Outline of Literate Day's lessons, tools, and visuals
View "Snapshot of a Literate Day" from the Teacher's Guide
To get a feel for what children in a Literate Days classroom experience on a daily basis, read this snapshot.
Imagine stepping into an early childhood classroom one morning as the children are just arriving for the day. The entry area is a flurry of backpacks coming off; jackets hung and flung; cheerful greetings among friends; and an eager audience jostling to see the new cast on the broken wrist of a proud classmate. The children's activity makes it clear that there is a sense of community here. They greet one another by name; express awe at the cast and sympathy about the wrist; and help others remember to check their backpacks for books and papers they will need for the day.
One of the first things that you notice as you make your way through this action is a child-sized table used for signing in and recording lunch preferences. The table serves as a sort of border, physical and psychological, between the robust activity of the entry area and the more composed area of the classroom. Right now the table holds a few pads of 3x5 Post-it notes. A small child stands at the table, with her father at her side. (He is visiting for the morning.) Chin held high, she straightens the pink Post-it she has chosen and lines it up evenly with the table's edge. She selects a purple marker and carefully removes the cap. She touches her finger to the tip of the marker to be sure that the ink is good. And then she glances at her dad to see that he is paying attention. This child appears to sense that she is doing something important, and she is. She's signing her own name.
Signing in is a way for this child to record her presence, and to begin the official business of the school day. When she signs her name, she knows that she is to begin to focus on school routines and school learning. Her teacher has talked with the children about this: "When you sign in here, it lets me know you are here, but it also means you are ready to come in and think about learning. That's why you're here, you know—to learn how to do new things and to learn all about the world we live in." The sign-in sheet is just one example of the print all over this classroom; not just print, but print that is created by children, and used by children. For example, many children are already looking at books in the classroom library. Some are choosing books that the class has created. The books in the library are labeled according to author, topic, and genre because the teacher wants the children to develop tastes and preferences for book types and topics-and a conscious awareness of these. She knows that motivation to read is supported by children being connected with just the right content. A checkout sheet is available for children who wish to take books home. There's a huge snack calendar (hung at children's eye level) that the children can actually read because it has labels from real food packages taped to it. Someone has cut out labels from graham crackers, apples, Cheerios, trail mix, and muffin packages so that the children can read for themselves what's for snack this week. On the wall, there hangs a schedule that helps children know which learning centers they may attend on this day.
What you're seeing in this classroom is a setting in which children are involved in literacy as a regular part of daily life. As you can imagine, the teacher's planning and teaching play an important role in this process. Because she believes that children learn a great deal about reading and writing when they use print in real contexts, she makes it a goal to let children do real-life activities, every day, as she works to teach essential skills and strategies. A key part of her efforts involves explicitly familiarizing the children with the discourses they need for being successful with classroom literacy practices. For example, her teaching often uses language such as this: "When you use the classroom library, here's what you are expected to do." "In case you ever want to know what we are doing on a day, let me show you how to check our daily schedule." "When you don't know how to spell a word, please do this." The more familiar children become with the patterns of and expectations for varied literacy practices in a classroom, the more independent and successful they can become. Effective teaching mixes immersion in the community of practice with scaffolding that focuses learners on key patterns of that practice; patterns that help children learn to act, work, and think in specific ways (Gee 2000). So as you read on, look for lots of immersion in reading and writing, with lots of explicit instruction taking place as the reading and writing occur. The lessons in Literate Days are built on the principle that children learn best when their instruction occurs during meaningful literacy events.
Not long after the children enter the classroom and sign in, the teacher catches their attention by initiating the singing of a familiar song. The children have been taught that this is their signal to convene on the rug. The Lessons from Literate Days DVD includes a section featuring the many songs one preschool teacher uses to teach throughout the day. When the song ends, the children quickly greet the child to their left and to their right with a simple, "Hello,_________, How are you?" (a pattern the teacher has taught). Next is a time for conversation. The teacher asks, "Who has something remarkable to share?" and the child with the new cast reports in depth on how she broke her wrist. The teacher then leads the children in a quick review of the calendar. Long calendar reviews can be excruciatingly tedious, but this approach is quick and serves a purpose, and respects the true function of a calendar as well as what is meaningful to the students: the teacher shows the children how she locates the day and date. In the appropriate box on the calendar, she has written special events for the day. It is here that the class learns whether they will have music or physical education class, a special visitor, a special project, or a birthday to celebrate. What is most important about the first few minute of this morning is that already, all of the children have been greeted by name, and all have a general picture of what to expect for the day. They are settling in, and the environment is warm and predictable.
