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How do we get to Know our Writers Remotely: A Case Study

There’s no question it is challenging to get to know writers deeply via Zoom. And yet. . . something is working, because all of my remote kindergartners are writing. They are all making books. And while I might not have an hour each day to be side by side with them in the classroom, there is no question I am finding ways to get to know what kind of writers they are and what they need.

Today’s post is a case study of one kindergarten writer over three weeks in writing workshop. I am fascinated by all that I have been able to discover about “Jack” as a writer in a very limited amount of instructional time. Close study of his work reveals tremendous strengths, as well as clear opportunities for next steps. 

My goal in sharing is to celebrate what is possible to learn about our writers when we observe with an eye for gathering the kind of information that both affirms and moves them forward. Hopefully this deep dive into one student offers you some insights into the study of your own writers.

A quick note on the structure of my remote writing time, to offer a bit of context. We have a 15 minute whole group minilesson daily. Following the minilesson, a small group stays with me for 15 minutes and the other students sign off (ideally to write). Every student has small group once a week. All students are asked to spend at least 15 minutes making books every day. In a perfect world, they do this immediately following the minilesson, but if they have another time that works better for their families, that’s fine. I don’t (yet) have a whole group closure time—that’s a future goal, but for now it’s more important to keep our online time as short and streamlined as possible. Writers regularly share their writing with me via SeeSaw, so I have frequent check ins and can offer personalized feedback every week (or more often, if they share more often).

For the case study, I’ll share a bit of what happened in small group writing with Jack over the course of three weeks—just snippets of conversation and descriptions of his work. Then I’ll reflect on what I’m learning about him as a writer and what I’m wondering. It’s powerful to recognize how much we can discover when we really look and listen!

Week 1: 

In a group of three students, I ask Jack to share what he is currently working on. Here is a paraphrase of his response as he shows the first page of his book: 

“A meteor falls from the sky into the water. A robot breaks out of the meteor. He starts to come out of the water—first the top of his head. . . then his eyes—he has 14 red eyes—then come his arms. . . his body. . . and then his legs. [He is gesturing to show the rise of the robot into the air.] And then. . . [pause for dramatic effect] he eats all the people watching from the shore!” 

[Pause for you to laugh as hard as I did when he said this.]

At this point, he has one page finished in his book—a picture of the meteor falling from the sky, midway to the water. 

What I’m learning about this writer: 

  • Jack is the kind of writer who thinks ahead of the page he is working on. He has a plan for where he is headed.
  • He is visual; there is no doubt he can see his story playing out like a movie when he is telling it. 
  • He has a sense of story—including what makes a satisfying ending. 
  • He has a sense of drama: he tells his story bit by bit to make it more exciting for the audience. 
  • In his picture, he captures the action (the meteor is mid-fall, with lines to show its expected trajectory).
  • He has an irreverent sense of humor. No happy ending for those unfortunate spectators! 

What I’m wondering about this writer: 

  • Does this writer have the stamina and follow through to translate his story to the page (and across multiple pages)? His idea is an ambitious one for a beginning writer. My teaching point on this day is to praise him for thinking ahead in his book to the end, repeating the way he shared the robot coming out of the water piece by piece (while using my own blank book to turn pages at each body part). 
  • This first picture is detailed, and I don’t see any words. Is he planning to add words? 

Week 2: 

Jack brings the same robot book to small group. He is working on the third page in his book. He spends small group time drawing the 14 eyes of his robot, with lots of commentary about how they look and why they look that way. At one point he comments that this book will take a long time if he draws all 14 eyes on each subsequent page of the book. (This has occurred to me as well. . . )

What I’m learning about this writer: 

  • Details and craftsmanship matter to him. Each of the 14 eyes is red with a black pupil and wavy black lines indicating that he is evil. He is counting the eyes carefully as he draws. 
  • The wavy black lines to indicate degree of evil-ness is a powerful craft move. This writer pays close attention to illustrations in books (and potentially cartoons/movies). His intentionality around the eyes is what I opt to give feedback on as a teaching point on this day.
  • He has stamina for work that he is invested in. 

What I’m wondering about this writer: 

  • I’m wondering if he is writing enough. Is he writing on the days we don’t have small group?
  • Will he have the patience to finish this book up to his standards, or will he lose interest (or get frustrated) before finishing?
  • He’s still not adding any words. . . Is he making a wordless picture book as a craft choice, or is he avoiding writing? I don’t know that he can’t add writing; all I know is that he hasn’t.

Week 3: 

Jack brings his robot book back to small group. I’m a bit surprised, because he shared it at the end of the last week on SeeSaw, and it sounded like he was finished with it. [I went back to rewatch his post again after our lesson, and in his post, his book moves directly from the last page he worked on in small group with all the eyes to a page with two spectators covered with swirly lines (being eaten?).]

I ask him if he is still excited to be working on this project. He says yes, but secretly I worry that he is losing steam.

I comment that it is important to be able to keep working on a book over days—that’s something writers do—AND, it’s also okay to set a book aside to work on something new. That’s also something writers do.

Jack says he’s sure he can finish the robot book by the end of the week, but I notice he doesn’t begin working.

I ask him if he’s planning to add any words to his book, or if he wants it to be a wordless picture book.

He thinks about this for a moment, and then he says, “I think I might add some labels.” (Hooray! Our whole group minilesson on this day was around adding labels.) 

The other two students in the group are both starting something new, and they are unsure what to write about. So we begin talking about where writers get ideas. 

At a certain point, I realize that Jack is very quietly roaring in the background. Nothing distracting—just opening and closing his mouth while watching himself on the screen, emitting a soft monster-esque sound. (There may have been some claw action going on, too. As a kindergartner might do on a Zoom call.) 

I comment, “Wow, it sounds like there is a monster trapped inside Jack trying to get out. . . Now that might be an idea for a book.” His face lights up, and he spends the next few minutes giggling to himself as the other students begin drawing/writing. It is clear that the possibilities for that story are running through his head, and he is captivated. His imagination has taken over, and it is written all over his face. 

What I’m learning about this writer: 

  • Jack understands that stories need an ending. So even though he omitted the step by step reveal of the robot from the water, he didn’t just abandon the book. He made sure to end it. (I suspect the ending he had in mind was his favorite part anyway.)
  • Humor is a way in with Jack. He is willing to take on a big idea and run with it, especially if it makes him laugh.
  • He is able to transfer learning from a minilesson into his own planning for writing with minimal prompting. 

What I’m wondering about this writer: 

  • Is he still working on his robot book because he’s excited and engaged, or does he feel like he has to finish every step from his plan, even if he has lost interest? (Although he insists that he’s still interested, I have a feeling he might abandon it now for the monster story. And I’m okay with that, especially if it shifts the momentum on his volume.) 
  • I’m also wondering if he just hadn’t thought of a new idea yet, and perhaps he brought the book back on this day out of habit. He might not understand (yet) that we will write many many books in kindergarten.
  • Will he follow through with his plan to add some labels to his pictures (either with the robot book or the monster book)? This would be a great next step for him, and based on his response, as well as what I know about him as a reader, it’s an accessible goal. If the writing work he shares in SeeSaw next (or at our next small group, whichever comes first) doesn’t have labels, I might need to offer some individual support writing labels side by side. We could also use his book as a model for adding some labels fishbowl-style in a small group with other writers who need this support.
  • What might be some ways to scaffold his big ideas to the page? He’s not expressing any frustration at this point, but I want to make sure he remains as enthusiastic and confident as he has been so far. He sees himself as a storyteller, and that is awesome.

Closing Thoughts

Even though Jack is not technically “writing” yet, this is not a writer I am worried about. Jack’s strengths at this point in kindergarten far outweigh any questions I might have about volume or words on the page. He is captivated by his own imagination, and he sees himself as a storyteller, as someone who makes books. The writing part of writing will come, especially if we continue to nurture his love of story and hilarious imagination. The oral language Jack is demonstrating is a powerful mentor for all kindergarten writers. My goal is to encourage and support the writer without limiting the ambition of the stories he tells by the “writing” he is ready to do independently.

The opportunity to work with kindergarten writers like Jack is the absolute highlight of my day these days. I’m thrilled to discover that the magic of writing workshop does transfer to remote learning, especially when we take the time to figure out what makes each writer light up and reach for those crayons.

Amy Ellerman View All

Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.

2 thoughts on “How do we get to Know our Writers Remotely: A Case Study Leave a comment

  1. I adore the thinking work you’re doing about Jack. I always enjoy reading about kids. I appreciate the way you look at Jack, by what he knows and can do already as a writer, since you’re positioning him as both knowledgeable and capable of growth.

    I hope you’ll let us peek into Jack’s writing life in a few weeks’ time to let us know how it’s going!

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