Taking Risks and Building Confidence
Have you ever taught a child who came to school and almost everything they encounter feels like a risk? Maybe this happens because they don’t want to be wrong. Maybe they don’t have confidence in themselves. Maybe they still don’t trust all these new people and new experiences. Maybe they think they are supposed to know how to do something even before they try. Or maybe it’s something else entirely. But for children who are experiencing it, this feeling can leave them with a sense of helplessness, a sense that doing nothing may be the safer bet. I believe that children, no matter their age, or grade, or developmental skill level, are already literate. And sometimes there is a tension between what I believe children are capable of and what they believe about themselves.
That tension can be a tricky one to navigate. I hope to help children see how capable I know they are. I make the choice not to do anything for them, but try to support them to see they also aren’t doing any of it alone. I hope to contribute a new story to their narrative of themselves that they don’t yet see. If a child asks me to write down his or her story, I’ll probably tell them no, that I know they can do that work, but I can be available to help if they get stuck. If a child asks how to spell a word, I usually respond by saying, “Which part do you need help with.” I want children to see me as a resource who they can come to when they need support, but I also want them to know I’m not going to do their work for them. I want to help them discover the surprises that can come from just giving something a go. And although this is never my intention, sometimes those responses can leave them feeling more frustrated or shut down.
I want to introduce you to Mikey, a first-grader new to Opal School this year. I have a lot of questions about Mikey as a learner, about his previous experiences at his last school, and about his experience at school so far this year. Mikey is an incredibly curious child who asks questions about how and why things work or happen the way they do all day long. He loves to work with materials, to create and build, and to explore and share new ideas. Coming to school has seemed to be an adjustment for Mikey after his summer schedule at home. He often tells me after lunch how tired he is and that he can’t do any more work. After whole group meetings when others leave ready for the next step, Mikey will often ask, “What are we doing?” Attending to a conversation with this many people involved seems to be something Mikey has never done before. In Story Workshop, Mikey loves to create stories with the materials and is incredibly engaged and eager to begin. When it comes to capturing those stories on paper he often tells me, “I can’t do that. I don’t know how.”
The first story he found at Story Workshop this year, he found using loose-part collage materials and kinetic sand. When I invited him to capture that idea in a book, he said he didn’t want to because he didn’t know how. I asked him to give it a go and sat with him as he made a plan for what he might do on the first page.
Here is his book:
We celebrated his work and I pointed out to him that he created an entire book even after he said he didn’t know how. The next day he began creating a story about a volcano. When asked to add a title to his story, he again replied, “I don’t know how.” Again, I sat with him and told him I knew he could and that I would be there to support him if he got stuck. And without much support at all, he wrote his title, “The Volkano.”
Mikey continued to add illustrations to his volcano story and I encouraged him to have a go at writing the words. He said again that he didn’t know how and I said that I didn’t expect him to know how – I just expected him to give it a try. When a teacher was sitting right next to him, he would have a go and was showing me that he was completely capable of doing what I was asking him independently. But without a teacher by his side, he refused. One day during Invitation and Negotiation, Mikey said he wanted to write the words but he needed me to help. I said I would help get him started and then come back and check in with him again. He replied, “I’m not doing it unless you sit with me.” I was worried about the pattern we seemed to be getting in. I want Mikey to know that I will be there to support him, but I also want him to know he is capable. I told Mikey that I loved sitting with him and watching him work on his story but there were lots of other kids who needed my support too. And I reminded him there were lots of other authors working around him who would be willing to help if he needed it.
For two days I checked in with Mikey about writing the words to his volcano story and for two days he did almost nothing but continue to add color to the illustrations he had already finished. I continued to encourage him to give it a go and he continued to tell me he couldn’t. The next day Mikey said he had a new story about a pumpkin. I said I was excited to read it and was incredibly surprised when Story Workshop ended and Mikey had independently written all of this:
The Mystery Jack-o-Lantern
There was a boy.
The boy said, “Boo!”
His brother cried.
The boy gets a pumpkin.
His jack-o-lantern became alive!
I’m not entirely sure what supported Mikey to be willing to give it a go. And I don’t expect that Mikey will always be willing to give it a go now either. But this time he did. And I will continue to try and support Mikey to build his confidence as a writer. Based on my experiences with Mikey, here are some of the things I’m considering as I think about planning and moving forward:
- As a group, we will continue to use the language of “give it a go” and celebrate when children are doing that. An “I’m Not Afraid of My Words” chart will live in our classroom to highlight the attempts children are making at spelling words they don’t know. On the chart, we will pair those attempts with the conventional spelling as a way to celebrate all they did know about that word when they gave it a go, along with now having a reference for the conventional spellings of words they are actually using in their writing.
- We will use mentor texts – published books that support us to consider how the author crafted their own story, to inspire and imitate what we might do in our own writing. I think this strategy will be particularly helpful to Mikey because it will allow him to have an author sitting right by his side, even when a teacher isn’t available.
- We’ll continue to reflect on our processes as writers. The role of reflection in Story Congress is something that we will come back to again and again. I’ll invite children to reflect on the intentions they set for themselves, on when they took a risk or tried something new, on the goals they set for themselves as writers, and on their own personal growth over time.
What do you notice in Mikey’s story? Does it remind you of children you are working with?