What does it mean to be a writer? And how do we establish routines for our beginning writers?
Today on The Heinemann Podcast, co-authors Katie Wood Ray and Lisa Cleaveland on their new book: A Teacher’s Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers.
In this latest release of the Classroom Essentials Series, Katie Wood Ray guides us through the first days in Lisa’s classroom when writing workshop is a time — everyday— when her students make books. We see step by step how to launch primary writing workshop with beginning writers.
We recently spoke with Katie and Lisa about their strategy helps engage even the most beginner writers. We started out by asking Katie what children need to know about being writers…
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Katie: You kind of take it for granted that you would think kids would know what that means, but a lot of kids who have even had books read to them a lot may not realize that there was a person who wrote that book. So like let's say children have seen people, you know, writing. Their mom might be writing a note or making a list or something like that. You know, as far as real compositional writing, like making a book, they may not be aware that a person actually made a book that someone's reading to them. So one of the things that's really important that Lisa does, and you can see this on a very first day, she is talking to kids and showing them picture, physical photographs of the people that made this book, and explaining to them that he ... you know, like this is Eric Carle, he drew the pictures, and he wrote the words. It takes a while, right Lisa, to help kids understand that.
Lisa: It does, and to show them the photograph, it really puts it in their mind that that is a real person behind the book and that they too are real people that will make books. It's funny. In one of the first videos the little girl says, "Well, how do we make books?" I said, "Okay, I'm gonna show you how." So it's all about stapling that paper together and showing them a book, a published book, and then saying this is the kind of book you're gonna make, too. You can also make a book. And so just giving them that stapled paper makes such a difference, because it looks like what we read to them. Then they go out there and say, "Okay, I'm making a book, too."
Brett: Lisa, is that how we sort of embed that big idea in sort of kid friendly language? Do we start with just sort of what is a book?
Lisa: Well, yes. And I show them. When I start out school at the beginning, I show them, you know, I read a lot of books. Early on, you'll see in the video ... Well, you won't see in the video, but I've read some Eric Carle books. And I tell them, "You can be just like Eric Carle. You know, he writes and he illustrates, and you do too." And so then I have other children's books, maybe some sibling's books of children I have in the class. To see those books that other children have made, it's kind of that whole thing of like, "Hey, well, if they can do it, I can do that too."
Then I have, you know, some charts, and they see other children on the charts with photographs of them making books. It's that whole ... they buy into it when they see, "Wow, other kids have done this before me. I can do it too." And then it's just that whole way that I talk to them with just the expectations of, You're gonna make books. This is what we do in here. We go to lunch everyday, we have center time everyday, we have snack and recess, and we also have writing workshop."
Katie: The finished books that she reads to them help them understand kind of what a writer does. A writer makes books like these. But then those photographs of children at work in her classroom making books are so powerful, because they show kids sort of the path that you use to get there.
Brett: You know, Lisa, you mentioned the routine of we go to lunch every day, and we do this, and we do that. How do we then start that routine to establish writing in the classroom?
Lisa: Well, you just have to get started. That's a good question, because I think that's what teachers always want to say: How do we do this? Well, first of all, the book really lays it out for you of how we get started, by watching the video and telling about how we get started. But you know, the thing is you just have to jump in and not be afraid. You can't, you know: First we have to do this, and we have to do this, and then ... You kind of just have to step back, open it up to the kids, explain to them we're gonna make books. "These are things you need. This is what we'll do. This is what it looks like. Now you go try it." Because you have to step back and let them kind of start to own their own process. I know that's funny to think about on day one, but they've got to kind of feel it out and make their way out in the room and start trying to make it theirs.
You know, I want to scaffold them and help them, but I also have to stand back and allow them to take the steps forward to do this on their own. It's kind of scary for them. I support them, but then I know when to step back. Again, you just have these expectations of, "Hey, you know, these other kids have done it before. You can do it, too."
Katie: The thing that was always so interesting to teachers, I remember when I used to show them this video of the first day, was how little direction Lisa actually gives the kids about what to do. Basically, she shows them the blank books, she gives them supplies, she shows them what a finished one looks like, the photographs, and says, "Hey, you try it." Because the thing you have to remember is you can't make a book without some kind of process. Right? There's something on the paper at the end of 15 minutes. You had a process. And so then what she's really brilliant at is watching what they're doing and naming for them the process that they use. And they start to own it the minute she starts naming it for them.
Lisa: And you do it just long enough to where they're like into it. And they're like, "Yeah, I like this." And you know, we set the timer. We write for about 15 minutes at first. And then we finish. You know, pretty short span to where kids are like, "Hey, yeah, I can do this."
