Small Moments Lead to Huge Improvements

“What is a dot-dot-dot?” asked the first grade teacher.
“AN ELLIPSIS!”
her students responded.
“What is its purpose?” asked the teacher.
“To build up EXCITEMENT!”
shouted the students.

Yes, as incredible as it may seem, first-grade students are shouting about punctuation, and it’s not just the lowly period or comma. It’s an “ellipsis.” Learning that word and many more impressive skills for their age is part of a new writing curriculum at McFall Elementary.

The method is called “Small Moments” and it’s been a teaching trifecta with students, parents and teachers loving it. “I know it sounds cliche, but the kids look forward to writing every single day,” said first-grade teacher Jen Reifinger, who piloted the Small Moments program at the Thornapple Kellogg school last year. “It’s fun to teach and fun for students to learn.”

At parent-teacher conferences in the fall, Reifinger said parents were “blown away” when she showed them their child’s work.  “It was such a proud moment for parents to see,” she said.

“We’ve improved what we already had been using,” said Molly Anderson, a first-grade teacher who Reifinger mentors and who started using the method this year. “It’s different than anything we’ve ever done.”Teacher Molly Anderson guides Charlie Manrose through “touch and tell”

How It Works

The lessons start with students picturing in their head a small moment they’ve experienced. “Touch and tell” is the next step. For this, they point to where their words would go on a piece of paper. After that, they sketch it, talk about the details, and finally, they write their first sentence.

But It doesn’t stop there. They have to revise, revise, revise, which means reading it a bunch of times so it makes sense, a student explained.

“How many times do you read it?” Anderson asked her class about revising.“A bazillion!” they shouted back.

Lucy Calkins, the creator of the teaching method and a nationally known education expert and author, has described it as taking a small moment of life and stretching it out to make a longer story. Anderson said an example would be a student telling about ripping open their bag of chips and the chips flying everywhere. “You take a small moment out of your day — something exciting, meaningful, funny — and ‘slooooowww’ down that moment by telling what the characters said, how they laughed, how they move and more,” she said.

When Anderson asks certain questions in class, like what an ellipsis does or how many times students need to revise, the students will frequently answer it all together.  This is not memorization they’ll forget, but learning in a way that will stay with them, according to Anderson. “It just naturally happens,” she said. “They are so engaged. They are able to recall what I taught, what I said, and then practice those skills all on their own.”

An example of the progress a student makes can be seen in Sienna Schalk’s work. Her first narrative sentence at the beginning of the school year was: “One day I went and golf.”  She finished her narrative writing lesson several weeks later with: “When I went to Cotants, I went in the spooky maze. I saw a red flashing light. It was a wall and I was scared. I got lost. I screamed ‘Dad do you know where I am?’ Then I found Jen. We were scared.”

Garrett Shaffer, left, and Aaron VanderWulp read togetherThe students will learn narrative, informative and opinion writing this year. Along the way, they’ll also learn punctuation, vocabulary, listening skills and how to concentrate on a subject during “stamina workshops.” This is when they write 30 to 40 minutes at a time. “Some of them even write through snack time,” Anderson said.

“To them, it’s not work. They get to write about small moments that are relevant to them and leave their mark. Kids love to write when given the right instruction. They want to say ‘I was here. I was here.’ That’s what this program does for them.”

The lessons are very different from previous writing curriculums, the teachers said. A detailed instruction book gives teachers homework every night to be ready for the next day. “It’s very time consuming for a teacher, but it’s so worth it,” Anderson said.

How It Came To McFall

Reifinger heard about it from her husband Kirk Reifinger, who used the method at East Grand Rapids’ Lakeside Elementary. Thornapple Kellogg had been looking for a new, research-based program to teach younger students about writing, so Reifinger wanted to give it a try.  A grant from the Barry Community Foundation for $220 paid for the materials.

When Reifinger presented the results of her first year pilot to the district’s board of education, it was impressed enough to adopt it for use in kindergarten through fifth-grade classes. Kindergarten classes will start using it next year, and other grades are expected to be added gradually.

Which means, you might hear even more shouting from elementary classrooms over the next few years.

“Is it your favorite thing to do?” Anderson asked her class about writing, as they sat on the floor in front of her.
“YES,”
they replied in unison.
“And what happens when you finish?” Anderson asked.
“You’ve only just begun!”

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The Lucy Calkins Project

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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