About six or seven years ago I was meeting with a large group of about twenty kindergarten teachers at a school in the Elmhurst neighborhood, in Queens, New York. It was a cold, rainy day in October. The newness of the school year had worn off, with no vacation in sight.
My mom has a theory that whenever there’s a storm coming, kids act out. It was one of those days. A storm must have been coming. You could just feel the tension in the building from the minute you walked in.
“I don’t think our kids can do small moments this year,” one teacher said. Around the table there were nods of agreement. My heart sank. We had had this conversation many times before.
“They just don’t have the skills that last year’s group came with.” More nods of agreement and many worried looks. The conversation continued this way for a minute or so. “They’re a bit immature… They’re very young this year… Plus their English is so limited… They need something more structured…They just need more time before we can ask them to do a small moment.”
I spoke up. “But we said the same thing last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. Every year we worry about the kindergartners, and every year you all do amazing work. Remember last year, when you decided to go for it anyway? Your kids wrote beautiful stories.” Unfortunately, I was not met with nods of agreement. Instead, folks folded their arms, and a few pushed their chairs back from the table.
Eventually, I said, “Why don’t we just go into a classroom right now and see what they can do? I’ll ask the kids to write a small moment as best they can and we’ll just see? Why guess what they can or can’t do when we can just go and find out right now?” I was absolutely, one-hundred percent positive that their kids would draw stories, because I’ve taught small moments to kids all around the country, and I knew in my heart-of-hearts that they couldn’t go wrong. I knew that kids would draw something. What was the worst that could happen? Kids draw pictures? No words yet? That’s exactly what they are supposed to do in kindergarten!
Everybody looked surprised. At first nobody said much. Finally, one teacher volunteered her classroom.
A few minutes later, I showed a classroom of kindergarten children one simple student example I had brought along with me, then invited them to give it a try. It was open-ended. Kids could write any story they wanted, as long as it was a true story from their own lives. It was astounding how much the kids already knew how to do, before the unit had even begun. As kids worked, we noted how high the volume was, how engaged they were, how proud they were when, twenty minutes later, we gathered back at the meeting area and every kid had a finished story (or two!) comprised of pictures, random letter strings, labels, and even some sentences.
Afterward, we reflected. It was clear that memory can cloud our judgment. The recent memory of those end-of-year kindergarteners—the ones who could draw representationally, and write sentences, and use words like “First, next, then, finally” without even being reminded—is hard to reconcile with the new beginning-of-the-year kindergarteners we see in front of us.
It was also clear that we needed a better way of deciding next steps, or in this case, next units, for kids. This was before we really had words for this kind of assessment. What we now know as and on-demand writing assessment and the TCRWP Writing Continuum (now in the form of the learning progressions in Writing Pathways) were only in the early stages of development back then. But now we call this an “on-demand” assessment and we have lots of tools for analyzing this writing. On-demand assessments allow us to check and see, rather than speculate, on what kids already know and can do. Then we can make well-informed choices about what to teach.
If you’re somewhat new to workshop teaching, or if you’re new to on-demand assessments, check out TCRWP’s website to learn more. Or visit Heinemann’s Units of Study website, or read Writing Pathways by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues to learn how to collect on-demand writing for your students.