Writing Workshop at The Willows

Five years ago after moving from teaching the first/second grade loop to teaching upper elementary students, I noticed that there was a need for a more consistent writing curriculum across the grades at our school. Of course teachers gave writing assignments, but a continuity in how writing was being taught needed to be reviewed and updated.

In search of more comprehensive writing instruction, I found The Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. I was familiar with Lucy Calkins and her writing workshop curriculum, but I wanted to learn more. After attending their Summer Writing Institute on their campus at Columbia University, I returned to The Willows inspired and invigorated to share what I learned with my colleagues. Since then, we’ve created an exceptionally strong writing curriculum, guided by Writing Workshop.

The Writing Workshop Model is very Willows in that it is student-centered, but also provides structure and clear goals.

These are the Writing Workshop Essentials, from Lucy Calkins’s book, Guide to the Writing Workshop, and how we have implemented them at The Willows:

  • “Writing needs to be taught like any other basic skill, with explicit instruction and ample opportunity for practice.”

I found that we weren’t scheduling writing into our regular weekly lessons. We’d give students creative writing assignments during the year, but the craft of writing wasn’t being explicitly taught everyday. We’d justify this by reasoning that our students were doing lots of writing in other subjects. Imagine if we did that with math— “Oh, we don’t have a regular math time, but students do math in science and social studies without even realizing it, so that’s okay.”

The first and most important change we made was to make writing a priority and to put it on the weekly schedule, just like math, reading, social studies, and science.

  • “Children deserve to write for a real purpose, to write the kinds of texts that they see in the world and to write for an audience of readers.”

    1st Grade Expert Book Cover
    A first grade “expert book”

In Writing Workshop there are three main types of writing we teach—narrative, informational, and persuasive. We teach each of these forms every year and build upon the skills from the year before, increasing the complexity and sophistication of the writing. At the end of each unit, we “publish” our books and share them with one another and our greater community.

 

  • “Writers write to put meaning onto the page. Children invest themselves in their writing when they choose topics that are important to them.”

We teach children strategies to find topics they are passionate about, rather than assign them a topic. We teach them that the purpose of writing is to communicate your ideas. We write because we have something to say, and we often discover what we have to say through our writing. This has been so empowering. Our students love writing workshop because of this.

  • “Children deserve to be explicitly taught how to write.”
3rd_Gade Expert Book_Cover
A third grade “expert book”

In the younger grades, we teach informational writing units in which students write “expert books.”. Each student chose a topic that they feel they are experts in and do not need to research (being an older sister, football, playing with sticks). We then explicitly teach them how to write an informational piece well, organizing and focusing their topics, writing paragraphs, using lots of examples, synthesizing their ideas, and using vivid, descriptive language. Later, we combine our informational writing unit with a social studies or science unit, and introduce the element of research into their process.

  • “Children deserve the opportunity and instruction to cycle through the writing process.”

By explicitly separating writing into stages, we’re demystifying the writing process and giving students the expectation that they will create several drafts when they write.

The biggest change I’ve seen has been to differentiate revision from editing. Many teachers lump these together, and end up giving revision short shrift. We talk about revision as the big stuff—does the writing make sense?, is there enough description so readers can picture this in their minds?, what is the writing really about?, is my message—what I have to say—really coming through? Editing is fixing the conventions (spelling, punctuation, grammar) so the work can be read easily. This comes after revision.

Narative-Writing Example

My students now enjoy revision. Their papers get messy, and the more revisions they make, the messier the draft gets. I revise my own writing in front of them, then invite them to do it to their work.

  • “To write well, children need opportunities to read and to hear texts read, and to read as writers.”

We use mentor texts by master authors that we examine to see what techniques the writers use to communicate their ideas, so we can try using them as well. Now, during book clubs or read aloud, students are noticing devices writers’ use that they can incorporate in their own writing, like flashbacks or foreshadowing.

  • “Children need clear goals and frequent feedback.”

