The following excerpt from Story Workshop: New Possibilities for Young Writers features an interview with Melinda Hayward, a teacher at Prescott Elementary School, Parkrose School District, Oregon.
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Prescott Elementary School is a 100 percent free and reduced-lunch school, which means that 100 percent of our families experience poverty. Our preschool operates a needs-based enrollment system. The families, which have no other options for preschool, speak more than fourteen different languages.
I see story workshop as an equity piece and a culturally responsive practice—looking at it as support for our students who are super diverse, who speak zero English. They come in from all sorts of different cultures, and I see it as this opportunity to give them space to get the message, “Your ideas are important, your ideas matter, and you don’t have to read in English or write in English to be able to share them and for them to have value here.” Of course, all of the literacy learning is embedded into our big thinking, but I think it’s the social-emotional growth within each child, of recognizing “I have ideas, my friends have ideas, and sometimes my friends’ ideas inspire my ideas. What I have to say is important. And what my friends have to say is important” that is so valuable.
This year everything in our classroom that has a sensory component is high-interest for our group, possibly because a lot of them have experienced trauma. Having a sensory component lowers anxiety and helps them get grounded into the work. I’ve found I need to have a variety of spaces. I need to have spaces where one person can work alone if that’s what they’re feeling like they need. I also need a space where partners can go, or a space where there can be big, louder activities, like the big block area or the dramatic play space.
Trying to find little nooks and crannies lowers the stress and anxiety of the group, because they always know there is space for them in a place where they feel safe and cared for. When we start the year, there is often a sort of feeling of scarcity, and tension, and then slowly the children relax into the flexibility and learn patience, [and they are] able to say, “It’s going to be there for me when I need it, and if it’s not there I can ask for it, and if I have a plan my teacher is going to be OK with it.” They start to trust a little bit more. It’s a relational environment.
As a new group is figuring out how to manage their choices, and I’m observing them, I try to think of every action as giving us more information. So, if a child is dumping loose parts everywhere (and this has happened), I think they are probably craving more sensory opportunities in the room. That’s something I can do to support them; it’s a change I can make in the environment, instead of demanding the child to change.
This year, there’s a child named Wes in our group who has a passion for dinosaurs and animals. He had been working with little chick characters and other loose parts, and he created a story about “Chickasaurus.” I took a photo of his work and when it was sharing time, I projected the image. Wes has a speech ISSP [individual support services plan] and is a little bit hesitant to talk in front of groups, but he got up and shared the whole Chickasaurus story in front of everyone. They were amazed at all the details he had for animals and habitats, and you could see so much pride in Wes as he was able to call on friends that had questions and wonderings and find out what else they noticed about his story.
I have to come back to the equity piece. I’ve noticed with anyone—it doesn’t matter if they’re older or younger, or an English speaker or a non-English speaker, or they are nonverbal and they have an ISSP, or experience disabilities of other kinds—story workshop offers a way that everyone can share their love of stories together. It builds a stronger community. It allows us to see that we all have agency—we all have ideas that matter, and we find out that sharing them is fun, exciting, and so important. These are experiences that everyone has a right to.
A teacher for 25 years, Susan Harris MacKay most recently served as Pedagogical Director at Opal School in Portland, Oregon, where the idea of story workshop began in her classroom. As a national speaker, she has inspired thousands of teachers to expand their use of play, the arts, and inquiry to support children’s rights to high quality educational environments upon which our democracy depends. Follow Susan on Twitter @sharrismackay.