(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published March 10.)
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?
Perhaps it’s the way Calkins turned the untidy process of good writing instruction into daily scripts that could be recited verbatim, right down to phrases of encouragement she has called “authentic gushing.” When teachers express excitement about their students’ writing every day, and when students feel more authority because they know the facts of their own experiences better than their teachers do, motivation no doubt rises. And because even a tightly scripted workshop is more active and engaging than workbooks or the mind-numbing “5-paragraph essay,” resistant students are likely more interested in producing something.
Still, teachers would have been put off by scripts that seemed canned. Calkins’s most brilliant marketing stroke may have been to place herself at the center of Writing Workshop as a friendly personal model for the teacher-user. Throughout the UOS, photos of the author show a smiling, thoughtful mentor engaging students with the casual mastery you’d love to possess yourself. The text is in her own voice — chatty, comfortable, “gushing,” diffuse, presenting the scripts in a real-life classroom situation as if mulling them over with a comrade. Lucy’s right here with you, helping you shepherd your twitchy kids along.
Many in Seattle are convinced that the curriculum is effective. Holly Miller, director of the City of Seattle’s Office of Education, said, “In schools with high numbers of under-performing kids, Writing Workshop flings the windows open for writing.” Particularly “for kids who don't believe they can write, or think they have nothing to say, it's an amazing experience watching them gain.” Miller described a student at Madrona Middle School who passed all three sections of the WASL for the first time. He was blown away by his improved score in math, said Miller, but not by having passed the writing test. "Of course I passed it," she quoted the student as telling his school principal. "I'm a writer!"
Daniel Coles and Ruth Medsker, respectively Seattle Schools' K-12 literacy program manager and director of middle schools instruction, pointed to WASL writing scores that have risen where Writing Workshop is taught and said the program improves the work of students at all levels. Coles said, “Children in special ed, language learners — they compete with other students not only in quality but in volume of writing." Medsker said, "The narratives by students whose lives are complex are powerful, heartbreaking."
Anne Brewster, reading specialist at Coe Elementary, said that with Writing Workshop there is “a sequenced order of instruction. Teachers say it’s nice to have a curriculum to use, instead of winging it.” Gains at middle schools sounded significant, too. Teachers expressed appreciation for a program that lets students start at their own level and then progress to the writing of persuasive and literary essays.
At the high school level, four language arts teachers are now adapting Writing Workshop to their 9th and 10th grade classes at Cleveland High School. Janice Morton said her students are more comfortable and fluent as writers, and she has fewer disciplinary issues. Adam Burden agreed: “You find out where the kids are and can do lots of individual work with them, and push them to think about their own process…There are students with major life issues who have moved along."
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