Letting Go As Student Interests Take the Wheel

On the first day of kindergarten this year, I had a student who wouldn’t make books during our first writing workshop. Now, I always have reluctant writers on day one of kindergarten. This was different.

Brian* firmly said, “I’m not making a book.”

I, in my sweetest, first-day-of-kindergarten voice responded with, “Everyone makes books during writing workshop! You won’t want to miss it!”

He swiftly burst into tears and screamed, “NO! I’m NOT making a book!”

At this point, my mind spinning, I began to list off questions- “How can I help you?” “What do you like to do?” “Do you want to make a book for your family?” “How about you tell me a book?” Each question was met with foot stomping and, “NO!” until Brian ran over to the rug and sat in the corner.

I decided to give him some quiet time and returned to the rest of my busy book-makers. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Brian at the hundreds chart, counting. I gave it one more try. I walked over and whispered into Brian’s ear, “You can make a book about numbers you know.”

He turned, looked at me as he contemplated the idea, and then said, “OK!” as he ran off and busily started writing. When it was time to wrap-up, can you guess which student was whispering, “Ohhhh mannnn!” under his breath?

In classrooms across the country, as in mine, writing is a time for children to find their passions and their voice. Children don’t need to fit into my parameters, but need to be encouraged to find their own.

Starting With Student Interest

Over the summer, I read a quote from Albert Einstein- “That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice the time passes.” I was left wondering- How can I create a writing workshop for my kindergarteners where they experience this play-like “enjoyment”?

The answer came as I watched Brian making book after book filled with numbers, next to Matt and Nancy who filled pages with super heroes. Jane made princesses, while Nick drew his family. What I needed to do was focus, intensely, on student interests.

We always have students in our classes whose specific interests- dinosaurs, seals, subways, or fairies- seem to forever be floating in their minds. We can make our teaching engaging, but when it comes down to it, these favored topics will always be taking up some brain space. Why fight it?

Engaging Your Class in Play-Like Writing Workshop

  • When you write your own stories in front of kids, write about things they write about!

In the past, I always wrote stories about my sisters or cat. This year, my students were making books about princesses, so I made a princess book. My students were making books about superheroes, so I made a superhero book. My models were more engaging when they were on these topics.

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  • Choose mentors based kids interests.

As teachers, we all have our favorite touchtone texts for different genres of writing. The writing is beautiful, the word-choice is powerful, and the characters seem to come to life. Instead of choosing mentors that I love to launch writing workshop, what if I chose mentors that I knew my kids would love? For my pack of pirate-lovers, we studied David Shannon’s illustrations in Pirates Don’t Change Diapers, paying careful attention to the people and place included on each page.

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My superhero fanatics got to take a close look at Superheroes: Ready for Action noticing how the author, Victoria Taylor, labeled her pictures.

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I was still able to teach the same lessons as I have in past years, but this time, my students rejoiced over the content in each mentor.

  • Fun tools and little, white lies go a long way.

After receiving five boxes of purple, felt-tip pens (that were supposed to be black) I thought, “How am I supposed to use these?” Knowing that my students are in love with all books by Mo Willems, I wrapped the pens in Elephant and Piggie labels, tied some ribbon around them, and when we came back from lunch, there was a package waiting for us!

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My students were perplexed, “Where did these pens come from?” Just then, “Mo Willems” text my phone; letting me know that he was the one who left us this special gift!

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My students are all still convinced that the purple pens have magical powers to help them write and draw. I was even able tuck in some interactive writing in the form of a thank you note to Mo.

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Supporting Individual Students

There will always be a few students who need extra support, even if your goal is for kids to be having fun!

  • Props

“I’m done.” One of the most common phrases heard in the beginning of kindergarten. When the response, “You can add more to that book or make another one,” doesn’t work, what do you do?

Mike was “done” everyday- about two minutes into writing workshop. I thought writing my own book about pirates during a mini-lesson would have been or handing him books about pirates would be engaging enough. I even, pitifully, tried to talk like a pirate, but he was still “done”. As I last resort, I showed him some pirate stickers I had in my closet. Mike took them and started sticking them on each page. He then proceeded to draw around them, label them, and write sentences for the next three days. I never gave him stickers again, but he hasn’t been “done” since.

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I know I won’t always have themed stickers on hand, but these writing props could be created from clip-art, photocopied pages of books, or even movie stills.

  • Writing Folder Tools

I have always attached tools directly to kids folders, but why not have them focus on that child’s interests? The first tool is a racetrack that the student moves across as he writes each page of his book. This Nascar-lover has built stamina and can finish a book in one writing workshop period, instead of in seven.

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The second is a fairy-inspired schedule for a child that is still learning the structure of independent writing time. Instead of a generic schedule that I have used in the past, this one features her favorite mythical creature, making her apt to use it!

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With a little research into my students’ interests, I have just begun to foster a writing workshop environment that mimics the type of learning that Einstein describes. What ideas do you have for creating a play-inspired, interest-driven writing workshop?

Valerie Geschwind is a kindergarten teacher at PS 59 in Manhattan. She has previously worked as a first, second, and fourth grade teacher, both in and out of ICT classrooms. Valerie also works an adjunct instructor for the Early Childhood Education Program at The Center for Worker Education, CUNY. She can be found tweeting @ValGeschwind.

*= All names have been changed.