Recent controversy over literacy guru Lucy Calkins focused on his approach to teaching reading. But she rose to prominence as an expert in writing, and her influence there was even greater – and at least as nefarious.
About 40 years ago, an idealistic young teacher and aspiring writer joined a two-year research project on the development of writing in young children at a rural New Hampshire school. It wasn’t the kind of science experiment That implies a hypothesis tested against a “control group”. The researchers would only observe closely 16 children in the classrooms – and in the case of the young teacher, Lucy Calkins, the observation centered on a third-grader named Susie.
But Calkins did more than observe. She herself had recently studied with a writer named Donald Murray, who introduced her to concepts such as writing and revision and helped her find her voice as a writer – the kind of stuff college and graduate students do in creative writing workshops. Calkins’ not-so-hidden agenda was to bring this approach to young children and show them that their own lives and ideas are worth writing down.
Calkins described this study in his book Lessons from a child, published in 1983. Appalled to see that teachers assigned writing topics and then “only corrected and marked the papers,” Calkins persuaded them to let the children choose their own topics, to write with minimal advice. ‘adults and to give each other comments on the drafts of their essays during the “workshop” time.
This approach was partly born out of necessity: like most teachers, those at this school had not been trained to teach writing. Calkins noted with approval that one of Susie’s teachers has become more of a “listener” than a writing instructor. Another confessed that she was “not an expert at writing,” telling the children, “Each of you must be a writing teacher.” In Calkins ‘view, this approach, with children producing multiple drafts of grandparents’ visiting or fishing essays, worked wonderfully. The teachers weren’t so sure. “All that work”, one would moan, looking at a finished product, “for that”.
Calkins’ research ultimately led to a K-8 program called the Study units in reading and writing, now estimated at among the most popular literacy programs in the country. The reading units incorporate ideas that have long been at the heart of the movements “whole word” then “balanced literacy”, but Calkins’ approach to writing is primarily his own contribution, at least, applied to children.
Calkins’ perceptions of writing were accurate in some ways. She first understood that children couldn’t write well on subjects they didn’t know much about, one of the reasons she wanted them to write about their own experience. She also saw that writing should be seen as a process rather than a series of separate tasks.
But his approach is based on two mistaken assumptions. The first is that writing skills can and should be taught separately from subjects like history or the sciences – an assumption that Calkins and many others have also made about. reading comprehension skills like “find the main idea”. Originally, she seems to have believed that if children hone their writing skills on personal stories, they could transfer those techniques to the more difficult types of writing expected at higher levels.
The Core Literacy Standards, published in 2010, pushed back this idea, requiring more “informative” and “persuasive” writing at the elementary level. In response, Calkins broadened his approach to include these genres. And unlike other “Common Core” writing programs, which expect students to write on topics they are unfamiliar with, some of Calkins’ information and persuasion units require children to write. study a specific topic for four to six weeks.
But even then, it focuses on writing skills rather than the content itself, and the assumption is that teachers might choose to substitute for a different topic. A second-year science writing unit uses the theme of force and movement, but teachers are advised that if that “isn’t right for you, you can transfer this teaching to another science field.”
Therefore, lesson titles and “teaching points” are content neutral, for example, “History writers pay attention to geography”, in a fifth year unit. But the subject used is the westward expansion, and the teacher’s “script” illustrating the point centers on the Erie Canal. Teachers who choose another topic should know enough about it to get a sense of the influence of geography. And the young students must then write essays applying these generic ideas to other subjects of their choice.
When I interviewed Calkins for a book several years ago, she told me that kids should get some substantive knowledge in their social studies and science classes, but that’s not her to concentrate. “When I teach people to write,” she said, “I teach them a method, I teach them to do something. ”
This approach may work for personal essays, but it may encounter problems in units where the goal is to get children to write “like a scientist” or “like a historian”. Scientists and historians can only write as they do because they know a lot about their subjects.
Once students have a certain threshold of information about a topic, writing can be a powerful way to develop and deepen their knowledge. But why teach a separate writing program with its own history and science subjects? If students learn from, say, civil war in social science, assuming their school even give time for social studies – why shouldn’t they use writing to develop their knowledge of the Civil War, rather than learning to “write like a historian” about a different set of events during English class?
Alternatively, schools could adopt a literacy program that incorporates subjects of history and science, an approach that was shown to boost reading comprehension. But students benefit the most if they read and write on the same topics, and Calkins’ reading and writing units are not coordinated in this way.
The second even more fundamental misconception underlying Calkins’ program is that the “workshop” approach, developed for experienced adult writers, will also work for children as young as five years old. Like many others, Calkins seriously underestimates how difficult the process of learning to write is for most students.
She firmly believes in getting children to write with little planning – “lightning-quick writing,” she calls it – and produce stupendous amounts of prose. “Nothing is more consistently useful for young writers than encouraging more writing,” she said. Study units for kindergartens advises. “This is why train your little ones to write more and more and more is crucial. The assumption that children should write at length from the start is now part of educational orthodoxy, even enshrined in the writing standards of the core curriculum.
But writing requires juggling so many different factors – forming letters, choosing and spelling words, organizing thoughts – that it can be overwhelming. Children can become paralyzed, not knowing where to start. Or they can dump pages of barely readable and largely inconsistent prose. A second grade teacher showed me a sample of this kind of writing, saying he knew he was supposed to ‘answer’ it but couldn’t understand what the student was trying to say.
The Calkins curriculum expects children to write essays and even “books” before they have learned to construct sentences, and they must discover the intricacies of writing largely by themselves. same. They might, for example, be asked to write keyphrases on sticky notes and sort them into categories before writing on Westward Expansion, but if they run into problems, teachers are advised to remind them that “the settlers also encountered problems” and “had to solve problems”.
Learning to categorize and order ideas is extremely difficult – and despite Calkins’ claims to the contrary, even very experienced writers often rely on detailed outlines (at least I do). Something as basic as the concept of a sentence is so complex that many children, and even some adults, won’t understand it unless they repeatedly practice distinguishing full sentences from fragments, under the direction of a teacher.
The teaching of writing has enormous potential for developing knowledge and literacy, but in order to unleash its power two basic principles must be observed, both of which Calkins overlooks. First, writing activities need to be integrated into the core curriculum content so that they develop the knowledge we want students to acquire. Second, teachers need to modulate the heavy cognitive load imposed by writing through explicit instruction and supervised practice, starting at the sentence level if that is what students need. (I am co-author of a book outlining such a method, The writing revolution, but I have no financial interest in the book or the organization of the same name.)
Calkins’ journey as a writing guru clearly began from a place of empathy and respect for children. But essentially she asks teachers to throw the kids in the deep end of the pool, tell them they’re “swimmers” and let them sink. If kindergarten kids are reluctant to jump right into writing ‘informational’ textbooks and gentle cuddles don’t work, Calkins advises teachers to press a child’s page, “a gesture that says ‘Write’ ‘or convey’ a business ‘Now.’ If teachers tell Calkins that their students’ writing doesn’t look like the examples in her books, she blames their low expectations, as I overheard her do in a training session. “So often,” she writes, “when we’re in classrooms where the teacher says kids find some type of writing“ really hard, ”we ask,“ I wonder where they got it. feeling? “”
But write is really hard. It is not underestimating the capacities of the pupils to say that they need a slower pace and more explicit instruction. On the contrary, for many students, providing them with these things is the key to unlocking their true potential.