Growing Student Writers: A Snapshot of Pickett County

By Keely Potter, director of teacher effectiveness at the Tennessee Department of Education

In part one of this three-part series, Keely Potter visits pre-K and kindergarten classrooms in Pickett County and shares her reflections. See part two of the story here and part three here.

“Can you write about my picture?” is a common question asked by student authors in the pre-K and kindergarten classrooms in Pickett County. Walking into any of these classrooms during writing time provides a glimpse into what it looks like and sounds like to be a thinker, listener, problem solver, speaker, coach, and of course, a writer. At any given time during writing, students are sharing their writing with one another, coaching one another with ideas, asking each other questions, seeking out feedback, and conferencing with their teacher, who is often hidden among the writing fervor actively participating in this orchestra of writing. When witnessing such a scene, a logical first question might be,

“How did the teachers motivate the students to want to write? How did they arrive at this place?”

According to the team of pre-K and kindergarten teachers in Pickett County, the answer is simple. It starts with collaboration with colleagues around new ideas and common instructional goals. The students do the rest.

Angela Bilbrey, Angie Robbins, Connie Sells, and Danielle Sells make up the team of Pickett County pre-K and kindergarten teachers who lead these motivated young writers. After visiting their classrooms in December to see and hear the sounds of early writers, Valeria Voiles, their region’s TEAM coach, and I sat down with them to learn more. They openly shared their story, along with their students’ stories and writing artifacts, to provide a glimpse into their journey with the student growth portfolio model’s integrated ELA collections. The conversation that occurred within the team was transparent and genuine as they shared the challenges and celebrations of their work.

It became evident that they had arrived at their current place through collaborative planning and reflection around authentic reading and writing experiences with their students. Their insight on how to motivate students to write always circled back around to the students, and ultimately to these four ideas they feel drive their work: instruction should always be intentional, drawing is a form of writing for our earliest learners, all students are capable of great things, and students are motivated by sharing their own voices.

These four ideas are not new, but they take on new meaning when viewed through the lens of writing. When our youngest learners write, it means they are communicating and interacting with their world through gestures, play, and drawing, long before the knowledge of letters develop. Encouraging students to share ideas, stories, and information through the earliest stages of writing ensures that students see writing as a way to communicate their own messages, and at their own rate of development. When we allow students the time to show us what they know through pictures and words, we often realize that they are also teaching us.

So, what did the students teach us through pictures and words on this particular day? Watching Ms. Connie as she sat beside one of her students with his writing piece between them, I learned that this student can draw pictures of some of the characters from the interactive read aloud. I learned that when asked questions about his drawing, he uses gestures to add details to his retell. I learned that he points to resources in the room to support his developing language as he tells more about his picture. I learned that he makes beginning letter sounds for the words that Ms. Connie writes on his drawing. She doesn’t ask him to make the sounds, he just does. I learned that he particularly likes the letter “s” and pronounces it “sssss….” I later learned from Ms. Connie that this particular student had been non-verbal when entering her pre-K classroom just a few months prior to my visit in December, and that writing time encouraged him to want to say words to tell more about his ideas that he draws on paper.

As I walked out of the school later that day, arms full of student writing that spanned from early drawings to later stages of letter/sound development, I was reminded that when students value pictures and words as a way to share their ideas—in their own way and at their own rate—early writing can change the way that students perceive themselves and the way they perceive the world.