Balanced Literacy
A Teachers College professor introduces her break-the-odds project that teaches writing and reading with rigor
BY LUCY CALKINS/School Administrator, November 2019

Lucy Calkins (right) conducts a writing session for elementary school students at the Western Connecticut Academy for International Studies in Danbury, Conn.
At the start of a recent institute on the teaching of writing, I told the 1,500 educators who’d convened from 42 countries and every state that reform in writing resembles a YouTube clip titled “The Dancing Guy.” It’s featured in entrepreneur Derek Sivers’ TED Talk on leadership.

The clip begins with a lone nut dancing shirtless in a field of onlookers. The dancer is having a jolly time, and onlookers mostly ignore him. A second fellow joins. For a time, it’s just the two of them, then a third joins and a fourth. Within 10 minutes, the entire field is dancing.

When I was a researcher 30 years ago on the nation’s first study of children as writers, only lone pioneers taught writing workshops. Now, educators are coming to realize that an ability to wield language is power, and that power can be and must be taught to everyone, not only the rare few or the elite.

Of course, sometimes superintendents of high-needs school systems worry about the feasibility of meeting this goal: “Our teachers and kids aren’t ready for such a rigorous curriculum. They’ll flounder.”

For decades, we’ve answered back. The break-the-odds schools in the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project show us what is possible.

Fueling Passion
In 2018, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University launched an experiment. Although we’ve worked with about 180 New York City schools for years, we wanted to measure what we could do in just a year or two with a cohort of 12 large, high-needs, low-performing New York City schools. These cohort schools agreed to conduct a whole-hearted, whole-school adoption of a reading and writing workshop using a curriculum known as Units of Study. Prior to this project, some of these schools had dabbled with reading and writing workshop, but most had been teaching reading through a highly conventional (or basal) reading program and/or bypassing the teaching of writing altogether.

The results have been beautiful, and the changes came at such a breathtaking pace that, after four months, we sent cameras into these schools to capture their tone and vibrancy. What they show is teachers and kids becoming passionate about reading and writing. The video we created captures the results. (See list of resources, below.)

One school leader enthused by the dramatic difference she’s observed in classrooms is Stephanie Lukas, principal of PS 51, one of the cohort schools in New York. “The most powerful transformation we have seen is that students who did not see themselves as readers and writers now brim with enthusiasm about their readerly and writerly lives,” she says, noting that there had been no writing curriculum previously. “Children are signing up for playwriting after-school classes and discuss their book club books at lunch. We are in a new place with teachers better able to pinpoint student needs and help motivate them. Truly amazing!”

The students’ results on New York state’s high-stakes assessment in cohort schools have been impressive as well. While a full research report conducted by a third-party organization is expected in 2021, preliminary analysis suggests progress has been notable.

Even more importantly, all parties to the project agree that the schools and the kids in them have changed for the better. These schools are places where students love to read and write.

Launch Options
How can school system leaders make change like this happen in their communities? There’s no single route to making large-scale change happen, but these are some considerations based on the work of school leaders who have been part of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

» Size up your capacity when devising a first plan.
Anthony Bryk, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, suggests if a school district has the internal capacity and the public will, it may work to plunge right into all-in implementation, as we did with the 12 elementary schools in the New York City cohort. If those factors aren’t present, Bryk suggests leaders might be wise to go with a softer start. Some districts launch with a group of early adopters — either teachers within a school or schools within a district. Early adopters volunteer and often receive extra professional training and additional planning time. These sites iron out problems, advertise successes and eventually provide exemplars and support for the next group of implementers.

Plans for reform need to align with and build upon the district’s prior history and assets. Is your district on fire over (or moving toward) personalized learning? Social justice? Helping kids adopt a growth mindset? Literacy reform can be infused with and aligned to almost any important districtwide goal.

Elementary students at Public School 14 in Bronx, N.Y., which uses Lucy Calkins’ workshop program for teaching literacy skills, revise their writing.

» Consider what has worked in your schools and what hasn’t in the past.
If there are ways of conducting professional development that have (or haven’t) worked in a district, that knowledge needs to inform any future planning. The professional development plan ought to be multilevel, with everyone in the participating school hearing versions of the same message.

To facilitate this, we find it helpful for the cohort schools to share a curriculum sequence, so at cross-school conference days, the Teachers College Project can bring teachers from all the schools together to get shored up just prior to an upcoming chunk of curriculum.

Meanwhile, literacy coaches work together in one of the schools to co-construct methods for supporting teachers, and school principals receive coaching on curriculum-based walk-throughs and other aspects.

» Choose a coherent curriculum based on progressions of skill development.
To bring all students toward higher-level literacy skills such as argument, critical reading and cross-text synthesis, school districts must provide a coherent curriculum that has at its core, progressions of benchmarked skills across grades. Just as teachers can’t teach kids to multiply fractions unless they have learned what fractions are, so, too, teachers can’t teach higher-level reading or writing skills unless kids come to their classroom with prerequisite skills.