After the greeting and conversation, this first circle meeting of the morning becomes highly focused. The teacher's goal every morning is to support children's literacy development through two kinds of whole-class reading experiences. She starts with shared reading. Here, she leads the children in the reading of a large-print poem, rhyme, or big book (sometimes they read the same piece for several days), and provides contextualized strategy and skill instruction before and after the reading. Her specific focus is on teaching children to use strategies to process (or decode) text. She uses this opportunity to teach anything from how to use context to determine an unknown word to how to analyze a word by looking at its parts; she might use the moment to discuss an author's interesting word choices or to highlight the word families that are repeated several times in the text. What she teaches is dependent on what she has observed many of her students to need; she tailors her instruction to connect with needs that she has observed through kidwatching. Throughout Literate Days you will find many kidwatching tools designed to help you fine tune and tailor your instruction.
Literature selection for shared reading is important. The teacher chooses short, predictable-language pieces that are fun to read and repeat—the kind you can't get out of your own mind and hear kids repeating all day—or she chooses text that has a predictable, often repetitive story line, so that readers have lots of clues to what the words on the page say. Book 1 contains literature recommendations for shared reading.
The read-aloud is next. The teacher again puts great effort into selecting the text. She consciously works to choose read-aloud literature that will be engaging to her students; that will raise questions in their minds; and that they will want to grapple with and talk about. This is important because it is the time of day that she focuses most intensely on teaching comprehension strategies. If we want to teach comprehension strategies well, we must ensure that children want to comprehend, and want to work to comprehend. Sometimes the read-aloud text relates to the social studies or science explorations that the children are currently engaged with; other times the text is chosen just for the sake of reading a good piece of literature. At all times, the focus is on helping students to develop as literate individuals and to develop their world knowledge. The teaching of comprehension strategies fosters both of these processes: as the teacher and students explore the text, she teaches them to focus on meaning and encourages them to "Picture this in your mind;" "Rethink this part—it seems really important;" "Let's think through your question as a class—I'm not sure I understand either!"; "Think about what is new to you here—what did you learn?" The focus on thinking like a reader is explicit. "This is what readers do," she tells them. "They think a lot about what they have read and they work to understand it."
After the circle meeting, the daily reading workshop begins. This is when students are assigned either to take some more time to respond to the literature just read (through an activity back at their tables) or to engage in partner reading. On this particular day, the students are sent off to respond further to Traction Man (Mini Grey), a book that has generated much interest and some healthy confusion among the group. Traction Man is a superhero figure that comes to life in the imagination of the boy character who plays with him. (The boy is just pretending, right?) The children are back at their tables, talking and drawing about the ways they play and imagine with their own things at home, and trying out some of the creative techniques used by the author/illustrator—all in an attempt to develop better insight into this unique story. The class is going to read the book again tomorrow and talk about it some more—because it's clear to the teacher that they are simply not finished pursuing meaning from this book.
As the children finish their responses to the literature (or, on other days, their partner reading), they move into learning centers—on their own time. If they want to continue with their partner reading when center time begins, they do! If they want to continue working with ideas from the book the teacher has read aloud, they do! The teacher sees productive learning activity as activity that engages. She does not interrupt children who are engaged in learning, unless she has to. Sometimes, the best learning is the kind that is unplanned by the teacher and initiated by the students because of a genuine curiosity, question, or interest. Watching for unexpected learning moments—and letting them live—is part of having faith in children as learners, and every theory of learning ever written tells us that we can do just that: we can have faith in children as learners.
