The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play

When my daughter Emma was three, she was playing happily in her corner of the kitchen where I had created her own little “house” complete with a wooden hutch, oven, highchair and cradle for her own dolls.  She spent hours creating her own reality of being a Mom.  One day I was about to wander in when I stopped and peered around the corner (yes mothers do spy!) and as I watched her rock her baby and look into her eyes adoringly, one of those warm washes of love and perfection poured over me.  It was a moment that I wanted to sink into and enjoy.

Emma took her baby, placed her into the high chair and began feeding her and gently said,   “Eat, dammit.  Eat your food, dammit.”



I stood there in horror, unable to move and continued to watch.  After the lovely meal, Emma placed her baby into the cradle and in a very nurturing way, covered her up with the blanket and said, “Now time to go to sleep, dammit.”

Again, that word hit me, smacked me right across the face and left a sting.  What had happened to my perfect mother moment?

“Emma”, I asked, “What are you doing?”

“Putting my baby to bed.  She is tired.”

“I see that.  I heard you use a “D” word that I was wondering about.”

“A D word?” she contemplated.  “Oh, Dammit?”

“Yes that is the one.”

“Oh, that is my baby’s name Momma.”

Silenced again.

The power of modeling…

I have been known to tell this story when working with teachers to show how modeling is one of the most powerful tools we have and that we can use it to show our literate lives for our students every day.  It is what we do, not just what we say.  We need to talk about what we read, write and wonder; to show them first hand that literacy is not about school, it is about life and how we choose to live  this life.  When students see that we are interested in writing, reading books, articles, blogs, on-line periodicals, newspapers etc., they can “see” how we live each literate day.  When we talk about a great book we found at a used bookstore or bring in our favorite children’s book, they can catch a glimpse of our lives beyond the four walls of school.  And they begin to consider theirs as well.

Bridging the gap between “school” reading and “life” reading is critical.  As an instructor in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire’s Learning Through Teaching professional development program, I have the privilege of going into classrooms and supporting teachers in their coursework.  Every time I enter a classroom I have my Writer’s Notebook and other sundry of books with me.  It could be a couple of children’s picture books, the current novel I am reading, or more recently my Ipad.   Kids ask me about the ever-present essentials (appendages?) that I carry with me.  They are curious and I can open them up and share small pieces of myself with them.  It is an entry point for conversations about reading and writing.

When I am modeling a lesson for a teacher or group of teachers, I start by talking to the class about my passion for reading and writing; my excitement over a new author I have found, what I am working on myself in writing or how a word looks or sounds.   And it is authentic.  I love words.  I love to read and write and when kids feel that from me, they too want to be a part of that energy.  It is infectious and it is not hard to get them to buy in as I ask them to repeat a word with me, a nice long juicy word like onomatopoeia, that they can take home with them and share with their families. “There is a world in a word,” Lev Vygotsky wrote and it’s up to us to open up those worlds.


Toting Libba Moore Grey’s, My Momma Had a Dancin’ Heart under my arm, I entered Emily Spear’s wonderful and familiar first grade classroom where I was greeted with hugs and an offer for one of those famous birthday cupcake that are handed to you with great love and grey grubby hands.  I received the confection’s love, knowing it would never get eaten and smiling at the gesture.

I settled into the comfy rocker and had a brief time to reconnect as they told me about their latest ventures in writing. Voices rang all around me as they shared their latest “sound” words.   Three little girls got closer and asked about the pink necklace I was wearing twirling it in their hands and marveling when I told them it was a crystal.  “ooooh…you must be rich!”.  I explained it was a gift from my sister and that SHE was the rich one because she had ME for a sister.  They giggled.

Taking this time to connect with these kids is a critical part of the modeling process.  It only took a few minutes, but in that time my words and actions showed them I was interested in THEM.  This gives me an advantage because I have re-established our working relationship and can then move into our writing time together.  I am reconnecting and we are exchanging trust in these small moments.

I read aloud, knowing that I wanted to model Moore’s use of playfully hyphenated words as a craft the kids could name and experiment with.  I stopped and wrote some examples on the white board:




We talked about these words and wondered why the author would use the hyphen.  They quickly identified that it made it into one word, made the reader say the word more quickly and created rhythm.  For each dance in the book I asked for a volunteer to get up and “perform” each season’s ballet.  They were eager to move and the movement brought this story to life for all.

