Learning to Write: Seven Elements of a Learning Culture

How we teach an academic subject is important; the social context in which we teach it is equally critical.

One day in early February, Tanya, one of the teachers of the Fireflies, a preschool class of four-year-olds, came into the lounge at lunch time and said: “We have had an outbreak of writing in the Fireflies today.”

“Really, that’s great,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“Well, just that. It was a little epidemic.”

“Huh. Wow. What happened?”

“It happens every year right about this time. You know how we always label the kids’ work? You know how if they make a picture, we ask them about it, and then we write what they say on a strip of paper and put it under the picture when we hang it on the wall? Or if they create something with blocks and want to save it, we make a sign saying: Kaya. Please save? Well, today, when I was starting to do that for Isabella, she stopped me and said, “No, wait! I want to do it.” And she did. She not only wrote “Isabella,” but she also copied ‘please save’ from the sign on another structure. In no time, other kids who were building in the block area saw her do that and wanted to do it, too. They read her sign and then made their own for their buildings. Then Mia, who had just finished a painting, asked for a marker so she could put her name on her painting. It went on like that all day, until about half the kids had at least written their own names.”

Literacy is a natural act for Homo sapiens in a literate culture. Children pick it up like they pick up oral language. It’s not that we don’t have to teach it; teaching is very important, and with different learning styles making sure all the kids learn to read and write is challenging. The students will need to practice, too. No one can achieve mastery right away. But good instruction and student practice must happen in the right context, too.

What are the key elements of that context? Here are seven that are evident from this one incident.

  • A general, unspoken understanding that we are all on our way to being educated people and that includes (but by no means limited to) reading and writing in our own language. “High Expectations” doesn’t exactly say it; rather it is taken for granted that we will all be literate.
  • Writing is a part of real life, and it’s value and uses are obvious.
  • Teachers model the behavior that they want the students to exhibit. (Teacher writes; I want to write.)
  • Observant teachers know the children–their interests, their gifts, their quirks, how their minds work, and are watching for learning opportunities.
  • A playful, atmosphere where the kids are the origins of activity. (The teachers have carefully created structure which foster this self-directed learning.)
  • The social context is safe. An atmosphere in which early mastery is better than late mastery is counter productive for all. Kids are naturally designed to try and fail and try again as long as they can avoid embarrassment.
  • There are many ways for kids to show their stuff. The more multi-dimensional the classroom is, the fewer children will have the experience that they are stupid or deficient because they can’t write or read yet.

What about those kids who weren’t ready to write yet? “All in good time,” must be the attitude. Many of the mistakes that adults make with children can be reduced to trying to get “results” too soon. We maximize academic potential when we keep our eye on the long haul and give ourselves the time. Negative side effects attend trying to get results before results can be gotten. Teacher confidence that the children will learn has a powerful impact on the children’s belief that they can learn. It is always a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In education so often it’s not so much what we do. Kids do not expect or need perfection from us. Our mental state when we do it that fosters or inhibits growth like water or drought affects a plant.

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9 thoughts on “Learning to Write: Seven Elements of a Learning Culture

  1. Fabulous! Can’t wait to use it in my early childhood collaborative trainings! There’s so little out there that really says it all about early literacy – thank you!

  2. When a 2nd or 3rd grader says, “I hope it rains today because if it does, we get to stay in at recess and do writing workshop,” you know that the teacher is making writing fun, worthwhile and meaningful.
    We learn to write by writing just as we learn to play the piano by playing or learn skiing by skiing. And you start where you are and practice, practice, practice. Write, re-write and revise some more.
    Annie LaMott gets it right in Bird by Bird!

  3. Rick, this passage resonated with me in your book too. So glad you reposted it here! We’ve just re-focused our writing program at our school with Lucy Calkin’s Writers Workshop. Comments like, ‘can I take this home tonight to work on it’ and ‘this year I learned that writing can be fun’ and even ‘the best part was the writing partner’s comment to help me get better’ all came down to instilling the 7 key elements you speak about above.

  4. Thank you Gary and Jason.
    If all schools used the Lucy Calkins Writer’s Workshop approach from kindergarten through eighth grade. No one would reach the age of 18 uneducated. If a kid can put her thoughts into writing and work with others to refine them until she is proud of what she wrote, then writing and thinking will give her a dopamine rush and she won’t ever stop writing, thinking and learning.
    The only way someone would become a non-writer is if the struggle of writing is exaggerated by deadlines and reinforced by summative negative evaluation.

  5. Rick, this is wonderful and so applicable to the period I study — the infant and toddler years. Key elements to building solid foundations for academic development are 1) A playful environment conducive to self-directed learning (love your description: “kids are the origins of activity”) in which babies are trusted to develop in their own way and time, 2) Parents and caregivers who are sensitive observers (in order to learn their baby’s “interests, gifts, quirks, how their minds work, and are watching for learning opportunities”), 3) Parents who model literacy by reading and communicating verbally *way* before the baby is capable of responding in kind, and 4) Trust and belief in the child.

    And this struck me, too, because I agree that teacher confidence has a powerful impact…and a parent’s confidence has a million times more… “Teacher confidence that the children will learn has a powerful impact on the children’s belief that they can learn. It is always a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

    Great stuff!

  6. Thank you, Janet. (I like your 4 better than my 7–easier to remember). One note. Parents’ confidence has more impact with little children. By school age, kids now need it more from their teachers or uncles and aunts, etc. A teacher believing in a 8 to 18 -year-old is a million times more powerful (well, maybe not a million.)

  7. Good point, Rick. Yes, although parents and caregivers are the child’s whole world in the beginning, by school age his world has broadened. Teachers have an extremely powerful influence on the child’s belief in himself as a capable learner. Didn’t mean to sound like I was questioning that!

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