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?

Crosscut archive image.

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?

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."

Others warn, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” The person who relayed this quip from a colleague said the Calkins program is unsuitable over more than a few successive years: “In middle school they keep doing personal narratives even though kids who wrote them earlier are done with them.” Brewster said that even K-5 students should have more variety. She recalled a boy arriving in 6th grade who told his teacher, as she embarked on Calkins the first week of school, “I ran out of small moments. I’m only 10 years old.”

This child might have felt reluctant to write about himself and his feelings from the start. All kids aren't the same, and while all must learn to write, no legitimate educational purpose is served by learning to write the confessional memoir genre so popular today. One gifted writing teacher in Bellevue, who has taught sixth grade for decades (and is not presently teaching the Calkins program), described a girl in her class who recently remarked, “I hate writing about myself.” Many of this teacher’s male students, she said, “like science and information. They like to write about things out there in the world, about how things work.” Indeed, given boys’ literacy needs as discussed in Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys, by Michael Smith and Jeff Wilhelm, SPS might well wonder whether a focus on writing personal stories based on “small moments” of “worry, hope, embarrassment, or sadness” presents problems for half the adolescents in the system.

A more pressing question for some is whether narrative skills transfer to higher-order academic writing. John Webster, director of writing at the UW College of Arts & Sciences, said he sees value in personal assignments that help students feel more connected to writing in school, but “At higher grades that kind of writing seems less relevant to the kinds of tasks they need to master.” Such tasks are the focus of the Common Core State Standards Initiative for college and career readiness, which Washington State joined in 2009. A draft of the initiative’s writing standards puts the emphasis on informing, explaining, and constructing arguments. Students must be able to gather information, synthesize complex material, link claims with evidence logically, etc.

Calkins proponents such as Cleveland High’s academic dean Catherine Brown say that a narrative focus helps students build the independence required to succeed at writing tasks like those. For Morton, the drafting and revising skills her Cleveland students develop through writing narratives transfer well to other academic papers, and Calkins-style “small moments” translate into the specific evidence required for persuasive and literary essays. However, as Janine Brodine, K-12 director of the UW’s Puget Sound Writing Project, said, “To do well with academic writing, students need lots of practice.” In one 10th-grade Cleveland syllabus, personal narratives are assigned for 3-4 months, while non-narrative writing gets only 2-3.

Imbalances between storytelling and writing for other purposes can be corrected, of course, but how do students learn to move beyond the personal story? One Calkins middle school guide explains how a narrative called “Visiting My Grandparents in the Dominican Republic” can be revised into an essay with the thesis, “Visits to the Dominican Republic feel like going home": Just "repeat the claim over and over, each time adding the word because followed by a reason."

Nobody would disagree that a paper can be patched together this way, but the workshop discipline of writing to explore a complex question that engages the writer’s mind is abandoned in the process. The writer isn't practicing necessary skills of gathering information, synthesizing complex material, and linking claims with evidence logically, either. SPS jargon is about "embedding content in Writing Workshop," but, "Students need to do writing not to produce an artifact filled with content, but to think about a subject," said Joan Graham, director of the UW Interdisciplinary Writing Program. "This is most relevant to the college experience, and to the writing that people will do thereafter.”

Seattle schools adopted Calkins in the absence of research showing the program to be effective. Studies touted in TCRWP promotions fail to demonstrate that the UOS elevate achievement. The schools cited in the studies were strengthened by the introduction of workshop methods, which have generally been more successful than other methods since teachers started using workshops decades ago.

There is research, however, showing that achievement rises when effective teachers and leaders commit to aligned programs of proven best practices. This is true even at schools like the ones in Seattle that Miller referred to above as having “high numbers of under-performing kids.” One report, “High Performance in High Poverty Schools: 90/90/90 and Beyond,” by Douglas B. Reeves, concludes that progress in such schools does not depend on adopting copyrighted curriculums. “The techniques used by these schools are replicable,” writes Reeves, “but there is certainly not a need for schools to purchase special textbooks [or] curriculum materials.” A summary of the report can be found here.

Improved WASL writing scores don’t confirm the value of the Calkins curriculum per se, either. Any children who write frequently and at length will make at least small gains in writing. We need to remember, too, that though schools can rightly take pride in higher WASL scores, the purpose of the test is to assess minimum competencies, while SPS’s mission is to prepare students for college and careers.

Still, the Calkins package seems to have yielded two major benefits. The program has served as a form of professional development that has inspired many teachers. And adopting it has shown that an aligned writing curriculum — using workshop methods throughout the system that are aimed at achieving high goals — is a significant step up in equity and effectiveness for all students. The danger is that with the faddish hype and halo around Calkins, along with the million-dollars-plus invested in her program, SPS will treat it as an end in itself, not as a means. This would be a waste. There are important next steps to take, and they can be based on present progress.

For example, professional development for middle and high school teachers should seriously differ from the immersion in Calkins that helped K-5 teaching methods bloom. Since kids can be thoroughly Calkinized by grade 5, district leaders should ensure that teachers of grades 6-12 learn how to create effective workshops for older students, which concentrate on writing for purposes beyond narrative. In addition, a 6-12 core writing curriculum designed to prepare all students for success in careers and college can be built on the Calkins K-5 foundation. But the K-5 foundation must be broadened to include more writing about the world beyond the self.

As every administrator knows, professional development and curriculum reform are tricky. In each, equal weight must be given to the flexibility that individual teachers need for reaching individual students and to the discipline necessary for using best practices to meet high standards. A balance can be struck, but even a balanced design can eventually tilt and slide toward la-la land or toward the land of its polar opposite, theocracy.

For instance, the work of Lucy Calkins. In the view of some observers her ideas have grown so dogmatic that they crush the spirit of innovation and creative discipline she celebrated about workshop practices in the first place. A fascinating Education Next article describes the morphing of “a thoughtful educator who raised some interesting questions about how children were traditionally taught” into “a self-proclaimed literacy guru.”


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors