“listening to children, studying their work and processes, could teach us a universe of lessons about good writing — and about good teaching.” — Calkins 4

As usual, I can’t get enough books about teaching writing. As usual, I can’t get enough of famous English teachers, Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle.

During the shut-down in the early stages of the COVID19 pandemic, Gallagher and Kittle started a daily YouTube series to talk about teaching ELA remotely. I tuned in because I was learning as I went how to teach remotely! One episode features Gallagher recommending a new book about teaching writing, which I promptly ordered.

Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins, a Heinemann book for teachers, is an excellent resource for teachers who want to help their students write better. A writing classroom doesn’t have to be simply an ELA classroom; it could be in the library, science lab, or math class. We are all writers. All of our students are writers. Educators would do well to learn how to teach writing and to teach it well. Calkins’s book helps teachers do just that.

Calkins spends her time researching how students learn to write. Throughout her research, she discovered some essential things that all learners need when it comes to learning to write well:

Writers need time to write.

Writers need clear instruction, shared writing wisdom.

Writers need the opportunity to learn from other writers and their texts

Writers need a coherent, cumulative curriculum in writing, one that builds depth and complexity across kinds of writing and across grades.

Writers need responsive feedback — from you their teacher and from partners who support their next steps.

Writers need opportunities to experience the writing process.

Writers need the opportunity to write for real audiences.

Writers need opportunities to use writing as a tool for learning.

Chapter 2

I was happy to see Calkins highlight giving students time to write. In the past few years, I’ve worked hard at carving out time in class specifically for students to write; in their notebooks, on a project, for fun, for school. I can’t control what their writing time would look like outside the classroom, but I can set up an environment conducive to writing for them within Room 207.

“As educators, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we can teach writing well without making it a priority. And if we do prioritize writing, then that means there will be time for a daily writing workshop.”

Calkins 11

It’s pleasing to see that her research supports my use of mentor texts and demonstration texts in the classroom, too. Mentor texts are published texts I give students from a specific genre to refer to when they are learning to write. We study them and ask ourselves how the writer creates a text. Then, the students and I worked on creating texts using the same techniques. 

“They’re given an insider’s understanding of authorship, realizing that authors do things deliberately to create effects.”

Calkins 13

Not only did I notice this practice improved student writing, but it helped students become better readers too! Calkins’s research also suggests that when students read like writers, their reading skills sharpen just as much as their writing skills. 

Teaching the writing process has always been one of my favorite parts of being an English teacher. I love the idea of helping students imagine themselves as “real writers” — because they are! I want to help them realize that when we sit down to brainstorm, outline, plan, draft, share, revise, edit, and publish — they are going through the same steps as their favorite writers.

My primary takeaway from Calkins’s research about what student writers need was that writers need feedback. In the past, I felt so bogged down by giving quality, instructive feedback to students about their writing. But I think I’m getting better. One of the silver linings of COVID-19 and remote learning was how to use so many different pieces of technology to better give feedback to my students to improve their understanding. I have a long way to go; I’m experimenting with writing conferences for the first time this year! But, it was nice to feel like I’m moving in the right direction after reading this research.

“nothing accelerates a learner’s progress more than feedback.”

Calkins 17

Another takeaway from the book is that students need to write more, more, more! I struggle to carve out the time as it is. And sometimes, it seems like I won’t ever fit in all of the projects I want to pursue with students. But, I see the magic volume has on the improvement of student writing. I know I need to set some goals about getting students to write even more than they do now. (Cut to my students groaning! It will be so fun, I promise!).

“The most important belief is that kids need the opportunity to grow up as writers, writing a lot, just as they talk and read and do math a lot.”

Calkins 9

“Success in writing, like success in basketball or reading or anything else, directly relates to the amount of time a person spends doing that thing. That means that day after day, your students need to write. And just as fluency matters to readers, being able to write with volume matters for writers.”

Calkins 10

Most of all, I enjoyed how Calkins frames teaching and learning to write as part of relationship building. It hits home for me how important is that teachers build relationships with their students. Trusting your teacher with something that you wrote that you crafted out of nothing requires a lot of vulnerability. That’s hard on our students, who are entirely armored up and have a slew of trust issues as it is. There’s no way to get students to share their stories and voices, let alone improve how they tell those stories and use those voices if they can’t even trust their stories with us. 

“school gives children a forum for face-to-face relationships: open sharing and real listening.”

Calkins 18

Sharing writing and stories is an exercise in vulnerability and healing. We have to let our guard down to learn. To expect young people to let their guard down for authentic learning to happen, we have to create places for them that help them find that bravery. Most importantly, we have to be the people who first try out that bravery and vulnerability around. Just like students, teachers need to let their guards down and really listen to young people. If we can’t do this, then we both miss out.

“in life, we often protect ourselves against vulnerability and yet in doing so, we protect ourselves from all that we most long for: intimacy, wholeheartedness, I-thou-connections.”

Calkins 18

Chock-full of research but entirely readable, Teaching Writing is a good investment for any educator at any level. It’s energizing, well-researched, and actionable. I can’t wait to see fellow educators add this one to their shelves.

Speaking of writing and writers, a great way to support them and your community is to buy your books from local, independent bookstores. You can get Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins on Bookshop.org. And, here is a bit about why supporting these kinds of stores makes the world a better place.

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1 Comment

  1. Lovely quotes you’ve shared from the books! And one of the quotes ring so true, in that writers need to spend time honing their craft. So many people think they can nail their first book the first month they start writing. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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