Who Has A Story to Tell? : Addressing the Gap in Early Literacy Foundations
Talk to Berkeley teacher Brook Pessin-Whedbee for more than a few minutes about her teaching and you realize that she is a standout when it comes to documenting her young students’ thinking and learning. As a Mills Teacher Scholar working collaboratively with a group of educators from around the Bay Area, she has used this authentic real-time classroom data to develop clear literacy-focused goals for her students that guide her day-to-day instructional practice. Through video, photos, and detailed narrative observations documented in blog form, Brook captures golden moments that are easily missed in the cacophony of the classroom. For the last few years she has focused her inquiry work on Story Play time, through which she wants her transitional kindergarten students to develop strong oral language and story writing skills, as well as the ability to work together in collaborative partnerships.
“Are you ready to tell me your story?” I asked as I crouched down next to the table where Marian and Sharon were drawing intently on the same paper. Marian looked at me with a smile, then widened her eyes at Sharon, as if to say, ‘You start.’
“There was a pig and a barn and the pig was walking on a path,” Sharon pointed out each element of character and setting as she spoke. Marian listened to Sharon’s story beginning. Feeling more confident, she added on.
“The little guy was like, ‘Moo’ and it was not a cow it was a pig. And he run to a person named Joe.” Marian stopped here, seemingly unsure of what to say next. Sharon picked right up where Marian had left off, moving into the middle of the story with a problem and some dialogue.
“First, he turned backwards and the pig was jumping on him. Then he turned around and said, ‘How did you get to here? You’re supposed to be at the barn!’ The pig jumped in a pile of mud.” Marian again added on to Sharon’s idea, but with unclear vocabulary. She had a definitive tone, indicating this was the end of the story:
“And he jumped in the farm.”
When the class came together on the rug to act out the story, Sharon and Marion sat in the ‘directors’ chairs’ and called on their classmates to play the parts of the pig, Joe, the barn, and the mud puddle. We all called out, “Lights, Camera, Action!” and watched the story play come to life in real time. When it was over, I called “Cut!” Everyone clapped.
Then Alvon, with arms still raised high, as one side of the barn, asked, “Why is the barn even in the story if nothing happens here?” A discussion followed. When Marian said the pig had ‘jumped in the farm,’ what she really meant was that he had gone home to the barn; she was still developing the oral language skills to be able to communicate this clearly. When I asked the author-directors if they wanted to make any changes now that they had seen their story acted out, Marion revised the ending to include more precise vocabulary.
“And he scratched the person and jumped to the barn.”
We acted out the story once more, with these important revisions. Alvon was pleased with the addition to his barn role and I was pleased to see how the Story Play process had helped Marion’s language development.
Early Signs of the Gap
When I met my class of four-year-olds last fall, I had many students, like Sharon, who were already speaking in paragraphs, easily retelling familiar stories using high-level vocabulary, and crafting their own narratives with beginning, middle and end. They had clearly had many opportunities throughout their early childhood to read emergent storybooks, hear good stories, have conversations with adults and tell their own stories. By contrast, I also had many students, like Marian, who were still learning how to express themselves in clear sentences, retell a sequence of events, and use precise vocabulary. I suspected that they had not had the same early literacy opportunities as their peers. I was seeing that, already at age four, a huge gap existed before my students even set foot in my classroom.
We know from educational research that oral language skills in early childhood vary considerably for children from different socio-economic backgrounds. In the earliest years of school, we have the opportunity to support children before they have fallen behind, to front load these early literacy skills, and potentially prevent them from needing intervention later. Some educators and administrators believe that young children like Marian need interventions such as longer school days and more intensive academic skills-building. I am interested in exploring alternatives.
A Different Sort of Data
In my classroom, I am trying to provide a more preventative and developmental approach to early intervention; I am exploring ways to create, for all of my students, the early literacy experiences that students like Sharon have had access to for years before they have even started elementary school. And I have been examining and evaluating these strategies by collecting a different sort of data.
When Marian and her friends play with felt pieces at the Story Center, I am watching and listening to how they are sequencing familiar events from the emergent storybooks we have read. When we create a whole group circle story with structured Story Spine language, I am monitoring their use of transition phrases and higher level vocabulary. When I make story content explicit through mini-lessons and anchor charts, I am looking to see what elements of beginning, middle and end emerge as they plan their Story Plays. And when my focal students are drawing and dictating their stories in strategic partnerships, I am analyzing how all of these early literacy skills develop and deepen through collaboration.
Looking closely and routinely at this data with my fellow Mills Teacher Scholars each month, I have been able to identify my students’ strengths and areas of growth and respond with revised strategies to move them towards meeting their learning goals.
Becoming an Author
In Marian’s Story Plays, I have seen remarkable progression. She started in the fall with few original ideas, but she listened to her peers and added on simple ideas to the stories they had started. Though she sometimes used unclear vocabulary and syntax, she had a good sense of character and even some of the language of stories, using transition words to sequence events.
One morning in March, when Marian and her partner were drawing the ending of their story about a mouse at a swimming party, I set the video camera down in front of them. They were, by now, quite used to the camera on the table. That evening, I watched and took notes on the replay of their conversation.
After nearly ten minutes of mouse-chasing and party-food-eating, Ellen offered some closure to the story: “We were sad to leave each other because we loved each other so much and we wanted to stay but our moms and dads said we had to go.” I closed my notebook and got ready to stop the clip.
I was astonished, then, to hear Marian launch into her own version of the ending: “My mom said I can’t spend the night at my friend house and I was trying to. Then I get angry and hit my bed and leave to Arkansas. ‘I’m outta there!’ I pack my clothes. I get on an airplane with my friend. We gonna play video games. So we was on the plane texting somebody. Then after that, then we was eating Kraft macaroni and cheese. We come back home, then we had a party. I came back in the morning.”
Rather than adding a simple sentence reflecting a slightly different version of what her partner had just said, she had just rattled off a complex sequence of events including a problem and solution. She had contributed her own ideas to the narrative, instead of simply following her partner’s lead. I opened up my book and jotted down some notes: “Original ideas! Sequencing events! Beginning, middle, end! Parallel story? Next steps: connection/integration with partner’s story.”
As Marian was developing as a storyteller, I was developing an assessment framework for the progression of collaboration skills in storytelling. I was also developing a clearer sense of how educators can provide literacy experiences in the classroom that narrow the already existing gap and support young children earlier in their school experience rather than relying on intervention later on.
When students like Marian have opportunities throughout their school day to look at books and to be read to, to talk about stories and hear others talk about them, they are learning about how books and stories work and what storybook language sounds like. And when they have opportunities during Story Plays to write their own stories, paired with a more capable peer, they are learning within their ‘Zone of Proximal Development, learning through collaboration, what makes a good story and how they themselves can become an author.
Brook Pessin-Whedbee currently teaches second grade at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley Unified School District. She is continuing to develop her Story Play curriculum with a terrific group of second and third graders, many of whom she had as Kindergarten storytellers a few years ago. Her current inquiry focuses on children’s expanding understanding of gender through stories and how issues of gender identity and expression come up throughout the Story Play process. In the past she has written on using Story Plays to support story and idea development and partner collaboration.