It has been well researched that by the time children enter kindergarten, a wide skills gap already exists in terms of language, literacy, problem solving, and school-readiness. One of the ways I have observed this gap has been through my students’ creative writing. In my first few years as a kindergarten teacher, I was amazed by the fact that some students were able to write their elaborate oral stories while, for other students, there was a tremendous disconnect between the elaborate stories they told and the simple stories they wrote. To understand what was happening for the children who transferred their rich stories to their writing, I decided that this would be the focus for my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry project. I sought to find ways to interrupt the gap, informed by a better understanding of what would best serve the students in my own dual immersion classroom. The discoveries that I made have deeply influenced my approach to instruction and my understanding of early childhood development.
“Yo veo la casa (I see the house),” read my kindergartner Kimi. There on her paper was a red house with children playing in the yard, figures peeking out from the windows, and insects buzzing through the cloud-covered sky. When asked about her picture, she became animated, quickly departing from the simple sentence frame and told me a long, involved story including the names of the characters, what they were doing, and a description of their surroundings.
Kimi was not alone in this disconnect between the story she told and the story she wrote. I started noticing this pattern among many of my students, although not all of them. Occasionally, students were able to match their oral stories with their attempts to write them. I started to wonder about this difference and arrived at the two questions driving my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry: What does strong writing look like at the kindergarten level? What components are in place for the children meeting these criteria?
Arriving at a Definition
In order to begin my inquiry, I needed to make sense of this idea of a “strong writer.” While I could identify examples of strong writing, in order to understand what I wanted from all children, I needed to arrive at a definition. To do this, I looked closely at the work of two students, Ilán and Daniel, who I considered to be meeting the standard.
For three months, I examined their daily creative writing journals. Upon analysis with my Mills Teacher Scholars colleagues, I honed in on four main criteria and developed the term “Creative, Courageous Writers.” “Creative, Courageous Writers” are people who:
- create stories from their imagination
- include details and descriptions in their writing
- write about a diversity of topics
- write outside of sentence frames, using a wide vocabulary
With a definition in place as a lens through which to understand their creativity and courage, I could begin to analyze the work of my two focal students. I hoped my findings would allow me to take this learning and alter my instruction to provide all students with the conditions necessary to become their strongest writers.
To conduct the analysis of Ilán and Daniel’s writing, I looked at three main data sources. First, I analyzed their creative writing journals. Second, I had conversations with the children themselves. Third, I conducted interviews with their families to learn about their home lives and early-childhood experiences.
Findings: The Courage is in the Process, Creativity in the Content
Over the next six months, as I continued to analyze their work and to speak with my students, I made a series of findings pertaining to process and content.
My first discovery concerned process. It was in the writing process—in the illustration, in their oral storytelling, and in their lack of concern with accuracy—that they demonstrated courage. Instead of writing to receive my praise and affirmation, of primary importance was developing the story itself.
What initially drove their stories was the illustration. As I interacted with Daniel and Ilán, I noticed that they needed more time to draw. When given this time, they created incredibly detailed images. As they drew and I listened, I also noticed language pouring out of their mouths—the very language that would later become the material for their written stories. By contrast, for some teachers and for many education reformers without deep knowledge of early childhood development, the illustration is considered secondary to the writing, rather than the actual driver of the writing.
What was also interesting about Daniel and Ilán was that they were not concerned with the accuracy of their writing nor were they writing to please me. What motivated them was the desire to tell their stories to each other. What I have observed over the past seven years of teaching is that when children write for me, the courage to create is often lost to pleasing me with beautiful letters, accurate spelling, and punctuation. While important skills, when correctness is the focus, children often stick within the comfortable boundaries of what they already know how to do.
In many instances, Daniel, while bilingual, would abandon writing in Spanish so that he could more fully express his ideas. For example, one day he would write:
“This is a mad ap picchr and it is a shiyld masc and has a liyd and yusis it were evr he gows” (“This is a mad ape picture and it is a shield mask and has a lid and uses it wherever he goes”).
Ilán, on the other hand, would maintain his Spanish but was unconcerned with spacing and lowercase letters. He would write: “LASirENAESVELLiA. itAMBiENTiENEARETS” (“La sirena es bella y también tiene aretes” or “The mermaid is pretty, and she has earrings”). When asked why he did not use more lowercase letters, he simply replied that it got in the way of his story!
