This week’s guest blogger is second year Mills Teacher Scholar, Brook Pessin-Whedbee, a kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley , CA. Through the data collection, data sharing and collaborative conversations structured by her participation in Mills Teacher Scholars, Brook spent the last academic year looking closely at kindergarten children’s story development. Here she writes about the surprising growth she sees in her young students’ story writing skills after creating a separate time and space for Story Play Time in the classroom. In the tradition of esteemed early-childhood educator and writer Vivian Paley, Brook structured a time for her children to tell and write their stories and then act them out under the eye of an observant and insightful teacher. Her inquiry allowed her to hone in on aspects of her student’s learning that may have gone undocumented by traditional classroom assessment.
“You know what happened yesterday, Ms. Brook?!” Aaron was desperate to tell me his story, “I was playing soccer with my dad and my brother and then my dad kicked the ball hard. Really hard! And it was flying through the air, across the field and my brother was there and then the ball, it banged right into his ear and you know what? It knocked his brains right out, it just knocked ‘em right out. Really it did. And he was laying down, laying there on the field with his brains all out. Gross!” “Wow, Aaron. What a story.” I said, handing him a pencil, “Write that down, before you forget it!”
The beauty of Kindergarten stories is the depth of creativity and the limitless imagination five- and six-year-olds bring to the story-telling process. Kindergarteners see themselves as story-tellers. And this is the time in their lives when they begin to see themselves as writers. Their stories come alive on paper and they get to share them with others in a permanent written way.
And yet, the trouble with Kindergarten writing is that the stories they can write are limited, at best, to a few sentences. Some children spend nearly the entire year simply learning how to hold a pencil, form the letters of the alphabet, and leave spaces between words. Even a story that a child has developed over several days or weeks, including multiple pages and many details, still lacks a certain quality of voice and narrative that characterizes children’s oral stories at this age. After a thirty minute Writer’s Workshop period, Aaron’s story read, “I PLAD SCR WIF MY DAD. MY BRUDR WZ DER.” It was disconcerting to see how a story with such detailed and imaginative content could be so limited by Aaron’s newly developing skills in the complicated mechanics of writing.
How, then, I wondered, could Kindergarteners like Aaron make their voices heard? How could they communicate the rich content and complexities of their oral stories in their own writing?
This was where I started in my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry process.
In September, I took a curricular leap. Thinking about kids like Aaron who lacked skills, or confidence in their skills, I created a separate space in my classroom for a new kind of Kindergarten writing. We still had daily Writer’s Workshop time, but we also began to incorporate Story Play Time each month.
Story Plays are children’s made-up stories that they develop in partners through drawing and talking, dictate to a teacher and act out and revise as a class. Aaron and Yani spent several months together creating a story about a cave where two sharks chase a skateboarder in and out of an ice hole and finally melt to the bottom of the sea. Pat and Jamie wrote about escaping from bees by giving them poison flowers and flushing themselves down the toilet. These were children who had bursting imaginations and exciting stories to tell and yet they would spend their entire Writing Workshop time struggling to write “I played ball,” or identify and write the first sound in ‘cave,’ or even simply put three lines together to write the letter F. I worried that their frustration with writing would keep them from seeing themselves as writers and putting their ideas to paper. I wanted to make room for their strengths in the classroom.
Story plays gave Aaron and his classmates a place to tell, draw, and act out their stories, freed from the constraints and anxieties associated with writing mechanics. While it may have seemed to classroom visitors that the children were “just drawing pictures” or “just talking and playing around,” my students were deeply engaged in meaningful learning. They were exploring and experimenting with what makes a good story and how stories get written. Meanwhile, I spent the year studying how the Story Play process unfolded in the classroom, as children explored story elements such as character, setting, dialogue, problem and solution and engaged more deeply in aspects of the writing process such as re-reading and revision.
Written and Illustrated by Aaron
We were walking to the rug. I threw my shoe. It was on the lamp. Ms. Brook got the yard stick. Ms. Brook got it down for me and I said “Thank you,” and then I went to my house
While I did expect to see development in their Story Plays over the year, I was not prepared for the tremendous leaps these children took in their own writing during Writer’s Workshop.
The Flying Jamie
Written and Illustrated by Jamie
I was a goner at recess. I jumped off the play structure. I flew. I fell. I hit my butt on the ground.
As my students worked towards publishing their own books, I saw the content elements and story structure that I had taught during Story Play time showing up organically during Writer’s Workshop. Aaron had often sat at his desk staring across the room or scribbling dark pencil holes in his paper during writing time. By the Spring, however, his sense of pride and eagerness was visible as he shared his completed Flying Shoe story only once it had its beginning, middle and end.
My students’ voices were coming through in their own writing, not just in Story Play dictations. Before Story Plays, Kindergarten writing I had seen from past students lacked this depth of content. Stories transformed from simple narratives such as: “At recess, I played with my friend on the monkey bars. It was hot. We had fun. I love the monkey bars,” to rich and creative stories like The Flying Jamie. More than simply having a better command of writing mechanics, my students this year had a deeper and clearer voice as writers because of the dramatic storytelling and creative experimentation they had done through Story Plays. Seeing this powerful transfer of skills made it clear to me that Story Plays was actually improving academic outcomes for writing standards as students explored story elements through collaborative talk, drawing, and acting, and then made connections to their own writing.