My first job after graduating from college was a six week long-term sub position in a pre-kindergarten classroom. It was housed in a public school within the district I had done my student teaching. I remember being so grateful and excited!
I knew four year olds.
I was completely prepared.
Until I wasn’t.
I remember the co-teacher (she really was co-teaching, but I believe her title was my “teacher’s aide”) telling me I would learn to be more patient as I gained more experience. Embarrassed, I remember thinking–But I’m already so patient. I’ve been working with preschool and pre-preschool age children for almost four years in the non-profit program just outside of my university’s campus. What do I still need to learn?
A part of me, even then, knew she was right. I was still so out of my element. I don’t think I had any idea what I was supposed to be doing, and feeling embarrassed was probably appropriate. I wasn’t at a reflective point in my practice yet. I just knew I loved watching kids learn, and I wanted to engage in that practice as much as possible. At the time, I didn’t realize I was learning way more than I was teaching.
This year, I made my way into one of the preschool classrooms in my building to immerse myself in the lives of little writers. My whole life used to revolve around people with little voices, little hands, and little sparks of curiosity. Third graders have a lot of charm, but there is something about being around these little ones that makes me feel like I’m home.
On my first visit, I had about three students interested in what I was offering–a blanket, some blank books, and flair pens. On my sixth and final visit, eight little writers joined to grow a story. These exchanges created a conscious realization. By conscious I mean, I wrote it down. The realization part? I think I have always known but somehow writing it down made it feel a little more informed and honest.
The discovery was that writing flourishes, it is enjoyed, and experienced in multiple modes. The word, writing, can seem so fixed in its meaning. When I think about how I talk about writing, it is often within a certain context. I’ve realized the context I use to talk about writing can feel like it is the only mode in which writing lives when in these conversations. This doesn’t give the word writing all that it deserves.
A four year old helped me realize this in one of my recent visits to his classroom. The conversation went something like this:
Me: “Easton, can you read me your story? You have all these stapled pages and it looks like you’ve made a book!”
Easton: “Once upon a time there was a little flower and it was a seed (flips page). And he growed and growed (flips page). Until he became a big flower (flips page) and he growed (flips page) and growed and that’s the end (contagiously enormous smile upon saying those final three words).”
I watched with ultimate glee as this little storyteller told me about all the lines, curves, and scrawls on his multiple stapled pages. Easton was overjoyed by his accomplishment. There were lines for words and scribbles for pictures all in blue pen. It was magical. For him, the writing was not hard. It was just joyful. He is a flower living inside of a seed.
Below, Tom Newkirk talks about how children want to write and the message Don Graves was such a big part of, calling students writers.
When I was first teaching, I didn’t know a whole lot about what kids could do or couldn’t do. I was learning about development, watching, observing, listening, and trying to take it all in. I still don’t know all the things I need to know or all the ways to best prepare writers for a world that needs writers. I think reflecting on the things I used to believe and what I know now is a start for me. Realizing that some of the writers in my room right now didn’t grow as far as they could grow. Knowing that those little seedlings down the hall are getting ready to come my way and I’m going to be even better for them when they get there.
If you are like me and getting close to the end of your school year, you might be feeling defeated. That feeling that maybe you could have done more. That question of, “How did I miss that?” The frustration of a performance not going as well as all the rehearsals (i.e., watching your students take your state-mandated test and while proctoring, observing students write three sentences for what is supposed to be a full essay–don’t get me started). What I want to tell you is there is a cure. It’s called the younger ones down the hall. No matter what age you teach. Go visit the seeds waiting to be flowers. Wonder and curiosity are living inside of each one. Go visit them, even just for ten minutes. It’s the cure to what feels like you’ve been defeated and run out of time. Take some paper, a marker, a blanket, and maybe a stapler. Set it out like a picnic and just tell each other stories with no expectations. Look into their little eyes and get inspired by their joy and flourishing stories. Get excited by the possibilities when they come your way. It will help you appreciate how far your current writers have come and inspire you to keep learning, keep growing and keep working on becoming that big flower we all wish to be.