A clipboard or tablet, watchful eyes, and listening ears. That’s all it takes to be an effective kidwatcher. Yetta Goodman, who coined the term in the 1980’s, helped educators think about the valuable data they can collect just by listening in to student conversations and by hosting one-to-one conferences focused on students’ work. Still today, kidwatching provides the purest form of student data–what we see and hear when we study and observe kids “in the round.”
Whether you’re a novice or an expert kidwatcher, there are 3 moves you can make to ramp up your observation skills — then take what you observe to make decisions based on who your kids are as full humans.
Move #1: Go Where Students Go
It feels natural to study students during academic times–specifically reading and writing workshop–because it’s the time when students are doing the work. However, when we reach beyond the typical times and put our kidwatching lenses on throughout other times of the school day, the data we can collect is equally as valuable.
Meet Jaylin–an active 3rd grader who stands out because of her take-action attitude during group projects and desire to get her hands on the latest book about her favorite YouTuber–Jo Jo Siwa.
With notebook in hand, I observe Jaylin as she makes her way into the cafeteria and learn that she doesn’t eat very much for lunch. I wonder: Is this an everyday thing or just today? I make a note of it to dig in more. She has a lot to say to her peers (all girls in her lunch cluster on this day), but when it comes to listening to them as they share, she interrupts a lot–using her hands and body to kindly, but intentionally, move the conversation back in her direction. I think: hmm…this makes sense because other girls have mentioned that Jaylin “takes over” but I really haven’t seen that side. After Jaylin dumps most of her uneaten lunch in the trash can, I watch her on the playground where she moves away from the girls and shoots hoops with two boys–her younger brother and his buddy. She spends a good part of fifteen minutes talking and shooting, gives her brother a pat on the back and lines up when the bell rings.
Because my kidwatching led to more inquiries, I repeat my observations over the next couple of days and add the following things to my notes:
- Jaylin eats some orange slices and drinks a little milk.
- Jaylin doesn’t eat anything, but offers her lunch to others; throws less away but not because she ate anything.
- Jaylin eats a big bag of cereal during morning workshop snack time. Note: Maybe her big snack fills her up? Ask her about it.
- Jaylin plays basketball for 3 days at recess. One day she plays tag with kids from her class.
- Jaylin is VERY tired and hungry on Thursday during science (2:00 p.m.) She has her head down and doesn’t want to join in with her inquiry small group. Note: Maybe her snack fills her up in the morning, but isn’t enough to hold her over all afternoon? Talk to her about this and see if we can come up with a plan.
Nothing in my notes screams EMERGENCY! But, my notes help me put together a fuller picture of Jaylin in the round–across settings and across days. Kidwatching helps me notice patterns–patterns that I may or may not want to act upon or react to. My observations guided me to strike up a conversation with Jaylin about her brother. I learned that her brother’s best buddy recently moved to a new school and he was feeling lonely on the playground. She was joining him in basketball for a while to help him. I learned that Jaylin eats a big breakfast at home, then eats her big snack mid-morning which is why she isn’t hungry at lunch time.
We made a quick plan to try and eat half of her morning snack and save the rest for an afternoon snack which yielded unforeseen results–more focus, intentional participation, and a more “jump to it” attitude about learning. Notable, too, is an afternoon snack wasn’t a typical routine in the classroom, but after talking with other kids many explained they’d also like to be able to save some/all of their snack for later in the day. The inquiry around Jaylin led to new decisions that had a positive impact for others. However, it gives me deeper insights which ultimately guide my interactions, my inquiries and my instruction.
Move #2: Take Advantage of Beginnings
Beginnings tell us a lot. The opening minutes of the school day as kids hang up their jackets and unpack backpacks, the interactions between students as they make their way to community circle for morning meeting, the rhythm and hum they create as they settle into independent work time–these moments give us insights into students in different ways.
Meet Corey–a funny, LEGO-loving 5th grader who hasn’t picked up a chapter book in months. Yet, we are sure he will be standing on the red carpet someday because his home-grown comic book series (The Vindicators) will be made into a multi-million dollar franchise. If you were to look at Corey’s typical reading and writing work products–the ones assigned by teachers and related to the curriculum — you might worry that he needed extra support.
My kidwatching notes pull together a bigger picture of Corey–in and out of school:
- Corey’s backpack is filled with ripped folders with tattered and crumpled papers spilling out of the sides. Does his organizational skills get in the way of his success? Check in about this.
- As he unpacked for the day, Corey’s peers were captivated by his intense excitement for the latest PrestonPlayz YouTube episode. Must watch this for myself to better understand what the buzz is all about.
