Looking for the Next Margaret Atwood

Krystal McKenna, a Grade 1 teacher at Jack Hulland Elementary School, sets young authors off on a great writing adventure. At the beginning of the year, students draw pictures in their journals. McKenna talks to the student about the drawing and scribes a description.

Soon, however, students are encouraged to begin their own journey with words. Once a child has mastered the alphabet sounds, they can print words in their journal about their picture. What letter sound does the word begin with? Quickly students are also adding the last sound to the word.

To encourage phonetic spelling McKenna gives a “bubblegum lesson.” Students are asked to stretch out the word they are attempting to spell and listen closely to all the letter sounds. And, of course, the children get a bubble gum treat – blowing a bubble is like stretching out a sound.

McKenna uses the Fundations Program for emerging writers. A language training program co-founded by Ed and Barbara Wilson. The students practice sounds and the forming of letters. Later in the year McKenna uses guided writing techniques. Similar to a guided reading program, students are grouped together according to techniques they need to work on.

Following class sessions, students write in their journals at their desks. They might all be writing about the same topic, but some children concentrate on finger spacing, some on punctuation, some on more conventional spelling.

When McKenna can read the students’ phonetic spelling in their journals, she begins to encourage conventional spelling, finger spacing and upper case knowledge in her critique of the work.

I recently visited the class. I saw a bright and happy looking group of children ready to listen to a story and then practice their own writing. McKenna began the lesson reading Quick as a Cricket by Audrey Wood. The story has many examples of simile use. The students were encouraged to think about similes they could use to describe themselves.

After sitting in the group to listen to the story the children went back to their chairs, opened their journals and began writing.

Aria Murray shared her work:

My har is as kripile as a krupul lef bekis

I tik some bras out.

A more conventional spelling:

“My hair is as crimply as a crumpled leaf

because I took some braids out.”

Crimply? Well such a great descriptive word and her hair did look crimpled! I spoke to Aria once before about how the English language and spelling has changed over the centuries. Maybe she is creating a new word which will be included in dictionaries in the future.

Students are encouraged to challenge themselves: use big words, do your best to sound them out.

McKenna is very encouraging and praises the students’ attempts. Once they have written a few sentences they draw a picture to accompany their story.

At the end of the session McKenna and two assistants check children’s work. She helps them read what they have written and may correct punctuation or spelling.

Who encouraged Margaret Atwood? “Mrs. McKenna” may be encouraging another successful Canadian author in 2017.

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