into their edits and revisions, each kindergartener chooses one of their true stories to “publish” with a formal title page and colorful illustrations. The students proudly share their published pieces at a mini celebration in the classroom.
By the time kindergarteners have finished the True Story unit, their initial uncertainty about how to write a story has developed into enthusiasm. The girls understand how to use strategies like drawing and labeling pictures to help them organize and express their ideas, and they take comfort in knowing they will have ample support — through teacher conferences and peer editing sessions — if they encounter a challenge and need help.
This confidence in themselves and the writing process will be especially important as we close out the 2019-2020 school year. On March 30, 2020, Hewitt temporarily shifted to a remote teaching and learning model and the kindergarten team began thinking about how to reimagine our final writing workshop units of the year. As we work with parents, guardians, and our colleagues to ensure that each student is getting the support she needs during Remote Learning @ Hewitt, we will rely not only on research into best practices and our instincts as experienced educators, but also on the trust we have in our students. We have spent the last seven months getting to know these kindergarteners, and though our class meetings and writing conferences have moved to online platforms like Seesaw and Zoom, the Class of 2032 continues to demonstrate an impressive desire to learn and grow, a willingness to lean into challenges, and a commitment to developing into strong and independent writers.
Interested in Learning More?
To learn more about the writing workshop model discussed in this article, the author recommends the following resources: