What’s Play Got To Do, Got To Do With It? (Answer: Everything)

Chartchums is usually written by Kristi Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli and represents our two voices, and the voices of the teachers we work with. Today a third voice is joining the chorus: Christine Hertz. Christine is an exemplary teacher, and a recent graduate of the Literacy Specialist Program at Columbia University. Christine worked with Kristi in her kindergarten classroom this year, and the post below is a result of their joint collaboration around increasing metacognition, independence, and student ownership in the classroom. The “we” voice will be used to represent the voice of Christine and Kristi.

We are on our third try at the opening paragraph of this post, and the proper beginning still remains elusive. Instead of a clear starting point to the work we did in kindergarten this year, its seems like it started in a million places, like strands of hair, before it gathered into the braid of the post below. So perhaps the best way to start, is with the strands first.

We, as educators and lifelong learners, were worried. New standards, new tests, new materials, new initiatives, new everything it seemed! As we looked between the standards and the children in front of us, some clear areas of need arose. Our children needed increased independence, the ability to think about their thinking, and above all the ownership of their process if they were to navigate their way through increasing sophisticated standards. We knew what we wanted, but as we watched these four and five year olds make meaning in writing, knock over blocks and build them again, and be entranced by a window washer during a particulary well planned standards based lesson, we got even more worried. How does one achieve rigor responsibly? How does one make sure children meet standards joyfully? How do you help children achieve all that they can, all that is asked, without sacrificing the fact they are children?

The standards are here, and children are going to always be children. How do we reconcile seemingly disparate ideas? We cannot will them away, nor can we ignore them, nor can we make children miniature adults by taking away time to play and talk. Rather we have to utilize the very thing that makes childhood special to meet these standards: play.

In our classroom, there was a particular buzz around Star Wars. Choice Time play often involved reenacting of the movies, Lucas-ian plotlines permeated writing workshop, look book time found boys and girls alike huddled around Star Wars books. Simultaneously, the class was nearing a reading unit that focused on using meaning, structure, and visual cues to read books. (A requirement of the Foundational Standards, and also some of the Reading Standards).

In the classroom, we had already begun work around student-led small groups. Students who felt they had achieved expertise in something would offer to hold a small group and children could sign up for it. Through her masters work, Christine had discovered that for children to increase their metacognition and ownership over a skill– for example when to employ a certain strategy– they needed to take on the role of the teacher and control someone else’s use of that same strategy. (This is not a new discovery, but rather follows Vygosky’s theory of the development of self-regulation). We realized that for children to gain an independent mastery of the standards, they needed to be able to teach them to others. And they needed to do so in a imaginative, playful way.

And then it hit us…. like Yoda. We wondered, would it be possible to merge the two things? The love and constant role play of Star Wars and the work these young readers needed to meet the kindergarten standards?

We started the unit solidifying and making public knowledge some very specialized Star Wars information: There are people called Jedis and they train and train and train to become Masters. Some even become so wise that they teach others, like Yoda. Then the path was set  – we would work to become Reading Yodas and we would teach others all we had learned.

We assessed readers prior to the unit, and determined what a reasonable goal might be for each child to achieve in a 3-4 week unit. We then met with the students to set goals, using the child’s language to help him or her begin to own the work.photo-87

Once everyone had a goal (a 2-3 day endeavor) we revisited the path of the Jedi:


We received a little inspiration from the Master himself:

And, of course, light sabers to help us on our quest:


Everything in the unit was themed to Star Wars, including the strategies:


And as children became more and more proficient at the skills needed to reach their goals, they moved to become Yodas. To complete that transformation, the students had to create their own “how-to” around their goal and teach it to us. Once they had successfully taught us their goal, they earned their Yoda ears, and any Jedi could come to learn from them. And, of course, every time the newly-eared Yodas taught a Jedi, they solidified their own mastery of their skill.


Here is one Yoda teaching another student about how you have to use the pictures and the words to really understand what is happening in the book:


Within three weeks, all the children were able to teach their goal to someone else clearly and had earned their Yoda ears.

image_3The time had come to celebrate, and celebrate we did with a phone call from Yoda himself:


We wrapped with a party and everyone took home their Yoda ears and a Star Wars book, but what remained was a very particular stance towards reading. Weeks after the unit ended I heard one student say to another, “It’s like Yoda said, do hard things you can.”

