Emergent Writing and Star of the Day

Alex twt

I called kindergarten “home” for a very long time. From 2003-2014, I was, and always thought I would be, a kindergarten teacher. In September 2014, I made the move to third grade, trading in labeling pictures for literary essays (eek!) and blogging (yay!). My son, Alex, will be starting kindergarten this coming September, and I find myself thinking back to what I did to help those four and five year old emergent writers. With rising expectations for what incoming kindergarteners can do, I’ve been dusting off my kindergarten bag of tricks to work with Alex, to help him feel confident and ready when school starts.  We’ve been doing alphabet practice with Fundations cards, playing Old Maid, thinking of rhyming games in the car, and of course reading many books together.  However, I wanted an activity that would bring letters, words, and drawings together in an authentic, meaningful way for Alex. I remembered “Star of the Day.”

I always began the kindergarten year with was Star of the Day. In the classroom, Star of the Day served many purposes. Each day, a different kindergarten student would be selected as the Star of the Day. Ahead of time, I wrote each child’s name on a sentence strip twice- one as the model name and one to cut apart letters and reassemble the name. This would all be placed in a pocket chart (We had no Smartboard when I taught kindergarten so this is a low-tech method). One of the expectations for kindergarten students is to know the difference between letters and words, to understand that print goes from left to right, to differentiate between text and print, and to draw representational pictures. Star of the Day helped address all of these early literacy skills, while also building community, as students learned each others’ names and interests.

At the start of the session, the student would come up and the class would sing, to the tune of “Bingo”:

“There was a class who had a boy and Alex was his name-o!

Jump, jump Alex!

Jump jump Alex!

Jump, jump, Alex

and Alex was his name-o.”

The Star of the Day would jump as the class laughed and cheered. Then, I always said something like, “This is Alex’s name (holding up the name card). It’s a word that is made up of letters. Let’s cheer for the letters in Alex’s name. Give me an A! Give mean L! Give me an E! Give me an X! What does that spell? Alex! Let’s count the letters in Alex’s name. Alex’s special letter is his A and it is uppercase. The rest of the letters are lowercase.” This simple routine introduced students to terms they would need to know such as letters, words, uppercase, and lowercase. By hearing that same message repeated every day, students would begin to understand that letters and words are different. The Star of the Day would have to put his/her name back together, from left to right,  after I scrambled up the letters. It was always interesting to see who could do this in a snap, who did it backwards,  and who struggled to piece the letters back together.

Megan twt

The Star of the Day would then sit in the rocking chair to be interviewed by the rest of the class. Students would ask questions. Some years, I had each student bring in a bag of special-to-them items to share when they were Star of the Day. We would hang the student’s name on our word wall. Throughout the year, students would often refer to the names on the wall and associate sounds with names (“Toy starts like Tommy”).

After the interview, I would model how to write the Star of the Day’s name and draw his/her picture. Many kindergarten students come to school not knowing how to draw representationally and they make large circles with arms and legs coming out of them.  I would think out loud about how the Star of the Day looks and my process for drawing him/her. I would model how to use shapes such as circles, squares and rectangles in my drawing and to make sure the person had a body. I also showed the students how I used the correct colors for the student. We had discussions about skin tone and noticed the hair, eyes, and clothing. Some students would want to take a blue crayon and make every part of the drawing blue. I had to teach students how to notice specific details like eye color and make the Star of the Day look like the person in their drawing. This would later help them as they wrote stories because details in their drawings would mean more details in their story. Also, it is easier to label pictures that look close to what they should be. Labeling was often our next step in kindergarten writing workshop, so representational pictures were quite important. A great resource I used to learn more about this process was Talking, Drawing and Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers by Martha Horn and Mary Ellen Giacobbe. Star of the Day was also inspired by Patricia Cunningham’s Making Words.

Alex pic at 4

My son, Alex, made this picture of our family when he was 4 years old. Many students come to kindergarten drawing people like this (arms and legs coming from heads).

As students went back to their seats to write the Star of the Day’s name and draw his/her picture, it gave me a chance to sit with students and help them, assess who was having difficulty with fine motor skills or following directions, and make notes about next step instruction for the class and small groups. The drawings would be stapled together with a cover, so each child would go home with a book of drawings all about himself! There was so much teaching and learning with Star of the Day and it was always my favorite way to start off our year as writers. Simultaneously, we were doing a lot of work on storytelling and thinking of the stories in our life, but for the print-based work and emergent literacy skills, Star of the Day accomplished so much in one activity.

For my son, Alex, we are using his cousins’ names. I’ve been having him cut out the letters for extra fine motor practice and I say the whole thing to him as he does it: “Will’s name is a word. It is made up of letters. Let’s cheer for his letters….let’s count his letters.” Alex has to glue Will’s name in order and then we talk about how Will looks and how we can draw him.  My hope is we can make a book of all his cousins’ names and pictures and when we are finished, Alex will have internalized the difference between words and letters, uppercase and lowercase, and he will know better how to draw a person with all of their parts.

Will k writing

Alex’s drawing of his cousin, Will. Notice he added fingers and toes (with prompting from me). He also drew eyebrows and attempted a neck. Compare this to the above picture from last year.

It really is amazing to think that after kindergarten, in 3 short years, students move from this type of work to composing literary essays, persuasive speeches, informational books and personal narratives. Having taught kindergarten for so long, I have a true appreciation and understanding of how important and fundamental this early literacy work is for students as readers and as writers. Stacey’s recent post on preschool writing had me reflecting on ways I taught writing to young learners and how I can help my son and daughter grow as writers before they even start school. What are your experiences with emergent writers?