The Origin of the Workshop Model
One of the most influential approaches to teaching English / Language Arts for the past 30 years has been the “workshop” method — sometimes called “writing workshop” or “reading workshop” or “that Lucy Calkins thing that my district forces us to do under threat of torture.” While this approach only occasionally touches American high schools, it has been hugely influential in American middle and especially elementary schools, many of which teach literacy primarily through this approach.
Because it’s so prevalent, it’s easy to forget that the workshop model was once hugely innovative, a provocative departure from traditional teaching. I can remember my own sixth grade teacher using this approach back in 1993, then seeing it again when I began teaching in 2007. Eleven years later, at the NCTE conference two weeks ago, I heard seminars promoting it. Today it remains at once passe but also cutting edge and progressive, depending on what grade level you teach. It has both hardened into orthodoxy and also remained elusive, hard to do well; pre-packaged and consumerized, yet innately responsive and individual. It is, in a word, influential.
So where did it come from?
I had been wondering about this question for quite some time. Fortunately at the NCTE conference, I happened to pick up a fascinating book, Children Want to Write. It is a retrospective on the career of former UNH professor Don Graves. Graves was a middle school teacher, a principal after his second year of teaching (!!), and an influential writer/researcher. What I had not realized was that Graves contributed more to the field of children’s writing instruction that anyone else in the 20th century. Don Graves didn’t invent the modern writing workshop, but he was the major force in its birth — and he did it by accident. He did it alongside a talented young researcher whose fame later eclipsed his own. He received tremendous criticism at the time, some of it founded, some of it not. He did not mean to found a new method of teaching. Like so many discoveries, Don Graves’ happened partly by accident.
Graves started teaching seventh grade English in 1956. Two years later, he became principal of the school, and found himself teaming with the school janitor to discipline students. One of their most ingenious solutions was to catch a boy who’d been climbing up to the ceiling of the boys bathroom to unscrew a water valve by coating the handle in purple residue from carbon copy paper. Graves and the janitor simply looked for the boy with the purple fingers. By 1973, Graves had won the NCTE’s award from promising research, for his study of second graders. During this time he joined the UNH faculty and came in contact with Don Murray, war veteran, college flunk-out, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and already then a hugely influential writing professor who’d begun cracking open the teaching of writing in order to understand how to teach it. Murray, particularly in his 1969 book, A Writer Teaches Writing, sought to push writing instruction past the formalism that dominated public schools and colleges, as co-editor of Children Want to Write Tom Newkirk writes:
At the time . . . writing instruction was tightly regulated . . . Topics were assigned, all errors were marked, outlines were required for all longer papers, a five-paragraph structure was imposed, all papers were graded, and there were no readers other than teachers. In lower grades, teachers listed the words to be used on the blackboard.
Murray and Graves were appalled by this overregulation, believing that it stunted the expressive possibilities of writing, not to mention that it killed the joy. It imposed a compliant student role, rather than the role of the writer. It ignored the most necessary condition for writing – having something to say to someone . . .
In many ways, the educational system at the time Don Graves began his research was one that taught both reading and math in conscious, systematic ways, but not writing. Graves’ major accomplishment was to adopt Don Murray’s “process” approach to writing instruction in the elementary classroom — to teach young children to write like professional writers.
And so it was that in the early 1980s, Graves, alongside his research assistant, Lucy Calkins, began the Atkinson Study, based at Atkinson Academy in New Hampshire, a K-5 school believed to be the oldest co-ed school in the country. This became the laboratory, the incubation site, where the writing workshop first took form.
What’s interesting is that creating a new model of teaching was not Graves’ goal. The Atkinson study was designed to research children’s writing processes and to report observations and recommendations. Instead, as Graves, Calkins, and the Atkinson teachers began taking the techniques of advanced creative writing seminar workshops and trying to fit them to elementary classrooms, many of the practices of the modern writing workshop began to develop: the mini-lesson, the “Author’s Chair,” pre-writing activities, and the writing-conference-in-progress.
