I'm Cynthia McCallister. I began my teaching career as an elementary school teacher in Maine. My first year as a fifth-grade teacher was an uncomfortable blur. But my second year as a kindergarten teacher is still a happy glow in my memory.
I was filling in for a teacher who was on pregnancy leave. I'd never taught kindergarten before, and didn't feel any pressure to conform to the tedious and restrictive Alphabet People curriculum that the teacher in the room next door followed. I was taking a graduate-level ethnography course at the time, and chose the topic of emergent writing for my project. The theory that I was reading gave me confidence that I could depart from a scripted curriculum and let the kids just write whatever they wanted, and they would learn to write and learn about writing, and the system of written language.
I gave my students about 40 minutes a day to go anywhere in the room they wanted, to sit with whomever they chose, to write whatever they wanted, about whatever they wanted, with whatever tool (crayon, pencil), just so long as they wrote. On the first day I demonstrated what writing could look like. I wrote examples like these:
1. You can write like this.
2. or this: DOIEOPJRPOEJMB"OPDJH
3. or this: [i SCRIBBLED TO SHOW THEM THAT THEY COULD DO THAT, TOO]
For compliance purposes, I distributed stupid letter people worksheets and let kids put stickers on them (one of the parents freaked out that their kid wasn't getting worksheets with stickers home like their older sibling had done in kindergarten, so I began the practice to reassure edgy parents). I also briefly taught a letter a week and listed the fact that I'd taught it on my weekly newsletter (See below).
My research was convincing me that the freedom I was giving my students during the in writing time--sitting in groups on the rug, writing inventories of words they knew, playing teacher and rewriting the morning message on the board, dashing around the room playing an action-hero game in which 'werd si nam tab' [drew is batman) is written on small cards and hidden in crevices in blind sight of 'Joker'--were activities that were legitimately building literacy skills. I could see the skills evolving, and I was measuring them. Plus, the kids were happy and having fun. They never wanted writing to end.
I'd sit in one of the miniature oak student chairs and take field notes of the behaviors of my students, noticing things like the 'inventory principle' (when kids take inventory of the words they know by writing them all down on a piece of paper), the 'generative principle,' when kids demonstrate, even when they don't yet know exactly how to write, that they know writing uses the same collection of similar looking marks to generate an infinite range of meaningful words. I noticed the power of social interaction and relationships to take kids beyond their 'levels' and 'categories' to spaces where they could learn from one another. 'Batman,' for example, was a child who could read like a teenager, but was socially awkward. The boy playing the action hero game with him came to school with a great sense of humor and easy way with kids, but not knowing how to hold a pencil and grumpy in academic situations. He sat scowling at me for a week before he finally joined the other kids on the rug for story time. Together these boys learned to use 'writing time' to play, to share social skills and literacy skills.
Kids would write about practical things like their babysitter's house.
And fanciful things like Eyeball Monster (featured image).
The most wonderful memory of my kindergarten year was the daily 'author's chair' time. A veritable ritual, every day two children shared their writing and got feedback from their peers. I would take notes of the feedback given, and used the notes in my research report.
Each week I sent home a newsletter to parents with highlights of the week. You can see in the upper right hand corner of a newsletter from October, 1989, the names of the 10 'Authors of the Week.' (To prevent confusion, I was 'Ms. Rooney for a brief 2 years after I was married and had an identity crisis and changed my name back to my maiden name).
This ritual--what has come to be called The Share--is a practice that I have put into place in every classroom where I have taught and worked with teachers. The Share has been a ritual fixture in the classrooms of over 30 NYC public schools. It has such a powerful force over both the child who shares and the child who listens that I have become a Share zealot. I have learned over the years about the power that the stories we tell have to help us create stronger, more 'agentic' selves in the way our mind's eye sees our selves travel through periods in our life. When kids share their stories, and when they get feedback from kids whose opinions they care about, they have a chance to make tiny, positive adjustments to their narrative 'selves' and to become more whole, agentic, and powerful people in their own minds.
The Share and other practices that I have had the privilege of implementing in classrooms in Maine and New York City are the focus of this website. These practices, and the fruits they've borne, have become a methodology now known as Learning Cultures. Learning Cultures is the constellation of classroom practices that help organize classrooms so that students can be autonomous, feel a sense of relatedness, and get constant competence feedback. They organize classrooms in ways that give students maximal responsibility for their own learning, and have opportunities to connect to their peers in ways that help them develop a stronger sense of well-being.
Learning Cultures has evolved to encompass related methods. One is called Keepers of the Culture--a character education, school culture and discipline program that I developed to support the Learning Cultures academic formats. Students at every grade nominate kids from their class who they think will ‘have their back’ and who would be good ‘Keepers’ of the school culture. These kids meet with kids to help them regulate their emotions and behaviors, identify behaviors that get in the way of being successful, and make goals and commitments in the form of promises.
Another system is called Genre Practice. It's a way to break free from the traditional, linear, 'classical-transmission' units-of-study curriculum. In writing, students are expected to find a purpose, a form or genre they want to write in, examples of texts they want to emulate, and share drafts to get feedback.
I hope you enjoy reading about these practices as much as I've enjoyed participating in creating them.
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In a new e-book, by Cynthia McCallister, is a brief guide to the Cooperative Unison Reading approach. It provides an innovative angle on reading instruction by looking at the reading process as a cooperative human process and applying theories from science that explain cooperation.
McCallister also looks at the reading process as a form of action, as opposed to the accumulation of discrete skills that are accumulated through linearly transmitted instruction.
The book is packed with practical applications of the method to real classroom situations, and comes alive with media assets such as audio and slideshows.
Even if you don't buy the book, you can access a free chapter that provides a training guide to the Cooperative Unison Reading method, led by an expert teacher in the method, Tara Silva.
The book is a companion to the online course, Cooperative Unison Reading/Mindful Reading, found on www.LearningCultures.net.
Visit the book's url and get yourself a copy today!
Summer 2016. A new instructional procedure, developed by Cynthia McCallister, called Integrative Math©, combines elements of Cooperative Unison Reading®: and modes of representation Jerome Bruner presented in his book, Toward A Theory of Instruction (1974). Students use the rules of Unison to read story problems. Then, using manipulatives, crayons, markers, and stories, they integrate enactive, iconic, and symbolic modes of representation, strengthening their mathematical thinking.