Monday, September 7, 2015

Let's Do It Together: Shared Experience in the First Days

Yesterday I was invited to a friend's house as her family gathered to make dolmades (grape leaves).  For years I have wanted to make dolmades for our family.  My husband and oldest daughter love dolmades as well as many other Greek and Lebanese dishes, but trying to make dolmades on my own seemed a bit overwhelming.  For weeks I have looked forward to joining my friend's family as they make this traditional family dish.  Each year they gather on Labor Day weekend to make hundreds of dolmades to have across the winter months.  

When I arrived the kitchen was already full of family with many years of experience making dolmades.  I watched as they prepared the filling, listened to tips for assured success, and sat beside the family as we rolled grape leaves together.  It was a delightful day for me.  As someone who has never made dolmades I was given the opportunity to watch the family of experts work effortlessly in the kitchen.  The risk was minimal as I just worked alongside everyone and did what they did.  As I worked I couldn't help but think about the students in our classes during these first days of school trying to figure out routines, working to get back into the groove with all they know, and feeling uncertain in their new communities.  I couldn't help but think about the hard first days of school.  

Shared Reading and Writing
In my role as a reading intervention teacher, I am moving from room to room getting to know the students I will likely support this year, watching students who may be of concern, and noticing students who are finding the first days of school a bit more challenging.  I've looked carefully at the data a bit earlier than I would have as a classroom teacher.  As I go into classrooms I am using the previous year's data to inform who may need support.  I'm also noticing students who were at grade level at the end of the year, but seem to be having difficulty using what they know in these first days.  As I am sitting beside these students I'm reminded of the importance of shared experiences in the first days of school.  These students are not yet sure of the routines and expectations of the classroom.  They're just getting back into their habits with books and writing.  They're not yet comfortable with their new peers.  

To help students get back into their routines of reading and writing, shared experience is a powerful tool for the first days of school.  Opening a book for shared reading, writing together, or creating a post for a class blog together can help students get back to what they know, grow in understanding, and build common knowledge/language for future learning.  For our youngest of literacy learners, shared experience can remind students how to orient to the page, use concepts of print, and think about the story.  For older literacy learners, shared experience can help students to reach in reading and writing.  Some benefits of shared experience:
  • Builds Community:  shared experience allows groups to talk together and share common experiences that can be foundational in the first days of school
  • Creates a Safe Environment:  in shared experience students can try things that might be hard for them to do alone and share success with peers
  • Grows Common Language:  shared experiences provides opportunities to begin to grow and share common language around learning the community will use across the year
  • Develops the Sounds of Language:  shared reading and writing can help students get to know the sounds and rhythms of words as well as build vocabulary
  • Reinforces Known:  shared experience can help students get back to what they know (in youngest literacy learners this might be reminding students of 1:1, using known to monitor, using pictures to help solve with meaning, etc.)
  • Nudges Forward:  shared experience can be use to subtly introduce a new idea within this context of high support
In the first days of school (and across the year), students can benefit from shared experience.  There is safety - and new opportunity - in doing something together.  As the dolmades simmered in the pan, I was reminded of the power of shared experience.  I had learned a lot in the day that would help me when I went to make dolmades on my own.  The task no longer seemed out of my reach.  The shared experience helped me to feel comfortable in this new task.  Shared experience makes new things possible.  This week as I step back into classrooms, my experience in the kitchen will remind me of the power of shared experience in learning.  


  1. Beautiful connections today, Cathy. Happy you got to learn and have a good time doing so, and then to apply it to students here at the beginning of the year is wonderful. Have a good day!

  2. Cathy,
    I think as the one providing the shared experience we can miss the perspective of the one sharing with us. Thank you for a reminder of the feelings and power of being the one shared with. It really is all about perspective, isn't it?