National Writing Project

Write from the Start: A Teacher Research Project

By: Mary Racicot
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1
Date: Winter 2002

Summary: With her kindergarteners, Racicot make use of a home journal plan and the "Visiting Writers' Club" to lead all involved through unfamiliar territory.


Through a home-school journal project, teacher Mary Racicot seeks to create a strong connection between home and school for her students. Because she is working with kindergartners — students who by virtue of age have little writing history from which to draw — Racicot begins her project in the murkiest of writing places — the beginning. With new students, new writers, and an emerging writing community, the project is full of "firsts" that take all involved into unfamiliar territory.

Driving down the alley between the school and the old convent takes some maneuvering. Usually one has to put down the coffee and place both hands on the wheel or risk rolling over the broken bottles left by the homeless who routinely rummage through the dumpster. Although the building is over a hundred years old, it has the distinct advantage of bulletproof windows, a welcome donation. Unfortunately, bulletproof glass doesn't let in the sunshine. Teachers vie for rooms with the oldest windows, because even though the wind blows through, we know without a doubt that the sun is present at least a few days a week. This is where I teach.

Although the school, which is in Boston, is almost all white, culturally it is quite diverse. It is located in an economically depressed neighborhood, and many of our students live in low-income housing developments. In the mid-1990s, US News and World Report identified this section of the city as the number one white slum in America. Many students suffer the effects of family issues caused by alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and the impact of single parenting.

During my first two years as the kindergarten teacher, I realized that to meet my students' needs, it was imperative that I communicate with parents, guardians, and extended family members. I conducted a survey to learn about the cultural backgrounds of my students, including family origins, household composition, and educational backgrounds of parents or guardians. Through this and routine phone calls, I was able to identify cultural differences and have a better understanding of the needs of each student.

Despite the daily struggles faced by many of these families, one factor remained constant and evident; nearly all possessed a heartfelt interest in their children's education. Each morning, as parents dropped off their children, conversations would revolve around what was happening both at home and within the classroom. It was clear that parents or grandparents were eager to talk about the education of their children. The importance of connecting families to the classroom was evident . . . and worthy of further research.

When I Started My Research

As my research into creating a home-school connection unfolded, I knew that I wanted to focus on kindergarten students' writings. I began taking extensive field notes during in-class journal time as well as sharing time. As I reviewed samples of student writing and raw notes of conversations with parents, I focused on three emerging categories: teacher-student interactions during writing time, learning to write, and home connections to lessons.

At the same time, I began to make journal observations and found myself listening more acutely to what was being said by both students and parents. I specifically recall a day when the children were sharing detailed stories ranging from shopping for Christmas trees to naming their favorite teddy bears.

Kyl said, "When I got the Christmas tree, my mother made a gingerbread man to put on it, and it felled and it breaked."

Anna stated, "My teddy bear's name is Luka, but in Albanian it means `star.' Rainy comes up to play with me every night." I asked her who Rainy was and she went on. "He's my friend, and he's eleven, and we play tag." Anna also told us that Rainy was Albanian. When I asked the children what kinds of stories we were sharing, Anna said "home stories."

I needed to tap into this rich home connection. "What happens when I incorporate a home journal plan with my kindergarten students?" became my focus of inquiry. Home journals would provide an opportunity to welcome parents into the classroom and to extend the classroom boundaries into the home. So, I sent a note home in January announcing that a home journal plan would be starting and asking that children write at least three times a week with a parent or other family member and return the journals to school each Thursday.

Immediately, my dialogue with parents each morning and afternoon focused on home journal time with the children. Although parents expressed a keen interest in the journal, some wanted to know how to start; others were experiencing difficulties motivating the children to write. From our talks, I developed a subset of questions pertaining to choices of topic, strategies, and wonderings about what kinds of information would come my way from parents. In pursuing answers to these questions, I interviewed a colleague who taught first grade, asking about her strategies for getting student writing.

"I'm not looking for perfection," she responded, "but bravery, and a little bit of courage. Bravery, in the sense that they dare to put that pencil onto the paper and do their best to use their letters to represent sounds that they hear." Those words stayed with me every time parents expressed concerns about how to work with their children.

What Happened When Ms. M. Began Writing with Sean

Ms. M. is a working mom. Although she arrives with Sean at least twenty minutes late each morning (because she has to rely on a bus to get to work), she maintains a constant routine. She helps Sean hang up his coat and put his lunch on the bookcase. Then, after giving him hugs and kisses, she waits for me to direct him to a particular activity before leaving. Once Sean has found a comfortable spot in the classroom, she chats with me about his journal time or whatever else may have gone on in the family the night before. Sean is an only child in a two-parent family; a new baby is due in June.

