An Open Letter to Lucy Calkins
Dear Lucy Calkins,
It was 1994 and I was enrolled in a credential program to become an elementary school teacher. My professor, Dr. Joann Adams, began every class with a read aloud of a children's book. During this chaotic time of college life, listening to a beloved classic or a newfound favorite was a calming and centering activity that allowed us to focus on the arduous work of becoming teachers. Looking back, I now know that Dr. Adams was purposeful in this practice, cultivating a love for literature that we would carry forward into our own classrooms.
Money was tight back then, so I bought a used copy of our textbook, The Art of Teaching Writing. Most of the time when buying a used textbook, I would find the copy that looked the most like new. The previous owner of this edition had folded down corners of key pages, drawn pictures and taken notes in the margins, and highlighted important sections. Obviously, someone had found this material life changing. I imagined she would sit up late at night in her dorm room pouring over the pages with a flashlight so as not to disturb her roommate. I suppose I chose this particular copy simply for the evidence that it had been truly loved and absorbed. This copy would not be going back to the campus bookstore shelf. It would become a treasured friend once again, a velveteen rabbit coming to life to inspire a brand new teacher.
As students of the early 90's, we were in the throws of the great pendulum shift from phonics based reading instruction to Whole Language. Luckily, our professor had the wisdom and experience to impart the benefits of a well rounded, balanced language arts program to her students. And it was in this context that I was introduced to Writing Workshop. This model fit so perfectly into my freshman "philosophy of education" that I had written in order to be accepted into the teacher credential program. I drank it in and was so excited to put it to use in my own classroom.
After all the coursework, student teaching was so exciting. To actually be practicing what we had been learning was a real treat. Four of us girls shared a tiny apartment with hand-me-down furniture and spent our nights scripting out 7-step lessons plans a la Dr. Madeleine Hunter. We laughed at ourselves (and sometimes cried) the next day when they didn't go so well as planned. Writing Workshop was in the back of my mind these months, but it was not modeled for me as an aspiring educator at either of the two school sites that were training me. Writing instruction consisted of assigning a topic, giving time to write independently, and then grading the product with a red pen.
I was offered a teaching contract before I had even finished my student teaching. I would open my first classroom weeks after completing the credential. I spent long hours and late nights preparing to meet my students. I thought, "My classroom is going to be different for them." I wanted my kids to have a voice and to make choices. My students were not going to sit in rows while filling out boring worksheets. They would be taught critical thinking skills using Bloom's Taxonomy to problem solve their way through the world. They would be creative and artistic, motivated lovers of literature, mathematicians, astronomers, dreamers. I would honor their multiple intelligences as taught by Dr. Howard Gardner and incorporate different modalities and learning styles into my teaching. I would implement a workshop model even though I had never seen it actually working. I sometimes wonder what my first principal thought of me. Was he inspired by my enthusiasm? Did he find my earnestness "cute"? Was he watching to see how long it would take before I assimilated into the status quo of his very veteran teaching staff?
On the first day of school, I displayed a carefully organized writing center with different types of paper and writing implements. I had an authors' corner to feature books, a grammar wall for daily practice (well-meaning, but ineffectual), and perfectly organized writing folders with each child's name written in perfect printing. I tried my very best to allow students to choose their own topics, work at their own pace through the writing process, and publish in ways that were easily shareable. I had difficulty planning teaching points because I didn't truly understand what was expected of a 10 year old author. I didn't know how to confer with my writers; I often simply complimented them and moved on to the next one. I wasn't impressed with the pieces my students were producing. The organization and classroom management of this model was totally overwhelming for a rookie.
Sadly, it only took a year for my idealism to fade. I soon found that the demands of the District's criterion referenced tests required more and more direct instruction on grammar and mechanics. Similes and metaphors were taught completely out of context, but boy, could my class pass a test! As a new teacher, I was lauded for these results, even though somewhere in my heart, I new something was amiss. I followed the examples of my more experienced colleagues across the hall. The Art of Teaching Writing went on the shelf, replaced by a curriculum that taught form and function over voice and communication.
After five years of teaching, I moved into administration. Fast forward more than 20 years and I am now the Principal of Beechwood School. During the first week, to my surprise, I learned there were a few pioneering teachers who were trying to implement Writing Workshop together. In addition, there was a Foundation made up of parents and community members who wanted to financially support this work. And I thought to myself, "How can I contribute to this movement? What can I give to these teachers that I didn't have in my early years? What is it going to take to provide these kids with the kind of education that Dr. Adams instilled in me?"
We have worked hard over the past five years to promote writing workshop in every grade level and every classroom from kindergarten through eighth grade. We have sent teachers to Columbia University to become models for others. We have purchased the Units of Study for everyone to have their own copy. We have provided structured professional development on site, hiring consultants to move beyond beginning levels of implementation. We have mastered the mini-lesson, learned to confer, developed writing toolkits, and published to broad audiences. We have incorporated technology in appropriate ways while believing pencil and paper and notebooks still have a place in the classroom. We have personalized writing instruction, encouraging each writer with individualized goals. We understand the learning progressions and can write concise teaching points. Most importantly, we have celebrated the voices of our students and are oh-so-proud of the pieces they produce.
So Lucy...I'll be heading to New York next week for the training I wish I had had as a first year educator. I will commit myself to learning through the lens of a classroom teacher, and I will seek out ways to continue to build our community of writers here in Fullerton, California.
Your life's work has been an inspiration to me throughout my career. You have enriched countless minds through reading and writing. I'm going to find my original copy of The Art of Teaching Writing. I'm hoping you'll grace its worn pages with your signature!
Sincerely, Julie Graham