By Keely Potter, director of teacher effectiveness at the Tennessee Department of Education
In reflecting with Pickett County pre-K and kindergarten teachers Angela Bilbrey, Angie Robbins, Connie Sells, and Danielle Sells on their experiences in December, they continued to reiterate four main 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.
All students are capable of great things.
Creating developmentally appropriate tasks ensures that all students have access to thinking and learning. Hearing the enthusiasm and pride within the Pickett County team as they described how students rush off of the carpet so that they can share their message about a book, especially when it is one that they have connected with, is inspiring. Students in these classrooms are experiencing what it feels like to have something to say about something important, and Ms. Angela, Ms. Connie, Ms. Danielle, and Ms. Angie experience it with them. Whether they are listening to a student tell about their message on paper, coaching students to add more details to drawings, providing support in the formation of letters and/or words, or dictating—they are a part of the thinking culture within the classroom.
They were also all quick to share that sometimes the work is not easy. They reminded me that sometimes kindergarten students enter the first day of school not knowing how to hold a pencil, and how even more pronounced these gaps can be in pre-K. But the work seems well worth it, as Ms. Danielle explained without hesitation,
“It is amazing how much they grow to love writing. Recently I read a story and the students didn’t write about it afterwards. They came to me and asked me to reread the book so that they could write about it!” Sharing this enthusiasm, Ms. Angela added, “It’s authentic; the writing is their writing because they are both the authors and illustrators.”
Student ownership of the work can be powerful for students, especially for students that may have learning difficulties. As Ms. Connie explained, “There is no right or wrong answer when students are learning how to say something on paper.” Ms. Angela also made note that one of her struggling learners couldn’t wait to get up during the writing time earlier in the day because he wanted to share his writing with his peer. “I see my struggling students growing so much because they can have success.”
As teachers, we all know the balance of encouraging students to take risks while also providing scaffolds or supports can be difficult. Ms. Danielle shared that when she was able to see the strengths and areas of need within students by looking at their developmental writing, it added depth to the differentiated instruction within her classroom.
Students are motivated by sharing their own voices.
Throughout the conversation, we were all constantly reminded of the student voices, and the role that this plays in student motivation, learning, and growth. At the conclusion of the conversation, the teachers shared one “aha” or “big idea” that had impacted them as a result of the integrated approach in the ELA portfolio collections. As final thoughts were shared about how intentional instruction can have an impact on a student’s voice and motivation to write through pictures and words, Ms. Danielle, holding student work in her hand and voice full of emotion, said,
“My ‘aha’ was when a Tier III student who is barely grasping letters came to me and said, ‘Will you write about my picture?’”
At that moment, considering all that this student’s question indicated about his internal motivations, the group grew silent. There was nothing left to say because at that moment we all remembered why we teach.