Lower School Reading and Writing Workshop

by Joanna Manning

It’s just after lunch on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, prime time for a nap for most adults, but the students in Stephani Crozier’s first-grade classroom are assembled, wide-eyed, on the circle time rug listening to a short lesson on “cool moves authors use.”

Ms. Crozier is teaching her students how to read like writers, to notice specific techniques that authors use to create various effects. She points out an ellipsis in a text the class has recently read together and the students correctly identify that its purpose is to build suspense. She then turns the page and asks the students to report on what they see. Hands shoot up. One of the words is bigger one student yells. And darker adds another. They talk about why the author might have made that choice. When they read aloud together, they all emphasize the bolded words instinctively. When Ms. Crozier turns the page again, the kids read out the word SPLASH! unprompted before learning that this kind of word-that-makes-a-sound is called onomatopoeia.

“Do you think you can use one of these moves in your writing today?” Ms. Crozier challenges the class. They seem confident that they can, and they gather their materials to begin working independently as Ms. Crozier makes her way around the room conferencing with individual students, providing both encouragement and one specific suggestion for improvement. 

The lower school has used this workshop approach to writing instruction for the last ten years, adopting a method developed by Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins. In the Calkins method, students sit for a brief mini-lesson on a specific writing skill and are then given the opportunity to write independently while the teacher meets with individual students to offer feedback. In the early grades, peer feedback is included and conducted as a group. Lucy Calkins leads a highly selective professional development workshop in writing pedagogy at Columbia each summer, which many lower-school teachers have completed.

“The workshop method is so powerful because students are part of a community of writers,” said fourth-grade teacher Carrie Cherek, who participated in the Calkins workshop at Columbia last summer. “The sharing piece is huge throughout the stages of the writing process, and the kids are really excited about it.”      

Students work through all of the stages of the writing process, from idea generation and drafting through revision and sharing their work, and the skills and revision strategies build on each other, becoming more complex at each grade level. The workshop is a flexible, individualized, and engaging program that gets students doing the one thing that’s proven to make writers better: lots and lots of writing. 

Across all grade levels, students explore four major genres–narrative, nonfiction, persuasive writing, and realistic fiction–adding genres such as lab reports, poetry, and more complex research projects in the upper grades. At each stage, choice is central to the workshop method. 

First-grade teacher Jen Kolbo said, “I’ve taught many different methods, and I’ve not had kids write or read as well as I have with this program. A lot of that is due to the voice and choice and that they see themselves as readers and writers.” 

“When students get to choose what they read and write, they’re more engaged. They have some parameters, but for the most part they have ownership over their writing.” Ms. Crozier agreed. 

Some of the parameters might include applying new knowledge from the mini lessons to the student’s writing for the day or emulating something from a mentor text, as Ms. Crozier’s class did when working through the “cool moves authors use.” No matter which specific skills or techniques they are trying, the workshop model allows each child to receive frequent, specific feedback on his or her progress.  

“Kids are really hungry for knowing what they’re doing well but also what they can improve on,” said Lower School Director Nick Zosel-Johnson, who is also an alumnus of the Columbia program. “So, the individual conferencing that happens every day really gives the teachers the chance to sit down with a child, to look at the work, to ask the child, ‘What are you working on?’ and for the child to authentically say, ‘I’m working on adding description or setting or flow.’ The teacher can ask each student to show them where they did that well. And in every conference, the teacher gives a compliment and then points out just one thing that the student can do better. The students can really hear that and it’s highly individualized. Everyone’s working on something different. It’s the teacher’s job to analyze the writing and figure out what that one thing is for the day It leaves kids feeling supported and pushed.” 

When peer feedback is conducted as a group, Ms. Kolbo’s students each get a turn in the ‘author’s chair,’ where they read their work aloud to the class. 

“We’ll talk about things like ‘Did you unfreeze your character, did you use transition words, do you have a beginning, middle and end?’ and work through those things as a group,” Ms. Kolbo said. 

The system of peer feedback becomes more sophisticated as the grade levels progress. 

“In fourth grade we’re teaching how to do helpful, constructive feedback and using that to revise their writing,” Ms. Cherek said. “Also, in fourth and fifth, we’re doing more research-based argument writing and literary essays that are based on evidence from the texts–all of the things that they’ll have to do in middle school.”

While writing with textual evidence is one of the more challenging skills that students take on toward the end of lower school, it is a skill that they’ve been honing since the first grade, when leveled reading groups are introduced, and students are encouraged to use text-based examples in their book club discussions.

In the first grade, reading workshop has a similar feel to the writing workshop and follows the same genres. As with the writing workshop, each reading workshop begins with a brief group lesson. 

“We work on building good habits and viewing ourselves as readers,” said Ms.Crozier. “We work on one skill or one strategy every day and then layer it through the unit.” While students read independently, teachers have the opportunity to work with individuals on skills such as reading fluency or comprehension. 

The process is largely the same throughout the lower school. 

“There’s choice built in, so students will be reading books with different genre focus in each grade, but they have a leveled book club that they read with,” Ms. Cherek explained. “We use ongoing assessments throughout the year so that the groupings are flexible. Students are learning how to take notes, how to have a quality discussion with accountable talk, how to respond to a text in a deeper way.” 

In Ms. Ward and Mr. Clark’s fifth-grade classrooms, book clubs keep a reading journal to record their thoughts about their readings and to guide their group discussions, illustrating that reading and writing as processes are inextricably linked. 

For Ms. Cherek, the benefit of the workshop method for both reading and writing is obvious: the flexibility to move students between groups as their skills progress is vital to the success of the program and ensures that students are always being appropriately challenged. In addition, having the opportunity to share work throughout the workshop process builds confidence by allowing students to experience the power of an authentic audience.  

“It’s student-centered. It’s not one method for everyone.”  Ms. Cherek said. “It’s true differentiation.”

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