I have been attending Saturday Reunions for almost ten years and I am always amazed at how much information and inspiration Lucy Calkins and her team of staff developers manage to pack into six short hours. Natalie Louis is now a Lead Staff Developer, but when I first heard her present, she was fairly new at the project. Her passion, intelligence, and practicality was apparent immediately, though, and I have attended as many of her sessions as possible over the years. I am a much better teacher because of what I have learned from Natalie.
So on Saturday morning, I made my way to the 10th floor of Riverside Church for her session, “Tap the Power of Interactive Writing to Help Readers Surge Forward.” One thing you should know about Natalie Louis. She could have had a career in stand up comedy. She has a terrific sense of humor, but when it comes to doing what best for children, she’s absolutely serious.
Natalie began her session acknowledging the reality of first grade: we have students with a wide range of abilities and background knowledge, and sadly, many who have little experience with books and little motivation to read them. But they love to write. She encouraged us to get in there and “make stuff” with our students. “What kids doesn’t want to make stuff?” Louis wanted to know.
Interactive writing was on the schedule every day in Louis’s classroom because writing is a natural way to teach reading. Writing with first graders (or Kindergarteners or second graders) is developmentally appropriate because kids at this age love to tell stories about themselves. It’s also appropriate because there is an entry point for every child, regardless of their skill level. If they can only draw pictures, then they draw. If they know initial consonants, that’s what they write, and so on.
“The beginning of literacy is all about talk and finding meaning in our lives,” Louis reminded us. We have to help students find “stuff in their life that worth writing down.” This may mean creating a shared experience to talk and then write about. This helps kids learn that “when we do things in our lives, we have to remember them, we have to tell the story about what we did.”
Once you and your students have a shared experience, tell the story orally, for “talk is the basis of all writing.” Natalie assured us that at first “only the talkers will talk,” but that’s okay. By listening to the talkers, the “ummers” are internalizing the structure and language of the story.
After the kids have told the story many times, maybe as long as a month, write the story down. Louis urged us to “talk a rich picture book, but write it more like a leveled text.” This will ensure that students will be able to read it on their own. Say the sentence and reinforce the idea that “here’s our message.” Then count the words together.
Because this is interactive writing, share the pen with children, but only when the word is in their zone of proximal development. If a word is too hard, you should write it, and if a word is too easy, such as a word wall word, direct their attention to the word wall to find the word.
Louis had a great list of suggestions of how to keep the kids who aren’t writing engaged. You can lead them in skywriting the word or lip syncing the letters in the word. Other options include writing the word on their hand, on the rug, or whispering to a partner. Natalie said she only used white boards on Friday because it takes time to distribute and collect them, and they can be distracting. She assured us not to worry about the child with the pen, they will probably make a mistake, but then you’ll help them fix it.
Corrections can be made after each word is written down. Louis suggested that “amazing intellectual work” is done when we give kids a chance to analyze their mistakes. She recommended that we say “Can I show you all the things you did right?” This is especially helpful if other children are laughing and an error. Rereading the sentence after each word is written is excellent reinforcement and practice.
Natalie’s realism about teaching our youngest readers and writers was clear when she advised us not to “be obsessed with levels. Level growth is not the only measure of growth; we have to look at the skills within the levels.”
Thank you, Natalie Louise, for sharing your wisdom with us last Saturday. I can’t wait to get back into the classroom to “do stuff, tell stuff, write stuff,” with kids.
Thank you also to Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.