Opal School closed in 2021. You can continue to access these resources for free at teachingpreschoolpartners.org/resource-library/.

Cracking Open Big Words

of learning to live in a healthy community is learning to understand that experience leads to the development of difference and perspective. Difference
is a vital part of what makes a community whole, and learning to expect and
value varied perspectives makes the life of a community a vibrant place of
welcome. Children at Opal School learn early on not to take words for granted.
The worlds that live in words for the members of a community can be vastly
different. We have developed a practice of “cracking open” words in order to
see what lives inside for each child.

 The following
transcript allows you to listen in while Caroline and the 3 and 4 year olds in
her class “crack open” the big word Transformation:

Caroline: I am going to
write a big word on this board.  We
are wondering: Do you know what transformation is?

Lizzi: It is when
me, Pritam, Clara and Sabatino were playing “Unicorn Transformers”. 

Caroline: Tell us more
about this.

Lizzi:  We pretend we are people and someone
not very nice turns us into unicorns and then someone not very nice turns us
back into people. 

Maxine: It is when
Clara, Anika and me played princesses. 
Someone not very nice killed us. 
Then a nice person came along made us be alive again.

Caroline: Which part
was transformation? 

Maxine: When we were

Caroline: So it sounds
like a few of you agree that to transform is to change into something
else.  And that this is done by bad
people.  Does everybody agree with

kids say that they agree and some say that they disagree]

Caroline: If you are
disagreeing, what do you think?

Pritam: Animals can
transform people into other animals.

Caroine: Do you need
magic to transform?

some say yes and some say no]

Anika: Maybe you
need a magic wand.

then just begin softly offering up their ideas about this]

a magic hat, magic flower, star, snowflake, butterfly, ladybug, lion, dress,
bell, tree…

begins to become about thinking up new possible avenues for magic]

sunglasses, muffin, shoes, cape, marker…

Caroline : I want you
think about the natural world.  Are
there things in nature that transform?

Annabelle: The sky turns
into different colors and the clouds change too.

Clara: A bumblebee
can turn into a car.

Maxine: No!

Lizzi: A flower
starts as a little seed.

Pritam: A caterpillar
turns into a butterfly.

Lou: Trees turn
into different colors.

Maxine: When old
people die…

Clara: They go back
to the earth.

Lizzi: I think
Maxine is talking about that people live and then they…

Pritam: …transform
into animals.

Lizzi: Maxine, are
you talking about how people live and then transform into dead people?

Maxine: Yes, what
Lizzi said.  People don’t turn into

Lizzi: Some people
imagine that.

Pritam: I imagine
that I was an animal and that I turned into a person.

Lizzi: I think
Pritam said it backwards.  I think
when people die they turn into dirt or part of the world.

Pritam: No
Lizzi.  What I meant to say was if I
was an animal and I died, I might turn into an animal or a person.

Lizzi:  You might believe that.  Some people might believe something

Annabelle: People die
and come back to life as God.  I
learned that from my mom at the Grotto a couple of days ago.  I’m talking about Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!

Even the very youngest children have developed vast
worlds inside the words we use with them that deserve to be opened and shared
with the community of the classroom. The children learn to be curious about one
another, and to expect these differences to be present, to enrich their own
experience, and to help them know more about what makes them unique. Being
curious and open to other perspectives can help you learn to know and value your own.

In the
next section, Levia reflects on the experience of “cracking open” words with
her 10 and 11 year old students. As the children learn to see themselves as
authors, the value of understanding the power of words becomes even stronger:

“On the
first day of school the first thing that I wanted was my own Writer’s
Notebook.  Then on Wednesday I was thinking, okay, maybe Levia forgot so I
gave her one more day, and on Thursday she gave me my Writer’s Notebook. 
That’s all for

on the third day of school, I gave the Opal 4 students their Writer’s

As a
teacher of young writers, I wonder, how do an author’s tools of the trade look
in our learning community?  How do Writer’s Notebooks support
writers?  How will my students develop a relationship with their notebooks
and with themselves as writers and how intertwined is the tool with the
writer’s developing craft?

I have learned that the best place to start to look for answers to big questions
like these is with the young writers themselves.

open” is a technique we use to look deeply inside a word or an idea to see what
gems might live inside.  Think of a geode – it looks like a plain rock on
the outside, but when you crack it open, you find beautiful crystals.

Just before
I handed the notebooks I asked the class, “What happens when you crack open
‘Writer’s Notebook’?”

Here is what came up: Moments of happiness,
memories, crack open and play with words, mini-lesson, schema, metacognition,
ideas you don’t want to forget, stories, strong emotions, sketches about the
words, fantasy, words and punctuation, poems, thoughts, lists, private
thoughts, memoir, knowledge, seeds, small ideas that might grow, treasure
words, early morning writing time, daily page, taking notes, catch time and
never forget like a spider’s web

And while
you might find all of those words and strategies in a Writer’s Notebook, there
is a bit of wonder in there as well:

writer’s notebook is special.  It can catch time and never forget like a
spider’s web.”

As I sat
ready to give the students their new notebooks, I showed them the first,
pristine, blank page and shared my connection to it.  I love the first
page.  I love the way the pen moves on it, like skating on an ice rink
just after the Zamboni has been there.  I love how clean and uncluttered
the writing space feels and I love how clear the words on the first page
appear.  To me, the first page is full of promise – the promise of an
empty notebook. 

