Seven Realities of Launching Workshop in Kindergarten

A Note from Melanie: This week, I welcome Katie Bristol as a guest blogger. Katie teaches kindergarten in Simsbury, CT, and she is my go-to person whenever I have a question about the youngest members of our school community. While her post may seem specific to kindergarten, her insights are important to educators who work in all grades. You can follow Katie on twitter @bristol_katie.

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“I need some kindergarten perspective.  What does your workshop look like right now?”

 Melanie Meehan’s question was simple, yet the answer is anything but.  Successfully launching writing workshop in kindergarten is no small feat.  I have spent the last ten years curating resources and strategies to support my instruction in this critical time of year, and even still, it is a challenge.  The fact is that a kindergarten workshop in September is a different animal than a workshop in any other grade level or at any other time of year.

The first weeks of kindergarten should be full of hope, joy, and anticipation for the growth to come.  Unfortunately, the reality is that it is far too easy to get overwhelmed by curricular demands, baseline assessments, and a fast-paced calendar.  Our curriculum guides, valuable as they may be, are full of vignettes and descriptions of what our students should be doing and what our workshops should look like.  In my experience, these descriptions rarely align with the realities of a kindergarten classroom in September. As a veteran teacher, I know that it is okay that my workshop doesn’t look quite like the model classrooms that I’ve seen and read about.  I know that each class has a unique starting point. We will find our groove together. We always do. However for new teachers who lack that perspective and experience, launching a workshop can feel downright defeating.

As Mel and I hashed out the pedagogy and strategies that we have found to be the most impactful, she encouraged me to write a guest post sharing my experiences.  “New teachers need to hear this,” she urged. At first I laughed off her request. I don’t claim to be an expert on teaching writing, nor am I one to usually put myself out there on such a large platform.  Then I thought back to my mentor in my first year of teaching. Whenever I would ask her how I could repay her for all the she had done for me, she would say,

“Pay it forward. Someday you will be the veteran teacher and a new teacher will need your help.  Pay it forward.”

So with those words ringing in my ears, here is what I have learned about the realities of launching workshop in kindergarten:

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  1. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that the unit books do not define my instruction.  

Last year my district adopted a new math program.  Tackling an entirely new curriculum is a daunting task to say the least.  Whenever I would get caught in the weeds of the manuals and pacing calendars, my incredibly brilliant math coach would talk me off the ledge and help me to regain perspective.  Her mantra was simple: Don’t look at the teacher’s edition.  Look at the kids sitting in front of you.  What are they showing you they can do? What goals/standards are you working toward in this unit?  What do your students need in order to move closer to those goals?  These three questions quickly became the compass that has guided my instruction across the board.  When our kindergarteners walk through our doors on day one, they are bringing a wide range of school experiences with them.  No book could ever anticipate and account for the unique skills and needs that each group of learners brings. The curriculum guides are an invaluable resource for techniques and strategies, but when it comes to setting the scope and sequence of my instruction, my students are in the driver’s seat.

2. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that genre is the least of my worries.

We have to pick our battles in September.  As long as my students are putting pencil to paper, I’m a happy teacher. You want to write a story about your summer vacation?  Great! You want to draw a picture of your favorite stuffed animal? Fantastic! You like puppies? Draw a puppy. My ultimate goal in launching writing workshop is for my students to feel empowered to share their ideas, regardless of the format.  To disparage their vision simply because it doesn’t align with a prescribed genre would undermine everything that we are trying to build. In my conferences, I might ask my students about their genre (“What kind of book are you writing today? Are you telling a story or teaching your reader?”) or give a name to it (“I see you are teaching your reader how to draw a car.  We call that a How To book.”), but now is not the time to make genre the center of my teaching points. There will be plenty of time for that later. Now is the time to foster independence. Now is the time to nurture habits. Now is the time to validate all writers and all writing.

3. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that it doesn’t always look like a true workshop.

I often keep my workshops short in the first weeks of school until my students build their stamina.  It is critical when fostering our students writing identities to set them up for success. So what do I do with the rest of our writing time?  Whatever my students need. We almost always spend time each year practicing drawing basic shapes. Then we use our imaginations to create a picture out of each shape.  A circle becomes a cookie. A rectangle becomes a house or fire truck. Talking, Drawing, Writing:  Lessons For Our Youngest Learners by Martha Horn and Mary Ellen Giacobbe (Stenhouse, 2006) is a treasure trove of ideas to support our emerging writers.  We also often use our workshop time to create hybrid books.  This technique is a combination of shared and independent writing.  It is one of my favorite strategies to scaffold the writing process for hesitant writers.  In September, we often work as a whole class, but it is an effective small group structure as well.  When writing hybrid stories we generate ideas and craft a piece of writing together as we would in shared writing.  The difference here is that students have their own papers and pencils. They are accountable for choosing how to represent our shared ideas in their individual books.  In the end we have twenty pieces about the same topic, but represented in very different ways. The beauty of the hybrid technique is that it sends a strong, clear message. I am here to support you, but I also believe that you are capable of writing on your own.  It builds a sense of community, while also highlighting the individual choices that authors can make. Giving up the workshop time to provide these shared experiences for my students is a worthwhile sacrifice. They provide a foundation that makes the time that we do spend in workshop even more valuable and constructive.

4. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that some of our most important writing work takes place outside of our workshop.

This work is often playful, but purposeful in nature.  It sends a powerful message that writing is an integral part of our classroom culture.  We co-construct name charts in Word Study. We adapt shared reading texts to make them about our classroom.  We add speech bubbles to wordless picture books. We make signs to help facilitate routines and structures. Our writing doesn’t end when workshop is over. Our days are constantly dotted with rich, dynamic literacy experiences that weave the fabric of the writerly lives that we are building.

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5. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that sometimes I don’t confer with my students, but rather write alongside them.

I could write an entire post about the power of this technique, but Lanny Ball has already done that far more eloquently than I ever could.  It was his post that inspired me to take the plunge this year. If you haven’t read it yet, be sure to check it out!  Writing alongside our students in kindergarten plays out a bit differently than in other grade levels.  We are ushering our students into the world of writing, a world that is foreign to many of them. We all know the importance of modeling, yet we are asking our students to adopt the life of a writer without showing them what that looks like.  While our mini lessons provide an opportunity for some modeling, I have found that a 5 minute demonstration just isn’t enough. Our students need to see what it looks like to be a writer across an entire workshop. They need to see what it looks like to carry out a writing lifestyle from day to day.  They need to see that struggling isn’t a sign of weakness or failure; it is simply part of the writing process. It can be hard to let go of that time to confer with students, especially in a time of year when our conferring is just as much about management as it is about content.  What I found is that writing alongside my students is just as effective, if not more so, than conferring. There is no need for management because the students are so engaged in observing my writing.  When I plop myself down to write with my students, I am in essence conducting a table conference. My compliments and teaching points may not look quite like they do in a traditional conference, but they pack just as much punch.  Few compliments are more powerful than telling a young writer that his ideas have inspired me to try a new strategy in my own writing. When I write alongside my students, it blurs the lines between our roles. We all become teachers and learners. It is true that the students spend more time watching me than working on their own writing.  It is also true that they often end up writing stories that bear a striking resemblance to mine.  This is okay.  September is a month for acclimating, observing and approximating.  We need to honor the value in these processes and give our students the time and space to find their own way.

6. The reality of launching workshop is that it is perfectly imperfect.

The last thing that I want to do is paint a glorified picture of my workshop in September.  It’s messy. It’s noisy. It’s full of interruptions. It’s hallmarked by leaps forward and steps backward.  Some days I marvel at the growth that my students have made in such a short time. Other days I worry that my students are not as far along as last year’s crop.  It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. In those inevitable moments of self-doubt, I am fortunate to be able to lean on my teammates. Together (and always with chocolate!) we reassure, regroup, troubleshoot, and sometimes just vent, taking comfort in knowing that we are not struggling alone.

7. The reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that there is no single right way to do it.

In my ten years of teaching kindergarten, I have never launched a workshop the same way twice.  Sure, I have a bank of tried and true lessons that I teach every year. But the pacing, order, and format is always as unique as the students I am teaching.  A cookie cutter formula just doesn’t cut it when it comes to launching a workshop. It all comes back to the students sitting in front of you. No two classes are the same, so why should your launch be the same?

As October rolls on, many of us will begin to wrap up our launching units.  This might instill a sense of panic as you reflect on all of the imperfections that remain in your workshop.  Your students might still be working on drawing people. They might still only be able to write for 7 minutes (or 6 or 5…or 4).  They might not be independent with their writing tools just yet. Don’t let this stop you from moving forward with your instruction.  Because above all else, the reality of launching workshop in kindergarten is that it takes all year. We are setting our students up to be lifelong writers.  That doesn’t just happen overnight. We will revisit lessons from our launching unit time and time again over the course of the year. We build on old charts to remind ourselves of good writing habits.  Sometimes we even re-launch in January to get back on track after vacation. My principal often reminds us not to let the great get in the way of the good. Don’t let your vision of a perfect workshop stop you from seeing the value in the reality of what you have built so far.  The rest will come with time. Just keep focusing on the students sitting in front you. They will tell us exactly what they need if we know how to listen.