Observations on Engagement and Rigor in the Greenbelt

“To teach children, you must know them.  to know them, they must reveal, they must feel safe and secure.  to feel safe and secure, they need agency.  To have agency, they must have choices.”  Brian Kissel, When Writers Drive the Workshop



Leigh-Ann is Joy Writer.  I am a Joy Writer.  We are part of teacher-research group that is studying the question “What happens when  a group of teachers reads Ralph Fletcher’s,  Joy Write?”  Now that the year has started, many Joy Writers are researching their own questions and weaving in greenbelt time.

Leigh-Ann’s research question, “What happens when I show my first graders why/how I might draw or write?” led her to use her own Writers Journal as a teaching tool.

Leigh-Ann and I introduced Writers Journals to her first grade class on the second day of school.  We both believe that journals are community building tool.  We both believe that the Writers Journals was another way for us to get to know the children through their thinking and their choices. So, we began with a quote from Lucy Calkins, “Ideas live all around us in the smallest moments and objects.”  We added, “It is the writers job to observe the world, and capture those observations and their thinking in a Writers Journal.”

She set the stage for their work that day,  by sharing her own journal page.  She shared her observation of a bassinet that has been in her family for years.  She shared, “As I was drawing it, I began to think of all the family member who had slept in it it.  So I wrote.  I made a list of all of all the babies that have slept in this bassinet.” img_6795-3 Leigh-Ann modeled through her share, how writers stop to observe, sketch and write. We gave the first graders an opportunity to observe pine cones and bark.  Each child went off with little direction and got to work as writers.  We watched as they found their own spots to work and began observing.  We saw children studying objects.  We saw them sketch what they saw and jot down their thinking. We saw them flip objects and sketch some more continuing to work and even persevere through parts that were hard.

On the sixth day of school, we gathered together again  Writers Journal time.  Leigh-Ann and I planned to continue with the idea that writers observe the world and capture their observations and thinking in journals.  We planned to take them out to our courtyard and allow them the choice of what to observe.

This “session” began with Leigh-Ann sharing another page from her journal.  She shared with the class that the day before, after they had left, she was tired and wanted to go home, too.  But then,  she noticed the flowers out in the courtyard, and being a growing writer, she stopped to draw them.  As she was drawing the flowers, her eye caught the bench and she found herself drawing the bench.  Then, she began to imagine the flowers and the bench were having a conversation and she added her thoughts to the page.  Finally she discovered a poem.  She wrote.  She shared.img_6796-3“It doesn’t rhyme!”  a  little girl piped up as soon as she was done reading.  (side, unintended lesson, all poems don’t rhyme)

We lead the the class out to the courtyard where they scattered and began to do what writers do – observe, sketch, and write.  We watched as children scanned the courtyard, made choices and got to work.  We watched children make the first mark on the page.  We watched heads look up and look down, look up again, and back down.  We watched as children filled their journal page with what they saw.  Then, we noticed words begin to fall onto pages.  No one asked, “What do I do?”  No one asked, “What do I write?”  They had made each made their choice and were engaged.  Harry remained focused and determined as he filled the page with his observations.  Megan sketched the door and wrote, “Nobody is opening me up!”



“Engagement begins when a human being looks at something and tries to figure it out”  John Antonetti

I listened to Leigh-Ann share her process during these two sessions.  I watched as her first graders stayed glued to her every word and found inspiration in her work.  It was her journal pages that modeled for them not just the writing but the process of thinking and being a writer.

I watched these young writers work and I couldn’t help but be struck by their engagement, perseverance, and stamina.  They were thinking.  They were in the process of discovery.  “What did you discover today?” I asked.  “I was just looking.  I saw flowers and a butterfly.  I was so interested in it!  I didn’t want to forget it!  So I took out my journal and sketched it!”  Marisa exclaimed to us all.  Her enthusiasm for the process of thinking and discovery was loud and clear.

During our opening PD days this year, we had the pleasure of having John Antonetti downloadas our speaker.  John has studied engagement and rigor in 17,000 classrooms.  In his presentation, he shared,

“In rigor, I don’t get to decide what they think, I get to decide that they will think.”


Leigh-Ann and her first graders have woven a greenbelt writing into their balanced literacy.  The greenbelt is playful and free and full of discovery for a writer, and this greenbelt is loaded with engagement and rigor.

5 thoughts on “Observations on Engagement and Rigor in the Greenbelt”

  1. What an incredible, emotional pull – babies who’ve slept in a bassinet, wanting/needing a friend. The emotion, the sense of identifying with it, draws writers of all ages. I tell kids – and teachers – it’s putting a piece of your soul on the page. Well-captured!


  2. This post is music to my ears. I have created a Writer’s Workshop in my 4th grade room that celebrates writing and choice. Students’ energy and engagement is high – they are so excited to know that their words matter and that in Room 14, they have a voice. Some of the most powerful moments are coming during Author’s Chair – after just one week of school, brave souls are sitting in a chair and choosing the type of feedback they want to receive – compliment, advice or connection. I have been so inspired by the work of both Ralph Fletcher and Brian Kissel! Keep up the wonderful work!


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