Five core learning centers are used throughout the year in this classroom. Every day, the children have access to the classroom library, the sociodramatic play center (in which literacy materials are incorporated), the easel center (for shared reading and writing), the writing table, and the listening center. Other typical centers in this classroom involve retelling with props, reading from a set of content area book bins, playing word and letter games, engaging in an experiment or activity related to science or social studies, and making art. Book 1 contains many ideas for planning and setting up centers.
The children work and move from center to center with a noticeable independence. For the first months of the school year, the teacher spent a great deal of time providing explicit instruction about expectations for literacy practices—as the children were immersed in these practices. She helped them explore and talk through the kinds of work they were capable of doing; she taught them new ways to collaborate with one another; she showed them what to do to effectively set up, participate in, and complete their learning center activities. It was worth it to build management right into her instruction because she now has long stretches of time for in-depth instruction—with few interruptions. This teacher spends some of center time working with the children in the centers, and some of the time is spent working with small groups of readers.
The reading workshop ends with a closure period for children to share ideas, processes, and products created during the morning. On this day, all students are asked to bring something to share with a peer, and they are given a few minutes to talk about their morning activity. The teacher then asks for any volunteers to "share something remarkable from workshop time." A small boy who rarely talks at school and has never volunteered to share with the group has been inspired by Traction Man. He raises his hand. When he is called on, he seems to change his mind about sharing. He sits silently, uncomfortably, holding his drawing against his body so that it cannot be seen. A rather long silence ensues. "Show us your picture?" the teacher suggests. The boy shakes his head almost imperceptibly but then suddenly holds up his paper, turning his head to the side to avoid any eye-contact with the class. The drawing (it originally showed a nice black-crayon drawing of Batman) has had so much action taken on it that any of the original lines are difficult to see, and the final product is a criss-cross of black lines (drawn to represent Batman's action). The children look from the paper to the teacher's face, almost as if for a cue about how to handle this unexpected situation. The teacher gazes at the drawing with a look of appreciation. She understands children's development—and she has kidwatched all morning—so she knows just what to say. "Wow," she quite softly states. "I can see that many remarkable things happened as you worked on that drawing." The boy looks at her with a combination of surprise and gratefulness on his face. Another boy, who sat near the child as he was working, asks him, "What did you have Batman doing?"
After a break that involves outdoor play and a snack, writing workshop begins. (It should be noted that during the break, several children offered to help the child with the cast manage her jacket and her snack; the teacher asked if she could hang the blackened Batman picture on the easel and the Batman illustrator declared, "I'm going to write more about that. Some kids wanted to know things"; and the visiting father was invited to come back at any time.)
The teacher opens the writing workshop with a whole-class minilesson that relates to the students' general needs at present. Typically, even though their topics differ, the students are all writing within the same genre. So, the minilesson may focus on something related to genre, such as writing a good opener for a nonfiction piece; developing a character in a story; labeling the parts of a drawing created as part of a science inquiry; or adding conversation to a drawing of an imaginary character (such as Batman). Or the lessons may be more oriented toward specific writing strategies and skills such as generating invented spellings, looking for unconventional spellings in a finished piece, using the spelling resources in the classroom, or thinking about punctuation. As the students write, the teacher conferences with individuals, and sometimes with small groups. Here, she individualizes and differentiates her instruction. If students need help with getting words on paper, she provides it. If students need help generating ideas, she provides it. Within the workshop, each child works from a place of strength, and receives support tailored to specific needs.
The rest of the day provides opportunities for more specific work in the content areas of math, science, and social studies, but integration is always a part of what happens in this classroom. Morning read-alouds often make use of texts related to science and social studies inquiries. What's especially beneficial here is that those texts are not just read once through; they are also studied—and studied again when children express a special interest in them. Writing workshop pieces often focus on content-area topics. And centers often include content-area explorations and content-area books to view and/or read. When children read and write for real purposes in a classroom, integration is a natural byproduct.
The classroom described here provides just one example of what a "literate days" classroom looks like. Because of different teachers, children, settings, and curricula, such classrooms look vastly different in many ways. What is the same is that children are immersed in a community that blends real-life reading and writing with explicit, well-tailored, sensitive instruction.