It was this last technique that was particularly revolutionary. No longer were teachers the high priests of grammar, the arbiters of quality, the assigners of topics, but instead listeners — Graves was a great one — who tried to understand where children were coming from in order to specifically tailor their lessons to just what each student needed. This idea of teaching the individual child, rather than simply aiming at a roomful of children, was particularly influential. Graves initially advised teachers to do most of their teaching in individual conferences — a truly radical way to approach instruction. Indeed, one of the biggest innovations of Atkinson Academy teachers — and later of teacher-researchers like Nancie Atwell in Maine — was to design classroom systems that kept children engaged and gave teachers the freedom to be able to circulate the room to conference.
Graves reported his new findings in his groundbreaking 1983 book, Writing: Teachers and Children at Work. Several other influential books were published a few years later by teacher-researchers in the Graves orbit — In the Middle by Nancie Atwell, and The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins, which described the application of the ideas of the Atkinson study to middle school and elementary classrooms, respectively.
Curiously, the workshop approach rarely caught on in high school English classrooms. This has had the effect of making the workshop approach, even 35 years later, feel cutting edge when applied to secondary curriculums. Just last year, teacher-researchers Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher published 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents, a book that updates Graves’ writing workshop methods for modern high school classrooms.
On the other hand, the writing workshop has not only caught on in elementary schools, it has if anything become de rigueur. In my school district a fair number of elementary educators have attended seminars at Teachers College at Columbia University in Manhattan led by Graves’ former researcher, Lucy Calkins. Calkins has created a corporate empire based on marketing and teaching the workshopping method, and predictably for someone so influential, she has been criticized for promoting a one-size-fits-all model of literacy instruction. Teachers I know who’ve attended her seminars have joked about her resistance to criticism of any kind. This is particularly ironic, given the nature of writing workshop:
[Calkins] was known as a champion for flexible, creative teaching, uniquely attuned to children. “If we adults listen and watch closely,” she wrote in 1986, “our children will invite us to share their worlds and their ways of living in the world.”
And while this impulse continues to inform aspects of her approach, she has tended over time to become increasingly focused on enforcing her own methodology; many of her techniques limit children’s genuine engagement with reading and writing. This insistence on only one way to do things, not surprisingly, has translated into a demand that teachers quiet their own impulses, gifts, and experiences, and speak in one, mandated voice.
It’s hardly surprising, of course, that what was once vital, new, and fresh can become locked into orthodoxy later on, especially when so much money is involved. Calkins was once paid a no-bid $5.4 million contract to revamp literacy instruction in 100 New York high schools over three years, and often charged $1,200 just to send one of her instructions into schools for a single day.
I’m also struck by how, despite its prevalence in elementary schools, the writing workshop is so often taught without its most important component: conferencing with individual students, due to the ongoing challenge of fitting these moments into a chaotic classroom. I’ve met many elementary teachers who would love to conference, but can’t, and I remember Calkins specifically pointing out this danger in her 1986 book about writing workshop. Kittle and Gallagher do it too, repeatedly, in their new book. It’s always the place that’s easiest to cut corners. It feels so difficult, so time-consuming, and sometimes, so ineffective (we rarely get through more than 5 or 6 conferences in a session). And yet — all good teachers of the workshop method, going back to Graves and Murray, agree: it is the most important element of the whole set-up.
In this day of faux-individualization — whether through airy goal-setting sessions (“personalized learning plans”), or through the shortcuts of technology (“blended learning” or “personalized learning”) — we often boast about teaching individual students, yet we forget how hard that really is: how time-consuming, how apparently inefficient and unsystematic, and how it requires us to slow down and really listen to where a child is. Calkins calls this “researching” — and this was at the heart of the Atkinson study: listening to children, trying to understand where they are, and only then making decisions about how to teach them as individual skills. It’s not for nothing that conferencing has been called the least efficient but most effective form of instruction.
So that, in short, is where the modern writing workshop comes from. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend that same book that I just read: Children Want to Write, a story about Don Graves’ career, edited by Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle. It comes with a DVD (remember those?) of remarkable videos from the Atkinson study, showing Graves and Calkins interviewing young children about their writing process. From this study grew the seeds of a national movement, one that influenced a wide, wide variety of American children, over several generations.