My second discovery concerned the content of their writing, or the space in which creativity happens. By looking closely at what ideas and stories were being generated, I noticed a few patterns.
As an Expeditionary Learning School, we focus on one topic over the course of several months. The deeper we got into our expeditions, the more our learning surfaced in their writing. For example, when we studied the desert, suddenly Daniel crafted a story about a truck on yellow sand next to a saguaro cactus. Or, when studying the rainforest, Ilán’s fern became the magical subject of the story. Additionally, engaging literature and life experiences would appear in their journals. The characters and costumes in Peter Pan and Alexander and the Dragon would exist alongside a story about their families wandering through the forest. Animals on a farm seen on a recent visit to El Salvador would occupy the page.
To complement my analysis of student work and conversations, the other data source was parent interviews. I discovered, as one might expect, that both of these children had attended pre-school, lived in homes with an abundance of literature, and were encouraged to use language to tell stories. Another commonality was that they had been exposed to various enriching activities, such as visits to museums, time outdoors, and travel. Both families also mentioned that they prioritized exploration, asking questions, and solving problems independently.
Implications for All Students: Shifts in Philosophy and Pedagogy
When children arrive at kindergarten, some easily assimilate into school culture and others struggle with the new tasks, routines, and expectations. While we have no control over their experiences prior to kindergarten, we do have control over what we choose to teach and how we choose to teach it. Therefore, it is in the content, the instruction, and the philosophy that I can create the conditions to unleash the creative, courageous potential of each of my students. With this in mind, I took my learning from Daniel, Ilán, and their families and made some big shifts, both philosophical and pedagogical, in how I teach and how I think about student learning.
Philosophically, I changed the way I interact with children and refined my ideas of “high-quality work.” I started to shift my focus away from the written text and onto the drawing. This is the site, after all, from which language is emerging. I allowed children as much time as they needed to develop the story through art and gave them ample space to express their ideas.
I also encouraged talking! Story-creation is a noisy process. Details are refined through conversation. Vocabulary is developed. Children have to explain, answer questions, and defend their work when they are allowed to converse with each other throughout the creative process.
Furthermore, I made major shifts in how I speak to children. A behavior that I have routinely observed is for adults to look at children’s writing samples, zoom in on the page with neat letters, proper spacing, and capitalization and immediately say, “Wow. What a great writer.” But if you look closer, it is often these students who have prioritized accuracy and stayed within the familiar sentence frames. The papers with rich stories, albeit imperfect mechanics of writing, frequently get overlooked. So, as an adult, I had to check myself when I noticed that my immediate feedback concerned accuracy. Instead, I learned to prioritize questions and feedback about the story itself.
The other major adjustments to my instruction have gone beyond my writing curriculum. Not all students have the rich opportunities that Ilán and Daniel have at home. Therefore, it is my responsibility to provide children with those experiences that impact their success at school. This meant fundamental changes to the way I teach and interact with children, my priorities in the classroom, and the way that I interpret messages about “education reform” and the urgency around early basic writing skills development. With this commitment in mind, there are some non-negotiables that I have put into place since this inquiry project:
- My philosophy and practice must be responsive to my students.
- Learning must be hands-on, concrete, and based on the students’ world(s).
- Quality children’s literature must be read every single day.
- Schools must provide the engaging experiences that some, but not all, children have with their families. Field trips, visits to museums and parks, and bringing experts into the class guarantee access for everyone.
- Imaginative play and other opportunities for oral language development (such as encouraging talk and prioritizing the art) cannot be eliminated. On the contrary, they should be integrated into more traditional academic areas.
Although this inquiry project was conducted over three years ago, the findings and implications have continued to influence my approach to instruction and understanding early childhood development. I learned from Daniel and Ilán that if having space to be self-directed learners is what drives their ability to be courageous and creative, then this is fundamental for all students in all classrooms, regardless of economic class and their opportunities from age 0 to 5. Once I stepped back and listened to my students, I heard priceless information about what children need and how I can offer that to them. The result has been that, with each passing year, the work my students produce is more bold, more language rich, and more joyful.
Emily Starr Bean is in her 7th year as a kindergarten teacher in Oakland, California and in her fourth year as a teacher scholar. For the past 5 years she has worked at Melrose Leadership Academy, a dual immersion (Spanish-English), project-based school. Emily received a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from Columbia University and then began teaching in Oakland with the Oakland Teaching Fellows program a few years later. She is passionate about thinking critically about education and the world we want for our children, our communities, and the environment.