In writing, we’ve developed a trajectory of work to support growth in each genre: narrative, information and argument. In argument writing, for example, students in early grades write persuasive speeches about how they could make their school a better place or compose reviews about their favorite pizza shop or ice cream flavor. By 5th grade, students are writing research-based position papers that involve critical reading and the use of sources. We also help students transfer this learning from English language arts to other subjects.

One hallmark of the workshop model is its consistent structure: Each day teachers teach a whole-group mini-lesson, followed by time for students to work independently while teachers offer individualized coaching, followed by a brief sharing in which the teacher reinforces and celebrates the learning. Students know what is expected of them, during each part of the workshop.

What’s more, when teachers across a grade can rally around a curriculum with coherent skill progressions and consistent structures, they have a context within which to form a vibrant professional learning community.

» Provide schools with the requisite materials.
We’ve been struck by the realization that materials matter more than we ever dreamt. When teachers don’t have the materials they need in the classroom, this can derail an en-tire initiative. It’s vital each teacher has his or her own Units of Study curriculum set.

For teachers to conduct a reading workshop, they also need a classroom library full of engaging books that kids can actually read and that feel relevant to kids’ lives. In the experiment with the 12 elementary schools, the first step for participating schools was to order a classroom library for each upper-grade classroom. Classroom libraries can be stocked from any number of publishers. We have organized the best and newest texts through the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Libraries.

» Look beyond test scores toward more enduring goals.
Test scores matter, and you can trust that this work, when well-implemented, almost always leads to high achievement on state tests. But usually it does not work to rally teachers to adopt the workshop approach because it’ll produce results on high-stakes tests.

Even if the first-year test scores rise, no matter how well teachers teach, no school in your district will have an unbroken record of ever-increasing test scores. Ultimately, teachers need to teach toward goals to which they can hold themselves accountable. In the end, test scores are out of their control.

» Be an inspirational leader.
Research shows most education leaders lead by compliance, with a checklist mentality. But those often heralded as among the best in the field lead instead by influence. Years ago, Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools, considered mandating reading and writing workshop across the district. I asked my friend, Jack Gillette, then a professor at Yale School of Education, whether mandating an approach that requires heart and soul investment was bound for trouble, and Gillette gave me this advice: “When an approach is mandated, it is tempting to think that inspiration becomes less important. After all, teachers have no choice. But when something is mandated, inspiration becomes more, not less important.”

Sometimes, in order to stir your people toward new work, it helps to name a problem. In a 2007 article for Harvard Business Review, John Kotter, who is highly regarded for his insights on transforming organizations, suggests that sometimes you may need to identify a crisis that makes maintaining the status quo riskier than embracing change. For example, you can use the adoption of new standards or new observational frameworks to work for the good. When there are no dragons, there are no heroes.

You can’t outsource the role of inspirational leader. When our work with those 12 schools began, I gathered principals together. “Wear your love of this work on your sleeve,” I said to them. “Martin Luther King didn’t say, ‘I have a 10-point plan.’ He said, ‘I have a dream.’”

However, the most stirring way to inspire people will be to find beauty and meaning in the work they do. Visit classrooms and spot small moments and scenes that capture the grandeur of the work, and spotlight these. Recall the goosebumps you felt as you watched 1st graders pass a brand new book between them, smelling it, rubbing their hands over the glossy cover.

You can help school district administrators, principals and teachers see glory in the work they do. Make sure everyone knows you appreciate the hard work.

I am reminded of journalist Donald Murray’s simple advice to teachers of writing: “The ultimate mark of a successful (writers) conference is that the writer leaves, wanting to write.” The mark of a successful superintendent is that principals and teachers come to school every day, eager to teach — and to learn.

LUCY CALKINS is founding director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. Twitter: @TCRWP

Additional Resources
The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project provides videos and other professional development materials and programs for teachers, principals and district leaders.

Twice a year, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project holds a daylong conference with 125 workshops free to educators. The project conducts institutes on topics of interest to administrators, coaches and teachers throughout the year. Visit for more information and to access the Vimeo account featuring instructional videos.

Lucy Calkins, the project’s founder and director, recommends these resources for literacy reform in K-12 schooling:

»Growing Extraordinary Writers: Leadership Decisions to Raise the Level of Writing Across a School and a District” by Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth in Reading Teacher, July 2016.

» Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins with Mary Ehrenworth and Laurie Pessah. (Heinemann, 2019).

» “Units of Study: Transforming Schools,” A Teachers College video provides an inside view of classrooms where elementary students are discovering themselves as readers and writers (2019, 6 min.).