Take a peek into the Lower School classrooms and you’ll see authors hard at work. In PreK-3, a voice rings out with joy. “It’s about Brazil and I have monkeys and banaynays!” Another student shares his story, “Lava is hot and the dinosaur is getting wiped out!” This excitement for writing is nurtured from the very beginning of a child’s school experience at Episcopal.
Everyone is an Author
In PreK-3 and PreK-4, writing time is referred to as “Bookmaking,” and teaching is centered around practices from experts in Early Childhood literacy. At this age, children aren’t typically ready to “write,” but they have lots of stories to tell through pictures and spoken words. As their phonemic awareness begins to grow, scribbles and symbols evolve into written letters and sounds. Teachers model how to make a book through short mini lessons and students are sent off to create their stories, while teachers circulate the room to guide the children through their work.
In kindergarten, students are ready to begin Writing Workshop. Writing Workshop is a student-centered framework for teaching writing that is based on the idea that students learn to write best when they write frequently, for extended periods of time, on topics of their own choosing. For our younger students, the emphasis is on the process of writing. Each lesson begins with a short mini lesson and then the teacher sends students off to their desks to write. Teachers provide support through small-group work and conferring, with multiple opportunities for personalizing instruction to teach writing skills specifically and purposefully.
Writing Workshop progresses through fifth grade. Students engage in several units of study throughout the school year, variations of narrative writing, informational writing, and opinion writing. Closely following the Units of Study for Writing Workshop, students develop their writing skills not only in content but also in organization, craft, grammar, spelling, and conventions. Students also become comfortable with the writing process: draft, revise, edit, and publish. At the end of each writing unit, students celebrate their publications in unique and special ways.
Authors Write for a Purpose
Students learn that when an author writes a text, he or she has a purpose for writing. Sometimes, the purpose is to simply entertain or tell a story. Other times, the purpose is to inform the reader of something. Often, the author is attempting to make an argument or share an opinion, in hopes of persuading the reader to his or her point of view regarding a topic.
In their most recent Unit of Study, first graders have been learning about the genre of persuasive writing by writing reviews. The Lower School hallway filled up with their reviews of restaurants, video games, chapter book series and even a review about Episcopal. These reviews caught the attention of fourth grade teacher, Rosalyn Won, who noticed one review, in particular, written by Mason Pizzolato about his favorite restaurant, Bistro Byronz. He encouraged people to go visit the restaurant because, “ What’s on the menu is so good. They have fettuccine, cheese fries, and chips with cheese.” Bistro Byronz is one of Mrs. Won’s favorite restaurants, too, and she knows the owner of the restaurant, Emelie Alton. Mrs. Won took a picture of Mason’s writing to show her friend the great review he had written. Mrs. Emelie was so impressed by Mason’s writing that she reached out to Mrs. Won to deliver a gift card to Mason. Mrs. Won, Mason and Lower School Division Head, Beth Gardner, spoke with Mrs. Emelie via FaceTime. She enjoyed hearing about Mason’s experience at Bistro Byronz and offered him the VIP treatment next time he visits the restaurant.
Other students were called out for their excellent work as well. Rosalie Gautreaux was recognized by La Carreta for her shining review of their restaurant. She touted the restaurant calling it, “the best because they have a big variety of food that you can get.” She also promoted that, “When it’s your birthday, they sing to you.” A copy of her review was posted on the restaurant’s social media page, as well as in the restaurant, and she was also awarded a gift card.
Third graders wrote persuasive letters to the Lower School Division Head, Beth Gardner. Requests ranged from a later start time for the school day to permission to play two touch football at recess. While requests are not always able to be granted, in past years, students have successfully declared Wednesdays a “No Homework Day” for the Lower School, a tradition that has continued to this day.
Authors Write What They Know
As writers mature, they begin to develop stories with a more personal connection. Fifth graders in Mrs. Engstrom’s English class wrote memoirs last fall. Students described how the process helped them grow as writers, as they used their personal experiences to connect with others who might be experiencing similar feelings or struggles.
One student wrote about his struggle with the regret he felt after quitting the basketball team mid-season. “I thought I wasn't good at basketball. I had this feeling of doubt and hopelessness and I thought of losing [a game] for my team when it never even happened. That thought haunted me like a monster does under your bed. So I quit the team and thought of my own self. I didn't know it then but it was a big mistake.”
Another student described his journey as he pondered about what his future career might be. “One day me and my friends were riding around the neighborhood and we stopped and put our bikes down. Then one of my friends took out his phone and told me to follow him. We spent most of the day going around taking pictures of the sunset and lake in our neighborhood. Every picture I took made me feel happy and I felt like I really just wanted to take pictures my entire life, like a photographer. But the next day when me and my friends went around taking pictures it didn't feel the same as before. It wasn't making me as happy as the day before. I finally realized that photography was more of a hobby than career.”
Another fifth grader used her memoir as a platform to share some feelings that she had not been able to express before. “Embarrassment isn't that cloak you put on to hide in, it's that bright colored jacket you wear when you're embarrassed, that jacket that people see when they judge you. That jacket isn’t the reason you wanna cry, it’s the people laughing that make you want to cry. The people pointing, staring, and whispering about what you did. But as long as you're being yourself it doesn't matter what they think. 999.999% of the time they’re wrong anyways. So just be yourself.”
By creating a safe classroom environment, Mrs. Engstrom set the stage for students to be able to write with vulnerability, pushing them to grow on their journey as writers.
Authors Publish their Work
Through their study of writers and books, PreK-3 students participated in different book studies from several authors like Eric Carle and James Dean, the author of the “Pete the Cat” series. They learned that books have pictures and words, that authors use every page in the book and how authors and illustrators work together to tell the whole story. Students were excited to learn that Elizabeth Kline, one of Episcopal’s own, published a children’s book during her tenure at Woman’s Hospital. Mrs. Kline visited the class to share her story, “The Very Best Birth Day,” and describe the process of writing and publishing her book. The young authors got to see how the story evolved from the proof pages to the hardcover book and were excited to ask Mrs. Kline many questions about being an author.
Growing young authors is a process. The foundation begins in a child’s earliest experiences in school and continues to build each year as students acquire the building blocks to be seasoned writers. All children have stories to share and giving them frequent opportunities to write stories of their choosing gives writers the confidence to share their stories with an audience, feeling successful and proud.
Julie Mendes, a 2001 graduate of Episcopal, received both her undergraduate degree and MEd in elementary education at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She taught in Texas public schools and at a bilingual school in Gracias, Honduras before returning to teach PreK-4 at her alma mater in 2012. After 14 years in the classroom, she is excited to serve our youngest Knights in a new role as the Director of Early Childhood Programs. Julie resides in Madisonville with her husband, Scott, and bonus son, Owen.