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Children as Authors: Building an Early Foundation for Writing

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New York--Last month, the New York City Public Schools instituted a $250,000 elementary-school writing program in 14 of its 32 community districts.

The program, which has been tested on a smaller scale over the past several years in seven New York City districts and in schools from Massachusetts to New Mexico, is designed to foster in beginning writers a love for the language and a sense of responsibility for their craft, according to its author, Lucy McCormick Calkins.

"We know that writing has the power to turn classrooms into richly literate communities," said Ms. Calkins, who is an assistant professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University and a former student of the writing expert Donald Graves of the University of Vermont.

"When children view themselves as authors, they feel a new connection with written language, and they read, write, think, and speak with authority. Equally important, the workshops provide ongoing classroom-based support for teachers."

In Ms. Calkins's program, teachers teach writing by means of daily, hour-long workshops in which students write, rewrite, and edit their work, much the same way that professional writers do. To learn the instructional method, 300 teachers from the New York City school system and from Iowa, Colorado, and as far away as Chile, attended a two-week institute at Teachers College this summer led by Ms. Calkins.

Earlier Start

Although New York City's high-school seniors are required to pass a writing-competency test, Shelley Harwayne, a 4th-grade teacher in Brooklyn's District 15, and Hindy List, the district's curriculum director, concluded several years ago that more emphasis should be placed on engaging young students in the process of learning to write and on building their enthusiasm for the task.

The two educators reviewed the existing research on reading, Ms. Harwayne explained at the Teachers College institute, and chose Ms. Calkins's program because it stressed a practical approach to teaching writing in the early grades.

With funds provided by the city's board of education for testing innovative programs, Ms. Harwayne and Ms. List hired Ms. Calkins as a consultant in 1980 and began training interested teachers on a voluntary basis. (The subsequent $250,000 grant to expand the project to other districts was provided by the board's division of curriculum and instruction.)

Program Has 'Caught On'

"I can't think of a program that's caught on like this," said Jack Isaacs, director of special funds for the New York City Board of Education.

As students learn to write using Ms. Calkins's program, Mr. Isaacs said, their reading scores improve, their vocabulary expands, and they gain confidence. At the same time, teachers become "refreshed and renewed."

"It's a program that promotes teacher collaboration," Mr. Isaacs added enthusiastically. "You see teachers at lunch, eating their sand-wiches and talking about writing."

Ms. Calkins's classroom-writing workshops begin with a 10-minute mini-lesson, during which the teacher may go over general matters, such as how to choose or focus on a topic to write about, or how to solve specific mechanical problems. While the students work, the teacher moves around the room engaging in individual conferences with pupils and asking questions designed to help them become more conscious of how they write. For example, a teacher might ask, "How did you go about writing?" "What problems did you run into?" or "How do you feel about this draft?"

Learning To Love To Write

Said Ms. Harwayne: "Children need to write freely first without fear of making mistakes." Once they learn to love the activity, she added, the rules will follow.

"Writing an hour a day, the kids learn all the skills," Ms. Harwayne said. "We have 1st graders using exclamation points correctly."

The next step in Ms. Calkins's program is to have students share their completed first drafts with other students, who ask questions and make suggestions for improvement. Final drafts are then edited by students working with the teacher and are "published."

Even small children can be surprisingly funny or poetic, Ms. Harwayne said. Sometimes writing gives voice to feelings the children are not even fully aware of, she added, and they write about the deaths of grandparents and pets, about the pain of being told they are too old for birthday parties, or about what it's like to live in an apartment and visit a friend who lives in a big house.

Reading Involvement

Ms. Calkins, who has worked as both an elementary- and a secondary-school teacher and who has published a book--Lessons From a Child--on her research on how rural elementary schoolchildren learn to write, encouraged conference participants to envision a classrom where children love to read and want to write, where books and magazines are eagerly taken up and shared, and where children help and respect each other as colleagues.

Ms. Calkins described a 6th-grade class in Brooklyn's District 15 in which Rose Napoli, the teacher, scheduled back-to-back reading and writing periods for her students.

In the reading group, which used the same methodology as that outlined for the writing program, Ms. Napoli divided students into "reading response" groups of four or five. In each group, a book was discussed based on a question provided by the teacher to encourage pupils to probe the meaning of the text.

As writers themselves, Ms. Calkins said, the children eagerly talked about why books begin and end the way they do, what the writer might have done differently, and how words and phrases were used.

That 6th-grade class, Ms. Calkins said, is a perfect example of a teacher creating a context for children to get deeply involved in reading and writing. "Instead of teaching, she helped them to learn," she said. "It was nothing less than a miracle."

An Antidote to Burnout

Some teachers who attended the conference pointed out the difficulty of unlearning years of classroom habits. They said, for example, that giving up authority over students' writing can be very threatening. But other participants noted that it can also be enlightening.

Jeanne Socolick, a 4th-grade teacher in Brooklyn's District 15, said she viewed the writing program as an antidote to burnout. "I wanted something new, and this gives me something to look forward to," she said.

Other teachers at the conference said the program had helped them overcome their own fear of writing.

"When I was growing up, there was no better way to punish me," said Renee Thornton, another 4th-grade teacher in District 15. "Only the neatest writers got their papers hung up because writing was a penmanship lesson. I wrote perfectly grammatical sentences that were boring. We focus now on what the kids have to say."

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