This happens mainly during writing conferences. Before writing workshop, my writing conferences took place at my desk, after a student had finished a draft. I’d hold a pen and write on the student’s paper, showing them where to add a detail or to re-order some sentences. The student would often stare into space, and I’d mark up the paper and give it back so they could make my corrections. I’d have a long line of students snaking around the room waiting for my help and my approval.

Now, I rarely sit at my desk during writing times. I move around the room and check in with students at their tables. I talk to them and give them feedback in whatever stage they’re working in. I don’t write on their papers. I might write some notes on a separate paper so they can remember what we talked about, but the students have to make their own revisions, do their own writing.

We use checklists and charts so students can remind themselves of their goals. Students don’t stand in line and wait for a conference with a teacher. They keep working and use the tools we provide to help themselves until the next teacher check-in.

Teaching writing like this takes more work, but we are now sending students to each higher grade with more skills, ready to take on a new level of sophistication in their writing. It’s been so gratifying to see how our students have embraced this process. Students are excited about writing, disappointed when their writing time is over, sometimes asking if they can stay inside during recess to keep working on a story. As a teacher it doesn’t get better than that.

How do we respond?

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

-Victor Frankel

Walking through our halls Wednesday morning after Tuesday’s election, discussions about the election results could be overheard everywhere. Most children sought out friends with which to share their collective surprise over the news; others parroted remarks they may have heard on TV or from various adults. Some others said nothing.

I can only speak for myself, but watching the results the night before I couldn’t help but wonder: what do I say to the kids tomorrow? Regardless of one’s own personal political persuasion, the nature of this campaign and its surprising end made for an election night like no other. Contemplating spending Wednesday with young children eager to discuss this at school, I asked myself: how do we respond?

Waking up Wednesday, I thought of Victor Frankel’s famous quote (above). One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to live in the space between stimulus and response, to appropriately model for our students the importance of taking the time to pause and be thoughtful before we react to the words and actions around us. Imagining my conversation with a student about the election, I resolved to offer more questions than answers, especially open-ended ones like “How are you feeling?” or “What’s making you anxious?” so that students feel they have a safe space to process their emotions or concerns.

Shortly after arriving at school, I saw an email in my inbox from Lisa, our Head of School, stating that we would be meeting as a faculty after school to discuss our school-wide response to the election.

During our discussion, we heard from various teachers about their experiences throughout the day, many of them similar to my own. We all agreed on the need to acknowledge feelings, encourage conversation, and allow for differing points of view. Lisa reminded us that the RULER emotional intelligence tools we’ve been implementing in classrooms over the last year and a half are truly powerful for times like these. (Read a short message on the election from Yale’s Emotional Intelligence team here)

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instagram.com/willowscommschool

Different grade levels shared specific moments and activities from the day. During their morning meeting, first graders plotted themselves on the classroom mood meter; one student acknowledged the news of the election had left him feeling “uncomfortable,” after plotting his mood somewhere between blue and red.

One third grade teacher felt that the activities surrounding a mock election held at school had really helped her students learn to be respectful of others’ choices and to deal with feelings surrounding winning and losing an election. In the middle school, certain math classes had studied polling surrounding the various California ballot propositions, and their discussion Wednesday morning covered not only the predicted versus actual outcomes, but also about the vital need to cultivate a mathematically-informed electorate in our country.

Although it is unclear what the next four years will bring, it is certain that plenty of emotions and other stimuli in need of our collective responses await. Of the many things I saw on social media Wednesday, one short passage shared with the staff by third grade teacher Stephanie Wald helps show a path to the growth and freedom Victor Frankel spoke about:

Let’s start small. Let’s start by looking each other in the eye. By smiling to a stranger. By picking up a piece of trash. By being helpful in your community and commit to listening to each other. Let’s start with more mindfulness, more self-care, more reading and writing. Let’s take it day by day. We have a lot of work to do, but today let’s be really kind to each other. Let’s be honest, generous, and forgiving and connect through our hearts rather than through our minds. Let’s start small, and with love. Let’s start now.

