kitchen table math, the sequel: Writer's Workshop

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Writer's Workshop

SteveH has been asking questions about how to explain what happens in classrooms, and how to relate that to what parents are told about schools, administrators, teachers, etc. He asked if teachers were even teaching, or just going through motions; if administrators have control over what teachers do in classrooms, or not, etc.

I am trying to find out just how bad the current writing curriculum mandated by the Saint Paul, MN public school district is.

The curriculum is called Writer's Workshop.

It's been difficult to find district-wide info such as syllabi, curriculum maps, on WW. Instead, I've been able to find little blurbs on the various elementary schools' own web sites--note that each school speaks differently about the same program. It seems to be a good example of the chaos that Steve is trying to wrap his head around. Here we have a curriculum which is positively abysmal in its goals, implemented district wide, yet appears to mean vastly different things inside each school and each classroom anyway.

I've included here everything I can find about the Kindergarten portion of Writer's Workshop.

All errors are in the original web pages.

from Prosperity Heights Elementary:
"Writer's Workshop
Depending on your class situation and available time, Writer's Workshop activities is a useful and meaningful extension to the current curriculum. Writer's Workshop is a teaching technique that invites sutdents to write by making the process a meaningful part of the classroom curriculum. Writing is an expected activity on a daily basis. Students are exposed to the organization and thought required to create a story or write about a favorite topic. Because they are allowed to chose the topic, students are motivated to create and complete works to read to classmates.

For Kindergarten stduents, whose skills will greatly vary, the goal is to move pre-emergent readers into the writing process by eliciting a story from a drawing, and encouraging the student to move from drawing to writing by guiding the student in the use of phonetics to sound out words. Ideally, students become enamored by the power of their words, and will strive for the independence of fluency. Writer's Workshop can be paired with reading activities to create a powerful motivating tool when teaching literacy. "

From Webster Magnet Elementary:

Writer's Workshop

We are writers! During Writer's Workshop we write, write, write! By the end of kindergarten we will be independent writers using sound spelling and standard spelling to communicate our ideas. We will record our thoughts with labels and sentences. Some of the concepts we focus on in Writer's Workshop are: directionality of print, using letter sounds to write words, using word wall words and environmental print in our written work, the difference between letters, words and sentences and using spaces between words. We know our ideas and stories are valuable and enjoy sharing them with others!

from Randolph Heights (note this applies to their whole program, rather than focusing just on Kindergarten:

Writers Workshop

Randolph Heights is implementing a new writing curriculum - "Writer's Workshop". During Writer's Workshop, students learn about the techniques that authors use to make writing effective.

Each workshop session begins with a mini lesson presented by the teacher. Lessons may be on skills or the craft of writing. Grammar skills suich as subject-verb agreement, capitalization, paragraphing and punctuation are developed during mini lessons. Students are also taught about the writing process - drafting, revising, and editing - during mini lessons.

The next step in Writer's Workshop is planning and drafting. This is when the students are writing in their notebooks. Writing assignments are generated by the mini lessons on skills and craft.

During planning and drafting time, while students are working on writing, the teacher meets individually with students. This time is used to assess progress ona written work and to reteach/review skills taught in mini lessons.

During the last 5 - 10 minutes of Writer's Workshop, students gather together to share their writing with the entire group or to bring closure to the lesson.

This is my personal favorite, which appears on the Crossroads Elementary website, but appears to be a draft document (that I cannot find anywhere else on the spps web site) of Saint Paul Public Schools' Project for Academic Excellence:

Launching Writer's Workshop: Living the Writerly Life
The Literacy Initiative of the Project for Academic Excellence is guided by two sets of standards for what students should know and be able to do: the Minnesota Standards and the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) Standards. In this first unit of study of the year, Writer's Workshop addresses the NCEE Kindergarten Writing Standard 1: Habits and Processes of Writing Standard.

Students will:
* Write daily.
* Generate content and topics for writing.
* Write without resistance when given the time, place and materials.
* Use whatever means are at hand to communicate and make meaning: drawings, letter strings, scribbles, letter approximations and other graphic representations, as well as gestures, intonations and role-played voices.
* Make an effort to reread their own writing and listen to that of others, showing attentiveness to meaning by, for example, asking for more information or laughing.

The teaching objectives of this unit are based largely on the Habits and Processes Standard. As such, they are only begun in this unit and continued throughout the year.