I asked
them to reflect in writing this time: What promises does your Writer’s Notebook
hold for you?

Here are
some of the responses I found – all on the first page:

“I hope
my Writer’s Notebook takes me around the world”.

“The wind
keeps blowing

. The
sun keeps shining. 
Life goes on.” Maxx

notebook will hold all of my thoughts.  It will be a friend that keeps
secrets; it will catch important moments and memories in time.  It will
tell stories, and it will comfort me when I’m sad.  It will never disagree
with what I think.  And it will always listen.

It will
never make me sad, but it will help me be happy by listening.  It won’t
make fun of or insult me.  A notebook is a silent friend that only a
writer can talk to.  “           


This Notebook Promises me This Year

  1. I
    hope it makes me a better writer.
  2. I
    hope it gets me through the school year.
  3. It
    promises pages to write in.
  4. It
    provides something to do when I’m bored.
  5. Something
    to get bored doing.



“I want a
light to come on in here, 
light to inspire, to give emotions, feelings and more.

 And maybe one day
my dream will come true.

” Kaia

“I hate
the first page of my Writer’s Notebook because if you mess up your notebook
could be ruined and you just don’t know what to write and you get the notebook
and since I have filled up most of my notebooks with doodles and other stupid
stuff and sometimes I even rip out the first page.  My favorite page is
the seventh page ‘cause you’re already done with your first page and when you
get to the seventh page you’ve probably already ruined your first page.                        

First Page…

for This Year.

turning into words under my pencil. 
Then to sentences. Flowing,

 Filling page after page with memories, stories, words,
much more as well.” 

In the
following snippet of a reflection, Levia mentions the use of the strategy of
“cracking open” to dive deeper into a concept we might otherwise take for
granted: water. She writes:

magical happened today.  The entire learning community stepped into the
story of Oregon History and we all became protagonists in the drama.  How
did that happen today?

We had
materials all over the tables from yesterday, when we were constructing the
three sections of the Oregon Trail that we have been studying.

We heard
another story from The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt where the
pioneers cross the Snake River and two men drowned. 

discussed the power of water again by cracking open WATER and hung the idea web
on the wall. 

shared a connection:  My grandparents live by the Umpqua River.  It’s
so fast and dangerous.  A boy drowned in the river.  He lost his
footing and it just sucks you in.  His body popped up downstream and it
was all swollen and puffy.

words that lived inside the word WATER in the context of their history study:
treacherous, not enough, too much, dangerous, powerful, destroys, stories,
cold, current, survival, makes you lose stuff and loved ones, need it to drink,
health, travel, healing, glistening, Oregon Trail, Eastern Oregon Desert.


studying history or science, reading, building community—any interaction within
a group – it can be incredibly powerful to take the time to uncover the worlds,
influences, images that are living inside the words we use. Maybe what we think
they mean isn’t all there is? Might what someone else knows makes the world
you perceive more beautiful?

Return to Contents


7 responses to “Cracking Open Big Words

  1. Catch time and never forget like a spider’s web…that’s pure poetry from Abigail. I hope her love of words continues and that she continues to be fed and inspired by this teacher who so beautifully introduced the Writer’s Notebook by having the students think about the promise that lies within, beginning with the first pristine sheet.

  2. I think that the effort to capture students’ language at Opal School encourages its continued development. In many ways, it’s about the poetic empathy that was discussed at this summer’s NAREA conference – a way of creating meaning and accessing ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible.

  3. I was inspired to hear Abigail’s process. As I read I was thinking about how the concept of “cracking open a big word” could be used with adults. It would be so interesting to work through some of the more traditional words we use as well as the ones that have come to us via the Reggio inspiration. I’m considering how to offer this as Pedagogista to our center’s staff.

  4. Hi, rockfairy, “cracking open a big word” is a great way to create shared meaning among adults. It can also be a great way for a staff to start uncovering the assumptions they have about words that you all might use every day – words that define your school culture. How will you decide which word to try first? Are there words that you notice the teachers using that carry a lot of power but are maybe not used consistently? Some that are popping into my mind: listen, community, atelier, follow the child…

  5. Hi Opal Onliners! Being an Opal School teacher, I have read this article a few times, and every time i uncover something new! As a preschool teacher, these conversations of “cracking words open” is one of my favorites. It is fun to dig deep with children, chew on interesting ideas and create shared meanings. Here is a little wondering for participnats: what does creating shared meaning and cracking words open look like in your classroom?

  6. I love cracking open words – I find it mind blowing in all areas of my life. Just getting to hear how someone else envisions something I take for granted is so refreshing and allows me to remember how much each of us walks through the world through our eyes, our brain and our schema. I feel like sometimes I wait for just the right word, just the right time but reading this again makes me want to just choose a word and crack it open with my class for practice, for fun, to learn as much about ourselves and each other as we might learn about the word. As a teacher in the Early K in Opal School, some words in my class right now might be adventure, transformation, taking care, parent. What words live big in your class right now? What word would you crack open? Why not try it?

  7. What a beautiful metaphor for discovery and curiosity! It invites and engages without judgement or criticism. I feel so privileged to read the 1st page words of the children, and I am so happy that you also shared Senan’s words and thoughts, as they are just as valuable and important.

Comments are closed.