Some helpful links for parents and educators:
http://betsybrownbraun.com/2016/11/09/talking-to-your-kids-about-the-election/
http://www.tolerance.org/blog/day-after
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-should-we-tell-the-children_us_5822aa90e4b0334571e0a30b

 

 

The Power of Trust

I was listening recently to a podcast from Tara Brach, a psychologist and meditation teacher, and she began by revisiting a famous quote from Albert Einstein:

 I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.

If we consider the universe to be unfriendly, he posits, we will direct all of our effort and scientific resources towards building defense systems to protect us from all that seeks to harm us. Perhaps we consider the universe to be neutral, devoid of purpose or meaning, neither friendly nor unfriendly – hence Einstein’s well-known description of a randomized cosmic order (“God playing dice with the universe”).

However, if we decide that the universe is inherently friendly – that is, if we trust that there is some underlying order and goodness to the systems around us, then we may actually feel empowered to try to understand our universe. Power and safety is a result of our efforts not to protect ourselves by building up walls but instead to trust and connect with others, working to understand the world around us.

These ideas reminded me of a recent TED talk led by Marc Slors entitled “Cultivating Trust,” which our faculty watched as part of our Learning Lunch series held each month at The Willows.

Slors acknowledges that while trust involves making ourselves vulnerable to others and all kinds of potential disappointments and calamities, it is also a vital component of successful human communities. In any workplace, people need to be able to trust others in order to focus their cognitive abilities on the work they are responsible for – as a teacher, I trust that our facilities manager keeps our campus safe so that I can devote my time to understanding how best to help students learn. Slors argues that trusting gives us the freedom to be present with the work at hand, as opposed to worrying about all that could possibly go wrong throughout our day.

From this point of view, trusting is ultimately an act of empowerment. Consider various relationships that exist within our school community. Parents trust teachers and the leadership at the school to provide the right conditions for learning to take place. They trust that we will teach the whole child, that teachers will strive to see their child and hear their interests and needs. They trust that they have a partner with open lines of communication. Though they make themselves vulnerable by sharing their children with us each day, by putting trust in us we are able to build stronger partnerships that support students; we feel empowered to join forces together.orig_photo391775_3846309

Also, teachers at the Willows trust their students. In my maker class, I trust that (under my supervision) students will capably utilize a wide variety of tools that could prove harmful if used carelessly – hot glue guns, hand saws, soldering irons, even the internet! Teachers at our school trust that students are competent and capable of taking on problems put before them, or, even better, problems that they come up with on their own. Willows students are not passive learners waiting to be spoon-fed information but in fact feel empowered to construct meaning and think deeply alongside teachers who are guiding the way.

One message we also try to consistently deliver from Developmental Kindergarten to eighth grade is that students need to trust themselves. Children need to feel confident to take risks and potentially make mistakes in order to develop into the kinds of learners described above. Trust in oneself surely instills power, in school and beyond.

“Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It”

All of sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

In advance of a visit to The Willows next week from Nicholas Negroponte, one of the world’s most innovative, revolutionary thinkers (and grandfather to one of our Kindergarteners), I was inspired to revisit an incredibly prescient short piece he wrote for Wired magazine 22 years ago, from which the above quote was taken. The whole piece, “Learning By Doing: Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It,” is short and worth taking the time to read in full.

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Negroponte is well known as one of the co-founders of the MIT Media Lab and for giving the very first TED talk, where he predicted much of the modern technology we use today (see links below). Reading this Wired article again, I found it fascinating to reflect on which of his predictions for education and society at large actually came true.

One quote that really caught my eye in the  article:

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now with multimedia, we are faced with a number of closet drill-and-practice believers, who think they can colonize the pizazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the thick heads of children.

