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Is Seattle's writing curriculum too regimented?

The prepackaged program, with its 'small moments' and 'authentic gushing,' is moving beyond elementary and middle schools into high schools. But does it prepare students for college-level writing?


To a group of 35 Seattle teachers and administrators visiting East Coast schools five years ago, the Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop seemed a brilliant instructional choice. The vigor of student engagement was impressive, and many New York City teachers swore by the program’s effectiveness.

Not long after the group’s return, Seattle middle schools adopted a slightly modified version of Calkins’s K-5 curriculum package, and after that, elementary schools adopted the original version. But now Writing Workshop is making its way into Seattle’s high schools.Is it appropriate at that level?

Calkins’s curriculum is based on workshop approaches to writing developed by Donald Graves and Donald Murray in the 1970s and recommended by researchers and top practitioners in the field ever since. Students in writing workshops frame questions they are interested in exploring and brainstorm topics in a writer's notebook. They produce multiple drafts, discuss them with classmates, revise and edit, and confer with teachers, who often write alongside their students. Individual portfolios allow students to monitor their own progress, and teachers use them to address different students’ needs. Calkins's program is an unusually regimented version of writing workshops.

How well is it working in Seattle schools? Proponents of her curriculum love it with a curious passion, but there are plenty of skeptics.

Many are afraid to speak out publicly, in part because of pressure from above to teach the Calkins way. And no wonder. Seattle Public Schools, faced with tight budgets and rising demands for higher standards in public education, has spent over $1 million to install a K-5 curriculum in kindergarten through grade 10 and adapt it while it's up and running. Although research has shown workshop processes to be generally more effective than top-down writing instruction at all levels, some doubt that a grade-school curriculum, even if amended for adolescents, is a wise choice for a school district aiming to have students college- and career-ready by graduation.

Lucy Calkins founded the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP) at Columbia University in 1981. Drawing on the work of such mentors as Graves and the National Writing Project (NWP), she wrote the best-selling The Art of Teaching Writing (1986) and developed a signature curriculum. In 2003 New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein paid Calkins and TCRWP $5.4 million to revolutionize, in the space of three years, the teaching of literacy at more than 100 schools in his charge.

Soon afterward the publication of Writing Workshop launched a profitable industry. The K-5 curriculum is marketed in glossy sets of daily teaching scripts, or Units of Study (UOS), supplemented by DVDs. School districts don't just buy the packages but also fly cadres of teachers and administrators to week-long training institutes in New York, and pay TCRWP coaches more than $1,000/day plus expenses for on-site consultations at their schools.

Under Calkins’s direction the flexible workshops of her predecessors became a single tight regimen. An hour-long writing class must be held every day. Teachers start by delivering a “minilesson” in narrative skills; then students write and confer for 45-50 minutes. Assignments are mainly personal stories, the rationale being that students write them more independently and “authentically” than academic papers. Teachers are instructed to use the Calkins vocabulary; for example, the colorful anecdote central to what she deems a good story, which must convey a strong emotion such as worry or embarrassment, is called a “small moment." Conferences have a pre-set format. Teachers must enhance students’ authority through ritual gestures such as always addressing them as writers (“Gather around, writers!”). And so forth.

And suddenly ... mass conversions! Around the nation, teachers who thought learning to write meant learning to spell, or to not split infinitives or use “lay” for “lie” in workbook drills, are having their students write soulful tales about themselves every single day. Before Calkins, so many writing teachers were never on the same narrowly ruled page at the same time. What made the UOS such a catalyst?


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting article. I'm not a teacher, but I very much enjoyed (and excelled at) writing in school. I'm not sure the Calkins method would've been comfortable for me at that time because I lived in an alcoholic, abusive home, and my journalistic entries definitely would've been in the noir vein. The social structure and legal expectations around that have changed considerably over my lifetime, but today disclosures of that nature would result in a police report.

I wonder if the perceived failure isn't around adopting Calkins, but moving kids past it into academic writing. To me, it seems most geared toward getting kids jazzed up on writing. In that sense, it's certainly a valuable tool; but at a certain point the curriculum should evolve toward research writing - and if approached correctly, even the kids who are perhaps destined for blue-collar jobs will have something meaningful to write about.

I wonder, too, how texting is affecting writing ability. My high school-age niece is my only measure. She's never been a proficient speller, and it only seems to have gotten worse in her teens. Most of the time she writes as though she's texting. What will happen to writing in the future, as those ensconsed in texting become our primary workforce?

debbalee

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice work. It seems quite parallel to the inquiry math story, in that a good idea that shows great benefits for some kids some of the time morphs into a K-12 curriculum for all kids, all of the time. Then the problem is that other good ideas, essential in their own right, are left out.

This kind of entrepreneurship probably fills a niche created by our desire for a magic bullet. I sometimes bemoan the fact that education methods are not held up to the same standard as medical ones, but in this case, all the FDA requires is that a drug help some people some of the time. So that leaves it up to us to be smart consumers.

eyesopen

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Demanding stories about personal experience and emotions sounds invasive! And of limited interest. I hope they let kids write about other things too.

Storytelling is a great skill. But don't forget that for most people, it's important to be able to write clearly, logically, and succinctly, with no errors (knock on wood).

mhays

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

What a fine article on teaching. While focused on writing skills it points to the larger issue of the challenge educators face in finding a way to teach skills in classrooms of sometimes 40 kids with different abilities and backgrounds.  As a teacher, who didn’t teach writing, I certainly was aware of the long list of teaching methods or philosophies that come and go in the profession. Often it’s almost a fad.  The new math book adoption is an example.  

You did an outstanding job of making clear that a formula goes only so far and great teachers will shift methods to fit individual students.   I loved the line where the 10 year old boy ran out of small moments to write about or other boys wanted to write about how stuff works.   

I'm privileged to be still in touch with a few of the most gifted and creative of students who were often the square peg in any teaching theory.   Some of our greatest minds have rebelled at formula teaching.   They simply would not allow themselves to be fit into a mold.   But you know all of this of course.  

There have been, it seems, fads in psychology.  One still in current use is to talk about your problems -- to get it all out as if it were a poison in your system.   What I discovered more often with kids was a need to find school as an escape from their personal troubles.   They might want to know you were willing to listen and understand, but most didn't want to keep wallowing in their problems.  Grief counseling gone amuck. 

This is a fine piece of writing, well documented and characterizes the challenges of teaching so very well.

KK

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 11:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Despite our diversity and demand for choice in just about every aspect of our lives, we Americans are very much herd-minded with respect to institutional life. That's reflected in public (mass) education, business and governmental (bureaucratic) processes, and cultural trends--where we adopt trends uniformly and are nervous about deviation.

The writing approach that you describe is almost certainly effective for SOME students for PARTS of their careers as learners, and will TO SOME DEGREE help to achieve mastery.

For others, it's purely a crock, and they shouldn't be required to slog through this particular boot camp.

We'll always have evangelists for (and eager, for-profit marketers of) this or that technique or program as "the answer"--for reading, writing, mathematics, etc., etc. These champions will continue to win the curriculum wars so long as school districts insist on "one size fits all" without making provision for variation among learners (and, may I say, teachers?).

I first learned to write by reading voraciously--in most cases, stories that grabbed and kept my interest--and I thereby absorbed the cadence and swing and stride of prose and poetry. When I began writing, I already had internalized those rhythms (and basic rules of grammar, and spelling, and usage), and had some good models to emulate. Later, I spent years in print journalism, learning from copy editors who gave rapid and energetic feedback in the craft.

In a "receptive" manner, maybe that kind of learning is similar to what Calkins encourages as an "expressive" experience--but I wouldn't presume to require every other learner to follow my path through the forest, or to expect the same result in every case.

I think our essential challenge is creating individualized opportunities to learn and practice that go beyond single-source programs. Providing those diverse opportunities in overcrowded classrooms and under-budgeted school programs is very hard indeed.

Seneca

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 3:51 p.m. Inappropriate

As others have already commented, this is a great article, just the kind of thing one can depend upon from Crosscut. Lightfoot has articulated what is for college writing instructors in fact a very old debate, one represented by the two extremes expressed by Calkins followers and her foes—emotive, expressive, personal narrative on the one hand and high-minded, research-based, academic writing on the other. However, it’s a faulty dichotomy and a debate that serves to polarize rather than serve either students or their teachers.

The two positions are simply not mutually exclusive. The problem with Calkin and her equivalents at the college level, as she has many, is that they miss the fact that the very best memoir writing does not present its narrative in a vacuum but instead takes up an intellectual project much in the same spirit as an academic inquiry. For example, Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking does not merely pour out her grief after the death of her husband but instead explores what it means to reconstruct one’s perception in the wake of not just one but two major emotional losses. And she does so by tuning in not just to her own thoughts and emotional states but to the writing and thinking on the subject that has come before hers.

Conversely, academic and scientific pursuits are often motivated, fueled, and accelerated by the researcher’s personal drive, interests, background, and experiences. For example, a Holocaust scholar whose parent is a survivor would be remiss not to consider how her parent’s personal narrative influences her scholarship. Some scholars even make this connection present in their research, both as an asset and a difficulty.

The best writing instruction recognizes that students are best taught when they are neither writing in a vacuum, as if their personal experiences were be-all and end-all, nor discouraged from bringing the full force of their life’s experiences to bear on whatever question is at hand. Students are students; they did not start the conversation. They should be encouraged to read good writing and respond, to read actively and question, to read deeply and write in conversation with the experts they are reading. This is how they become confident and competent writers, not by enthusiastically labeling them such.

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 6:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Academic writing is very discipline-specific; I'm not sure what "academic writing" even means--and I don't think most people do. The way you construct a paper of literary criticism for an English class is quite different than the way you construct an article explaining your ornithological research, which is different again from the way you construct a paper in mathematics, anthropology, law, or medicine. Methodologies, vocabulary, and even citation style are radically different. My guess is the writers of the best examples of academic material learned how to write as upper-class(wo)men in college and/or in graduate school and did so by reading lots of good examples of this genre.

Most academic writing is not generally the kind of writing anyone wants kids to aspire to, anyway.

One thing that is *is* sorely lacking from academic writing at the college and graduate level, however, is very much the personal touch and strong, independent voice that Seattle's writing curriculum is trying to empower kids to rely on. If you bring that to your writing, you have a solid basis for any writing you will learn to do in college or later in life.

smacgry

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

Fascinating article indeed, and Lisa is spot on in her comments.

I have found that nothing has helped me learn to write more than reading, reading, reading, and reading some more. Is reading being taught as a way to learn how people communicate — or fail to do so — or simply as a way to gather information for some other purpose?

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 9:26 p.m. Inappropriate

I read this with some interest as a teacher who uses the TC Writer's Workshop methods in SPS. While the criticisms are valid they miss the fact that the rigidity lies in sequence, but not in the content of the writing. The mini-lesson format, extended writing times and Idea Generation strategies can be used to teach all genres of writing to a wide variety of students. It may mean violating some of the edits of L.C. but it does work.

teachersb

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 9:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Writers Workshop comes to the Seattle Schools at the expense of solid expository forms of writing. Compare and contrast writing, persuasive essays, business letters, science investigation conclusions, summaries, and retells, all require very specific formats. Writers Workshop supplants these forms in favor of the narrative autobiographic gibberish so popular with the current crop of local education professors and new teaching graduates.

Future students unable to write in the multiple technical forms necessary for the PSAT or Freshman College classes are doomed to remediation. This is what we can expect in several years when this current writing experiment fails as miserably as the current math curriculum experiment underway in our local schools.

