It’s dramatic when the light comes on, when a writer suddenly takes a step they had only recently not yet been ready to take. As a teacher of writers, I can’t wait to pounce on those moments, to facilitate the avalanche of growth on the horizon.
And. . . sometimes the timing of that magical moment is not ideal. For example, when transformative growth happens the second to last week of the school year, it can be easy to get frustrated. To feel disappointed that the dots connected right before it is time to let that writer go for the summer. To wish for more time.
This year of all years, I’m being intentional in thinking about this experience in a different way—thanks to an a-ha moment with a rather spectacular kiddo.
“Hey, Ms. Ellerman. Can I show you something?”
Approximately 95% of the time, this is how one of my remote kindergarten students enters our zoom room for every lesson.
“Yes, of course!” I reply, like clockwork.
This student then proceeds to hold up any number of objects: a pith helmet, a compass, a drone, a plastic bull named Mighty Mike. . . Sometimes he takes us on a quick trip to another location in the house, where he has set up a snack stand, a fort, or a paper airplane factory.
“You always have the most fascinating things within arm’s reach!” I commented recently.
“Yeah, you’ve told me that before,” he answered. (I think I had told him that exactly once before.)
This is a kid who is never bored. There is all-kinds-of-interesting going on at his house (and in his mind) at all times.
And yet, this child who loves to build and create has shown minimal interest in drawing or writing. He actively participates in class and will do some writing when asked, but he has not invested the passion he has for so many other endeavors in any activity that requires holding a crayon or pencil.
He finishes everything in a flash, and then he’s ready to move on. What is happening on the page is miles away from what is happening in his mind. However, because of what is happening in his mind, I haven’t worried.
Across the year, my strategy has been to feed his curiosity, to encourage his oral language development and storytelling, and to support his emerging literacy skills with rich, shared reading and writing experiences—books, books, books! (“If you build it, they will come,” right?) And this kid has been all over it; I couldn’t ask for a more engaged learner.
And then. . .
Two weeks ago, this student held up something very different when he joined class ready to show and tell. It was a series of three drawings he had done of himself dressed for Halloween: as a werewolf, a spinosaurus, and an octopus. He had a little story about each one.
I was struck by the novelty of this offering. These weren’t toys; these weren’t props in a game he had invented. He had voluntarily spent time outside of class drawing (!!!).
It made me realize that he had been more invested in reading and writing activities recently. Stretching out more of his words on his own. Jumping right into writing on his end of the zoom without asking for help. Spending more time on projects instead of racing to finish.
I took a closer look. The drawings had more detail than his usual pictures. The werewolf was exceptionally hairy, which meant that he had spent time adding all those individual hairs. Time he could have spent looking for buried treasure or test flying paper airplanes. . . He had used more colors in these pictures than was typical for him as well.
It was a lightbulb moment.
Even as he talked, he continued to add to one of his drawings.
I said, “I’m noticing that you are choosing to spend more time drawing lately, and your drawings have lots more detail—like that very hairy werewolf. Have you noticed that?”
Bless his five-year-old heart, he said (while continuing to color), “No—I haven’t noticed that at all.”
In the background, I heard a voice call out, “Grammy has noticed that!”
(Oh, the many things to appreciate about remote learning!)
I share this anecdote for a couple of reasons. One, it’s May, and the school year is winding to a close. This is a time of year teachers measure student growth against benchmark targets. “Are students leaving _ grade reading/writing/etc. at grade level?” It can be hard not to measure our own efficacy by the same yardstick.
And while that is an important question, it’s not always the most important question. For example, a key question for me as a kindergarten teacher at all times of the year is: When does drawing and writing begin to hold purpose for a child? What are the signposts along the way that indicate when a child truly sees themself as a writer? Developing an identity as a writer is a prerequisite to eventually being “at grade level.”
This year I’m also reflecting: Am I as celebratory when this shift happens for a writer later in the year instead of early in the year? (Because I should be!) I don’t want the end of year yardstick question to overshadow such a pivotal shift because of timing. Every writer deserves a dance party at this monumental moment.
This kindergarten student who has just started drawing to capture a story he is telling, investing time and energy in the details that will make it fun to share with an audience—ding, ding, ding! This is a student who sees purpose in writing. This is a celebration. Because until writing serves a purpose, until a child sees themself as a writer who can communicate stories and ideas on the page to an authentic audience, it’s just putting letters and words on paper—it’s not (yet) writing.
In this year of all years, I could choose to be demoralized that this writer is not yet “at grade level.” I could complain about learning loss due to the pandemic or the challenges of remote learning.
Or. . . I could make a huge deal out of the essential milestone this extraordinary student has just reached. I could email his family to share the story and point out why this shift is so significant in the big picture development of a writer. I could make sure this young writer understands how important it is that he is doing the things that writers do (so that he continues to do them).
Do I wish this shift had happened in October? Of course.
Did we work hard all year to support this shift? Definitely.
Will big things happen for this writer now that he has discovered his writing has purpose? YES.
This writer is ready to engage differently with the routines we have established in our writing workshop. He has confidence in his own capacity. He has new reasons to write, and he has the skills to get himself started. The distance between his high level of thinking and what he is able to capture in pictures and words is becoming less daunting every day. He can see evidence of his own growth, and that is motivating.
We know that drawing and storytelling and writing and reading are connected. It is no accident that this student’s new interest in detailed drawings is coming at the same time as his willingness to attend more closely to text in reading. These shifts all fall along a (mostly) predictable continuum of literacy skills.
And while we would love for growth along that continuum to be in perfect sync with the school year calendar, that is not always the case. Kids can (and do) make great leaps in their learning at any time. As teachers of writers, it’s important for us to be on the lookout for these shifts, and when they happen, to name them and celebrate along with the child (and that child’s family).
Am I a little bit gutted that I won’t be the teacher who gets to support this writer’s next big steps? Absolutely.
I can’t wait to see what he does next—it’s guaranteed to be amazing.
Reader, writer, and instructional coach. Always thinking. Collaborating to innovate the learning experience for students and educators.