The Value of a Holistic Approach to Reading and Writing
BY JEREMY P. PALOTTI/School Administrator, November 2019
I juggled the rollout of Teachers College’s writers workshop framework beginning in July 2017, during my first month as superintendent in Hornell, N.Y. I was eager to turn around the poor student performance in reading and writing and had used the research-based writing initiative in my previous school district. It achieved results within months.
Some might wonder whether the rushed timeline for such an important instructional initiative meant chaos ensued.
It did not, though it did add an extra dimension of demands at the start of my tenure. Introducing the Teachers College framework that I’d seen successfully raise student literacy elsewhere brought my new staff clarity about my vision for the schools in Hornell. My track record provided evidence of success.
A Superior Fit
As a school and district administrator for 15 years, I have seen the critical nature of how central-office leadership deals with reading and writing instruction. Leading reform requires clear, concise communication and adequate support and follow through to staff across the organization. This is especially true when implementing the writers workshop.
The curriculum of Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project is superior to most that I have used because it is aligned to our state literacy standards. It spirals from grade to grade. It is rigorous and proven — and has been tested repeatedly in classrooms.
The Teachers College project team worked with our district to teach children literacy skills but also to teach teachers to become better literacy teachers and better teachers on the whole.
Our preK-12 district in New York’s Southern Tier serves just under 2,000 students, fewer than 30 percent of whom tested proficient in English in the year prior to implementing the writers workshop. The launch started in primary grades but moved to all grades K-8 within the first year. I met with all elementary teachers to discuss literacy instruction, fielded questions about their experiences, discussed a vision I had for change, established what I wanted to see in classrooms and even modeled practice.
Then, to ensure a consistent rollout among principals, curriculum leaders, teachers and myself, we contracted with Teachers College to provide the full faculty with professional development, sent teachers and administrators to weeklong summer institutes and contracted with the college for an onsite staff developer. The latter individual worked with us for several days during the school year, modeling instruction in our classrooms for teachers and coaching principals, curriculum specialists and teachers as needed.
Improving literacy across all grades was our highest pursuit. As a member of the district’s English language arts curriculum committee, I used team meetings continuously to maintain the focus on instruction in the writers workshop model.
After our first year, Hornell saw increases of more than 10 percent as measured by our state literacy assessments. We anticipate sharper increases after this second year of use based on our in-house formative assessment results during the year.
Beyond test scores, we have witnessed a complete shift in writing instruction, a dramatic improvement in the quality of student writing and expressions of true joy for writing among both students and teachers.
Teaching writers workshop is hard work. Teachers need to know that district leaders recognize that. Supervising writers workshop is also difficult. The administrative staff and I needed to learn the curriculum with the teachers and to under-stand the bigger picture created by Teachers College.
My advice to superintendents: Ensure you acknowledge the additional effort of staff and be sure your message permeates all levels.
Also, invest in professional development, books and resources to make the writers workshop succeed. In our district, administrators relied on A Principal’s Guide to Leadership in the Teaching of Writing: Helping Teachers with Units of Study
by Lucy Calkins for guidance. Now we are reading her latest book, Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing
Financial investment also is necessary, but so too is direction and involvement by principals and the superintendent. What started as a literacy reform has manifested into a whole school reform with visible improvements in instructional practices and better writing, reading and comprehension across all disciplines.
is superintendent of Hornell City School District in Hornell, N.Y. Twitter: @JPPalotti