What was true in the 1960s and the 1990s is still true today. Now more than ever, what sells in Ed-tech are just shinier devices and platforms for delivering facts and practicing rote skills. Arguably, there are times and places for facts and skills, but Negroponte reminds us here that educators need to imagine all the ways to use computers to help people learn something besides Googling facts.

Learning By Doing

Negroponte’s insistence that schools promote more learning by doing resonates most today. Essentially, this is the ethos of the maker movement, and one that informs many of the projects I choose for the maker classes that I teach at The Willows.

For example, our third graders are learning about the Native American tribes of California, specifically the villages of the Chumash tribe. Naturally, the classroom teachers and I thought it would be a good idea for the students to make their own interactive version of a Chumash village, complete with littleBits circuits and other tech-related components.

However, before even beginning to create the Chumash village, I asked students to first just build a village. To kill two birds with one stone, I actually asked them to draw and program a village using the software Microworlds EX, so they could practice coding skills while sharing what they know about villages.

The direction I gave was simple: think about what you would find in a village and try to represent that on your screen. As they worked, spontaneous discussions arose about the difference between villages versus cities; students would identify certain components (shelter, food sources and storage, water), inspiring others to add on to their villages in an organic manner. By observing and taking notes as I circulated, I was certainly learning from their doing, and as they designed I noticed they were learning a few things too.

First, given a finite space on which to build, they had to carefully consider where to place different elements of their village, and how much space each could occupy. For example, most students showed that a village has more than one building some for inhabitants to live in and others for various communal purposes; each had to be scaled and placed properly, and much revision was needed as they tinkered with their designs. Second, many students learned that in their first iterations they had omitted certain vital features; for example, only certain students included some means of transportation to move people in and out of their hypothetical village.

Of course, I could have simply read a book or showed a video about villages to them beforehand if I wanted to ensure that they all had close to identical villages with all of the same elements. But my goal was for these third graders to construct their own understanding about how villages work, rather than mimic what I told them should go into a village. Or, echoing Negroponte’s words, I asked them to build their own village instead of dissecting someone else’s.

By asking them to learn by doing, I was actively engaging them, and also allowing them to teach me what they knew or didn’t know, to inform the rest of our project.

For more on Nicholas Negroponte, here are a few links, old and new:

 

 

 

 

The Company We Keep

Personalized learning is all the rage these days. Scan the latest headlines of major publications covering education, and you’ll inevitably come across lots of talk about classrooms where instruction is “individualized,” “student-centered,” and “customized.” So-called reformers from the ed-tech community especially favor this language, touting the latest software they’ve created to expertly deliver a curriculum to a passive learner in front of a computer or tablet.

In theory, no one should be against personalization. But if you believe, as many educators have for quite some time now, that learning almost always occurs in a social context, then some of this talk of creating an individualized curriculum for each child might give you pause. If one of our central aims in schools is to build vibrant communities devoted to learning, then we need to think about how individuals usually learn within communities.

In his landmark book, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith maintains that for millennia humans have learned from “the company we keep.” We are driven instinctively to seek out what he terms clubs – communities of influentialbook learning forgetting people – and as we identify with the members of the club, we begin to establish our own sense of identity:

…as we identify with other members of all the clubs to which we belong, so we learn to be like those other members. We become like the company we keep, exhibiting this identity in the way we talk, dress, and ornament ourselves, and in many other ways. The identification creates the possibility of learning. All learning pivots on who we think we are, and who we see ourselves as capable of becoming.

While there are undoubtedly times when individuals learn something on their own – for example, reading a book on a topic, perhaps to understand some new concept or to complete a task or a project – Smith insists that even in this case, one is joining the “literacy club,” joining the company of authors, participating in an exchange of ideas towards the ultimate fulfillment of one’s intended goal.

