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. Our final post of the series is from Jennifer Botzojorns, Assistant Superintendent and Curriculum Director at Mount Mansfield Modified Union School District in northern Vermont.
Through my role as a district curriculum director I have the opportunity to visit schools. I often notice that around the holidays, art projects appear. One retired tradition involved children decorating paper hands to look like a turkey (usually the hands are pre-made so it is not the individual child’s hand). You see lots of same-looking hand turkeys lining hallways. The comb of one is orange or fuzzy, the snood on another is yellow, the waddle on the third is sparkly or black. Despite variations, these turkeys are all the same.
Our children are not all the same. Nor should their art be, nor their writing. It helps to have turkey art as an example because if you know anything about turkeys, their behavior relates to literacy. At my house on the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains, I raise turkeys; I learn from them each day.
Unlike chickens, who dart about randomly, turkeys walk right up to you, get real close and watch. They chortle. After a few minutes, they make a decision and vigorously do something (like attack a worm, or peck at your shoelaces). After their work, they stop again. Stock still. They observe, cock their heads, listen. Their stares are so intent, they must be reflecting on their past and next move. Then, they get really busy responding to what they’ve seen.
Last year, when visiting a classroom of young children, a teacher was learning the Units of Study for Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues. She referred to the book as she spoke to her students; it was her first time through the lesson. She was tentative, paused, and dutifully kept going. Throughout, she smiled, and kept going. I could feel the trepidation. And she kept going. When the children went to their writing stations, they were unclear what to do, but after a bit of clarification, they began to write.
This spring, I visited the same classroom. The children were busy, active, running from here and there, pulling out pieces of writing on which to work. Children were drawing stick figures or hamburger people, some had full blown scenes with dialogue bubbles. Some children were writing complete words and sentences, some had just learned about the ends of sentences and had big fat periods. Some were getting a few consonants on the page below the pictures. Three children tugged on my sleeve, “Do you want to read my story?” All the writing folders were half an inch thick with story after story after story.
Immigrant Students and Literacy by Gerald Campano shares multiple stories from classrooms of bringing writing alive by stepping into the rich cultural heritage of each child. We are learning how to pull the stories of our writers to the surface. In that one classroom was a boy whom I remembered being unable to concentrate in the fall. In the spring, he was drawing a Chevy pick up (complete with hood ornament) and writing an information piece about how to hook up a trailer to his dad’s truck. As he read his story to me, his eyes opened wide and his words moved quickly. He had to stop a few times to add more details. He was completely engaged. The teacher did not prescribe a format or topic, she observed and provided specific direct feedback and a structure in which to flourish.
This change for the student, teacher, whole class and school did not happen overnight. It occurred with a lot of perseverance and questioning from the teacher. She also had a specific structure, outline and direction. It happened because the principal looked keenly, in and out of classrooms, structuring weekly, bi-weekly or monthly faculty meetings, taking courses alongside her teachers, talking with the literacy coaches, providing resources, asking for help, providing support and having teachers set writing goals based on the new curriculum.
Behind the scenes of this gaggle of five-year-olds and their writing, was a district literacy team made up of teachers. They adopted the writing units. This group of teachers set forth a schedule of training and structures for support. And the principal understood and supported the implementation efforts. Our admin team was also observant and curious and responded to the needs of individual students, teachers, and schools. And our teachers took risks, worked hard, and trusted. My role as the director of curriculum was to set the structures in place, support principals, provide training and coaching resources, and watch the transformation over the course of two years.
Children need to do art and write from the heart, from their own stories. Every child, it does not matter their size, shape, color, religion, or economic background, every child has a story to tell. Some educators say, “But they come to school not ready to learn.” I have never met a child not ready to learn! A more accurate perspective is that children are just not ready to learn what we want to teach them, yet.
We must adjust our thinking to step into their space, look intently at what they bring to our classroom, explore each child’s own stories and help him pull out and express his world. Paulo Freire writes that, “Looking at the past must only be a means of understanding more clearly what and who they are so that they can more wisely build the future.” As a leader, one needs to do the same — look into the past. Observe, be curious about what is going on in classrooms, in schools, in halls. Be ready to step into the space of teachers and principals, and support moving everyone forward, together.
My reflection on the behavior of school leaders around the adoption of the writing workshop relates to the behavior of turkeys. As educational leaders, we must take our turkey art off our walls and instead act like turkeys. This way, when children make art, or write, they will do so furiously, and it will come about after stopping and thinking of who they are so they then can write from within their little souls.
Jennifer Botzojorns has worked in education for 27 years in public and independent schools as a teacher and administrator. She lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont with her husband and enjoys writing. Follow her @JenEDVT and visit her blog Living, Learning, Leading in Vermont.