Responding to The Art of Teaching Writing (Calkins, 1994)

With the exception of her book on the Common Core Standards that I read this spring, all my knowledge about Lucy Calkins was second-hand.  I cited some discussion of  her stance toward nonfiction genres two summers ago; I’ve heard teachers in Champaign talk about how wonderful and horrible her Units of Study are as an elementary writing curriculum; and I’ve heard Anne Dyson rail against her (or the way she’s been taken up as a Heinemann product) on multiple occasions.

It goes wirthout saying, then, that I went into her Art of Teaching Writing (1994) with some bias.  At this point, I’ve read two of the tome’s five sections: The Essentials of Writing and Let Children Show Us How to Teach.  I’ve tried (somewhat successfully) to take her ideas and writing on their own terms, without regard to her status as curricular mascot or target for scholarly critique.

I’ll begin, then, by saying that I agree with much of what she says about teaching.  Her views are so sound and well-written that it’s difficult not to.  She believes we need to treat our students as authors and to develop ourselves as writers (both stances that are consonant with the NWP Core Principles).  But more importantly, she views children’s own development as writers as a key component of the curriculum, implicit in the title of the second section of the book and her desire to “give teachers an opportunity to be kid-watchers, to be teacher-researchers, to be students of their students” (p. 54).  Such attention to children’s writing development is only possible, she argues, within a classroom she describes, where there is plenty of time for writing, conferring, and sharing.  The specifics of this workshop model are the topic of the third section, so I won’t discuss those now.

Her approach toward teaching also resonates with my attempt to take a strengths/resource-based approach toward looking at students and their work.  “It is,” she writes, “very helpful if we can focus on what children are doing rather than on what we wish they would do” (p. 66).  She makes this suggestion in response to the belief that some children are “too young to write” and don’t have the requisite skills to compose, but I want to use her assertion as a means of exposing significant dissonance among her own beliefs.  While she validates an approach of multiplicity in some ways, finding value in  “different people with different ways of seeing and learning and writing,” (p. 56) her own overarching views toward life and the life of a writer are constricting and problematic.

“For me,” she begins a section in her chapter on the writerly way of life, “rehearsal is, above all, a way of living” (p. 23).  In this way of living, there are lots of walks into nature, plenty of time for reflection and coffee drinking, and ample opportunities for “a precious particle [with] grown meaning from it” (p. 23).  She wants kids to write big about small moments—moments from a very particular kind of everyday life that ignores what life is like for most kids.  She contends that “anything can start us on the road toward significance” (p. 45) yet bemoans how often children, “when they choose their own topics for writing, they write about superheroes or retell television dramas” (p. 16).

She goes on to dismiss writing about such topics, ignoring the implicit challenge of helping students use these forms and characters as resources.  Calkins writes:

So often, by the time children are in second and third grade, they have begun to value the fashionable toys, the designer labels, the peer-sanctioned jokes that are supported by the culture around them.  It’s during these grades that some children begin to lose the ability to watch in awe as a cicada bug sheds its skin.  Unless we intervene, … they tend to write about a trip to an amusement park, a weird and disgusting television show. I want to help them to write about moments that do not come already packaged with ready-made significance. (p. 119)

It’s hard to know where to begin with such a value-laden and judgmental view toward children and their interests.  First, I find it odd that she juxtaposes designer labels and peer jokes; one is expensive, commercial, and exclusionary while the other is free, constructed from children’s worlds and language, and a potential resource for building community.  I feel she is trying to position herself as some sort of “teacher of the people,” reinforced by her nostalgia for seasonal insects—but in doing so she’s actually distancing herself from the urban students that her teachers at Columbia and, by extension, she serves.  Further, she summarily dismisses the communicative and narrative potential of a family trip to a theme park or a plot borrowed from a television show, claiming that a bug inherently has more meaning within it.  I’d argue that the meaning of that cicada is pre-packaged as well: Inevitability of change, cycle of life, the miracles of life.  You get the picture.

I respect that she sees being a writer and a teacher of writing as way of life; I’m just disappointed that she views it as a singular way of life.  Not everyone approaches topics for composition as that which “catches [their] heart” (p. 44).  She may wish for that, but proposing such a narrow pathway for developing identity as a writer is exclusionary.

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8 thoughts on “Responding to The Art of Teaching Writing (Calkins, 1994)

  1. You know you have always helped me to see Lucy with new eyes, but I really appreciate how you captured some strengths and weaknesses here. I look forward to your new leadership role in guiding others to do what is best for our kids. I would hope that more teachers could see Units of Study as a learning tool, resource, or possible structure, and grow writers from there. I wonder how different life would be if districts would have never misused the texts as a curriculum to begin with.

  2. The idea of being “kid-watchers” really struck me. It is so easy to become rigid in my practice. I put a lot of time into working with other teachers to develop meaningful units, and those conversations often include data about student performance, but I’ve neglected the very simple (but so important) step of observing my kids where they are at the moment. Gallagher talks about “breaking down the negativity students have about writing.” If I don’t take the time to do this, to acknowledge students’ histories and experiences, then even the “best” unit will be ineffective.

  3. I mostly agree with your argument, Scott- the way Lucy writes sometimes makes it seem that she values only some types of writing and thus validates only some writers. However, as Gail Hawisher reminded me, her curriculum constantly asks teachers to call students writers, treat them like writers, and thus reinforces (to all of them) that they are, in fact, writers. I did an analysis of the Units of Study curriculum for Sarah’s class at some point, so let me know if you want to take a look as you move on to dig into the curicula.

  4. I was drawn to one statement in your argument related to children not having the “the requisite skills to compose” so we need to value where they are. My second video and demo are related to this notion. Students have to learn the mechanics of writing in order to actually compose their thoughts. This is something that they need help in developing and if left unattended, they will shut down and stop writing because the simple act of forming letters and words shuts them out of composing…

  5. Just picked up my new iphone exactly 24 hrs ago. Needless to say, upgrading from 3G to new 5 there are lots of great features. However, make sure you update with itunes to iOS 6.0.1. I was surprised to have to update as soon as I took it out of the box!

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