Learning within your club

So, along this line of thinking, we are constantly learning about our world, and there are a variety of clubs that we identify with that deeply influence this learning. Some clubs we are born into (i.e. the American club, the rural or urban neighborhood club,) and some that we are more naturally compelled to join (what Smith terms the “spoken language club” that all infants and toddlers join at some point.) The clubs that we choose to identify with not only influence learning, but actually create conditions for the kind of deep learning that we carry with us throughout our lives.

Looking at the clubs that our students at The Willows gravitate towards, I notice that there are, of course, certain common examples: some children identify with clubs centered around sports or games, others identify with art, music, or dance. By middle school, when the pressure to join one specific club or another seemingly intensifies, children begin signing up for clubs like Rock Band or the Robotics team.

One new, informal club that has emerged this year is our Maker Club. Since establishing our makerspaces within the school two years ago (spearheaded by our Director of Technology Amy Dugré) and beginning weekly maker classes during the school day last year, we have wrestled with how to give interested students more devoted time to work on self-directed projects. This year, we found four blocks of IMG_7519time, two lunch periods and two afterschool sessions, where students are invited to work alongside fellow makers and maker teachers, often learning new skills and developing deeper expertise with familiar tools and programs.

However, in addition to being interested in becoming a better programmer or learning how to print with (and often repair!) 3D printers, we have also noticed other worthwhile interactions amongst our Maker Club members. Kids are genuinely excited to have this time and space available, and are quite disappointed when we have to cancel Maker Club. One student’s excitement about their particular project has the real power to inspire others in the same room to try something new, leading to a scene we recently came upon, where four fifth grade boys were crowded around a Youtube video on how to use a sewing machine after seeing the pillow a sixth grade boy had recently finished assembling. IMG_7514

These observations align with some of the latest research on maker-centered learning, specifically research from a recent initiative associated with Harvard’s Project Zero. In a white paper reporting initial findings (that are being prepared for a forthcoming anthology called Makeology), the researchers found that “the most salient beliefs of maker-centered learning for young people have to do with developing a sense of self and a sense of community that empower them to engage with and shape the designed dimension of their world.” Young empowered makers, they argue, see themselves as people capable of finding and solving worthwhile problems, as individuals within a supportive community “who can muster the wherewithal to change things through making.”

Implications

 Thinking broadly about identity and association, several questions persist:

  • Are we aware of what draws us to our clubs, to the company we keep?
  • Do we belong to different kinds of clubs, representing diverse or divergent points of view?
  • Are we aware of clubs (or better yet cultures) that are different than our own?
  • Is it possible to learn much about a club you are not a member of?

            Further, given that all of us are compelled to join communities and learn alongside their members, what does this mean for us as educators? Exactly, how do these issues play out daily in classrooms?

For example, think of the students who have already decided by second or third grade that they are either deficient in reading or math (or both, or school in general); these students seek out classmates who feel the same and reinforce this desire to be a part of the “non-reader” or “math hater” club. What steps can teachers and school leaders take to deal with all-too-common phenomena like this?

Hello World!

Wisdom of The Willows provides a forum for members of our unique community to share their knowledge and reflect on a variety of topics. Certain posts will highlight innovative teaching and learning within our community; others will address broader issues on the minds of educators and parents worldwide connecting the experiences of our Willows community to broader, global conversations in education and parenting.

The Willows is a strong, collaborative community of lifelong learners. Wisdom of The Willows opens a window on the learning undertaken on our campus by not just students, but also by teachers, administrators, and parents alike. For example, here on this blog we will share details of the issues discussed by our teachers and administrators during our monthly Learning Lunches and at our Willows Academy (all-day professional development held once each trimester.) In addition, these articles will be accompanied by references and connections to research and theoretical bases supporting our school’s program.

In-depth profiles of parent and family educational events, as well as those centered on technological, creative or personal development topics, will also be featured.

The overall intent is to make the learning that takes place regularly in our community visible to all.

We look forward to posting more soon, and we invite you to expand your vision, explore the blog, get inspired, and join the conversation!