Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Discovering What Kids Know

I love the first days of school when everything is new.  New folders, new pencils, new crayons, new paints and, best of all, new students.  These first days of the school year are so important for setting the tone of our classroom community.  In these first days I want the children in my classroom to begin to see themselves as one community.  In these first days I want to learn how they work together, who leads, who follows, who listens, who talks and who builds on the thinking of others.  In these first days I want to know what they love to do most.  I listen to their stories to learn what is important to them at school and, of course, in their lives beyond our classroom.  We discover the ways we are similar and the ways we are different.

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.  


  1. Cathy,

    Fantastic post! I love this sentence:
    "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." Simply perfect.

  2. Cathy~
    Your thoughts and practices separate the professional educator from the teacher. These are the practices we do because it's good for kids. These are things you won't find in teacher training programs or in a teachers guide. These are truly the indicators of the PROFESSIONAL EDUCATOR!

  3. Wise, wise words, Cathy. We do need to know our kids "not by numbers, but by living beside them." So important to remember. And the "data" we gather from doing just that is huge. Thank you for a great post.

  4. Amen Cathy!! I couldn't agree more!