Thirty years ago, Lucy Calkins, fresh from apprenticing in 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.
The Initial Focus on Writing Expands to Include Reading
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. Lucy has authored/co-authored Units of Study for Teaching Reading (a collection of 24 books for grades K-5) 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) and Conferring with Readers: Supporting Each Student’s Growth and Independence (Serravallo & Goldberg, 2007).
A Long-lasting Engagement with NYC Schools
Improving instruction in New York City schools has always been central to the TCRWP’s mission. We were a key player in the much heralded literacy reforms in District 2 and in NYC’s involvement with New 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.” The decision to mandate reading and writing workshops for all NYC classrooms was made without input from the TCRWP—in fact, it caught us 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 this mandate, the announcement nevertheless meant that we needed to help schools across the entire City embrace reading and writing workshops. Within a few months of the announcement, with the help of able regional superintendents (including Carmen Farina, now NYC’s Chancellor), the TCRWP 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 “rolled out” by administrators who in many instances were not, themselves, well-informed and were accustomed to a compliance model of leadership. Still, schools that might 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!”
Since the years when the workshop approach to teaching literacy was mandated in New York City, the literacy curriculum in NYC has been a school-based choice. The TCRWP has continued to provide deep, long lasting professional development to a very large group of NYC schools, and many of those in turn function as unofficial mentor schools for the city and the nation. Principals of those schools and of nearby suburban schools study together each month and function as a support group for one another.
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 that Lucy co-leads.
National and International Work
The Project’s work with schools nationally and internationally is deep and extensive. For many of those schools, the relationship begins when school leaders and teachers read publications by the team at the Project. For example, Pathways to the Common Core, the best-selling book on the Common Core, has led many State Departments, districts, and national organizations to request Calkins and Ehrenworth as keynote speakers. Units of Study in Opinion, Information and Narrative Writing and Units of Study in Argument, Information and Narrative Writing have been adopted as the writing curriculum for thousands of districts, including many large cities, and all of those places work with Project staff to provide teachers, coaches, and school leaders with the professional development they need to accompany that curriculum. The demand for staff development supporting reading keeps pace with the demand for staff development supporting writing, and sometimes there is a particular emphasis: close reading, nonfiction reading, conferring in reading, using learning progressions and performance assessments to provide clarity and direction to comprehension instruction.
The Project staff are frequent speakers at one-day conferences and often do one-day events to roll out new curriculum or areas of study, but the organization especially prioritizes the deeper, longer lasting work with districts that become part of the Reading and Writing Project family. With those districts, we tend to provide a sequence of on-site staff development that includes in-class demonstration teaching and coaching, study groups, and curriculum development . When partnering with a district, we help provision that district with tools and curriculum. Project districts get special access to events at the College such as summer institutes, coaching institutes, and the like.
The schools with which the Project partners are diverse. The list include scores of schools in the five boroughs of New York City, as well as the surrounding suburbs of New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island. The Project also works with schools in every state of the country and provides deep district-wide work in a dozen very large US school districts. The list of Project schools also includes KIPP and other charter schools, a number of organizations that are working systemically in several nations including, most recently, Saudi Arabia, and a large number of international and American schools dotting the globe from Europe to the Far East.
Research and Development in CCSS, Learning Progressions, and Teachers-Effectiveness
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 roll out 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 roll out 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).
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.