Saturday, December 22, 2018

JECC Reflection 2b: Learning Product and Belief, the Writing Workshop

“Students have to make something of value to themselves and to their community, they cannot only engage in the process.  They will never master anything and have a sense of what they are capable of.”

Ron Berger (paraphrased), Expeditionary Learning

The Good
Writers’ Workshop believes in the child’s ability to construct their own writing.  Students immerse in a genre through an anchor text and through whole class and peer discussion unpack the piece together.  Over a month or longer students move through a writing cycle - Prewriting, Drafting, Revising, Editing, Publishing. An hour each day is dedicated to the writing process, each day following a similar rhythm of teacher mini-lesson, a quick practicing of the skill, and the rest of the time is spent writing alone, in small group, or conferring with the teacher.  Students regularly read their work aloud in rough form to peers, get feedback, and go back at it. The cycle ends in a publishing party where ideally the learning community beyond the walls of the classroom join to validate student work.

The good is student choose their own topics and are taught through the process that text is not merely something we decode but something we create from life experience, alone, with peers, and whole groups. Students repeat the cycle of a writing process throughout the year. Each cycle culminates in a published piece of work.

The Bad
The bad is that anything scaled to such a degree is bound to lose its essence.  Lucy Calkins in Lessons From a Child and The Art of Writing goes deep into child writing as a constructivist process with near total freedom in time to complete a writing piece.  Over time, through Columbia Teachers College, the “program” was implemented across New York State, across the country, and into many international schools.  Adaptations had to be made to survive No Child Left Behind and Common Core. What began as a ground up constructivist method morphed into a robust “program” incorporating a reading block as well.

Although the research and training intensified, the program has grown into a corporate hierarchy where districts unload mammoth amounts of money to send “select” teachers, coaches, and administrators for trainings at Columbia (insert image of cult like frenzy on NYC subways any given morning of trainings).  A well-intentioned grassroots development that was supposed to empower students and teachers grew into a top down approach to literacy. Like Ron Berger, quoted above, author of An Ethic of Excellence, and creator of Expeditionary Learning Schools, the “program” has grown into something unrecognizable from its origins.  In such a heavily monitored system, the creators would not be able to enter as a teacher themselves. I am a proponent of preserving “old growth” in schools, and the slash and burn approach to implementing the new, even when the philosophical core is correct, damages the profession.

As one colleague who had worked in three different TC schools explained, the “program” was different in each school indicating there was plenty of flexibility to the design, but at the school we were working, there was steep competition to be selected to get sent to NYC for training.  Terms like “that’s not Lucy” were thrown at those that attempted to project collaborative documents around the room to engage in some of the practices described in the TC literature - buddy editing, dialogue journals, co-creating, writing with and for professionals, etc. Project schools are on a scale, year 1 to year 8 where different components of the program were released each year.  “Mastery” it was whispered, something akin to the farcical “pedagogical automaticity”, takes 12 years. Asinine in a school fighting to maintain an average teacher retention rate of two years.

Please read the above not as bitter, but as absurdly comedic.  I am a promoter of all constructivist learning and personally piloted the program for two years before it was officially adopted at my school.  I mixed in student created video presentations of writing, integrated with Arts, led whole class interactive raps around an Afro-Colombian drum, and led call and response campfire editing sessions demonstrating how one computer, one projector, and one wireless keyboard (or one long chord) brought in projected text as a living, breathing, constructivist tool.  I spent one hour every day on four to five student writing pieces preparing for the conference the following day (separate from the weekly on the spot conferring sessions). During parent conferences, the grades were on the table, but all we would talk about is the adventure in writing development their child was having as we reviewed artifacts from the writing portfolio.  When the formal adoption of the program began, a coach was brought in and we all started from square one. Teachers who previously integrated drama, hand puppets, mask making, and song into their writing stopped all of this for fear of being seen as not following the program.

The Ugly
The ugly is resistance to the multimodal inputs surrounding the construction of language.  To use the example of philosopher painter Kazimir Malevich and his 1915 Suprematism moment with Black Square, after the complete deconstruction of centuries of illusory painting into the non-objective world, Malevich stopped painting for five years, and only wrote.  

“…it seems as if it is not possible to obtain with the brush what can be obtained with the pen.  The brush is tattered, and can obtain nothing the twists and turns of the mind; the pen is sharper.”  

Dare I say I somewhat disagree with Malevich.  The brush is sharper in communicating precisely and remains the predominant literacy goal.  The graphic, physical artifact, reach around language into the a wider array of cognition and even beyond into our emotional core.  

