In these first days every step is carefully made to help us to live and work together in the coming year. In a teaching world filled with data, I think the best thing about the first days of school is getting to know kids not by numbers, but by living beside them. In these first days of school I want to know what they know. I want to watch them in the messy work of figuring things out, as they settle in with a good book, as they look at that blank piece of paper and plan what they want everyone to know. How do they make meaning? I want to know what they know really well. I watch them for signs of what they have under control, what they may be ready to learn, and what they may need help to accomplish.
In the first days I spend my time talking with children about their reading/writing. It is in these conferring conversations that I learn most about their lives as readers and writers. I learn by talking with students, but I also learn by watching them work in the workshop. By carefully observing how they go about their reading and writing. Much can also be learned by looking thoughtfully at student writing as well and talking with them about books.
Here are a few questions I ponder as I sit beside students to confer and reflect on their learning:
- What are the student's literacy attitudes and habits? Do they read/write at home? Do they have books in their rooms? Do they have a library card? Did they go to the library in the summer? Where do they get books? Do they read stories before they go to bed? Do they prefer to read by themselves or with others? Do they have places they like to write? Do they see their family members read/write? Do they approach reading/writing with confidence? Do they have the stamina to attend to reading/writing for a lengthy period of time?
- What do students know in reading? How do they make meaning? Do they search for the message of the books they read? Do they have favorite books/authors? What kinds of books do they choose to read? How do they talk about reading? What strategies do they seem to use automatically to make sense of books? Do they monitor their reading/thinking?
- What do students know in writing? Where do they get ideas for their writing? Do they write about a variety of topics? Do they easily begin a new piece of writing? How do they plan their writing? Do they prefer to draw first or write words to begin? How do they organize their writing? How do they construct sentences? Do they have a bank of known words? How do they write new words? Can they reread their writing? Do they add details to their pictures/text?
- Does the child's oral language support learning and communication? Do they ask questions as they read/write/talk? Are they able to articulate their thinking? Can they connect their conversation to the thinking/discussion of others? Do they use the vocabulary from their reading/writing in their discussions? Do they listen carefully to others?
- Do students have a sense of story? Do students talk about their writing as if they are telling a story or just isolated events? Do they connect ideas when talking through the pictures in a book?
- What are the connections (and disconnects) between reading and writing? Is it easier to write words than to read them? Is it easier to read words than to write them? Are they more confident in reading or writing? Do they have strengths in one area that might support learning in another?
So in these beginning days I will be sitting beside the young readers and writers in my classroom to celebrate and discover all they already know.