Just released this week: Lucy Calkins’ Workshop Help Desk Series! The titles in this series can be purchased separately ($8 each):
I’m sitting here with a friend in a coffee and art shop, digesting one of the best burgers I’ve had in a while. My friend teaches at Madrona K-8 School in Seattle, and we’ve been chatting about her school which is comprised of mostly low-income African American students. What is particularly striking about Madrona K-8 School is that their current 8th grade class boasts the highest writing scores in the city. In the city! Higher than the affluent schools in Queen Anne!
What is the secret behind Madrona’s success? There are many contributing factors, to be sure, but it is clear that their teachers offer quality instruction. More specifically, they offer what I would argue is the best pedagogical approach to teaching writing, namely, writing workshop.
Tonight’s conversation harkens me back to a previous conversation I had with some educators on a trip to Manhattan to see writing workshop in action in District 2. One individual remarked, “This writing workshop approach might work for these kids, but I’m not sure it will work with ours.” On another occasion, a teacher exclaimed, “Writing workshop may work well for white students, but not for…”
Beginning with his book Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol has long argued that certain educational structures reinforce a “continual and standardized underrating” of young people where adults believe, “They can’t do it, couldn’t do it, wouldn’t like it, don’t deserve it…” (p. 52). Writing workshop is often dismissed due to this pervading underestimation of students of color, which I believe is one of the underlying mendacities that further reinforce and legitimize the inequitable distribution of high quality instruction in many of today’s schools.
In my work with the Center for Educational Leadership, we believe the achievement gap will be eliminated when the quality of instruction in the classroom improves. Schools like Madrona K-8 School powerfully demonstrate this. The administrators, teachers, and students that make up Madrona K-8 School inspire me. No child deserves a one-size-fits-all literacy program. Every student deserves thoughtful, non-scripted curricula. And it is the privilege and responsibility of literacy coaches to help teachers make this a reality on a daily basis.
My current role as a literacy coach is different from the one I played in Baltimore City Public Schools. In Baltimore, I was a school-based coach, working in two schools. Now, I serve as a consultant, working with an entire school district that has officially adopted the writing workshop model. Of course, a handful of incredible educators in this district were already doing writing workshop prior to this year, and it has been a privilege and joy to share in their journey of helping colleagues discover what is possible.
So what does it look like when an entire district decides to take on writing workshop? Excitement. Hope. Fear. Doubt. There is so much to learn in so little time, and it’s easy for teachers to feel overwhelmed. What follows is an excerpt from an email that I sent my teacher leaders that addresses this point:
I am delighted to hear how each of you are taking steps forward to meet the needs of your students! One of your colleagues emailed me yesterday to share that some teachers at her school were feeling a bit overwhelmed incorporating all the elements of writing workshop, to which I responded: “It is perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, that is how I felt back in 1996! But hopefully, with time, we as a team can work together in facing this steep learning curve.” It takes both time and hard work to successfully implement any best practice, and I congratulate your district for taking the courage to push your professional learning forward, for the sake of your students.
As we move forward in our professional development, I am trying to strike a balance between pushing teachers to take new risks in their teaching and reminding them that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” If I push too hard by failing to set realistic expectations with teachers, the ideals of writing workshop may appear unattainable (which typically results in teacher resistance). If I don’t push teachers beyond their comfort zone, I do not move professional learning forward (which typically results in, well, nothing). Just like I provide scaffolded instruction for students, I want to provide the right structures and support for teachers so that they can feel successful in trying new things in their classrooms.