In Art and Experience, Dewey explains,
"When a flash of lightning illumines a dark landscape, there is a momentary recognition of objects. But the recognition is not itself a mere point in time. It is the focal culmination of long, slow processes of maturation. It is the manifestation of the continuity of an ordered temporal experience in a sudden discrete instant climax."
Engineering backwards through the painting/object uncovers the stages of concentrated thought, the intent to solve a hypothesis through the medium, the social construction surrounding the artist, and the contributing cultural context. Forward through the painting the constructivism continues as we decode and contextualize the painting/object. How many layers of words have been spoken, arguments written about Black Square since 1915? Why would we remove this construction of language from the teaching and learning of writing, this opening up of other channels of packaging communication?

My 20 years of teaching have always been in classrooms where 90+% of the students do not speak English as a first language. Language both broadens and deepens by lowering the threshold of engagement with the decoding and construction of graphic, physical artifact, or other nonverbal participatory experience.  These are gateways to the metaphoric mind, the “life” of language. The UX design world can attest, you don’t want your designer to “write copy” as the specializations between the creation of powerful imagery and sharp, concise language demanded in today’s media world are different. But, we DO want our students to cross back and forth between these worlds of graphic and text, to experience a more “grounded cognition”.

Multimodality exists within the program in “episodic” form, sketching an idea for second language learners, collecting written perspectives around an evocative image, or playing with prosody in reader’s theater, but there lacks the “critical event” where students develop language at the same time as developing other modalities over time as the learning product.  To compare this to the IB program, the literature and performance course or the exhibit space within PYP, would be an example of this interdisciplinary product.

Children by nature are communicators across any medium necessary and while mastering the symbolic form of writing is a demanding discipline, this is not a long, dark tunnel children must walk alone.  Meaningful writing comes from meaningful language through oral, social, multimodal experience. When given choice, time to move through multiple interactions of writing, having peer and teacher feedback, exposure to master works in the specific genre of study, and performing the final product before an authentic audience, children are capable of mastering complex forms of writing.

I have reflected here on the Lucy Calkins version of Writing Workshop since that is what I have had experience with.  Even through the frustrations of how the program was implemented, I also saw great student writing produced, the product being the true measure.  We took Ron Berger's words seriously and made the writing celebrations school wide events. This idea of celebrating product of student work is a repeated theme from Rachel Fink's description of the JECC Reggio Emilia approach where student learning artifacts are on constant display, to Expeditionary Learning's celebrations of student projects, to IB PYP's "exhibition".

There are also many variations of Writers Lab worth exploring such as the Bard College Institute for Writing and Thinking, and the National Writing Project.  But aside from expensive programs, I believe one of my former principals had the best method of moving writing forward. She picked up notebooks and published writing from your class once a month, spent the evening reading through all of them, took notes, gave feedback, and together helped plan the next move. And this highlights a major flaw in the Edu-corporate marketing of programs. As Rachel Fink made explicit in repeating Loris Malaguzzi's call for equity in education, that all children should have access to quality learning environments. That does not get any easier when access is beyond the budget of most districts, or when only the handpicked favorites are sent for training.

Work Cited
Berger, R. (2003). An ethic of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. (1983). Lessons from a child: A case study of one childs growth in writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. (1994). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L. M. (2010). Constructing curriculum: Alternate units of study. Firsthand, Heinemann.

Davis, C. (n.d.). Reflection, Conversation, and Socratic Spaces. Retrieved from

Dewey, J. (1934). Art and experience. London: G. Allen.

Goldberg, G., & Serravallo, J. (2007). Conferring with readers: Supporting each students growth and independence. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Herren, J. A. (2019, February 8). Don't try to hire a designer who will also write copy. Retrieved from

Journeys in Podcasting. (2015, March 06). 2015 03 05 Journeys in Podcasting 5: Student Critiques. Retrieved from

Judd, D., Judd, F., & Murray, C. (2017). Malevich 1973-1974. In Donald Judd Writings(pp. 254-266). New York, NY: Judd Foundation.

Malevich, K. (n.d.). Black Square, Second State. Retrieved from

Malevich, K., & Hilberseimer, L. (2003). Kasimir Malevich: The non-objective world, the manifesto of Suprematism. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Marcade, J. (2012). Malevich, Painting and Writing: On the Development of a Suprematist Philosophy. New York: Guggenheim Museum.

Prescott-Griffin, M. L. (2007). Writer to writer. Heinemann.

Wikipedia. (2018, November 22). Writing Workshop. Retrieved from

Wilson, R. A., & Foglia, L. (2015, December 08). Embodied Cognition. Retrieved from

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