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 10:22 p.m. Inappropriate

I have recently been doing a lot of research on this writing program and for the last three years have been volunteering in classrooms that use it. I think Judy has written a great article, but I feel the focus should be more on the execution of this program than the program itself.

Let's be clear about what the Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop is: a K-5 writing program -not a middle-school program and not a high-school program. If used in the way it is instructed it works miracles. Year after year I see students developing as writers and thinkers within this program. I believe that the instructed writing process (outlined in the curriculum books) in combination with the personal narratives are extremely beneficial to a students cognitive, social and emotional development.

We should also be clear that despite peoples focus on the personal narratives, the 3-5 curriculum books also focus on essay writing and fiction writing. I'm sure many will find this surprising, being that there is so much focus on people shouting about too many personal narratives, but there is a full curriculum book dedicated to essay writing. I find the instructions within this book to be an excellent way to introduce thesis based essays that will hopefully be widened in scope when the students enter middle-school. Yes, there is a personal slant to the essays, but for 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students, I find this completely appropriate and helpful.

As with most education programs, the effectiveness of the teacher is paramount in the success of the program. The Writing Workshop is different enough that it throws some teachers off. The strength of this program, in my opinion, lyes in its easy packaging of the whole writing process. Many Teachers are not well versed in the teaching of writing and this program helps fill this gap. Let me be very clear, I absolutely do not blame the teachers for this.There is simply not a large focus on the teaching of writing in teaching colleges and beyond. And effective writing, especially knowledge of an efficient writing process, is not common knowledge to most people outside of academics and English teachers. The writing process outlined in the Writing Workshop curriculum books I find to a be a very effective means of teaching students the discursive thought process that many only learn at the college level.

Although I am a fan of the Writing Workshop, I am shocked to hear of its presence at the high school level. This program was never meant to be used for that age of student and I find it inappropriate and pedagogically lazy for schools to be using it this way.

Looking at specific criticism in this article, I have a few issues. For one, there is a student quoted as saying at age 10 they have ran out of small moments to write about. As someone who has worked with hundreds of students going through this program, I can tell you that this is by far the minority experience. Many of the students actually look forward to the program and see writing as a fun activity. What a change that is from my days in grade school where everyone by and large hated writing.

Also, the article linked at the end of this article is a piece I encountered a few years back and find it to be extremely biased and in some cases flat out wrong about certain details regarding both Lucy Calkins and the Writing Workshop. So be warned and approach that article with skepticism.

nw

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 10:33 p.m. Inappropriate

And effective writing, especially knowledge of an efficient writing process, is not common knowledge to most people outside of academics and English teachers.

@nw — You seem to be leaving out all sorts of editorial/communications professionals. Was that deliberate? Granted, there may be more journalists, PR folks, and marketers than we'd like to think who really can't write very well, let alone know anything about efficient process, but unfortunately the same can be said for academics and English teachers as well.

Posted Wed, Mar 10, 10:55 p.m. Inappropriate

@Benjamin -Excellent point. My apologies for inadvertently slandering millions of amazingly talented writers.

My quick writing led to a very broad and inaccurate statement. What I meant to say was the knowledge of how to teach an effective writing process (specifically how to instruct effective writing practices to 6-10 year olds) is not commonly known.

As I'm sure we can agree, knowing how to write and knowing how to teach writing are two separate beasts. Within my own family there are several elementary teachers and we often discuss the difficulties of teaching writing. Its tough, but rewarding.

Going a bit further with this, we have to remember that before the installation of the Writing Workshop in our states schools there was in some cases no writing program and in other cases programs like the Six-Traits writing program, which is a joke. It uses outdated pedagogy that adheres to a very conservative way of looking at writing.

I by no means think that Lucy Calkins Writing Workshop is perfect, but I love how it has exploded the use of writing within our schools and has led to these kind of discussions. Hopefully in the years to come new programs will be made and more quality student writing will be done.

nw

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