The Curriculum of Sanction: Lucy Calkins (updated)

Many school districts are forced to purchase, institute, and receive staff development on, new curricular materials due to failing to meet NCLB targets. Here is all you need to know about one of the most popular choices of districts: The Lucy Calkins Writer's Workshop, a useless heap of crap that no self-respecting teacher would rely on. Sure, there are a couple of good nuggets, but that's about it. You can get those nuggets from any veteran teacher, without the million dollar price tag. Here is the money section from a Hoover Institute review of Lucy's material:

So Do Her Methods Work?

Calkins is shaping the education of millions of children, yet no independent research backs the efficacy of her programs. Aside from grumblings from the New York City teachers required to work under her system, there has been remarkably little open debate about the basic premises behind Calkins’s approach, or even feedback on how the programs are faring in the classroom.

What controversy exists generally centers around two concerns: First, her programs do not explicitly teach phonics—which she calls “drill and kill.” She favors a “whole language” approach to literacy, which builds on the premise that reading and writing develop naturally in children. Her detractors argue that this lack of direct instruction leaves many children, especially those who already struggle, at a disadvantage.

The other argument, perhaps resonating with a larger audience, is that her methodology lacks real content, has no reference to any knowledge that should be learned. In The Art of Teaching Reading, she explains that she doesn’t want “all reading and writing to be in the service of thematic studies” but instead seeks to “spotlight reading and writing in and of themselves.” Calkins’s insistence that students should focus mostly on writing about their lives rankles the many educators who believe that curriculum should be focused on content-rich material, and that students should read and write about information outside of their own personal lives. Broadening one’s knowledge base strengthens reading comprehension, builds vocabulary, and deepens knowledge of the world, all of which help students understand the text, but also, as E. D. Hirsch writes, “what the text implies but doesn’t say.”

What has not been openly questioned is the assumption that Calkins has retained her ordinal stance, that it is the teacher’s job to midwife a child’s own, often richly imaginative voice, rather than impose her own. Calkins’s program originally gained its popularity, at least in part, because of its mission to help children make their distinct voices heard. She was known as a champion for flexible, creative teaching, uniquely attuned to children. “If we adults listen and watch closely,” she wrote in 1986, “our children will invite us to share their worlds and their ways of living in the world.” And while this impulse continues to inform aspects of her approach, she has tended over time to become increasingly focused on enforcing her own methodology; many of her techniques limit children’s genuine engagement with reading and writing. This insistence on only one way to do things, not surprisingly, has translated into a demand that teachers quiet their own impulses, gifts, and experiences, and speak in one, mandated voice.

Recently, Common Good, a bipartisan organization committed to “restoring common sense to American law” asked New York City public school teachers to keep a diary for 10 days and consider specifically “how bureaucracy impacts everyday teaching.” The results were presented in a town hall–style meeting attended by more than a hundred educators and union representatives. One of the topics was “mandated teaching,” which referred specifically to the required presence of Calkins and Teachers College in city schools. The responses were almost universally negative.

This entry from a teacher’s diary is typical: “Administrators expect all our reading and writing workshops to adhere to an unvarying and strict script.…For example: ‘Writers, today and everyday you should remember to revise your writing by adding personal comments about the facts.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m a robot regurgitating the scripted dialogue that’s expected of us day in and day out.”

A kindergarten teacher reported how she was instructed to ask her students, on the third day of class, “to reflect on how they’d grown as writers.” She explained that the children were still preoccupied with missing their mothers and felt the assignment was “ridiculous.”

The truth is there isn’t one way to teach writing, or a limited number of ways to have conversations with children about their imaginative work and their lives. Calkins would have done well to heed the counsel of Donald Murray, whose prescient caution she quotes in The Art of Teaching Reading: “Watch out lest we suffer hardening of the ideologies. Watch out lest we lose the pioneer spirit which has made this field a great one.”

Barbara Feinberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She is the author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Protecting the Imaginative Lives of Children, Beacon Press, 2005.

So, citizens, inform yourselves. Stop voting for a board of education that has no clue about education. Hold your superintendents responsible for implementing mandatory crap and calling it a best practice. Talk to a teacher about this stuff. Find out how we really feel (promise to keep conversations private, because we all fear for our jobs).

UPDATE: There are some folks who really like Lucy Calkins, and they feel as if those of us who rail against it are being unfair, or trying to hurt feelings, or something. This is a pretty silly way to get your point across. If you think Lucy Calkins--a whole language advocate--is the best way to go, then state why, don't whine and say it works for you, therefore it should work for all.

