By Katie Keier, 2020 Conference Featured Speaker
Choice. It’s at the heart of engaging children in meaningful literacy work. We can’t expect children, or anyone, for that matter, to engage deeply and passionately about something they don’t care about. Our youngest learners come to school excited and eager to learn. Starting right away with a Writers Workshop or Writers Playshop (as my kindergarten class and I renamed it this year since the time felt more like play than work), is a powerful place for children to begin creating an identity as readers and writers, to discover the joy of writing and illustrating, to see themselves as authors and illustrators, to communicate and have their voices heard. This is a time that we can provide tremendous opportunities for choice.
So what does choice look like in a Writers Workshop?
Writers choose their topics. Everyone has something to write about. When Writers Workshop is presented as a time to make books, posters, stories and to write and draw about something you love, that is important to you, everyone has an idea. I’ve never had a child tell me they don’t know what to write about. Whether it’s a book about their family, a poster about Frozen, a story about a Superhero or a book about sharks – writers have things close to their heart to write about. And they need to be able to choose what to write about.
Writers choose where they write. I have different places in my house where I like to write, depending on my purpose and my mood. I think it’s important to give kids that choice, as well. Perhaps they enjoy being sprawled out on the floor. Maybe sitting or standing at a table works best for them. Perhaps they like to be curled up under a table. Having lots of choice as to where they do their work as writers is important and can make a huge difference in how engaged and focused they are on their writing.
Writers choose what they write with. I’m a huge fan of Flair pens and my new discovery, the Paper Mate Ink Joy gel pens. I need the right color and the right thickness to write and not be distracted by my tool. Our young writers need to have many choices and the freedom to choose what works best for them. Having a wide selection of crayons, thick markers, thin markers, pencils, pastels, and paint available for them to choose what tool works best for their particular project is an important part of writing.
Writers choose the paper they use. There are many choices available to kids in our classroom. We have pre-stapled full page blank books with 5 pages, blank paper for kids to staple into books with however many pages they choose, half-page stapled books and half-page blank paper, mini-books, colored paper, scrapbooking paper, large poster size paper and big rolls of butcher paper to cut. There are also scissors, glue, yarn, staplers, staples and staple removers and a variety of writing and drawing tools available for kids to use. I don’t use lined paper because I find it to be very limiting and controlling. I want kids to explore with text placement and illustration placement and to have the freedom to make the pages in their books look how they choose. I want them to learn that authors and illustrators make decisions. Having a blank page allows for this. If a young writer wants to use speech bubbles like Mo Willems does in his Piggie and Elephant books, how are they able to do that if they are confined to the pre-placed lines or illustration box on a page?
Writers choose what they write. For many years, our Writers Workshop consisted of making books, thanks to the wonderful work of Katie Wood Ray, Lisa Cleveland and Matt Glover in About the Authors and Already Ready. This is still how I launch Writers Workshop on Day 1 of kindergarten. Making books just makes sense. Picture books are the genre that kids are most familiar with. They most likely have had picture books read to them for many years, and we read aloud several each day. It’s a genre they know and know well. How often do we read a journal? Or a single piece of paper that we call a story? Making books is authentic and meaningful and we are surrounded by mentor authors and mentor texts that we can use in our teaching to show kids what authors do and help them develop their own identity as an author. While making books is how I start our Writers Workshop, there are other choices during Writers Playshop that kids can choose as the idea of composing and creating begins to develop. Writers can make a book by themselves or with a co-author, they can make characters to act out a story before moving the story into a book, they can use loose parts to create a story setting and characters and spend some time playing with the story before making it into a book, they can make costumes to act out a story before it becomes a book or they can make a poster to share information or tell a story. It’s truly a time to play with language, with writing, with illustrating and communicating something that’s important to them with others.
Writers Workshop or Playshop is a joyful time to help our learners develop as writers and readers. With abundant choice, it’s also a time to help these young authors, illustrators and readers make important decisions, be engaged in meaningful literacy work and have a sense of self-efficacy in their own literacy learning. How might you create more opportunities for choice in your Writers Workshop?
Katie Keier has been teaching and learning with children, as a classroom teacher and literacy specialist, in grades K-8, for twenty-six years. She is currently a kindergarten teacher in an urban, Title I school. She is the co-author of Catching Readers Before They Fall with Pat Johnson, from Stenhouse Publishers. Katie is an adjunct faculty member for American University, a national presenter and conducts staff development workshops and interactive webinars. She is currently in training for Reading Recovery for classroom teachers. You can follow her @bluskyz on Instagram and Twitter, and her kindergarten class @KinderUnicorns