"I am so far from one!"

One of the joys of being around young kids is getting a glimpse of the world through their eyes.  Here are two priceless stories.

I was lucky enough to take courses from one of the leading Gesell Institute researchers, Norm Heimgartner, during my Master's study. The Gesell developmental assessment is based on observing young learners to document their development on a continuum of growth.

During one of Norm's many research stories, he recounted watching a young boy saw on a board for over 20 minutes. Norm finally strolled over and asked him what he was making.


Such a perfect kid answer to a predictable adult question.  We're product oriented. There should always be an end in sight. Making sawdust comes from an entirely different way of experiencing the world!

Here's another story. 

I was helping a kindergarten teacher colleague assess her students. One of the tasks was to count to 100. After I gave him the instructions, Darrin launched into his counting. He got through the 30s, then the 40s. He was on track to make it--amazing for a kindergartner!

"91, 92, 93, 94 ..." He stopped and looked at me, amazed, eyes wide. "I am so far from one!"

Not only could he count to 100,  he had well-developed number sense for a kindergartener.

I still remember that scene over 20 years later because it's stories like this that remind me to listen ever so carefully to little ones.The early childhood folks have known this for a long time--among them Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Reggio Emilia, and Vivian Paley. Kids have the right "to grow and learn at their own pace and in their own way" (Arnold Gesell).

Today more and more of our assessments are taking place in front of a computer screen. Assessments are impersonal, devoid of the stories of children's lives. Are kids able to show what they really know? Maybe just as important, what are teachers getting a chance to learn?

Are we there yet? How kids make sense of the world

The concept of "developmentally appropriate" is a backdrop for every learning experience we orchestrate as educators.  You know when something isn't DA because kids don't "get it," or simply because the lesson flops. Kids spout off guesses, call out in confusion, or put their heads down. It's happened to all of us.

Here's one of my favorite "developmentally inappropriate" stories.

I was driving from Illinois to Indiana with a 7 year old. You'll recognize the routine: Every five minutes she asked, "Are we almost there? When are we gonna get there?"

I explained that our trip would take about the same amount of time as the beginning of school until lunchtime. I explained we were driving from the state where she lived--Illinois--to the state right next to it. Maybe I talked about Indiana and Illinois as being two of our 50 United States. I pointed out the sign, "Welcome to Indiana."

The conversation was fraught with abstract concepts that a 7 year old doesn't yet comprehend: states, crossing from one state to another, and the United States. I knew all this after 20 years of teaching kids her age, and knew that my explanation was a stretch for a 7 year old, but I thought I did a decent job of it. 

A few minutes later she called home. Her dad asked where she was, and I still laugh to remember her answer: "We're still in America, Dad, but we're on a different road!"


More on supporting Kate as a reader

If you're a new reader of this blog, you'll want to scroll down to read my post about Kate, as well as her mom's thoughts.

I'm so thankful for Denise's candid comments. They help me remember that all of us--kids, families, teachers--bring different perspectives to any learning situation. I'll use this post to respond to what Denise found most important about our work together,

First of all you and Kate have clicked. You've taken the time to listen to her and get a sense of where she's at and what will help her. 

Denise put her finger on the most important part of the student--teacher relationship: Teachers pay close attention to the learner, what they do successfully and what can move them along. This might seem easy, and teachers do get better at it with time, but it is not a simple matter. It takes knowledge of the learner herself, knowledge of how literacy learning develops, in this case, and a deep understanding of child development. Kidwatching is a strength I've developed over years of teaching.

You've also given us books that we both enjoy and that she can read--books that are more interesting and fun than the simple leveled books ...  

Kate is also very focused on the "level" she reads, and she can tell you where every single kid in the class is reading ... "so and so is a C" or a D, or a J. Reading other books beside the little level readers has helped her see that she's a better reader ...

The next key--engaging books! This can be such a challenge for early readers. Kate benefits from some reading of the simple leveled books, but no classroom collection of these books can provide enough variety to keep kids' interest over time.  Kate had not yet read the "E" level assessment text at 96% accuracy, so most of her Independent Reading books came out of the "D" tub of books. 

The primary team of teachers did dedicate some of their book budget to sets of higher quality leveled books (longer length, better stories, and pricier) to use with small instructional groups and I pulled from those during the time I read with Kate. But it was so important to find other books that she and mom could enjoy. 

I've written previously about the importance of providing different kinds of reading experiences for young readers. Denise reads aloud to Kate regularly, which is one of the most important contributions a family can make. Then some Independent Reading with the leveled books. Kate could read some E, F, and G books despite not being able to "pass" the pesky E assessment text.

Two readers enjoying Elephant & Piggie
But what really engaged Kate, and re-engaged her interest in reading, was Shared Reading. I carefully chose the books--Elephant & Piggie, Fly Guy, and Fox--and encouraged Denise to read the book aloud to Kate first, and then for the two of them to read the book together. Elephant & Piggie books, with character speech bubbles, just cry out for two readers. The dialogue is full of the kinds of "sight words" that too many kids are practicing on lists or flashcards, and the illustrations draw kids in to look more closely. They read for meaning, rather than practice. Fly Guy is clever. Fox is a crazy dude. When kids read these books, with just a little support from us, they forget they're reading. Exactly what Kate needed. Soon Kate was reading them on her own. Elephant & Piggie (level G+), Fly Guy (levels H-I), Fox (level I-J). 

Here's another point that is key. These books might be challenging, but because they are also longer and well-written, readers will gain more information about the story as they read. That helps them problem-solve on their own with very little support from us. Stay tuned for the next post which will includes videos of kids doing just that!

Kate can also be quiet. She kind of goes with the flow, and sometimes that means she can get lost in the shuffle. Her time with you really turned that around.

Kate is quiet and it took me time to get to know her within a group of 4-5 other kids who were more energetic and demanding of my attention. She was much like Maris, whose reading I describe in the kinds of reading post. Imagine the demands on teachers with 25, 29, maybe 30 kids. Kids like Kate are often overshadowed in the everyday hustle and bustle of a classroom. 

Kate did begin to bloom in our small group, but we experienced the most success when Kate and I read together while Denise watched, then followed my lead at home. Not only could Denise give her the kind of support she needed, Kate's sense of self-efficacy--her sense that "I can do this" and "I am a reader"--grew day by day. All of us contributed to Kate's success.

You made it more fun, quite frankly, and you were so accurate when you said that readers will lose the flow of the story if you focus so much on individual words. You let me know that ... it was okay for me to read along with her in some parts. I learned to lighten up a little.

Exactly. When reading becomes a burden, or a challenge, it's time to mix it up. My first suggestion to parents or tutors is to read the full book to the child first. (I liken this to asking someone to play a piece a music without ever having heard it first. Imagine. So read the book aloud first.)  If the book is in the ballpark of the reader's skill, that one reading will launch them into reading it with little support. If it's still tough and the reader wants to read it, subtly share the reading. Try to read in phrases, rather to supply single  words you predict are too difficult. Or find a better book!

Our short time together last spring and this summer--maybe 4-5 hours in total--helped all of us. Kate is learning she's a skilled reader. Denise is learning to trust her instincts and is expanding her repertoire of ways to help Kate. And I'm refining my kidwatching, for no two learners are ever the same. It's why I love this work.