Also, let's make it clear that the program has different assets and liabilities depending on what age students are using the program, the competence of the teacher, the background knowledge of the teacher regarding the teaching of reading and writing (besides LC) and myriad other considerations.

My state scores for my 2nd graders the last 2 years in a row have far exceeded the state, district, and grade-level average in my own school--by and average of 10 points! I shun Lucy Calkins, I shun Everyday Math and Scott Forseman Math. Why am I successful? Honestly, it doesn't take much more than being smart yourself, learning a little theory, finding out what standards need to be met, and then teaching the kids! If you can't do it, well, then, you just can't do it. I believe teachers are born, not molded!

More railing against Lucy Calkins here. Some of the problems folks are having with these reviews are that they emanate from right-wing machines. Just because someone is Right, doesn't make them always wrong. People are simply more complicated than that (yes, simply complicated. it works)!


Anonymous said...

You might disagree with the program, the the Reading and Writing Project actually charges significantly less than basically all of its competitors.

You also somehow suggest that all teachers know the program is horrible. I'm not a teacher, so I can't speak to this personally, but I've been at Columbia during their conferences ... and the hundreds upon hundreds of teachers there seem wildly enthusiastic about it.

Anonymous said...

Also ... if it is so horrible, why is the only article saying so published by the Hoover Institute, a highly conservative think tank which also labels Wikipedia "Wickipedia" and supports Intelligent Design.

Unknown said...

Not only do I disagree with the program, but it is a completely unnecessary purchase. There is nothing in the 6 little softbound books, replete with scripts and anecdotes about how wonderful a teacher Lucy is, that is new, except changing the names of some things. She changes the names of genres as if to make things easier to understand for children (narratives become "small moments"), and they are not easy to understand, they are confusing.

Any teacher who needs the LC program might as well be on an assembly line.

And, I don't pick and choose where researchers come from. The Hoover is right wing, but the study makes sense to me, and many others I have talked to. So, sure there are enthusiastic teachers who want to attend conferences, and get paid or get college credit toward salary increases by attending. Or, don't you know how the education industry works.....?

NCLB has assured that anyone with a new way to present what is ages-old pedagogy gets a payday.

And my point in the post is that a "needs-improvement" district MUST purchase the curricular materials, and we better claim the newly purchased curricular materials are great, even when they are more of the same, or even possibly useless. Just because it is cheaper doesn't make it okay or necessary.

Thanks for stopping by anon!

Anonymous said...

Most teachers who disagree with the program are doing it wrong, but it seems, by extension, that the districts/boards are doing it wrong. The units of study are not scripts. Never were, never should be. Teachers should be using them as models, and developing their own mini-lessons based on Lucy's ideas, workshops, other teachers, and their own experiences.

I use a combination Atwell/Calkins workshop in my classroom and the results have been phenomenal. But I have to put in the work. I write the units, and they change from year to year. Teachers and schools that just use the scripts verbatim are wrong and giving the workshop a bad name.

Unknown said...

What is the point of the program? In deed, what kind of "program" is it if it is just some old ideas reworked into new parlance? Lots of teachers have great ideas, or reworked old ideas, but don't write books about them.

And I think it is a bit presumptuous of you to claim that everyone who disagrees with the program is doing it wrong. That is just patently untrue, and on its face, a bit silly. It may be that there are teachers who find the "program" silly, redundant, shallow, and pedagogically unsound. I think it is obvious I am one of these.

I am sure your classroom works because of YOU, not Lucy Calkins!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

Anonymous said...

I am an experienced educator and I have to say I definitely agree that Lucy Calkins is a horrible approach to writing! In fact, for a lack of better word that can be posted online...IT SUCKS! I have never witnessed such poor writing skills. The children don't take much from this program and are not producing the quality of work that my writers have done in the past 11 years. Unfortunately, I HAVE to follow the district's policy of using this writing program. It saddens me to see the direction my writers are headed as a result of this very poor purchas. Furthermore, if Lucy Calkins is such a wonderful program, why is the teacher above combining it with another writing program. If it is a solid program, it should stand on its own in producing successful writers! I am using the program as it is intended and my writers simply are not learning to write!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I am using a combined approach because I teach Middle School, and Atwell's workshop method is specifically formulated for middle school school. Calkins focuses on K-5.

Anonymous said...

This must be a union site. Teacher who are stuck in old ways. Teachers who rely on scripted textbooks that are sold by salesmen who don't have a clue about learning. After 2 years of implementation at my school I see children who LOVE to write and are writing well and our test scores have gone up. But leave to the unionized teachers to buck anything that actually takes work.

Unknown said...

