Thirty years ago, Lucy Calkins, fresh from apprenticing in the British Primary Schools, teaching in elementary, middle and high schools, and from working for several years with Don Graves on the nation's first big study of writing development, joined the faculty of Teachers College, Columbia University. While researching writing development for the National Institute of Education, Lucy had also been working as a staff developer in a score of schools and now, with her new responsibilities at the university, she needed to bring others aboard to help her continue supporting those schools. Within a few years, a cadre of people who had been Lucy's students were now functioning as the organization's founding team. Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher, JoAnn Portalupi and Shelley Harwayne were among the members of that initial team.
Although the earliest work of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project focused on writing, grants from DeWitt Wallace Foundation, Seagram Foundation and Vivendi supported the research and the break-through pedagogical work necessary for the organization to begin, more than two decades ago, to support reading as well as writing. Since then, the focus has been equally divided between reading and writing. Calkins has authored/co-authored Units of Study in Teaching Reading and The Art of Teaching Reading, and Project staff members have written numerous titles about the teaching of reading including: Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts – and Life (Lehman & Roberts, 2013); Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Student’s Growth and Independence (Goldberg & Serrvallo, 2007); and Teaching Reading in Small Groups: Differentiated Instruction for Building Strategic Independent Readers (Serravallo & Calkins, 2010).
Improving instruction in New York City’s schools has always been central to the TCRWP’s mission. The TCRWP was central to the much heralded literacy reforms in District 2, to NYC’s involvement with New Standards (Lucy was one of the writers of those standards) and when Chancellor Klein announced a common curriculum for NYC schools, he did so at PS 172, a TCRWP stronghold, with Lucy at his side, saying, “The curriculum in this school is the curriculum for this City.” That decision—mandating the reading and writing workshops for all NYC teachers—was not made with input from Calkins or the TCRWP, and in fact it caught the Project by surprise. How could a city as large as NYC mandate the instant adoption of an approach that requires professional development?
Although the TCRWP had not advocated for workshop teaching to be mandated for all, the announcement nevertheless meant that the TCRWP needed to help schools across the entire City embrace reading and writing workshops. Within a few months of the announcement, the TCRWP, with the help of able New York City Regional Superintendents (including Carmen Farina, now NYC’s Chancellor,) was leading once a week site-based study groups for 400 literacy coaches, offering 250 conference days a year, each designed for teachers at different grade levels, and the 120 TCRWP stronghold schools were each partnering with a few other schools.
The jury will always be out on whether it was a good thing to mandate an instantaneous, large-scale adoption of reading and writing workshop instruction. Certainly there were problems—chief among them was the fact that an approach that requires student-centered, responsive, assessment-based instruction was being “rolled out” by administrators who in many instances were not, themselves, well-informed and were accustomed to a compliance model of leadership. Yet still, schools that would probably never have found their own way towards inviting students to choose their own topics, to interact in book clubs, found their students doing work that surpassed all expectations. A principal of a high-needs school was overheard saying to another principal, “If I didn’t see this with my own eyes, I would never have believed it. Little ones—kindergarteners—writing like second graders! And reading!”
In any case, although NYC schools were mandated to teach literacy through a workshop approach for several years, since then the literacy curriculum in NYC has been a school-based choice. Either way, the TCRWP has continued to provide deep, long lasting professional development to a very large group of NYC schools, and many of those schools in turn function as unofficial mentor schools for the city and the nation. Principals from those schools and from nearby suburban schools study together each month and function as a support group for each other.
This network of schools provides a lab-school like environment for the many teachers from all over the world who come to Teachers College to study literacy education/leadership through the Literacy Specialist program Calkins co-leads.
Concurrently, the demand for staff development in literacy skyrocketed outside New York City as well as within NYC. The Reading and Writing Project LLC was developed to meet the need to extend and deepen support to schools throughout the nation and in other nations. Since then, Calkins and her team have worked in hundreds of districts, including nearby suburbs such as Scarsdale, Roslyn and Chappaqua, charter schools such as the Promise Academy and KIPP schools, and whole counties and cities. The Reading and Writing Project has also been involved in local schools across nations such as Israel, Sweden, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico, and in American or International schools in Paris, London, Singapore, India, Austria, and other equally far-flung places.
Since its inception, the Project has aimed to hold tight to the moral imperative to accelerate students’ development as readers and writers, and to help schools maintain a laser-like focus on improving teaching and learning. The world around us has changed during these years, and the TCRWP has changed as well. Embracing standards based education was not difficult, as the power of clear and ambitious goals is a hallmark in TCRWP instruction. The Project has played a central role in the rollout of both the first iteration of standards (Calkins was part of the committee authoring the New Standards and keynoted the conference at which they were rolled out) and in the rollout of the Common Core State Standards (Pathways to the Common Core written by Calkins, Ehrenworth, and Lehman in 2012 has been heralded as a seminal text on the implementation of the CCSS.) A separate section of this website discusses the TCRWP’s embrace of the CCSS as they were written and distrust of many of the practices done, since then, in the name of the Common Core.
Meanwhile, the TCRWP has also been involved with helping schools explore the power of data-based instruction when the statistics collected, charted, and studied, represent teachers’ goals. The organization has developed a web-based assessment system that has been accepted by New York State (and City) as a tool for tracking Measures of Student Learning. Some dimensions of that tool are available to any teacher on this website—others aspects require participating in a web-based software system.
More recently, the Project has built an alliance with teacher-effectiveness frameworks, especially Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. Further information on these topics is available in the resources section of the website.