My friend Mrs. S. works her morning message like no one I have seen. Sitting at the edge of her large group area along with her kindergartners, I was every bit as engaged as they were--but inside my head a little voice was asking, "and where have you been with this all these years?!"
Don't get me wrong--I've used morning messages for a long time. Every day. Posted right by the door. Read together as part of the morning meeting. But Mrs. S. does not stop there. What she does with a morning message is some of the most deliberate, engaging, powerful kind of teaching I have had the pleasure of observing. Watching her caused me to stop and really think about how I was using my morning message and where I was letting opportunities slip by me.
Lots of what she does is the stuff we do in shared reading--tracking left to right and top to bottom, 1-to-1 matching, and locating known words, letters or phonics patterns. And yes, I had done that with my morning messages. However, it's also important to consider our kids beyond this kind of learning. Stick with me on this--some of it will have you saying, "I know already!" but some of it just may help you think a little more deeply about some possibilities for your own morning messages.
Have you ever had your kids count letters? Words? Capital &/or lowercase letters? Ok, now consider having them count the spaces? At Mrs. S.'s school, spacing was an issue that kept cropping up in kids writing and we were trying to figure out how to get kids to use spaces. It occurred to us that maybe we should see if they noticed spaces in print....and they really struggled. All this can also help as kids learn the difference between things like words and letters, spaces and words, upper- and lowercase letters, or words and sentences (yes, you can count those too).
Now, how about if you have kids talk about which is more/less--the words or the letters? More/less (or greater than/less than) is a key math concept for my kids this grading period, so we've been comparing quantities of everything--even in our morning message. We record the numbers at the bottom of the message (writing numbers to 100 is a math goal for us) and practice saying something about the quantities using our math vocabulary, such as, "the number of words is less than the number of letters" or, "72 is more than 20".
And now there are kids who enter every morning and begin counting every possible category of letter/word/space in the message and report to me about which is more or less. The cool thing is that most of the kids doing this are the ones who need more practice counting, and they are doing it without my prodding. AND one day...a great day in my teaching life...we had counted the words and a little girl announced that if we counted letters there would be more letters than words, "because a letter is just a letter, but a word is a bunch of them together." Ta-da!
I also need to add that we don't just focus on print features and letters and high frequency words. I also stick stuff in that is intended to get them thinking about meaning. Sometimes I ask a question (related to a classroom event, something we are studying, etc) that requires them to understand what I am asking and then consider a response or that asks them to do something. We consider whether the message is all telling or if there is some asking. They love days with asking, because first graders thing that question marks are very cool. Even cooler than exclamation marks. My goal isn't just to have the kids notice the letters--I want them to notice what the message is about. If fact, if we are not doing that, there isn't much point in the rest.
The morning message can also be a place to teach and practice early reading strategies. For example, Mrs. S. sometimes started her message with "Dear Kindergartners", but other days would use "Dear Friends" or something similar. Her kids were quick to realize the difference by using not only the first letter, but also the length of the word. My kids have learned to monitor their reading of the message because I may use "boys and girls" or "girls and boys" or even borrow from my friend and use "Dear friends".
The message is also a part of linking learning and thinking across our curriculum and putting it into a fairly authentic context. In our morning message, kids may use vocabulary, strategies, skills from math or language arts. They may be given or asked to consider information from science or social studies topics being studied. We talk about the message contents each day, which is an opportunity for oral language development.
Here is the really important stuff that Mrs. S. caused me to stop and consider:
The key to really using a morning message as teaching is to know your kids and deliberately think about opportunities for teaching and learning during this part of the day. Be purposeful in what you write and how you write it. Be alert to how you might include not only certain words or letters, but how you might link to other parts of your curriculum. Remember that this is reading material for your kids, so this is a chance to teach and guide the use of early reading strategies.
I knew that I had joined Mrs. S. in rockin' the morning message when I stood in the doorway and observed my kids entering and hurrying to huddle around the message--reading, counting, pointing things out, and talking to each other about it. They were using the math vocabulary, helped each other monitor and correct their reading, and reread to think about the content of the message...all part of recent teaching & learning in our room. And when we gathered on the carpet to read the message together, every single kid was engaged and interested and thinking.
Thank you Mrs. S.--I owe you one!