Katie: "I can do this."
Lisa: We come back for the [inaudible 00:05:10], and you want everybody to still feel good about themselves. They're like, "Hey, I did this. Yeah, I can do it. I'm ready for this tomorrow." And it's just a little secret to think about: Kids at the beginning of school, it sounds silly, but you know, especially in the younger grades you think, Okay, I want them to have a great day, 'cause I want them to be excited about school tomorrow. You know? You want them to come back, and be ready again, and be real psyched for it. So you kind of just give them a little bit, they take it, they love it, then you come back and then say, "Hey, we're gonna do this again tomorrow." It makes them excited about it each day.
Katie: I can say this too, from years of watching her do this. Every single year she has this complete continuum of kids from ones who look like they really don't even exactly know how to hold a marker and they just scribble, all the way up to kids who are already sounding words out ... a lot of the time they've been to preschool ... and everything in between. Lisa is very good at naming everybody on that continuum's work as process and getting them going. At the end of that first day they're all like, "Well, I guess I do know how to do this", whatever that is.
Brett: One of the pieces of the process that you mention throughout the book, and you have little call outs called "writers' meeting" thought the book, can you just talk a little bit about what we're doing in those moments?
Katie: That specific language, if you look at the structure of a writing workshop, that's what's typically known as the mini lesson. I actually am writing about Lisa's teaching. I've been researching it for so many years. I started calling it the "writers' meeting" for several reasons. One, often it wasn't very many.
Lisa: True story.
Katie: They were very engaged with her for sometimes, you know, 20 minutes. So there weren't many, and also I think that "writers' meeting" captures the spirit of the work I watched for years better than mini lesson. Mini lesson tends to be interpreted as something very directive from the teacher, whereas Lisa really engages kids a lot with her in her teaching. Now she still has them go out and spend 30, 40 minutes in independent writing, but the writers' meetings just felt bigger than mini lesson, and I found that a lot of times people would get confused when I called it a mini lesson because it didn't look like their conception of what a mini lesson would be.
Lisa: I would look at it as maybe more intimate, you know, setting than just a mini lesson. Because children are maybe coming up and turning pages in a book and saying, Well, let's look at this. When I see this, you know, we're having conversations back and forth, and it involves them. They help with the teaching in many ways. And so it is a writers' meeting, that we're all together on the same page with our thinking, but can go in different directions with how a child takes us there. So it's not just me doing the teaching. I'm really teaching off of our conversations and I kind of let it ... I know what I need to talk about and how I need to teach and what kids need, but it can kind of go in different directions sometimes. It's just more intimate than just a mini lesson of sorts.
Katie: The only way, though, to really make that work, 'cause you have to make a commitment to a big block of time for a writing workshop, which Lisa does. If you don't have that, you're gonna have to keep your teaching much more focused. But I think you just decided over the years that the payoff for the time that kids spend, you know, thinking about writing, writing themselves ... 'Cause it serves them so well as readers, too.
Lisa: Absolutely, yes.
Katie: It's writing workshop, but they're learning to read by trying these attempts at writings. You can have a writing workshop without that commitment to that much time, certainly, but if you've got the time to do that then you can kind of rethink what the teaching could look like.
Brett: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Katie, the book is organized really over the idea of five days. Can you talk a little bit about why the focus on the first five days? I think we should clarify it's noti the first five days of school, it's the first five days of writing workshop.
Katie: I mean, you may not start at the very beginning of the school year. I don't know why you wouldn't, but you may not. But at some point, if you're gonna start a writing workshop with beginning writer, you have to start, and there's gonna be the first five days. Interestingly enough, it's not even really the days that matter. It's the big ideas across those days, and it may be that you linger with some of the ideas for longer than one day, so it may be that the five days you see Lisa do in this book would be 10 days or even 15 days, three weeks of instruction in your classroom.
But the ideas that are summarized there across each day are really what matters. You know, you've got to teach kids that people make books, books have pictures and words. Here are some strategies for word making. What do you do when you come back to a book each day? Just the big ideas of that teaching are what we really address in the book. They happen to unfold over five days, but it's not the days that matter, it's the ideas that matter.
Lisa: Those first five days, you revisit all those things that are in there many, many times over the year. As teacher, the benefit of seeing these ideas that happen, and you come back to them, it just frees you up. It gives you the freedom to think, "Yeah, I've been thinking that my kids need this." There's more freedom than something being laid out for them that tells them what to do. Instead, what's being laid out for them is their class, and they see what their children need.