I hold this study up as a model of the type of work all educators should be doing: of listening to and reacting to individual students, of forming new, adaptable solutions to classroom conditions in order to grow and change and to integrate new ideas. It’s very different than the sort of top-down approach fostered over the past twenty years in American education, one in which politicians or policymakers, most of whom lack direct classroom experience, attempt to foist large-scale change on American classrooms under penalty of law, with the goal of increasing standardized test scores to further a political agenda or political career. The writing workshop evolved out of a very different model: a partnership between university researchers and public school teachers and, yes, students, all of whom conspired to create something that had never been seen before in schools.
Whether this approach will ever catch on wide-scale in high schools I think is doubtful, though it is beginning to happen more and more. I am only just beginning to put this question in my sights this year and to ask why workshopping never took hold. One clue I found in the new book about Graves comes from one of the most trenchant criticisms of the Atkinson study, by Chicago professor and researcher George Hillocks, who published a meta-study of writing research in 1986 that I very much hope to read in the next few weeks. Hillocks criticized what he called Graves’ “natural process” that allowed writers to develop freely with minimal teacher intervention as being unreliable. I just quickly scanned the report and found this:
Throughout the research by Graves and his colleagues, for example, changes in writing behavior tend to be attributed to natural development. For example, in discussing four types of revisers, Calkins (1980b) claims that “transition revisers” (one of the types) “had developed higher standards for themselves” (p. 339), the implication being that higher standards are developed internally as the natural result of efforts to write. One result of such inferences is that the researchers recommend that instruction be largely reactive, allowing children to write when and what they wish, with minimal intervention from the teacher. But the i. “…ence that children developed higher standards for themselves and by themselves may be wrong. Without controls for instructional variables, there is no way to establish the causal relationship.
According to Children Want to Write, Hillocks contrasts Graves’ “natural process” unfavorably with Hillocks’ own approach, the “environmental mode” — which instead of just letting kids choose topics and structures and write about whatever they want like the workshop model, emphasizes entering each unit “with a carefully designed set of gateway activities” designed to scaffold and support students, while still allowing them to write about meaningful topics, and to make their own mistakes.
Frankly, this approach sounds much more like my own approach in the high school classroom, one that blends the process writing approach of Graves, the conferencing and the listening from the teacher (and, because these are older students, from each other) with the more prescriptive, traditional approach that sees everyone enter the same genre study unit, hear the same time-tested mini-lessons, and generally move much more closely at the same multi-draft pace than it sometimes seems a pure workshop model allows (in which students can start and end various drafts, write about different topics, and just generally be in very different places. Perhaps that’s not fair — Newkirk and Kittle suggest Hillocks is not fair to Graves, but I’m interested to read.
It’s sometimes hard to imagine adopting a full-on workshop model in high school partly for the reservations I’ve expressed above. The workshop — particularly the writer’s notebook — while making a lot of sense, still give me a feeling of students being adrift. I am much more comfortable providing a bit more guidance — structured brainstorming and creative writing activities in class designed to pull out solid ideas, rather than taking down the nets and really letting students collect ideas totally on their own. I am not expressing this well, but it’s a reservation I still have as a high school teacher about the workshop model that Graves ushered into elementary and middle schools: it feels just a little too free. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have written admirably about their efforts to situate the workshop in high school settings, so surely it works, but if I’m being honest, it still feels like a leap of faith.
Either way, the workshop model is now — as it was in 1983 — a tremendously promising model of instruction. Since then it has been developed for reading in addition to writing. It stands more than anything as exactly the sort of researcher-practitioner collaboration that we need in order to innovate. It also represents a “bottom-up” model that goes against the grain of the educational reform of the past twenty years. This practice was started by teachers and by professors who’d been teachers. It was developed in close partnership with schools and with children — really listening to them and understanding what they needed, right up close. A standardized test can never do that. A personalized learning software program, a computer, can never do that. Only a human being with an extraordinary mind and ability to really hear what a child is saying — someone like Don Graves — could pull that off.
Here’s to the innovators.