Sean started his journal the weekend before the official start time. He has thirty-nine entries in one journal, and Ms. M. keeps a journal at home for the times I have his journal at school. Of the thirty-nine entries, sixteen are Sean's responses to stories read by his mom. He has written thirteen stories pertaining to extended family activities and ten creative stories of which one story about chores was directly related to a lesson on helping families. Five are, in his words "scary stories."

Sean's first journal entry, dated by mom on January 10, 1999, reads:


Ms. M. writes, "Jesse was in the hospital for heart surgery and when he came home Sean brought him a musical Ernie-doll so he will feel better."

Ms. M. approached the home journal plan by helping Sean with spelling when he wrote. There is no evidence of inventive spelling in his home journal. In school, Sean will use inventive spelling but prefers to spell the word correctly. He takes full advantage of our classroom word-wall. When he started in-class writing in November, Sean needed reminders to write from left to right. Evidently, this was reinforced at home; all journal entries are written from left to right. Observing Sean write in class, I noted that he makes his own margins, and it comes quite naturally now.

In early March, I asked Sean who helped him and what he liked about writing at home. Sean responded, "It's fun when I get to write the date on top. My mom and dad and uncle Frank and auntie Beth help me. My cousin Mike helps me when he is doing his homework; sometimes he helps me spell things I want to spell. I like it when my mom reads me a story at night. I write it an sometimes make up stories."

A week later, I asked Ms. M. if she would share her thoughts of journal time with Sean. She responded in Sean's journal with the following entry:

When writing with Sean, I let him make the decision on what to write about in journal. He enjoys making up a lot of stories. He also writes about books we read together and special days for him. He tells me what he wants to write and asks me how to spell the words. Sometimes he copies the words right from the book. I feel he has benefited from doing a journal because he is spelling a lot of words on his own, by writing them over again. He likes to work independently and gets mad at himself if he makes a mistake. His favorite part of the journal is writing the date and everyday that has a "th" in it.

In the middle of March, Ms. M. commented that while she was correcting Sean about the fact that he wrote a letter backward, he said, "The teacher says it's okay just to write myself." I could see Sean was beginning to assert some independence over his home journal. By the end of that month, there was even more individuality to his writing, as he had started writing "The End" at the end of his stories during in-class writing. Sean's home journal entry on April 14, 1999, reads:

WhEn The OthEr PiGS WERE 

Ms. M. writes: "Sean wrote about a lazy pig who slept the whole day while the other pigs ate their breakfast."

This is Sean's in-class writing dated November 18, 1998:

Fat Mt rs PEGIS

Sean explained, "Mrs. R., this says `Pig is fat. The farmer has a big fat pig.'"

Sean's in-class writing dated April 27, 1999, reads:

thE cat went to the
he WAS Fimnshe WENT
to Get FOD thE END

Sean is currently writing stories with a beginning and ending. He still maintains accurate spelling at home, and it is evident that he has spelling skills beyond those expected of kindergarten students. I support Ms. M. in her findings that he has developed on a consistent basis. The fact that he names so many family members when describing journal time lends credence to the importance of the home-school connection for Sean.

Recently, Sean had to have minor surgery on his hand. Ms. M. told me that as they were wheeling Sean into the operating room, he said, "Well, I won't be able to write in my journal because I'm right-handed." To this he added, "I know they're making cards for me at school." Apparently, although he knew he was unable to write in his journal, Sean was confident that his classmates would communicate with him through cards. It appears Sean has discovered the importance of communicating through writing.

What Happened When Ms. K. Began Writing with Anna

Every morning, Ms. K., a single working mother of two, talks to me about Anna, the stress of being a single parent, and trying to manage child care arrangements. Despite Mrs. K.'s concerns, Anna is creative, cheerful, and was one of my first independent writers.

At the beginning of the journal plan, Ms. K. told me Anna wouldn't write for her at home. For her first journal entry on January 9, 1999, Anna told her mom a story. Ms. K. transcribed the story (below) using correct lettering and punctuation, but Anna copied only one comma and used the lettering she preferred. She also left out the ending "mom and I did arts and crafts."

I went to the stoRe
with my mother AND I
Had fuN, But W heN We CAME hoMe
I got sIck FROM the CAR RiDe
LAteR thAt AfteRNoon I feLt
My . . .