Within the unit a few things struck us:

– Engagement: there was no lag between minilesson and independent reading time. Students rushed to read and were emphatic about practicing their goals. By the end of the unit, the goal sheets were tattered and ripped from use, which is a good thing.

– Ownership: there was an increased confidence in students around their particular skill, and a sense of others having skills you could learn from. In shared reading, one student shouted out, “Yoda Jacob should chop that word – he’s the expert!”

– Joy: Yes, it was a word solving unit, no, no child realized that. There were no dittos to fill out or graphic organizers, rather there was the unadulterated pleasure of role playing being a Jedi, and later being a Yoda who taught others.

– Movement between levels: Not surprisingly, within this unit 18 out of 24 students moved up one reading level. They read and they worked passionately, without complaint – because they thought they were playing.

For your class it may be Star Wars, or Angry Birds, or Dora, but there is SOMETHING that your class is passionate about. Something that permeates the culture of your class and seeps out at choice time or around the lunch table or on the playground. It is our job as educators to find the joy, the play, and the access point for young children to achieve sophisticated standards. Our kids can do all that is asked of them and more, but only if we are creative and passionate enough to hold on to play and to redefine rigor.

Happy Charting, and Happy Playing!

Kristi, Christine, and Marjorie

Chartchums, Not Just For Literacy Anymore

Hello again! Thank you everyone for your warm wishes and positive feedback on our webcast on Education Talk Radio with Larry Jacobs! If you did not have a chance to hear it, or would like to hear it again (and again and again) you can find it archived here.

We here at Chartchums have been busy; Marjorie just presented at a literacy conference in Boca Raton, Florida and Kristi has been ear deep in fingerpaint and emergent literacy. One of the wake up calls for Kristi as she moved back into the classroom has been the world beyond literacy. Social studies? Math? But there is one constant that carries through them all: if you want children to remember what you have taught, and work independently, you need charts. As you look through these charts, you will see many of the themes we have discussed in literacy charts: clarity, use of visuals, and color. The fundamentals of useful successful charts remain the same regardless of content.Here are some thoughts, ideas, and snapshots from Kristi and her wonderful Kindergarten classroom at PS 59.

Choice Time Workshop

PS 59 in Manhattan operates under the wise direction of principal Adele Schroeter and assistant principal Alison Porcelli.  Along with being brilliant, thoughtful, and ethical leaders, Adele and Alison are former early childhood educators that believe strongly in the power and impact of play. Play is not separate from learning, play IS learning. You can learn more about making the most of play in Alison’s book, coauthored with Cheryl Tyler, entitled A Quick Guide to Boosting Language Acquisition in Choice Time available for purchase here. Part of the beauty of choice time is the way it mirrors the work happening in reading and writing. We use the same words: plan, revise, build stamina, and it follows the same structure: short lesson, followed by ample time to create, then a share at the end.

Choice Board

Children select their center on the choice board (the photo shows the top half, cardboard construction is an additional center on the bottom half – not pictured). The top section has the rug colors and matches the children’s rug spots. The order of the color squares indicates the order of the children choosing centers and rotates daily. Children stay in their center for 45 minutes. The pictures, routine, and daily  use of this tool make it one that can be used independently by children.

The Play Routine

What makes choice time different, is that we ask children to plan with their centers before they play. Children in the same center gather on the rug and decide what they will create, what they will need, and who will take each part. In the cardboard construction center children recently made a 6 foot long double decker bus, with one child working on the outside, one working on the steering wheel and buttons, one working on seats, and the final child making signs for each stop: Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty, etc. These plans often undergo revision, which is a wonderful analogy to share with children in writing. “Remember when you realized you didn’t have enough room to make the zoo in blocks so you moved it? That’s kind of what we do in writing workshop when we add more pages!” The simple language and accompanying text make it easy for children to use. It also mirrors the reading and writing routine charts in the room, making it three times as successful.

Building a Skyscraper

Social Studies

Part of the kindergarten curriculum is learning about community. One aspect of community is finding ways to work and live together. I learned about the “problem scale” from my brilliant colleague Kat Cazes. Kat is incredibly thoughtful when developing tools and charts for children.

Problem Scale

The problem scale has two parts: the type of problem (glitch, bummer, and disaster) and ways to solve these problems. This scale is hanging in the Solution Center (salushen chenter). When two or more children encounter an issue, they bring it to this area and talk it out. There is a classroom job called “Peacemaker” who assists in solving problems. There are clear pictures, and color coding to help children understand the severity of each problem. Glitch is green because it is simple to solve. Bummers are yellow/orange, because you have to slow down and take some time to solve them. Disasters (like a volcano) are red because everything stops to solve them. Each step to solve problems is simply illustrated to assist in independence in this area.

Above are two children sorting out a “bummer” in the solution center. Nearby are speech bubbles with kind words and pictures that might be helpful when solving problems. This helpful reminder is just to the left of the two boys:

“Use Words”

This sign was made during choice time at the art center by a child who wanted to make a gift for the class. Interestingly enough, she made a companion sign that said “No grabbing” in red (the opposite of this green sign), already using some of the color cues in the classroom and the world.

Social Studies and Science Inquiries

Another beautiful aspect of PS 59 is the emphasis on learning through inquiry. Valerie Geschwind, an incredibly smart, talented and accomplished teacher sets a beautiful model of using inquiry in the primary classroom. In her school study she has taken her class on several trips to the main office, even bringing back a walkie talkie the children can study and sketch over time. Valerie also has recurring “Think Tanks” where her kindergarteners gather around and talk about what they are learning about the school. Together she and the other members of the K team developed a chart for children to teach them more about the process of inquiry or investigation. Accompanying this version of a chart is an arrow that helps the class track their way through their investigation.

The Inquiry Process

The simplicity of language, clear and consistent picture cues, and color choice helps this chart become a tool for children. For more information on the inquiry process in the primary classroom, you may want to check out Young Investigators, available for purchase here.

Writing Workshop

Below are a few classroom charts emphasizing the importance of drawing in writing workshop. We at chartchums cannot emphasize enough the importance of spending time studying and teaching drawing to writers. The work children do when representing a scene in pictures is no different than the work they do when composing with words later on. Katie Wood Ray has a beautiful book on this subject called In Pictures and In Words.

The “We Can Draw” Chart

Each of these lessons was taught on the dry erase board, and then the chart was made from student work that was generated during writing workshop. These skills are on paper with restickable glue so they can be removed for close study by the other writers in the room. Once children began attending to the subtleties of the illustrations in read alouds and in their own books, they began innovating in their own books. “Dreaming” came about this way when a child saw it in a book, and recreated it for herself with no direct instruction besides, “Writers study other writers for ideas”

This student is an English language learner who does not yet write conventionally, but through an emphasis on drawing as a  representation of ideas, she has clearly communicated a scene. This book was made after several short lessons that emphasized drawing. Note the movement up the stairs, the backs of the people watching, and the thoughtful and intentional use of color. Many of these things were modeled repeatedly on class stories, taught in short lessons, and noticed in books.

This  chart deals directly with writing stories. The big ideas are simple and uses one word for easy reading. The color coding helps children identify what the big idea looks like in context. The post-its were put up by children to indicate the thing they wanted to work on that day. This chart has been reread many times in shared reading and also referenced during reading workshop to increase “stickiness”. Katie Lee, Mollie Gaffney, and Kat (three lovely and smart teachers) also have pages from read alouds on their charts. It is beautiful to look at their charts and see a child’s work right next to a a page from Caps for Sale! Kristi also added a photo of this chart in her parent letter as an easy way to let parents know what their children are working on in writing.

And last but not least, developing independence! The above chart started as just drawings and the children helped determine what should be green and what should be red. Accompanying it is a hat that Kristi wears when children need to be working independently: one side is red (closed for business) and that side is up when the she is conferring and meeting with small groups. The other side is green (open for business) which indicates the teacher is available to meet with anyone who needs her. The hat is almost now always worn on the red side, as children’s independence and confidence in their own problem solving has increased substantially.
Keep your eyes peeled for future math charts, guest posters, and even a book giveaway! As always, send us charts so we can share them with the world.

Until next time, happy charting!
Kristine Mraz and Marjorie Martinelli

PS: For all our Canadian friends and followers you can now order Smarter Charts from:  pearsoncanadaschool.com