Katie: It's not a script that you can follow, because so much of Lisa's teaching is very responsive to what's happening in front of her and the kids' work that she's dealing with, which every teacher will have their own kids' work. But what we tried to do was capture the big idea of each day, and then give you ideas for, Okay, how can you get at this? What are the things you do to get at this with your kids? So it's pretty directive in that sense, even though, again, it's not a lesson that you teach or script you can follow.
Brett: Well, A Teacher's Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers is a part of the classroom essentials series which, Katie, you're also the series editor on. Can you just sort of walk us through? The book is just stunningly beautiful in its color and its design and its layout. It's packed full of student work and just brilliant examples and everything, including wonderful call outs to the videos. Can you just sort of walk us through who this book is for and how we should use it?
Katie: I think that it's for ... It's certainly for teachers who want to start a writing workshop. But it's also for teachers who already have writing workshops up and going, but know that they could make the beginning of the year stronger. What are the principles that really help particularly kids to become very independent in this work? I think too many workshops get off onto a rocky start, and they make kids dependent. Unwittingly, you make kids dependent on you to tell them what to do, and they sometimes never recover from it. So to get a glimpse at how one teacher really sets kids up to be just profoundly independent in this work can be helpful even for someone who's been at a writing workshop for a very long time.
You know, if you've been doing a writing workshop and sort of following a program for it to get you started but you feel ready to break out of that, it can give you a lot of ideas for how to do that. And then just again, someone who's been doing this for a long time to get a boost of energy for it, I think they would be great. I used to teach college methods courses. I would have loved to have had these books in this series for my college methods courses 'cause, you know, they're such good reads, and they can get us right into the work really quickly.
Each day is segmented into short clips that you can watch, and then after the clip we unpack the important things to know about the teaching that you've just watched. You watch some teaching, and then you read and learn about it. You watch a little bit more, and you read about what you need to know that's informing it. By the time you get to the end, I think you have this, not just picture of the first five days, but of what this developmentally appropriate work looks like.
Lisa: I re watched these videos a lot, not just in doing PD work, but I will re watch some of these before school starts for me just to remind myself, "Oh, yeah, I've got to remember that." I had 15 teachers in my classroom this morning. They came just to visit the writing workshop: An administrator and a curriculum director, you know. So they were in the classroom, and the great thing is they were an hour and a half away. They could drive and be there at 9:00. But for teachers that can't come to my classroom, they can get this book, and they can see these videos. As a teacher, I love to visit classrooms and to just not only listen to the teaching and hear the conversations, but to see things in the background. And to look at the charts that are in here, I mean actual charts that I make with children, you know, are in the book. Like I said, I think teachers will love it because it's just got what teachers need to give them confidence to teach writing.
Katie: And I should say this about the video. So it wasn't professionally done. The video in our other classroom essentials books is so gorgeous and done by our amazing team there at Heinemann who are so excellent at what they do. But we actually captured ... I captured this video myself several years ago when I was researching the beginning of the year. I really had never documented that, so the year that I did this research I was in her class for the first 21 straight days of school. That's almost five weeks of school. I taped every single day, and I collected artifacts every single day. So I had this vast pool of data about the beginning of the year that then sat there for a long time, and I didn't do anything with 'cause I took a different job, as you know. And I just never did anything back with it. I think Lisa was really sorry that I didn't.
Lisa: Listen, I'm more excited about this than anything. I mean, it moves me. I've told you this. It's to me the most exciting thing to get out there for teachers.
Lear more about Getting Started with Beginning Writers at Heinemann.com
Lisa Cleaveland starts her writing workshop each day at 9:00 am sharp. She has been a teacher for twenty seven years and is a National Board Certified Teacher. She was the recipient of the prestigious NCTE/Donald H. Graves Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Writing. Lisa's classroom was the research basis for About the Authors, coauthored by Katie Wood Ray. Today, teachers from all over the United States visit Lisa's writing workshop in North Carolina to watch a master practitioner at work.
You can find her on Twitter at @LisaCleaveland
For many years as the author of bestselling Heinemann books such as About the Authors, Study Driven, Already Ready, and In Pictures and In Words, and as a member of Heinemann’s Professional Development Services, Katie Wood Ray gave teachers resources and PD that transformed writing instruction and helped children discover a lifelong love of writing.
In 2014, Katie “moved to the other side of the desk” and joined the dynamic team of editors at Heinemann where she works closely with authors to craft powerful professional books on a range of literacy topics. Katie is also the series editor for the new Classroom Essentials books from Heinemann.
You can find her on Twitter at @KatieWoodRay