The Ottumwa Courier

February 10, 2014

Ottumwa's young authors

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Kindergarten is no longer about spending an entire school day playing.

On Monday, the Ottumwa school board heard an example-filled report from five kindergarten teachers. Their Kindergarten Literacy Achievement program focused on the writing children have been doing.

"They have the most diverse [levels of] learners," said Superintendent Davis Eidahl. "Some who can read well, and others who can't recognize [any] letter in their name."

The teachers said with the program they've been using, kids have already made what would be a year of progress under the old way of doing things. Putting the book pages on an overhead projector, they explained how some of the children, who started barely knowing their letters, are writing words and placing them in preset sentences.

Just like adults, they may write well, but skip an occasional word. One example Monday night: "I like snow. I like snow man. I like to sledding."

The patterns may sound simplistic. They are. They're meant to free a learner so they can write their ideas down, practice writing sentences and progress to more complex writing. They're similar to the pattern books children read. A child who believed he could not write sentences didn't know quite where to start.

When presented with a pattern, said Melanie Dalbey, the student really started writing.

"It was like a weight was lifted off his shoulders," she told the board. "They love to be able to tell their story."

A "book" by one child talked about waking up sick in the night, the family calling 911, an ambulance ride to the hospital, getting shots from a doctor, staying at Grandma's house, Mom and Grandma paying a bill at the hospital: All part of a true story recalled and written over a three-week period, said her teacher.

Teachers Heidi Owens and Shanee Aljets said after so many years in the classroom, they tend to know what kids mean. In other cases, they'll ask the children to tell them the story in the book they've authored.

"Sometimes I'll take a few notes so I [remember] what it's about," said Aljets.

Owens had asked what children might do if they, like the students in Atlanta, suddenly found themselves having to spend the night at school? First, the class talked about such a situation. One child addressed the lack of food.

She drew a picture showing she would go to "hive stashin."

She'd been there before, apparently, and if stuck at school, she'd get the cold, bottled water as well as popcorn.

"That," explained her teacher, "is the Hy-Vee Gas Station."

By the time all the books had been read, the kindergarteners thought the sleepover could be great fun.

"They kept asking when we were going to do that," said the teacher.

Yet Owens wanted her students pattern to include both what they would like, and what they would not like. The girl who'd seen the treats at the gas station wrote, "I would not like to miss my mom and dad."

Aljets said the difference in progress is "amazing" to see.

"When I started teaching kindergarten 17 years ago," she said, "my [mentoring teacher] told me it would be fine if the kids went [into first grade] knowing how to write their name, the alphabet, start sounds (like the 'a' in 'apple'). As a teacher ... and a mother, it's amazing, they can read and write [words and sentences]."

Teachers say the kindergarten children are proud of what they've written, and now they are more confident when it comes to additional writing. One teacher said as she starts to move on to another task, she had to pull the kids away from writing their stories. They share them with classmates and family.

"They also like to share them with principals," said a smiling Dana Warnecke, the Eisenhower Elementary School principal.

By the time children get to first grade, teachers now expect them to be able to read simple words, write simple sentences and be ready to advance their learning. While she said first-grade teachers will appreciate the work of the kindergarten teachers, their efforts will not make the first-grade teachers' job too much easier.

"First-grade teachers have had the bar raised for their classes as well," said Warnecke.

News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark