Letting Go of "Perfect" in Primary Writing
“Perfectionism doesn't believe in practice shots. It doesn't believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly - and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner's work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn't know how to say, "Good try," or "Job well done." The critic does not believe in creative glee - or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter.”
- Julia Cameron -
As teachers, we work hard to make our bulletin boards and classroom displays beautiful. However, beauty is subjective. Do you only put up perfect or near perfect papers? What about those children that are improving greatly but, perhaps, don't meet the "perfect" mark? Making displays a celebration of progress, not perfection, reinforces the goal of progress to our students. Go the extra mile. Label student work (or have students label their own) with what they have accomplished or how they have grown with that piece of work. Think how empowering that would be!
Letting go of "perfect" in primary writing opened the door to exponential growth for my students.
The "littles" of the education world are so cute and parents of our youngest students love refrigerator worthy work they can brag about. Cut, paste and label assignments abound for grades K-2. Most students in these grades love to color, cut, paste and create.
Don't get me wrong. Following directions, cutting and pasting and other projects that require students to refine and use their motor skills have value. However, giving students projects that are simply do as I have done or fill in the blanks after the sentence starter and color the picture assume our students are capable of very little real work on their own. Too often we limit our primary aged students with these kind of "supports". There is a better way.
Reimagining the Primary Student's Capabilities in Language Arts
Know the Code
- Teach the code (phonemic awareness) every day for about 15 minutes. Yes, even in second grade there is more to learn.
- In Kindergarten, teach the basic letters and sounds as quickly as you can and start writing.
I had a student one year who went home from school the first day of Kindergarten and cried. He thought he would learn to read the very first day and was devastated when that didn't happen. Broke my heart when him mom told me. The good news... Because I teach the code quickly and reinforce daily, he was reading and writing in no time.
- Create lessons around a mentor text or group of mentor texts each week. I usually use 3-4 texts.
- Keep it fresh and interesting. Don't belabor a book for weeks. We want kids to love books! Move on each week to new texts.
- Be real. Embed whole class skills teaching into reading and thinking through mentor texts.
Writing Mini Lessons
- Make whole class writing lessons short, engaging and specific. Use examples of real writing (yours or pervious students) that students can understand and relate to.
- Alternate between reading response and other writing lessons each week.
- Start writing the first day of school for 1st and 2nd graders. Kinders can start the first day as well with the right instruction. (see below)
- Kindergarteners will begin the year by drawing their stories and talking through them and rehearsing out loud with other students, the teacher and other adults. They are encouraged to put letters on the page as soon as they know enough of the code to recognize the beginning sounds of their words. Applying the phonics instruction in real writing as soon as possible is key to student growth.
- Teach (and expect) students to both read and write independently every day.
- There are lots of systems you can use to structure your Language Arts time. The Daily 5 is a good place to start. Find or create a system and adjust until you figure out what works best for you.
- Know there is no magic system. Just make sure whatever you do includes all of the right pieces. (individual reading, listening to reading, paired or partner reading, reading to/with a teacher, some sort of word work or practice, phonemic awareness instruction, individual writing, feedback from peers, and conferring with a teacher and the use of mentor texts to teach both reading and writing skills)
- Train your students really well in your expectations for each aspect of your system. How well we train our students is what makes or breaks our systems.
- Give students appropriately lined paper to write on for all writing and room for a picture either on the same page or separately. Toss most of the sentence frames and worksheets. Yes, even in kindergarten. When you choose to use a worksheet, make sure it is open-ended enough that it doesn't limit student thinking.
- Tech or no tech? I'm a limited tech advocate for reading and writing in primary grades. I know in our technology rich world, this is not going to be a popular viewpoint. However, our youngest students need all of the sensory and tactile information they can get. It's essential to their learning and brain development. Doing some sight word practice or letter sounds on devices is fine, but it should not be the primary method for this instruction. I look at it this way... I never abdicate or fully give up my responsibility to teach.
Art and Writing
- Give students time to draw a picture first before they write (or after if they prefer).
- If you have a specific art lesson or cut and paste project to go with student writing or reading response, teach that separately from the rest of the lesson. Then, make sure there are opportunities for students to do their own thing within the project parameters.
Conferencing and Grouping
- Use regular, flexible small groups and individual conferences to hone in on student strengths and challenges and teach learner-specific reading and writing skills.
- Teach "in the moment" every chance you get. Don't make a note and save the teaching for later. Deliver on the spot while the need is fresh.
May your path be clear, your systems run smoothly and your students bring you joy every day.