We then brainstormed a name for these words and the list consisted of

1.describing words

2. two words in one

3. DASH-ing words.

It was democratically decided that DASH-ing words described them most accurately because of the dash (hyphen) and use of the suffix ”ing” on the end of each word.  And while some may be thinking this is not correct it is playful and something the kids will remember.  Let’s just call it poetic license!  Next, I asked them to go and try out some of the DASH-ing words in their own writing.

And the play began.  Some kids came up with what we called Double DASH-ing words such as tweet-tweet-tweeting. Morgan, who I thought was struggling was left to her own thinking for some time and arrived at my side with this incredible poem:




Against the long

White world

But the world

Is not always white

Wow!  I just love the image of the long white world…

We all came back to the carpet, shared our DASH-ing words and created a chart with all of the examples the kids had come up with, creating a classroom “model” that they could refer back to and add to.

I left the room, again humbled at the brilliance of these kids and just what they can do if given the time, space, place and a  model of what is possible.   Trusting our students.  What a concept and something we can all do, Dammit!!

19 thoughts on “The Power of Modeling, Connection, Trust and Play

  1. I LOVE this story. It’s like a viral email/FB post actually. 🙂

    Anyway, this is very timely for me as I enter the world of parenting. I hold modeling as the #1 most import element of a classroom and must transfer that to my home life for sure. The dash-ing words remind me of Love That Dog by Sharon Creech…”tap tap tapping”…I forget which poem they are from…?

    • Jaclyn,
      Welcome to the world of parenting! There really is nothing better! Remind me to tell you in person another story about kids swearing!! They are watching you all the time…and will pick up on just about everything, whether you intend for them to or not!
      Would love for this to go viral!! Any suggestions?
      Thanks for reading and responding!

  2. Hi Tomasen
    I remember one particular fall day in my kindergarten class when I told them about a book that I was reading, House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. I told the children that I read it over the summer and now I was reading it again because I couldn’t bear to leave the story. I said that when I finished the book I was going to go to the library to see if I could find any other books by this author.
    Later in the year, I think it was late May, one of the children asked me when I was going to read the spooky book to the class. I couldn’t understand what he was referring to but after a discussion at meeting time I realized that they were waiting for me to read them House of The Spirits!
    Of course I didn’t read them that book but I did read them parts of an article written by Isabel Allende that I found in some obscure magazine. It was titled something like “How I Fell in Love with Marc Chagall and learned to Love Writing” (this isn’t an exact translation of the title but it’s about right). This led to looking at a reproduction of the Marc Chagall painting that Allende was referring to and having a really deep class discussion about the connections between inspiration, reading and writing!
    My how I love kindergarten!

    • Renee,
      I LOVE that this story is about Kindergarten!! One would think on a first read that you may be talking about upper grades! The trust that you have in kids always amazes me and this story is just another fabulous example of that! What if we all treated children with such respect and talked to them as though they were capable of understanding…instead of just looking for the deficits?
      Thanks for reading and responding!

  3. I love this vision of modeling–that it’s not about watch me while I practice this strategy, it’s engage with me as I live a life full of passion, wonder and curiosity about you and me and words and the world. Also I love the story about your daughter. My father frequently said God dammit when he was angry or frustrated, and apparently as a child I would say dog gammit when I dropped something or fell, much to my mother’s consternation.

    • Vicki,
      Thanks! I think you make so many good points about how even the tool of modeling has become so automatic with very specific goals, and while this may work for some I think that leaving it more open allows space for the thinking of the students at the same time. I see modeling as more of a way to engage our kids dog gammit!! I LOVE this!! Next time I see you I will give you another version of this same kind of story…but one that I would be more hesitant to actually put up on the blog!!
      Thanks, as always, for reading and responding!

  4. Whenever we have writing time in the classroom, when I am not conferring with a student, I am writing in my own writer’s notebook. I have not done this with reading, by bringing whatever I am reading outside of school into school. I’ve talked to the students about what I’m reading, and shared many of my favorite books from when I was in grade school, but they have not had a chance to see me being an adult reader–reading because I love it! I have encouraged parents to read and let their children see them reading at home, but somehow never took it on myself taking the time my students are reading to accomplish ‘school’ things. I will change that this year, so that my students can see how reading extends beyond school.

