This lovely little moment happened the other day in the Oak Class (names of children are changed). I was reading to a group of kids in the recently-revamped Reading-And-Writing corner when Linus (4 years old) came over to show me a drawing he’d made. “Can you write my name on it?” he asked.
“I’m reading right now,” I said, “but there are pencils right here. You could write your own name!” We’ve noticed lately that Linus has been struggling with recognizing letters, so I was curious to see how he’d respond to my suggestion. Sure enough, he said, “I don’t know how to write an L!” But he walked to the pencils as he said it.
“Hm,” I said, “I wonder if any of your friends know how to write an L.”
Zach (3 and a half), who had been listening to the book I was reading, said, “I do!” and stood up. I was excited, because Zach is usually a reserved child, and doesn’t often actively reach out to others. Zach walked over to Linus and asked, “Where do you want it?” Linus pointed to where the L should go.
I went back to reading and watched Linus and Zach out of the corner of my eye. Zach wrote an L, but wrote it with kind of curved lines, and they debated whether it looked like an L or not. Linus said he knew how to make an I and he wrote it himself. Then he told Zach what the rest of the letters were (up to that point, I wasn’t sure Linus knew all the letters in his name). Linus took the picture away, and proudly showed it to another teacher. When I found the drawing later, I could see a clear LINSS.
There are a lot of reasons I was excited about this interaction. First, it was a powerful moment of literacy learning for Linus. We can tell kids how to write, but things often “stick” better when they come from another child. I could see Linus leaning in and watching carefully as Zach was writing, taking it all in. And the debate about whether an L can have curvy lines? That wouldn’t have happened between him and a teacher—he would probably have just accepted the teacher’s version. The disagreement really made them pay attention to what they knew, and what they didn’t know, about writing.
Second, it was a great moment of social learning for Zach. He got to feel a sense of mastery and helpfulness with a peer—so much so that he overcame his usually-shy disposition and reached out for an interaction. The success he felt in this moment will make future interactions easier.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, it was a moment of cultural and communal learning for Linus, Zach, and all the other kids who were sitting nearby reading the book. At our staff meeting yesterday were were talking about the challenges of building a school culture in which children see themselves as active learners and co-constructors of knowledge. We don’t want them to have to look to an adult every time they’re trying to figure something out—we want them to believe in their abilities to figure things out themselves, and to turn to each other rather than to an authority figure when they hit a roadblock. This little moment between Linus and Zach? That’s how we do it. Every child who witnessed it got a tiny lesson in how to be a self-directed learner. Next time they’re trying to write something, or do something, or learn something, they’re that much more likely to turn to a friend and work it out.