From Scribbles to Novels: Teaching Writing in the Lower School
Throughout human history, all cultures have created, shared, and passed down stories in various forms, ranging from the Lascaux cave drawings, oral storytelling in its various forms, such as legends and animal fables, to “traditional” forms of writing like literature. Guided by the idea that we are all writers, teachers in Shipley’s Lower School find creative ways to impart different forms of narrative expression to the School’s youngest learners. It begins with the simplest, yet most profound, of concepts—the idea that everyone has a story. “We want them to find their voice and understand that their voice is unique,” Reading Specialist Ms. Lorin Early explains. This notion is a hallmark of Shipley’s model, which creates an optimized learning environment for personal growth while nurturing the individual needs of each student.
Cultivating a safe learning atmosphere encourages students to share their writing. In the early years, narrative expression might take the form of oral storytelling, drawing, or labelling. Younger students begin by sharing personal stories with classmates, an incredibly important form of self-expression that is deeply connected to the written word. “Writing in its various forms opens up a whole other world of expression and gives kids agency. It’s important to honor that,” Kindergarten teacher Ms. Claire Grillo affirms, “because having the confidence to listen, speak, and take turns…these are the nuts and bolts of writing.” By focusing on listening and then sharing their own stories, students build enduring relationships, a key part of Shipley’s mission to develop a communal culture and collective well-being. Through this shared exchange they develop “a connection and shared experience within the world; it fosters a sense of belonging,” Ms. Early highlights.
Students in the Lower School engage with different forms of writing across the disciplines, and although reading is taught as a separate subject, fifth grade teacher Ms. Sally Siebert-Hall explains that “writing is woven in so that the two snowball together.” Using a variety of methods, such as graphic organizers, scaffolding, and “risk-free” journal writing, teachers help students to further hone their writing skills and “mirror what the experts do.” Giving students the freedom to select their own topics is key and helps to foster confidence as they grow as writers.
As older students dive into novels, identify figurative language, and engage in peer review sessions, the relatively simple task of holding a pencil can pose difficulties for younger learners. Teachers like Ms. Grillo help Shipley’s little acorns improve their fine motor skills by performing strengthening exercises with tweezers, beads, and Play-Doh to prepare them for the physicality of writing. Contrary to conventional practice, Ms. Grillo highlights how, “We use thin, chunky, triangular, short, you name it. Our hands are all unique, so a particular type of pencil might suit one student better than another.” At Shipley, no detail is too small in meeting the goal of individualized instruction: in this case, it’s a No. 2 pencil fitted especially for you.
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.