- During Weekend Highlights, Corey shared a doodle about a new kind of gaming chair he wants to design. I wonder if Corey could doodle ideas related to the books and texts he is reading to make his thinking visible? Meet with him one-on-one to show him this idea and see if he will give it a try.
These kidwatching notes help guide conversation and inspiration during our small group reading and writing experiences, topic selection for PBL, and one-to-one conferring. It’s important to me that while I’m not a regular YouTube follower, that I can relate to and appreciate Corey’s interest and passion in what he enjoys. Without my observations, our interactions might remain surface-level. In addition, knowing what types of things pique Corey’s curiosities gives me reasons and purpose for stretching my own experiences and knowledge–you better believe that I’ve now watched a few of Corey’s recommendations and became intrigued myself.
I met with Corey and talked to him about how doodling about our reading is another way to hold our thinking. I explained that I call this, Sketch to Stretch, and it’s a way to make our thinking visible through drawing. Using a newspaper article about a new dog park, I showed him an example. Corey said he’d give it a try.
Move #3: Find Points of Proximity
Proximity matters. That’s because being up close creates a more personal, connected experience. Whole group experiences are important and play a significant role in learning, but when we prioritize time for students to meet in small groups and/or we meet with them one-to-one, doing so yields kidwatching opportunities filled with action-oriented, student-centered data.
Meet Hakim, Alejandro, and Renata–these social 7th graders are diving into Laurie Halse Anderson’s historical novel Chains. I roam about the room eavesdropping on their conversations as students work in small groups. Grabbing a stool, I sit beside this group and listen in. Here’s what I wrote in my notebook:
- Hakim and Renata have their Reader’s Notebooks front and center, Alejandro does not. He has a piece of loose leaf paper. I wonder why?
- Renata and Alejandro spend most of the work time in deep discussion, trying to make connections to NYC in the 1770’s compared to now. Hakim is attentive, but quiet. Is this typical? Is something going on that I don’t understand?
- Renata goes to find her social studies notebook and searches for a timeline about the American Revolution. She finds it, but doesn’t say much about it. This might be important.
- Hakim, Alejandro, and Renata are comfortable with one another, and have an ease about them. They sit close to one another as they work, use eye contact, and smile and laugh as they work. Feels like a well-oiled machine.
The next day I have an opportunity to follow-up on some of my kidwatching inquiries by joining this small group. I ask them if they would share a few snippets from the notes and ideas they’ve collected. They quickly turn to the pages in their Reader’s Notebooks. Alejandro gets up, grabs a folder and returns with many pages of his notes on loose leaf. I ask, “Alejandro, I notice that your notes are kept in a different place. How come?” Alejandro explains that he is left-handed and that the crease in notebooks drives him crazy so he likes to use paper. I think to myself: What a smart move–giving kiddos the autonomy to create spaces to hold their thinking that make sense to THEM. One size does not fit all.
This small group spends about twelve minutes sharing ideas before they decide on a shared goal for reading Chains independently. I lean in and confer for a bit with Hakim. He shares his notes, which are filled with great ideas and even better wonderings. He has so many questions about New York City, both in the 1770’s and today. I learn that he has lived in New York for a few years, and while he has traveled to many places outside of the U.S., he really hasn’t explored much outside of the six block radius of his apartment. I ask him if he would like to help me go on a hunt where we curate other resources (short stories, picture books, newspaper clippings, film) to help him deepen his knowledge of his neighborhood, city, and state. He likes the idea and we make a plan to tackle that together in the days to come.
My kidwatching notes grow with each observation and interaction.
- How many kiddos are left-handed in the 7th grade? Do they all have choice in materials, space, writing tools, etc? If not, how can we study and develop that across the grade level? Are there other factors, beside left-handedness, that might need consideration?
- Need to re-read the second half of Chains so that I’m in the know and up to speed.
- Set up a time with Hakim to begin our curation lollapalooza. Find a bin to store our resources.
- Do we need to look at the field trips and real world experiences we set up for our middle schoolers? Are there other kids, like Hakim, who might benefit from exploring NYC to build their background knowledge and experiences? Maybe start by developing a survey with teachers to get intel about students’ experiences to date. Set up a time to talk to grade level chairs.
- Still need to follow-up about Renata’s historical timeline.
The beautiful thing about kidwatching is it’s cyclical. The more you learn, the more you want to know because most observations and interactions lead to new wonderings. What fun, right? What a gift–to show up at school each day with new inquiries, new ideas, and new work to accomplish. And even more: Getting to know our students this way strengthens our relationships with them — yet another powerful tool for deeper engagement and genuine motivation.