Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Assessing and Teaching Beginning Writers Every Picture Tells a Story

Prior to reading the book, Assessing and Teaching Beginning Writers  Every Picture Tells a Story, by David M. Matteson and Deborah K. Freeman, I was asking myself questions about the ways I assess and focus my writing instruction.  I often wonder if what I expect of students is appropriate and if I am on the right track with individuals.  It seems like the words “developmentally appropriate,” are thrown around often and I have been really trying to figure out what it actually means; coming to realize it is more challenging to determine this for a group as opposed to an individual.  I also really wanted to review the importance of the plan and where it fits with each developmental stage of the writing process students go through as the year progresses.        

The Layout:
The book was an easy read and well organized.  Each chapter began with 2-3 reflective questions to get you going before digging in to the information.  There were several examples of student and teacher interactions to help associate the ideas of the text.  The book was broken into two sections, which I will go into a little detail to explain my understanding and summarize some areas of the book.
Section 1:  Developing Theory about Early Literacy Experiences
In the chapters within section one, the book went through the changes that occur from preschool to kindergarten, theories and perspectives of these grade-levels, and characteristics of readers and writers at this stage of development.  What I took away from this section is that the theories of the best way to introduce literacy to early learners are still very different among educators.  I also got a sense that these different perspectives influence educators ideas of what a student can do as a learner.  Students at the emergent level may need one kind of instruction while individual students beyond the idea of what seems appropriate may need a different delivery of instruction.  It also expressed a need to take advantage of the time a student is in an early program, such as a prekindergarten or preschool program.  Gaps can only increase when the experiences do not fit the learner.  The book effectively expressed the importance of reaching all learners and that it can be done with focus and intention.    
Section 2:  Understanding how to Use the Early Literacy Continuum
The Early Literacy Continuum, the main tool of the book, was introduced and explained in depth in this section.  It nicely differentiates the levels of student oral language development as well as the development of the emergent writer.  Using these levels to determine where a student is learning helps the teacher determine what to work on next.  The authors expressed the importance of Vygotsky’s theory, Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).  The ZPD is the range of what the student is beginning to demonstrate and what she is getting ready to take on as a learner. 
Digging In:
I really liked that the book explained and gave examples of prompts that effectively give the teacher a clear picture of what the student is independently doing as opposed to what the teacher is leading the child to do in her writing.  Guiding the student is important, but leading a student only leads to less independence.  I really want to know what the student can do, not what an adult/peer told her to do.  The book described this as “being neutral,” a term I plan on using this year and reminding myself to ask—“was I neutral here, or was I leading the learning?”  I look forward to putting that directly on my monitoring notes when I reflect. 
Through student examples the book went into depth on the levels of detail a student needs as they progress.  I enjoyed reading about a particular student who simply drew a picture of a house but had a great story about being locked out because their dad accidently locked the door.  There was a great oral story, the illustration was done mostly in yellow and difficult to make out, so the teacher asked the student how they would remember this story.  Together they reviewed the details of the story and through coaching the child decided to add a door to the house.  The teacher asked him to use a different color so that there would be an emphasis on the door and that would help him to remember that detail.  This reminded me of many of my emergent learners who begin to get the hang of telling a great story, but it is all coming at them so quickly, they don’t always know how to add those details to their picture.  I liked this simple illustration of good teaching and not leading.  The teacher did not say, “why don’t you add a door.”  He guided the student to the conclusion that adding a door would help him remember his story later.  I felt this moment of teaching was also an important element to the student remembering due to the deep, yet brief conversation about an important detail in his story; a “critical detail,” as the book described.  It also discussed the learning of and English as a second language (ESL) student who made an elaborate zoo display with blocks.  Taking this very teachable moment and advantage of all the critical details laid out in this structure, the teacher engaged in a conversation, coaching and repeating back complete sentences utilizing the one-two word responses from the student.  Together, the pair worked to label the zoo and the student learned how to add another critical detail to an already strong piece of work—a block structure.  How easy it would be to make writing materials available in all areas simply utilizing those extra baskets or caddies you already have stowed away from last year.  Leftover pencils and scrap paper could easily be placed in the block and dramatic play area to encourage writing to take place because it already does occur naturally in these settings that we set up for students to practice in the classroom.
My Conclusions and Plan of Action:
·        I plan on utilizing this continuum and levels of learning for my emergent learners.  It has been challenging to find something that is truly just for them and not something beyond or below their learning levels.  This book fits the bill for me to fill this gap and be sure that I am moving students into early learning and development. 
·        Developmentally appropriate is only appropriate on a child by child basis when digging deeply into student achievement.  I cannot group students together and make a claim that an objective is not developmentally appropriate.  I feel it is too challenging to make such a generalization.  If some students are writing or reading and some are still learning letter sounds than there is no such thing as developmentally appropriate for one grade-level.  Just as it would not be developmentally appropriate for me to fly a plane, seeing as I have no experience, it would not be developmentally appropriate to give keys to an 18 year old to drive if they had no experience. 
o   When I feel any urge to toss around the term, “developmentally appropriate,” in a conversation, I will promptly ask myself “based on what information?”
·        I will remain neutral when conferencing and coaching my students.  I won’t lead, but guide instead. 
o   I will put this directly on my form for monitoring student learning in writing so I remember to reflect on how this is going.
·        Planning needs critical details that can come out in any form. 
o   I will utilize my classroom areas to make writing available all the time.  I can monitor progress in this form as well and encourage these ideas to later take shape on paper for students still exploring writing.

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