Guest Post: A Special Educator Weighs in on the Writing Workshop

Kathryn Cazes is the type of teacher that you read about in articles and say, “There is no human teacher who can possibly know that much and do that much for her students.” Well, Kathryn Cazes can and does. Kathryn’s kindergarten inclusion classroom nearly gave Kristi a heart attack of joy when she first walked in. There was an independent happy buzz among the students, and all children, regardless of skill level or special need, were engaged in writing workshop aided with well thought out and personalized tools.  Kathryn is here at Chartchums to teach us how to achieve the same for our classrooms, or perhaps give us some tools to help out that one student you worry about in the wee hours of the morning.

Kathryn Cazes has been a special education teacher in kindergarten for the past three years. She spent her first year at PS 59 in a general education kindergarten classroom. Prior to that, she worked for 2 years in a self contained preschool classroom at YAI/NYL Gramercy School. Welcome Kathryn!

Part of what makes the workshop model so successful is it’s strong allowance of differentiation.  It’s during independent work times when the real teaching happens. We regularly confer with children and pull small groups based on needs; often leaving behind small copies of charts or goal sheets for our students to reference while they work. Independent work time should never look the same for each student.  In reading workshop, children have personalized book baggies filled with Just Right Books.  It’s a very easy time of day to differentiate. But, what about Writing Workshop? How can we make it “Just Right” for everyone?

Sometimes we under estimate the sheer amount of executive functioning, aka mental organization, required to be a successful member of a writing workshop.  A child needs to be able to organize their materials, pick and plan a topic, visualize and draw pictures, spell to their best phonemic ability, neatly form letters, spell sight words accurately, stretch their pieces across several pages, remember to put spaces in between their words, decipher when to use upper or lower case letters and use punctuation.  We also ask them to do this confidently and joyfully.  Sometimes the execution of these many components can overwhelm a child, or for a child who already has executive functioning and processing delays, it may simply be too much.

Visual cues and personal schedules are one of my favorite ways provide access to an otherwise overwhelming situation.  Sometimes, children just need to have a finish line in site with clear road markers along the way.

Schedule1The key below explains what each icon means.  The icons used on the schedule were already familiar to my student and the class.  They are the same pictures we used as visual cues on charts and during lessons.

Schedule1a

The above schedule was created for a child who became so fixated on perfect pictures that she completely neglected words. She also had difficulty stretching her work across several pages.  She would pick her topic and then cram everything she possibly could onto her first page.  I made her a schedule that would involve sequencing photos of her engaged in whatever activity she was writing about.  Then, over the next 2 days, she would read her pictures, act out each page, write her words, and reread.  When introducing the schedule, I would meet with her at the beginning of writing and review what the objectives were for the day. Because the symbols were already familiar to her, she was fairly independent with her schedule from the start.  She kept track of her progress by moving a chip with Velcro along the schedule.

The schedule was later modified for another child who needed more support during the planning and preparation process and again for a child who just needed to know that it was okay to do one page a day.

Schedule2aSchedule2b

Schedules can also be made into book format for children who are overwhelmed by seeing the tasks of the upcoming days across one sheet of paper.  The book provides the opportunity to focus on the expectation of one particular day of writing while keeping the other days’ tasks hidden from view.

Schedule3aSchedule3bSchedule3c

But sometimes, a child needs greater support.  I once had a bright, verbal, and enthusiastic boy in my class who presented with significant fine motor delays, impulsivity, distractibility, a low frustration tolerance, and sensory processing delays. Due to these many challenges he was not able to represent his depth of knowledge on paper.

His picture schedule involved him finding his just right paper from the “yellow dot” tray in the writing center.  It provided him the opportunity to set up like any other member of writing workshop while practicing his ability to safely walk from Point A to Point B.  Once he set up, he would complete one page of writing, engage in a word study activity, and then do handwriting practice using the program Handwriting Without Tears developed by occupational therapist Jan Olsen.  In the beginning, his one page of writing consisted of scribbles.  It then evolved into a semi-representational drawing with letter like shapes.  As his letter formation and phonemic awareness improved he began to add labels to pictures. On occasion he would build his pictures using legos, playdough, or clay and we would insert a photograph of his creation to his writing.

Schedule4

Writing schedules are versatile and can cater to many different skill levels and needs.   Before creating a writing schedule, ask yourself, “Why does this child need a schedule?” “What is my goal for this student?” “What steps need to be scaffolded in order for him or her to achieve this goal?” Writing schedules will provide your struggling writers with successful access to the curriculum and increase their confidence.

Thank you Kathryn! Leave comments and questions for Kathryn in the comments below, and until next time,

Happy Charting!

Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

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