During the following week, Ms. K. had difficulty motivating Anna to write. When Anna did not pass in her journal that second Thursday, I wrote a note to Ms. K. listing specific words that Anna knew. The next morning's journal came in with the words copied. During morning share time, I mentioned to Anna that her mother didn't have to write the story for her. She could do it herself, the way she did in school.

Anna responded, "I was trying to tell her that, but every time she was busy. I like to do it in sentences. I mean I like to write words that I know and draw pictures of them after."

Since late January, Anna has written mainly word lists and factual sentences in her journal. She does most of her creative writing during in-class writing time. In March, after a day spent with a friend whose father worked at a veterinarian's office, Anna's journal contained a few entries about animals. Anna spelled the animal names, and Ms. K. helped with the unfamiliar spelling. When I asked Anna about her journal writing, she said, "I've been writing about my cousins and animals. I write about cats. I'm learning about animals because my friends' dad works at the veterinarians, and he was teaching us all about animals."

Anna discussed the benefits of writing at home and in school. "My mom helps me a lot and says I could write the words that I want to. Well, in school, I like to do it a lot. You help us. It helps me to learn to read."

In April, Anna made two separate entries in her home journal. One read:

My cAt HAd two BABies the cAt Ate 
LEttucE My House is Yellow

On April 27, 1999, this in-class writing was an extension of a poetry lesson. One of the poems was "Sing a Song of People" by Lois Lensky:

Sing sing soNg [To this, Anna added a picture of two girls holding hands.]

Parental Involvement and the "Visiting Writers' Club"

Despite great efforts, some parents were not able to consistently participate in their childrens' journal writing. I needed another approach to embrace these families and was inspired after reading an article about a teacher who had a series of workshops for kindergartners and their parents. I talked to the families about the possibility of having a parent-child writing workshop and, after receiving positive feedback, got the principal's approval.

The children decided what we should call the workshop, who we should invite, and what we should have for a snack. Names varied, but the class finally agreed with Anna, who started with the "Writing Visitors Club" and changed it to the "Visiting Writers' Club." All parents and extended family members were invited. Parents sat with the children and for forty-five minutes talked, shared stories, and wrote. I distributed a survey and journal for the parents to complete.

Mrs. P. wrote, "I found the "Visiting Writers' Club" interesting. I love to do things with my daughter like reading and coloring pictures. I feel that she is benefiting from the different written exercises you have done with her. I think she has learned so much this year. I wish there were more teachers like you."

From Ms. R.: "It helps us to understand what you are teaching, so we can assist at home."

I observed that parents want to be in their children's "territory" and were interested in scheduling another workshop.

March 25: "Second Visiting Writers' Club"

Our class, K2A, invited Ms. H. and her nineteen K2B students to join us for the second workshop. They brought along several family members, and six parents attended from our class. The children wrote and chatted with each other.

Michael, from Ms. H's class, wrote every animal name he recognized on the word-wall, drew an ark around it, and happily explained to Ms. H, "This is Noah's ark with all the animals inside." Ms. H. told me that several of her students still wanted to write after they left our class for dismissal. Ms. H's students are just beginning to do in-class writing and do not write in journals yet.

April 29: "Third Visiting Writers' Club"

This event was best attended. The luncheon provided time for parents and children to talk. Afterword, I handed out an informal survey that read: "Please share a few comments on what you have seen happening in terms of writing and reading with your child, since the journal plan began. This can relate to the home journal or writing club."

Ms. K. responded "Well, I think it's a great idea. But, I have a hard time getting Anna to write. Once I do get her to write she loves it! I have seen a big change with her capabilities to spell and write and she becomes excited when I acknowledge her good work."

The Benefit of Teacher, Parent, and Child Involvement

The journal plan is a success because it is a part of the weekly routine of family life for many of my students. It provides the children with the opportunity to have writing skills reinforced at home, in a loving and encouraging manner. They have benefited from the consistency of writing daily within the classroom, and they now understand the value of cooperation and encouragement within their writing groups.

The home journal plan, along with the "Visiting Writers' Club," is a beginning they will take with them to first grade. The club helped us to build on real home-school connections. We all needed each other to make it work.

About the Author Mary Racicot currently teaches fifth grade science in Needham, Massachusetts, and is a teacher-consultant with the Boston Writing Project.

This article, printed here with permission, was originally published in the Boston Writing Project's Newsletter XVIII (2 and 3).

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