how-to writing · kindergarten · remote instruction · writing workshop

Horse-Sitting and How-to Writing

The last week of teaching in December, I was house (and horse) sitting for my brother. His family lives on 12 acres, and their current collection of animals includes eight horses, a donkey, two cats, and two dogs. Sometimes they have chickens, depending on the activity of the local wildlife. . . (Sadly, no chickens at present.) 

Because I’m teaching remotely, it was no biggie to shift the “classroom” from my kitchen table to theirs. It was easy enough to fit the morning and evening feed routines around the school day. 

Naturally, kindergartners were fascinated. “You are in a new place! Where are you? Why are you in a new place? What is it like there?” They had so many questions about the horses in particular, including how I was taking care of them. 

This was the perfect opportunity to lean into our unit of study in progress: how-to writing. I set aside the writing I was midway through modeling (How to go Sledding) in favor of this more authentic topic. 

The kids were eager to see what everything looked like, so my first step was to take photos of each part of the feeding process. I popped those photos into a Google slideshow. 

Click here to view the entire slideshow I used with students.

As luck (or workshop) would have it, one of my students had recently written and shared his book, How I Take Care of Max (his grandmother’s cat). He had used photos of himself in his book, so it was the perfect opportunity to hold him up as a mentor for us all:

“So I was thinking about what Peter did in his book, and I thought it might be a strategy that could work for me, too. . . Feeding the horses has so many steps; I need a way to keep track of them all!” Peter, of course, was delighted to have his work showcased, and he was more than willing to share some of his thinking, fishbowl style. It’s important to me that young writers see themselves—and me—as leaders and learners in this work, so any time I can use student work in this way, I jump on it.

Over the course of a few days, we explored some important questions together, using my slideshow plus Peter’s book: 

How might taking photos of a step-by-step process as I’m doing it help me as a writer? 

Consider the thinking work required here. A writer attempting to document their own steps has to make decisions about what needs to be photographed. Where does one step end and the next begin? Imagine a kindergartner directing the adult with the camera. “Make sure to get this part. . . Can you zoom in here to show. . . Okay, now I need to show how I. . .”

If a writer takes too many pictures, decisions will be made to prioritize the most important ones. If a writer begins to sequence the pictures and realizes that something is not yet clear, it will be a chance to go back to document the missing step or detail. This was something I modeled with kids, going back the next day to capture the detail of how far the feed trough was from the door to the barn.

A visual scaffold such as taking photographs supports a young writer in choosing a more ambitious topic for how-to than they might have chosen without this strategy. Planning over pages becomes much more concrete as a strategy when a writer can attach a photo to each page, using the photos to orally rehearse the steps. 

How does talking through each photo out loud with a friend before writing help me to say (and eventually write) more? 

Obviously, a kindergarten writer can say more than they can likely write at this point in the year. However, I would never want a young writer to be limited in the stories they tell by what can be written word by word. Opportunities to tell complex stories (or procedures) is a crucial part of language development. Verbal elaboration—even if those words never make it onto the page—strengthens language skills, which strengthens writing (and reading) skills. I would also argue that a writer who has more to say is more likely to attempt more words on the page over time than a writer who is afraid to say more than they can independently write. 

As I talked through my step-by-step photos with kids, their questions prompted me to elaborate even further. I got feedback around both what was most interesting to my audience—woah, slow down and say more about that!— and what was most necessary for clarity—yikes, how can I explain that in a different way? All this feedback helps a writer when it comes time to add words to the book.

What kinds of how-to might lend themselves to using photos instead of drawing pictures? How might it help my reader to be able to see photos as they read the steps? 

This really gets writers thinking about audience. What might they anticipate their reader not understanding? Is there any specialized vocabulary the reader will need to learn? What kinds of details are most important if a reader is going to follow their directions, step-by-step? Where in our mentor texts do we notice photos being used instead of illustrations? When and why do our mentor authors choose to slow steps down into micro steps or zoom in to show a greater level of visual detail? How does this help us as readers? 

All of these rich teaching points, and I haven’t even started writing yet!

Next Steps

Winter Break arrived at the perfect time. I encouraged kindergartners to look around at home for potential topics that might lend themselves to trying out this strategy of taking photos, step-by-step. (They had many ideas!)

At this point, they’ve all written multiple how-to books of varying levels of complexity. Mid-unit, this demonstration of photographs as a visual scaffold can be leveraged to differentiate instruction up and down the continuum of where writers are right now. For writers who require support visualizing and sequencing steps in a process, elaborating verbally to say more—perfect! For writers ready to share a process that is more complex but perhaps a bit overwhelming, based on what they have written so far—this strategy will support them!

When we return from Winter Break, I’ll be able to “remind” myself through a think aloud of where I left off by rereading/retelling my book. This will re-ground us in the unit. I’m confident I’ll have some students ready to do the same with their own photos. This will be the spark some writers need to take photos if they have not yet done so.

In the coming week(s), we’ll shift into minilessons with teaching points connected to adding writing across these same pages. In small groups and through conferring, I’ll be able to differentiate, supporting writers where they are in the context of their individual projects. I expect writers to be fired up, making books with photos of themselves doing things they love to do.

For students who choose not to try this strategy—a strategy is typically an invitation—they will be ready for similar thinking work with their own illustrations as a result of this series of lessons.

Closing Thoughts

A silver lining of teaching remotely has been opportunities, like this one, to elevate authentic reasons to read and write. Kids are curious about how others do things, and they have so much real-world expertise to share. A strategy such as this one gives our youngest writers access to topics that might otherwise exceed their emergent writing skills. The visual support keeps the book-making concrete while encouraging more complex language development. In addition, it’s an opportunity to partner with families, involving them directly in the writing workshop.