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School Stories

Turning Empty Notebooks into Inspired Writing

As you walk into Riverside Church on the Teachers College, Columbia University campus for the Lucy Calkins Writing Institute, it’s impossible to mistake this for just any other professional development. There’s a distinct buzz in the air as over 1,200 teachers file into the pews to begin a full week of their summer vacation working.
There’s nothing furtive about the beginning of Lucy Calkin’s keynote speech either. She begins the week by delivering the most serious charge to every teacher of writing: “Your expectations are the ceiling. The ceiling for you, and for them.” Those kinds of platitudes aren’t uncommon in education circles, but this one was unique in that it lives within the DNA of the writing workshop as a practice. 

The intention behind a writing workshop is not really to improve any individual writing assignment, but rather, to improve the writer as a whole. The teacher’s job, then, is to encourage students to lead more writerly lives. Inside the classroom that means a few things. First and foremost, it means that every day students need significant, uninterrupted time to work on their writing. The critical thinking, problem solving, and language skills that make up the foundation of any piece of writing are core skills for every student, and so it is essential that we carve out just as much time in our schedules for explicit writing instruction as we do math and reading. The second piece of teaching within a writing workshop involves accepting uncertainty and being adaptable. Why would 18 different writers, with different stories, backgrounds, and goals, all be working on the same skill at the same time? Running a workshop with integrity means meeting individual writers where they’re at as writers, even if that means meeting every student in a different place on any given day.

Teaching writing then should rarely be about the conventions and forms that we of an earlier generation had drilled into our skulls for years. Creating hamburger paragraphs and sandwiching quotes is among the smallest minutiae that students deal with when they put pen to page. Instead, teaching writing should explode off the paper and into our students’ lives. Lives where they catch the funny nuances of language when they read books or speak with others. Lives where they notice and remember the intricacies of small moments, like the way light shimmered through the trees when they first ditched their training wheels or the low droning sound of the siren when an ambulance came for their broken arm minutes later. Lives where students feel empowered to tell their stories and beliefs to others, because they believe in the gravity of their own words.

It was thrilling to spend a week this summer surrounded by such incredible educators who were excited about student writing, but it is equally inspiring to return to Graland’s campus met by the same enthusiasm from our colleagues. This year throughout the lower school, teachers are engaging with the writing workshop in new and exciting ways to try and answer the call that we heard back in June: that we teach the writer not the writing, and that every student believe they have something valuable to say. As students returned to class this fall, they were met with the sometimes daunting challenge of empty notebooks and mountains of blank paper. We can’t wait to see how they’ll fill it. 

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.