By mid-January, any child in my classroom will tell you that I am forgetful. I make a point, in fact, of forgetting things they tell me, all of the time. Especially the things they want me to remember the most.
Requests to bring a basketball outside, to sit next to a friend at lunch, to read a certain story, to play a certain song at dance time, or to share something special with the group, are all forgotten. Repeatedly. For about a month after our winter break, I torture my students with my forgetfulness. I am so deliberate; I even start keeping a list for myself of each child and the requests I have forgotten. I seek out personal requests from unengaged children in this game, ask them to remind me later, then point out at the end of the day what request of theirs I have forgotten to do. I am always playful, always attentive to doing no harm, and also very annoying.
All of my imposed unreliability is here for the benefit of my quest for authentic writing. After about two weeks of this manipulation, my students are primed and ready. They are fed up. When I use the words, “Yes, we’ll do that later,” they emphatically reply, “you’ll forget!”
If I have engineered this properly, they will begin the day nagging me with their daily reminders. I say, “oh yeah” and then remind all of the other children in a near radius of the things I have forgotten for them, in case they don’t remember. “Oh yeah, Sarah asked me to place her next to Megan at lunch, but I forgot and put their name tags at different tables. And that reminds me, poor Oscar has wanted to play basketball all week, but I keep forgetting to get the ball before we go outside. You know, Alex wrote this beautiful book about Iron Man, and he said he’d read it to the class, but every time we’re at circle time, I keep forgetting! What will you all do with me?” The larger my harmless list grows, the more they make fun of me!
And this is where the magic occurs. Because what follows doesn’t have to come from me, and it never does. I have set the stage, and the children will create the solution. When things really matter to them, counting on my forgetfulness, they begin to write it down! To be clear, my preschoolers are not writers in the traditional sense. A few of them have begun to make letter-sound connections and can record the beginning sounds of a thought. Others think they can “fool” me by posing as writers and copying words they know where to find in the room. Most are at a stage in which they create strings of letters across a page, and then tell me what it means. Several will draw pictures and create scribble lines to accompany their request. Any of these forms are challenging for them to create, but they rise to the occasion based on their varying motivations. They pick up pens, post-it notes, and art paper scraps with masking tape and record their issues.
I am diligent about recognizing their efforts and drawing attention to the function. Sarah sticks her seating arrangement request onto the stack of lunch nametags. It is a sticky note with her name and Megan’s which she has copied from the morning sign-in papers. “It means we want our names next to each other at the table, just like on this paper,” she says. At lunch, I make a point of letting everyone see the girls side by side, and tell them how much Sarah’s note helped me to remember. With any luck, I’ll have about seven more of these notes stuck to the nametags by tomorrow’s lunch. Oscar has now drawn a picture of a basketball with the letter B on it, (“so you don’t get a soccer ball,” he says), and tapes it near the classroom door for when we head outside. Here I have a line of children facing forward that can see his note and watch it work. Alex puts his name on a paper and places it on my rocking chair at the carpet to let us know to set aside time for him to share his Iron Man book. Led by Alex, we can continue to use this paper as a class sign-up sheet for any author who has something to share. This is so much more powerful than any system of sign up that I have ever created in the past.
Once the writing to remind their poor forgetful teacher has begun, it’s a little difficult to turn off. Soon they also determine a need to remind one another of things. Signs emerge everywhere, posting rules about safety, how to keep the touch table tidy, how to put the play dough away when you’re done, which drinking fountain not to use. Over time, my classroom walls display a beautiful mess of emergent literacy. The children have begun to understand the function of the written word, and they aren’t afraid to use it.