Growing Student Writers: Being Intentional Matters

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

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

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. In this post, I’ll focus on the first two ideas.

1. Instruction Should Always Be Intentional

With piles of student writing nestled between them at the table, the teachers began to discuss the reading and writing shifts that occurred within their classrooms as they implemented the pre-K/K student growth portfolio model for the first time. Their conversation quickly led to the work they did together as a team and the time they spent diving into the revised English language arts (ELA) standards and integrated ELA portfolio resources. As a group, they openly shared the pressure that they felt at the beginning of the year as they collectively planned how and when to collect student work at Point A.

However, they soon realized that the intentional planning resulted in students showing more engagement when writing was involved. Ms. Connie said about her pre-K students, “We have always read stories and discussed the stories, but actually writing details on paper is a big change in my class. My instruction is more intentional now, and I believe that my students listen more attentively to the stories when they know that they will write about what they read.” Upon hearing the word intentional, the team of teachers gave a collective, “Yes! It’s more intentional!”

Each teacher shared that it was not the content of the standards that was new, but rather the approach. Instead of just reading a text once, Ms. Angela shared that in order for students to revisit their writing, it became necessary to revisit literature or informational text that had recently been read aloud. Without repeated readings, the teachers found that the student responses to the text were very limited and the students were less likely to want to revisit their writing or drawing to add more details.

Holding up a piece of student writing, Ms. Angie added, “We also now do a lot of instructional activities before the students begin their actual writing, so that we have opportunities to talk and think about characters, settings, and what makes a good reader and what makes a good writer. Before students ever write, we really take a dive into the parts of the text.” It was evident that the students knew the purpose behind why they were sharing their message, given the high levels of student motivation within the room.

2. Drawing is one form of writing in our earliest learners.

As the conversation continued between the team, it became clear that the development of student writers began when they, as the teachers, began to intentionally encourage students to add details and color to the drawings that the students were writing in response to the text. Ms. Angie shared that at first, she really had to guide and model for the students and felt like she was constantly saying, “Add details!” However, over time, Ms. Angie noticed the students asking, “Can we add more details?”

Her teaching partner, Ms. Angela, was quick to point out that Ms. Angie’s dedication in encouraging students to add details had a large impact on students in the other classrooms as well. Ms. Angela added,

We have found that when we teach students how to add details to their pictures first, then they naturally add more details to their writing—and even ask to do so!

She also said that those students who were regularly coached to add details to drawing and writing were motivated to participate in conversations about their writing with other students, all while encouraging other students to do the same. “The sharing you saw in my classroom this morning stems from this type of work!”

New approaches to instruction often lead to shifts in thinking, captured by Ms. Danielle’s thoughts on the development of the writing ideas within students. “Writing before was more about journals, and the focus was more on whether students were spelling words correctly or not. Now it is about writing with details and hearing students’ perspectives on things. Experiencing this has certainly changed my perspective.” Without hesitation, Ms. Connie added, “Mine can’t wait to get off the rug to go and start their illustrations. They really can’t wait! The students are so much more motivated now!”