I am a union member. And you work for a...

ck1bueller said...

My distict adopted Lucy Calkins for the 09/10 school year. We were aware of the pending adoption yet, we received no training prior to the start of the school year. Since Sept. we have only received 1day of training with a promise that it will come in the spring. As a result, we've had to jump in feet first. Right now I'm drowning in my students "small moment" stories. I've followed along with this program long enough. My students are bright and eager learners. They deserve to be quality, not quantity writers.

Anonymous said...

I come at this from an educational psychology and special education point-of-view. I agree that the Lucy Calkins "program" is terrible. There is far too much focus on personal narratives. After 3 years of this program the students are sick of writing about "small moments" and "zooming in." Students need to learn about about many different types of written communication and this program is just too limited. I really dislike the book on essay writing. Elementary students need a far more explicit approach to crafting essays. She also is a big fan of whole language, an approach which has been proven to have a high rate of failure.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that this group of complainers haven't learned that phonics is not the end all of reading or writing. It is a part of the whole process. I have been a Reading Recovery Teacher for the last 15 years and have seen the process and have seen it work. Phonics is not the center of the universe. It is a part. If all we did was that we would have nothing but sounder outers and word callers. Update yourselves and have an open mind.

Unknown said...

Reading Recovery teacher? So you work with 1st and 2nd graders. How many of them know the phonemes? And when they don't, do you address it?

Phonics is a necessary part of reading--the decoding part.

I agree that phonics is not all there is, but unless a kid can decode, there won't be much reading.

My personal experience with RR is that it is also a disaster.

Anonymous said...

Reading Lucy Calkins is similar to having my skin peeled off my body slowly.

We removed our son from an elementary school after witnessing the illogical, feel-good, dumbed-down methodologies she employs. I prefer classical methodologies such as the progymnasmata, the ancient Greek rhetorical exercises used to teach writing, which trump any modern writing program used today. The old methods stuck around for so long because they worked. Period.

Many of you posters who claim to teach writing could benefit from learning grammar, spelling, logic and writing yourselves. Stop watching ridiculous television shows -- it is abundantly clear you're not serious readers or thinkers -- and show a serious interest in educating yourselves. We taxpayers are tired of paying for arrogant, low-quality educators.

The Tree House said...

When I began teaching, seventeen years ago, I was forced to use a basal reading series with my first grade students. The program was horrible and didn't meet the needs of the underprivileged, at-risk population of student that populated my school and classroom. The district had no "official" writing program. I know I had to do something different. I was lucky to find Lucy McCormick Calkins that year. I read "The Art of Teaching Writing" and it changed my teaching in a very positive way. Lucy Calkins, among others (Regie Routman, Marie Clay, Donald Graves, Nancie Atwell, and many others) has changed the face of literacy instruction in many positive ways. If not for them, many schools would still be using old-fashioned basal readers and/or using stringent programs that have too heavy a focus on phonics. These progressive educators gave us "the workshop model" which works when a good teacher is at the helm.

That said, I do believe that Lucy Calkins is no longer a teacher of teachers, but is instead a corporate machine. She has come to enjoy her royalty money, and has left more than a few of us disenchanted by her "units of study." After reading "Lucy" for the first time, I was inspired and excited about teaching. Now, when I read "Calkins" I frequently feel like vomiting in my mouth. She is highly self-absorbed and very close-minded toward any approach other than her own. As I become a more experienced teacher, I am better able to take what I like from these materials and leave the rest. There is some to like, and a lot to leave. Any teacher who tries to use either the writing or reading units without supplementing with lessons in spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage will suffer the consequences when their students take the mandated state assessments. The writing units also lack direct instruction in how to compose a sentence and a paragraph. All of her cutesy jargon is obnoxious to read and confuses the students. When they get to high school, these kids won't know what a narrative is...since they've only known "small moments." The reading units seem to have been put together in a haphazard rush...they are all over the place with no real sense of organization or structure. My students need much more ordered teaching, with explicit instruction on specific reading strategies presented in a manner that builds upon each previous lesson. The Calkins units don't seem to do this in an effective way.

I would also like to add that trying to follow the units is extremely frustrating and annoying, with all of Lucy's sidebars, topbars, windows, etc. I never know where to look first...every page is an ADHD person's nightmare. She could have done these units, using half the words and half the paper, for half the cost.

I miss the old Lucy...the one who really cared about kids and teachers and had something authentic to offer the world. Where has that Lucy Calkins gone?

Chrissy said...

Try "
Teaching Basic Writing Skills". Dr. Coachman. Sing spell read and write or excellence in writing by pudewa.

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