Students will:
* View themselves as confident and competent writers.
* Develop the habits, fluency, and stamina of writers by writing daily, including recording oral stories.
* Develop an understanding that ideas for writing come from many sources, including oral stories that can be remembered, told, and written down.
* Generate their own topics by choosing an idea from their own oral stories or writing folders to work on over the course of a few days.
* Understand the steps of the writing process from collecting entries through publication.
* Reflect on the quality of their writing.
* Practice the rituals and routines of the Writer's Workshop - ways of working independently, productively, and resourcefully in a workshop environment.
* Listen to stories read aloud as a way to develop an understanding that they will be writing stories like their favorite authors.

This is bad enoughm ut it doesn't really say what's happening in a classroom--it could all be perfect teaching of writing for all this says.

So what does happen in a classroom?

I was able to find this link, pointing to a 4th grade class at Galthier Magnet Elementary, pointing to a page for the use of Writer's Workshop. The page says:

Writer's Workshop

Here you will be able to receive help on our current theme in the workshop.

Click on this link to review the what's on our SMARTBOARD for the realistic fiction unit!

Ah, a SMARTBOARD. So shall we see that SMARTBOARD presentation? Read it and weep.

Here is the movie.
This is apparently classroom instruction on how to write realistic fiction for fourth graders.
My favorite part is the end where we see a note to parents saying they need to help their child do their writing homework, including using the "editing checklist" to check their work.


SteveH said...

"Students will: ..."

That's a long list. What "will" the teachers do?

"So what does happen in a classroom?"

My son is now in 7th grade and I still don't know what goes on in Reading and Language Arts.

This area gets double the time now. Reading is a full course and LA is a full course. He reads books (all of the same genre - He never gets any history or biography books) but there is not a lot of writing going on. One time, he had to do a board game for a book. That would be his third so far in his school career. One time, he was allowed to do a web page about a book. My son can create a video and upload it to YouTube in minutes (self-taught). What he really needs is more help in writing.

Everything I see about schools screams low expectations.

Twenty-first century skills are vocational. What kids need are knowledge and skills that have passed the test of time; reading, math, history, and critical analysis and writing.

lgm said...

From my perspective, non-Honors English teachers in m.s. have very low expectations. Much time is used in round-robin reading from the lit book or worse yet, listening to an audio CD of a novel while students follow along in their individual copy. Grammar is comprised of demos that the students watch the teacher do. There is never any actual individual assignment or homework where they have to think for themselves,with the exception of a book report every other month. No instruction has ever been given in how to do the book report, so we just pull out our Write Source book for 8th grade. My son has learned more about essays in social studies than he has in english, as the SS teacher has to teach the DBQ for the state test.

Robert Pondiscio said...

The thing to remember about the Writer's Workshop is that it is very specifically NOT a curriculum. As one staff developer in my school put it, "it's not a curriculum, it's a philosophy."

It's worth familiarizing yourself with the work...sorry...the philosophy of Lucy Calkins of Columbia Univerity, who is the workshop guru.

Here's an article from Ed Next which is a good start:

SteveH said...

"...Lucy Calkins ..."

Now where is that wonderful photo of L.C. wearing the coconut headset. I forgot who did it. It was a classic.

CassyT said...

Twenty-first century skills are vocational. What kids need are knowledge and skills that have passed the test of time; reading, math, history, and critical analysis and writing.Can I get this on a t-shirt? Or a bumper sticker? Or on a permanent ink stamp for foreheads?

palisadesk said...

At the middle school level, the "big name" in Writer's Workshop is Nanci Atwell, author of In the Middle, The Reading Zone and Lessons that Change Writers. The first-mentioned has been in print for almost 20 years and you can pick up a used copy very cheaply (SteveH, if you want a feel for what "LA" looks like at this level, Atwell's work will give it to you. She also deals mainly with middle-to-upper SES communities, similar to what I infer your school community to be).

Here are some links:

Atwell's seminal book, In The MiddleAtwell's recent Lessons that Change WritersNanci Atwell workshope notes, from Middleweb

Nanci Atwell FactsI must admit I had almost no success with this approach in a very low-SES school (not my current one) where seventh graders could not write a sentence and the highest-achieving student was at a third grade level. I also had a personal "problem" with many of the assumptions about what "good writers" supposedly do. I have always been a rather proficient writer (not professionally of course) and I never followed the suggested protocols or anything close to them so I feel like a hypocrite trying to convince kids it's what THEY should do.

palisadesk said...

Lucy Calkins has written some quasi-scripted "Units of Study" for writing in K-3. These are more structured than the usual "writer's workshop." Some teachers in the primary grades whom I know to be very effective (and who use a lot of explicit instruction, little-d, little-i di, think these units are a good addition to the writing curriculum). This link gives you an idea about the unit "Small Moments" which gets children writing in detail about a brief, focused narrative experience.
guide to using "Small Moments"

Catherine Johnson said...

