The Reading and Writing Project is one of the world's premier providers of professional development in the teaching of writing. Lucy Calkins's many books on teaching writing, including the now-classic The Art of Teaching Writing, are foundational to the field. Thousands and thousands of school districts have adopted Units of Study for Teaching Writing as their writing curriculum. Our professional development in writing stretches across the entire globe, involving nations as diverse as Jordan and Sweden, Singapore and India. More than 100,000 educators have attended our institutes in the teaching of writing, and hundreds of people return to these institutes every year.
Our work with writing begins with a commitment to structuring schools so that students have time to write—both long chunks of time to work as professional authors do, cycling through the stages of the writing process and receiving the feedback that is so essential to student growth, and also quick bursts of time for writing as a tool for learning across the curriculum. The Common Core Standards, recently adopted by forty-seven states, make it non-negotiable that students receive these opportunities to write.
During the writing workshop, students are invited to live, work and learn as writers. They learn to observe their lives and the world around them while collecting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing well-crafted narrative and expository texts. Students receive direct instruction in the form of a minilesson and a mid-workshop teaching point. The teacher explicitly names a skill that proficient writers use that is within reach for most of the class, then demonstrates the skill and provides students with a brief interval of guided practice using it. Students are also given time to write, applying the skills and strategies they've learned to their own writing projects. As students write, the teacher provides feedback that is designed to move students along trajectories of development. The feedback is given through one-to-one conferences and small group instruction, and includes instructional compliments and teaching. The teacher helps a writer imagine what the next challenge is, and equips that writer with the skills and strategies necessary to begin tackling that new frontier.
Lucy Calkins and her colleagues have developed a Continuum for Assessing Narrative Writing which outlines twelve distinct levels into which grade K-8 student writing falls. Teachers punctuate their year with on-demand writing assessments, and use the continuum to help track student progress. Our assessments are continually updated as strategies are refined and when new needs arise, such as aligning the practice of teaching narrative writing to the Common Core State Standards.
We are in the process of developing similar continua to support opinion and informational writing and to spotlight the close relationship of writing development between these different genres. In addition to genre-based writing continua, teachers of writing need to know how to track student development in the writing process. For example, what does rehearsal look like for a very novice writer? For a writer with a bit more experience? For a much more advanced writer? What does revision look like for a five year old? A third grader? An eighth grader? By understanding such developmental trajectories, teachers can move learners along a spiral curriculum.
At the Reading and Writing Project, all of this thinking is crystallized into curriculum development. Every May, teachers receive a revised, suggested curricular calendar for the upcoming year. This curricular calendar contains write-ups for month-by-month units of study, laid out for each grade. Every year, this document is rethought, extended, modernized, and revised to incorporate the organization and the field's newest knowledge. For example, the newest work with content area literacy has informed several new units. New research on digital literacy has been combed into several especially-relevant units. Expectations for second grade instruction continue to be heightened. Performance assessments aligned to the Common Core have revealed some new areas of need that are now being addressed. The curricular calendars will soon be available from Heinemann by subscription.
It is rare for us to provide staff development in writing and not also in reading, and vice versa. Generally, a staff developer will work with a school to support the entire literacy curriculum. As part of this, a staff developer will lead two or three "labsites" during each school visit, at least one of which supports writing instruction.
In the writing labsite, a staff developer works with a half-dozen teachers within one teacher's classroom. The staff developer teaches the students in that room so that participating teachers can learn the structures, methods and expectations for a rigorous writing workshop. During the first day, a staff developer is apt to model the management of a workshop, the architecture of a minilesson, the components of conferences and small group work. By the second day, the staff developer shows participating teachers how to adapt instruction based on quick assessments of students, and to tailor teaching plans and methods based on assessment.
Teachers and staff developers function almost as co-researchers, observing what students do as writers, developing and pursuing inquiry questions, imagining how students might work independently and in partnerships, studying and developing a discourse about texts, and planning teaching strategies to help students learn. Throughout all this work, staff developers and teachers work collaboratively to assess students' growth as literacy learners and to design whole-class and also small group teaching based on students’ needs. Usually when a staff developer is working with a school, he or she not only provides in-class labsite work, but also leads study groups, one aligned to each labsite.
As part of their learning, teachers sometimes do the same writing work that they teach their students to do. Teachers may collect seed ideas, select one to turn into a piece of writing, then draft, revise, edit and even publish their own mentor texts. They often use their own texts as part of their whole-class instruction.
Just as children develop as writers, moving along a continuum from beginner to more sophisticated to advanced, so, too, teachers progress along a continuum of teaching development. Those teachers who are new to the work learn first the foundations of writing workshop, while teachers who have been with us for many years receive more advanced professional development in the teaching of writing. Meanwhile, we, too, continue to learn alongside our schools, refining and outgrowing our best thinking.