Start Early. Start well.

December 13, 2017

Professional Learning Institute Focuses on Supporting Children as Authors

Omaha, Neb. — Promoting young children’s growth as writers was the focus of the second institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2017-18 series Nov. 30 in Omaha.

More than 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “Children as Authors: Guiding Children on Pathways Toward Strong Writing.”

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other.

Listening to Children Is the Key

Dr. Martha Horn, associate professor of elementary education at Rhode Island College and co-author of “Talking, Drawing, Writing: Lessons for Our Youngest Writers,” said in her keynote address that guiding children toward strong writing begins with listening.

“We all think we know how to listen, but do we know how to do it in ways that guide students forward?” she said. “I believe that listening is at the heart of teaching writing and at the heart of all teaching.”


Horn said that by interacting with children while reading books aloud to them, she learns about her students as people and about their life experiences. She also learns about their abilities as storytellers and readers—who can read between the lines, who can draw inferences and meaning, who is asking questions.

“I’m learning all that stuff by paying attention and listening,” Horn said.

“Interactive Read Alouds take time, and time is the one thing teachers say we just don’t have enough of,” she said. “But once you start, it’s hard to not have it be built into your day. It’s a must.”

Students “Talk Out” Their Stories

Oral storytelling is the way writing begins in Kindergarten, she said. In her class, students take turns sitting in a chair and telling their own stories. Children figure out through talk what they want to say in their writing, she said.

“Having that time carved out to tell stories is important and leads to writing.”

Teachers should want to know what their students think, she said, and show that interest by giving them time to talk, using body language that demonstrates that interest as well.

When working with children on their writing, teachers should ask questions that they don’t know the answer to, restate what children say back to them so they know they’re being listened to, and “when in doubt, wait”—let kids have the full opportunity to talk.

“Listening is hard work. It’s really hard to do it well,” Horn said. "But when we listen to children tell stories, we give them the message that we believe they're saying something worth waiting for.”

Cheryl Sparks, an English as Second Language teacher trainer for Omaha Public Schools, said this was the first time she was able to attend a PD for All institute.

“I think it was great. I was very impressed,” she said. “I think the speakers did a great job showing how to get our students to be involved as writers. I think our team all came away with a lot of good ideas. It was just a good time to listen to our teachers, too, about their needs. So it was a great day to network and a great day to learn.”

Suzanne Hult, also an ESL teacher trainer for OPS, said she welcomed the topic.

“I know teachers struggle with how to teach writing,” she said. “I was able to gather a lot of useful information that I can take back to teachers.”

Additional Featured Presenters

Also speaking Nov. 30 were Dr. Sue Anderson, a veteran educator who has provided professional development for teachers and school leaders in writing and instruction; Jonathan Fribley, an early childhood consultant, coach, mentor, and trainer; and Jimmie Miller Johnson, a local author and educator who has taught reading and language arts to students in Kindergarten through eighth grade.

Fribley also spoke at a second session that evening, which featured a Spanish-language presentation by Janette Merkel, program specialist at the Buffett Institute. Co-presenting with Merkel were Herendira Moreno Padilla, family facilitator at Liberty Elementary School, and Teresa Lopez Tovar, family facilitator at Gomez Heritage Elementary School (both in Omaha Public Schools), and Leah Latenser, home visitor at Ralston Public Schools.

Upcoming institutes in the 2017-18 series include "Children as Mathematicians: Early Math That Matters the Most" (Jan. 25 or 27); "Children as Researchers: Reading to Learn Can Start Early" (March 1 or 3); and "Children as Expressive Artists: Integrating the Arts as a Tool for Learning" (date TBA). 

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