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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Reading and Writing Workshop: It's Time to Pare it Down

Let me preface this post by stating that I am an ardent supporter of the framework of both reading and writing workshop.  I first learned about Writing Workshop back in the mid 1990's when I taught in Phoenix and heard Lucy Calkins at a one day PD event on teaching writing.  Everything she said about teaching process writing made sense: provide choice in writing topics, give frequent and actionable feedback to writers, give brief mini-lessons, and cultivate a literacy community where writing matters.  Her approach back then was simple, organic,  and student centered.  I immediately fell in love with it.

Since then, I have been fortunate to attend several week long training sessions at Columbia University's Teachers College (for both reading and writing workshop as well as literacy coaching). These institutes were truly some of the best professional development I've experienced and taught me about effective frameworks for teaching and coaching literacy.  Undeniably, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project provides some of the most meaningful PD for literacy educators in the U.S.

However, what has me troubled lately is the joy-sucking literacy curriculum (workshop curriculum) that has been published by Calkins and the ways in which districts have implemented it.  In the process of generating big bucks, workshop curriculum has simultaneously turned both teachers and kids off to literacy instruction with its brand of over-intellectualized and at times, demotivating components.

So what exactly went wrong?  In a word: money. Profitizing workshop with the teacher proofed curriculum has been its downfall.  It appears that the framework of workshop, including the beautifully scaffolded mini-lesson, has now become basalized in the truest sense of the word.  Instead of teachers creating their mini-lessons based on student needs,  they must abide by the script of the program.  Sure, Calkins would argue that teachers should differentiate their lessons (for example by using the "if, then" units) and the curriculum is only meant to be a guide (a mighty expensive one). However, districts don't see it that way. In today's day and age, districts are all about standardization and want teachers to adhere to the "fidelity" of programs. Districts don't seem to really trust their teachers to know how to create lessons independently (or want to invest time in teaching them), so the script prevails.

Secondly, school districts please take note:  It's okay if teachers just want to have a conference with kids about the book the student is reading.  Not every conference needs to have a teaching point.  I will repeat that.  Not every conference needs to have a teaching point.  In fact, I just heard a horror story about a district where teachers must be able to recite exactly what the teaching point is every time the principal walks in the room and the teacher is conferring.  Couldn't the point of one on one discussions be to deepen understanding through talk?  Wasn't it Vygotsky who stated that language is the tool of all tools?  Couldn't we allow kids to just share their thinking at the moment?  Or perhaps their excitement about the book instead of being subjected to another conferring mini-lesson?

Finally, I think what I find most ridiculous about the Calkins curricular approach to reading workshop is this overgrown fear that kids can't fall too in love with a book for fear they may become "plot junkies".  Instead of allowing students to just read...read...read, they must "push their thinking" in god awful reader's notebooks.  Here, they must create T-Charts about characters; analyze the minutia of character actions, and basically create a negative association with reading text.  I mean, when was the last time you stopped the book that you were reading in order to create a full page essay about the character conflict in your book?  Ahh...that would be never.  Don't get me wrong, we need to get students to linger in books and be reflective and talk about what they read.  Likewise, we need to teach important literary elements like symbolism, conflict, and theme. Unfortunately, the way in which workshop curriculum forces it on students is absurd.  We need to balance meaningful instruction with student's wants and desires as readers.   I suggest all workshop teachers read the study by Ivey and Johnston (2013) that illustrates just how motivating reading can be for kids when they are given the freedom to just read. Pure and simple: READ.

So, I ask all teachers to every so often skip the workshop Kool-Aid.  Or better yet, spit when you need to and go rogue!  Stand-up for your integrity, your talent, and of course, your student's identity as readers.  Take what you can from the original beauty of workshop (mini-lesson architecture, student choice, and gentle conferring) but don't be afraid to carve your own path for your students and yourself.

Now, off you go!

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