  5. Your reminder about modeling one’s passion for reading and writing is helpful and important, Tomasen.

    Full disclosure: I often allow myself to become set in the too-fast pace of the school day. I usually get right to business with my students, and this obviously communicates to them that the work we are doing is just that – business. It obscures the fact that the reading and writing that I experience in my adult life is often joyful, entertaining, sad, funny, and more. Yet, I am their model and mentor, and it’s up to me to show them exactly why I’m passionate about reading and writing.

    If I take your advice and talk more about what I’m reading or writing, why, and what I like about it, then I could easily model the importance of reading and writing to me as human being, not just their teacher. Assuming I’ve already gained their trust, then they will be eager to here about to hear about my latest literary exploits. After all, isn’t one of my primary goals to create even more English nerds?

    Thanks for modeling this philosophy for us!


  6. Playfulness with language reveals to kids the limitless possibilities and excitement of language.
    PLAY incites creativity, problem-solving, progression… some important foundations of writing and learning.
    And it is student-derived.
    And it’s fun.

  7. I read a book by Penny Kittle called ‘Write Beside Them” and this book truly showed the importance of not just being a writer but actually writing yourself. We have to go through the process with the students in order to humanize ourselves and show that no one, not even the teacher, knows everything. It takes a lot of courage to share your work and writing process with our students because we do not like to look less than perfect in front of our students. We need to ask ourselves- How do we expect our students to take risks if we do not take risks ourselves?

  8. This makes me think so much of my time at Peachtree Academy, where I was not a good modeler and also not modeled to well on what I should be doing there. I always feel that I could have done more. I could have read more to them, and talked with them about the books. We did read, but it was one and done story time. So close, but not close enough. I could have written with them and shared examples of my own writing rather than using that time to organize the morning and afternoon crafts that I had ahead. There was a lot more that I could have done to make my time and their time better. But since I was not willing to work unpaid more than I already was (which was a lot) I didn’t put in my best. Or maybe, it was my best at the time, I was only a junior in my undergrad at that point. I still have a lot to learn now never mind then. There can be no “if-only’s” about that school anymore, though. I know that if I had to do it again I’d be way better, and that’s all that I can hope for at this point.
    Now, I’ve had a lot of great modeling to contribute to my education, and I know the power of it, as it has helped me understand everything so much more. i look forward to bringing that experience into my classroom this fall.

  9. We often forget in this world that students are ever present sponges. They see and take in our emotions and feelings whether they be good or bad. If you come is as a teacher who does not seem to care or who makes little effort then the students will pick up on that right away and give you the same right back. I believe that respect in a classroom setting is absolutely crucial if you are to maintain balance. If you work hard and show the students that you really care not just about the class, but about each individual student as well then they will work just as hard for you. The teachers that I have always worked hardest for were the ones who clearly respected my thoughts and opinions and I wanted to do everything I could to impress them and emulate the same level of respect that they were giving me. Overall, this post is a strong reminder of the fact that you get what you give and the key to teaching well is to give the students the same amount of respect that you want them to give you.

  10. Tomasen,

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and feel that many portions of it will stay in my mind as a future teacher. Perhaps most obviously, the “dammit” story, while humorous, did manage to shed a light on the extent to which young learners (which includes students, not just 3-year-olds) model their behavior after the adults around them. As a teacher, I realize that I will be just as much of a mentor as I will be an educator, and my behavior must reflect the way in which I would like to see my students behave themselves. Also, from an academic point of view, the enthusiasm exuded during your lesson modeling is pivotal, as it has a very chain-reaction feel to it. Ideally, these teachers will pick up on your zeal and model it in their own classrooms, a cycle which will surely be completed by impressed students.

  11. Dammit! HAHA!

    This post really made me think about how I could become a better model for my students. I love to read, of course, but I don’t do a whole lot of writing outside the classroom. That is my goal for this summer, to do more writing. Even journalling at the end of the day, just to give my kids a model. My own children have journals for the summer, why shouldn’t I join them? Family writing time? Sounds like a great new tradition!

    Of course, respecting children and treating them like they might actually have something to say is key in creating this kind of environment. We’re moving too quickly backwards to the model of teachers imparting knowledge on students and forgetting that students can change our thinking as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s