Last week, I had the great fortune to coach research and information writing in Melanie Jones’s kindergarten class at John T. Waugh Elementary School in Lake Shore, New York. We were most interested in taking the Next Generation English Language Arts Standards for a drive by diving into play-based learning and exploring the effect that it had on rigor.
First things came first, though: we needed an audience for students’ work! Thanks to my vibrant network of teacher friends on Twitter and their willingness to boost my signal, I was able to connect with kindergarten teacher Katie Gardner, from North Carolina, and a brilliant idea was born. Mrs. Jones’s students were psyched to share their expertise about Buffalo winters with these students who may never have experienced it, and I was psyched to pull the district’s fantastic tech coordinator, Mike Drezek, into this work to sustain it long after my visit my was over.
This was my rationale:
Writers would engage in diverse and high quality research experiences to wonder and then satisfy their own curiosities about winter in Buffalo before sharing their learning with Katie’s kids. I wanted them to look closely and notice things they may not have before. I also wanted to ensure that this experience was grounded in rewarding play-based experiences, guided by quality assessment, and capable of instigating emergent curriculum design. I was hopeful that these intentions would result in learning that was joyful, rigorous, and meaningful to an authentic audience that existed far beyond Melanie’s classroom. I want the writers that I support in any context to know that their writing serves real people for real reasons and that they really want to read it.
It’s not for the teacher.
It’s not for a grade.
Why not beginning building this understanding in kindergarten?
This was our plan:
I crafted this mini-unit, intended to launch Melanie’s class deeply into the process, which she would carry forward after my short stretch of days in her classroom came to an end. Then, we discussed the power of learning targets. They’re critical to emergent curriculum design, and we kept them front and center each day. This enabled us to allow kids to make their own choices, engage in unpredictable play, and maintain control of their own thinking, learning, and work. Eager to learn more about emergent curriculum design? Here’s a series of posts that I wrote a few months ago.
This is what happened:
On the first day, we wondered what we might learn about winter by observing it very closely. Rather than taking a wide view out the classroom window, I asked writers to use their hands to make an imaginary spyglass, hopeful that this would narrow their vision as they scanned the landscape. Each writer took a long look, found one fact about winter that was worthy of documenting, and pulled out their crayons to begin drawing and writing about the facts we gathered from observation. Fortunately, it was snowing HARD on this first day.
On the next day, we wondered what we might learn about winter by playing with it. We pulled on our snow pants, mittens, and hats and headed outside for some fun. Each writer was challenged to find a new fact, which we photographed with my phone.
Then, we wrote about the facts we gathered from play.
On the third day, we created a fact splash by spreading all of our photos and drawings across our tables and making connections between the facts we gathered from observation and the facts we gathered from play. This helped us think about what more we needed to know.
On the fourth day, we dove into local author Elizabeth Leader’s beautiful book, Buffalo Snow, in order to find more facts about winter that observation and play didn’t generate. What might we learn about winter by reading? We wondered and listened and tried to learn.
And this was very hard. More on that in a bit.
On our last day, writers played a matching game, using our photos to synthesize the facts that we gathered from our three different sources: observation, play, and reading.
Writers will now use Buncee to create a research-based book about winter in Buffalo to share with Katie’s class in North Carolina.
This is What We Noticed and Wondered:
- Writers were excited to observe winter through the window, using their makeshift spyglasses. Even though this helped them look through a far smaller frame, their observations were still very general. Most saw snow or snowflakes, and some added details to their pictures and writing that were inspired by their imagination rather than reality. We wondered how we might help writers look closer when making observations. We also wondered what the unintended consequences might be of interpreting the addition of imaginary details as merely inaccurate or wrong. The kindergarten mind is a gorgeous, creative, and far too quickly limited thing. What role should imagination play in research and information writing?
- Writers gathered many more facts from play, and we were impressed by their complexity and the questions they generated. Will flowers that look dead right now come back in the spring? What makes an ice ball heavier than a snow ball? Why do icicles form on the bottom of cars? How does salt stop cars from slipping? These were just a few of the questions that emerged from our day outside. We wondered which facts might have been missed if we had limited our research to reading and observation alone.
- Writers struggled to gather facts from our read aloud, although they drew good conclusions with assistance. For instance, winter can be dangerous when there are storms, and Buffalo is a special place because neighbors take care of one another. We wondered if the complexity of the text created a barrier that made fact finding hard. We also wondered if writers might have gathered more facts from guided reading lessons that allowed them to hold the text in their hands and explore and analyze it in a just-right way.
My greatest learning happened by watching writers at play. If you’re a teacher in the district, you have access to the folder that contains all of the photographs that were taken that day. What do they suggest about the relationship between joyful and rigorous learning?
I was giddy to discover that writers gathered abundant and very complex facts from the research they conducted while playing. This is where they managed to look closely, generate rich and varied questions, and express an interest in wanting to know more.
I’m left wondering what’s lost when we reduce learning to the kind of academic work that happens in the classroom. If I’d done that last week, huge numbers of children would have struggled to find many facts at all. Do I think we need to continue building better readers?
Did this lesson study teach me that play is a part of that work?
It really did.