Calkins, Lucy. The Art of Teaching Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth: Heinman, 1994. Print.
Argument & Summary:
Lucy Calkins is a prominent voice in contemporary discussions of elementary-level literacy practices. In The Art of Teaching Writing, she argues “as human beings we write to communicate, plan, remember … but above all, we write to hold our lives in our hands and to make something of them” (8). Writing allows us “to turn the chaos into something beautiful, to frame selected moments, to uncover and celebrate the organizing patterns of our existence” (8). In the book, she sets out to articulate how teachers can help children, even those reluctant to do so, become engaged, motivated, and proficient in the craft of writing.
The book is structured somewhat like a literacy lesson itself, beginning with a discussion of the essentials of teaching writing. Effective teaching begins, Calkins asserts, with rejecting the assumption that children believe writing “will always be a dreaded activity” as well as the tendency to “push, lure, motivate, and bribe” students to write (11). We cannot teach writing, she posits, “unless we trust that there are real, human reasons to write” (12). Writing has often been taught in ways that make it a dreaded activity, as a place to “display – to expose – [a student’s] command of spelling, penmanship, and grammar” (13). Children understandably have little investment in such a task. Writing only matters, she claims, when it is “personal (when it is self-sponsored and grows out of purposes in [writers’] own lives and when it is interpersonal” (14). This begins with listening carefully to children and “demonstrating to them that their lives are worth writing about” (16). Teachers need to encourage children to make writing a part of their everyday lives, capturing things they notice, respecting the ideas they gather, and engendering an “atmosphere of graciousness and care and respect” (31).
Building upon these essentials, Calkins moves into a consideration of the importance of listening carefully to children, for they “will invite us to share their world and their ways of living in the world. And then, when children become our teachers, showing us what they see and delight in and wonder about and reach toward, then, and only then, will we be able to extend what they know and enrich their ways of knowing” (54). She offers a brief overview of the various stages in the development of children as writers, giving readers a framework for becoming “better observers of children” (57).
In the third section of the book, Calkins moves from theory to practice, introducing the idea of the writer’s workshop. Though commonplace in elementary schools today, the writer’s workshop was considered fairly groundbreaking in the mid 1980’s when she discussed the idea in the first edition of the book. Instead of planning each day’s new activities, she claims, “we need to anticipate how we will initiate, scaffold, and guide the classroom community toward an ever-deepening involvement, and we need to select rituals, arrangements, and classroom structures” (183). Though complex and demanding a rich awareness of all members of the classroom community, the workshop structure provides an apt medium to achieve this end. It involves time for writing and conferring, mini-lessons on a relevant topic, peer conferencing, and opportunities to share or publish work. Teachers work with students in small groups or as individuals to guide them along the writing process while other students work independently or on pairs to develop their work.
The book concludes with a discussion of practical matters, including tools to help teachers create mini-lessons, tips for conferring with students, guiding editing and revision, and ways to assess student writing. She also spends time talking about ways one might apply the structure to specific writing tasks, such as memoirs, literary nonfiction, and poetry, genres one might be required to teach to meet mandated standards. She ends with a spirited reminder to teachers that their work matters and that they need to spend time nourishing their own imaginations in order to help their students nourish theirs.
Lucy Calkins has a tremendous respect for students, evidenced in the countless examples upon which she draws. She recognizes that children, like adults, will care about writing when they write about things they know and want to discuss. Calkins regards helping children “know that their lives do matter” as her primary mission and develops an approach with respect and consideration at its core (16). Throughout the book, she provides one example after another of the various ways in which young writers managed to find their voices and purpose when they were given the agency to do so within the space of the classroom.
Helping children find their voices as writers is paramount for Calkins and is another of the strengths of her argument. Once young writers lose the spark and desire to write, they often fail to ever reclaim it. “Wise teaching, like wise parenting,” she states, “begins with watching and listening and delighting in the learner” (54). It does not begin with drilling capital letters, commas, or lists of spelling. These mechanical elements can and will come, at the right time. An emphasis on the conventions of writing to the detriment of content and voice has the potential to rob children of what Calkins sees as in inherent desire and ability in children to inscribe meaning.
Though the numerous examples and anecdotes Calkins includes in the book threaten, at times, to overwhelm the content, the book provides a useful model for teachers working to achieve a balance between teaching structured content and allowing students to pursue their own interests. She does not give students unstructured, free reign over their work, but advocates for a careful balance between guidance and instruction, both built on a foundation of respect for the students.
Though I have never taught in an elementary classroom, I have taught writing. Even at the college level, generally free of mandated standards, I did not have the latitude to allow my students to pursue their own interests fully and select their own topics for writing. In the age of the Common Core, teachers have a firm agenda of writing tasks that their students must complete. Such a rigid structure undermines Calkins’s central premise that our writing instruction must begin and end with the students, allowing them to teach us what they need. Moreover, it is hard to trust your students and have faith in the process when your job is on the line. (I am aware that Calkins has recently published another text addressing this exact topic, but I have not yet had a chance to read it)
Moreover, the book presents countless examples of Calkins’s vision of the writer’s workshop playing out flawlessly. Second graders ask each other pointed, relevant questions, students eagerly return to their desks to revise, few balk at their turn in the author’s chair, and teachers manage to maintain order while working with a small group, trusting that the remaining students are on task and working productively. Calkins has spent plenty of time in the classroom and is not overly idealistic, but her tone sometimes comes across as such. She offers guidelines and advice but little concrete information on how to achieve this environment. I have a hard time imagining it working perfectly even at the college level. In my own experience, even peer review, a standard component of most college writing classes, was rarely as productive as one might have hoped.
Furthermore, Calkins’s vision requires a sustained level of engagement from teachers that might not be fully achievable in an age of increasing demands, increasing expectations, increasing class sizes, and decreasing funding, salaries, and public support. While there are certainly many teachers out there eager to understand and approach each of his or her students as individuals and to take the time to engage them as legitimate authors, doing so requires a great deal of time and effort. It is easier, no doubt, to plan a lesson with clear, concrete outcomes, present it to the entire class at once, offer help when called upon, and grade it.
What we can take away:
Though written explicitly to classroom teachers, Calkins argument is just as relevant to homeschool parents teaching their own children. Some parents are fiercely devoted to their highly structured and rigidly scheduled literacy curriculums, even though many express concerns about its goals or regret that their children hate the subject or, at best, tolerate it. Calkins would suggest that you begin, not with a curriculum, but with your children, listening to what they have to say and allowing them freedom to develop their own voices by writing in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them. The curriculum, then, could become a tool to enhance that writing, used piecemeal and when needed.
While I have concerns about the idealism of Calkins’s premise within the school classroom, I think it is very well suited to the home environment. We know our children well, we are aware of their strengths and weaknesses as writers, and we have the time and flexibility to manage a writer’s workshop that perfectly addresses their needs. Since many homeschool parents are responsible for just a few students, they can quite readily serve as writing mentors rather than teachers. In this capacity, they can step in to offer guidance and instruction when necessary and step back when it is not to let young writers experiment, take risks, discover, try, sometimes fail, and ultimately succeed.