In this week’s series, school and district leaders will share their insight on ways to support writing teachers. Stay tuned this week as they share their thinking on how to support whole schools. Today’s post is from Michael Berry, principal of Richmond Elementary School in Richmond, Vermont.
I’ve been on a mission this year. It’s a fairly simple mission, but nonetheless, one that I take completely seriously (for those of you that don’t know me, being serious is not my strength). My mission this year is to model. Not like professional clothing line model, but model all of the things that we want from our learners and also what we hope for our educators. As a building administrator, modeling generally speaks to the concept of continually learning and showing those in our school communities that we are actively engaged and open about that experience.
Breaking it down further, I’ve wanted to make sure that I’m demonstrating to teachers, scholars, community members, and families that I am a writer…always writing. Same for reading–but that’s another post for another time. But if you get bored click here.
To me this doesn’t just look like writing for the sake of writing, or just writing a blog post now and then and reminding everyone that I wrote it. It means writing…thinking like a writer…exploring like a writer…watching the world like a writer…all of those great things that we say to scholars everyday.
So what are some ways that I’ve been tackling this goal? One has been to throw myself in with kids’ writing. For example, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of partnering with one of our teachers this year to do some “off the map” kind of writing work with her scholars. I’m a HUGE fan of Paul Johnson’s Literacy Through the Book Arts (if you haven’t seen this book…find a copy…right now). To explain my obsession with this book and the work inside I have to explain something about when I was a second grade teacher.
Every Friday when I was teaching I would not let any of my students leave the room. I also didn’t let anyone really enter to disturb us. That meant no one was pulled for services on Friday morning. No one left for a group. We were together, in our own world. A writer’s world. Our one thing that we did every Friday was write. Friday’s became our favorite day, where we could close the door and just explore our minds. Using Paul’s book designs I’d give the students a blank canvas every Friday morning to share their masterpiece. There was no time limit. You could finish quickly or take your time…no pressure. Students of all different levels and abilities just spread throughout the room and it was beautiful.
Fast forward…I’m a principal now. Not teaching in a classroom, but still just as passionate about the work and the kids. I’ve shared the book arts components with staff a few times now, offering to share the experience with their students anytime. I’ve been fortunate to work with amazing educators who have invited me in from kindergarten through fourth grade to share this work.
This year one of our second grade teachers, Kristin Darling, took me up on it and we dove in. Kristin and I worked on two tracks. One was using the book arts to engage students who were hesitant about writing and the second track was using the book arts with her whole class to celebrate writing together. Both were extremely successful.
Working with the reluctant writers through the book arts is similar in my mind to the discussions and importance of paper selection in a writer’s workshop model. The only difference is that instead of regular lined paper these students needed a piece of paper in the shape of a three dimensional rocket to gear them up for productive writing. Same concept, different approach, wonderful outcome. I can say with assurance writing willingness, production, idea creation and stamina all increased for the reluctant writers that we worked with using this model. Now the students have transitioned back into the regular writers workshop model…with the occasional dunk back into the book arts just to keep it spicy.
The second track of work was with the whole class. One day I showed up with a castle shaped piece of paper for each student. I gave them a brief overview of how they could use the piece of paper (which basically was that they could do anything they could think of in terms of using it to write their stories on) and then let them get to work. Their “task” was to write a story on their piece of castle. That’s it. No further explanation.
You know what was amazing? They did it…very well. As they sat writing on these uniquely cut pieces of paper they talked about things like beginnings, characters and what they would do in the story. How they would end the story in a way that was exciting to the reader. They were transferring all those great skills that we were talking about and they were having a blast! When they were done writing their stories I told them that we were going to put all our stories together into the most amazing story castle ever seen. And we did.
I also wrote several of my own book arts styled stories right alongside the scholars. Mine are outside my office and feature stories of my adventures with my administrator colleague, Mark Carbone (he’s the principal at the middle school next door where our scholars will eventually go). Everyone LOVES these (including Mark, even if he won’t admit it).
Finding a way to actively model the things that we want for our teachers, students, families, and community members helps move everything forward…but most of all, it really makes you a better you. I wrote this.
Michael Berry is the proud principal of Richmond Elementary School in Richmond, Vermont. He lives in Barre, Vermont with his amazing family, a dog, two cats and a grumpy rabbit. You can find out more about him at his blog https://principalberry.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter at @PrincipalBerry.