Robert - I've lost your email address!

Catherine Johnson said...

Barbara Feinberg lives in a neighboring town. She's great.

Her husband spent months teaching his son h.s. math.

Same old story.

Catherine Johnson said...

Nanci AtwellI'm writing that down.

I'd come across her before.

I need to do my interview with Mary Hake.

concernedCTparent said...

Speaking of Mary Hake, I caught up with my friend in CA who homeschools and used Grammar & Writing (grade 7 and grade 5) for the first time this year because I raved about it so much. She is thrilled with the results. Her children are enjoying the program and as we spoke, her son was busily working on the bibliography for his research paper.

It's good stuff!

VickyS said...

My sons attended one of the schools Allison referenced.

In 3rd grade they had one of the school's best and most experienced teachers. She was also the last to attend writer's workshop training and adopt it in her classroom--and I'm pretty sure she intentionally held out as long as she could. The adoption occurred during my younger son's 3rd grade year.

Note: Son began third grade loving to write. Had already written a 7 chapter "book" (about 10 single spaced typed pages) all on his own. It was about a Robin hood type gang and their adventures in various imaginary towns and forests. Elaborate, clever, original (if I don't say so myself).

His experience in 3rd grade turned him off completely. He hasn't written since then except when forced by the school.

What happened in that classroom? The video says it all. Read on for the play by play.

Journaling: daily journaling is required. Nothing could have been more stressful. It did not get easier over time to think of topics. On the contrary, it got harder and harder. Writing on demand, every day, without a clear goal or topic was too much to ask. If I didn't steer him somehow it just didn't/couldn't happen.

"The" workshop piece:

First, it had to be something based on your personal experience. My son does not like to write about his personal experiences. He can write about a book or can make up a story. But he does not want to share personal experiences, especially treasured ones, with the class, which is what was asked of him.

Second: notice in the video how they began writing this piece of fiction in mid-October and it wasn't done until the end of November. In my son's classroom, they had to work on the same workshop piece from October through February. The same piece. Over and over. FOR MONTHS! Edit, rewrite, have your partner read it, peer editing (!), change words, proof, type, edit again, etc. This drove my kid insane! He could not stomach looking at this piece again and again.

Third: Instruction? Hardly. It's all about trying to get the kids to write more and write easily (i.e., w/o experiencing writer's block). Outcome? Just the opposite in our case. He writes less, and it's much harder. This snuffed out every creative element that was growing inside of him. And he learned *nothing* about writing mechanics.

Everday Math killed his love of math; writer's workshop killed his love of writing, and reader's workshop (with the emphasis on coming of age stories, "connections", literature circles, etc.) killed his love of reading.

Do I sound rather melodramatic? Well it's been melodramatic. And so sad to see a talented kid lose all interest in the three R's.

It's a pretty big mess to clean up. It's been 4 years. His interest in math is starting to pick up a bit. He reads a book now and then; just a couple a year. But writing? Not a lick.

Welcome to our public (and private) elementary schools.

VickyS said...

And it doesn't stop in elementary schools. Here's something from one of our local high schools. The focus on me, myself and I is unrelenting. The emphasis is mine.

This year at Harding we have continued our commitment to improve student writing across the curriculum. In addition to the content area courses, students have focused on developing their writing skills to reflect, develop critical thinking skills, and to learn new information within Advisory. This habit of writing, which began by keeping a writer’s notebook, is the first step to our success as writers. In addition, students have been given three opportunities this school year to write a one-paragraph response to a prompt, which was scored by the entire Harding staff on a 6-point rubric, modeled after the state of Minnesota’s rubric for the GRAD test in Writing. Our prompts included the following:

October: Life as a teenager can be challenging. Describe a challenge you have faced as a teenager.

January: Everyone has hopes and dreams for themselves, their family, or the world in which they live. Describe one of your hopes or dreams.

March: Some people believe that experience is the greatest teacher. Describe an important lesson that you have learned from an experience you have had during your life.

Anonymous said...

All of my kids hated journal-writing and usually hated the assigned books; for the same reasons Vicky identified. There's FAR too much pressure to share personal experiences and far too much emphasis on feelings (their own and the characters in the books). I think this is a big part of the reason boys are struggling, along with the push for group work and lack of competition, but it was also true for my daughter.

Barry Garelick said...

This article by Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review seems pertinent to this discussion.