SOUTH BRONX SCHOOL: Is Lucy Calkins Legally Insane?

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Is Lucy Calkins Legally Insane?

We have called for the arrest and prosecution of Lucy Calkins. We have sampled the child abuse of Lucy Calkins methods. We have called for all administrators that buy into Lucy Calkins to be terminated post haste. And we have pulled back the sheath of the Cult of Lucy Calkins.

The sign of insanity is doing what results in failure over and over again and hoping for a different outcome. Apparently if any administrator that relies on anything from Lucy Calkins to improve the reading and writing skills of the students in the charge must be legally insane.

Therefore we hear at SBSB feel it is incumbent on ourselves to advocate, nay, call for, any administrator that believe that after years of failure of the Calkins Method to be legally insane. Of course it goes without saying that Lucy Calkins could be legally insane as well.

So with that being said, please read what my pal The Frustrated Teacher wrote back in 2008; 


Many school districts are forced to purchase, institute, and receive staff development on, new curricular materials due to failing to meet NCLB targets. Here is all you need to know about one of the most popular choices of districts: The Lucy Calkins Writer's Workshop, a useless heap of crap that no self-respecting teacher would rely on. Sure, there are a couple of good nuggets, but that's about it. You can get those nuggets from any veteran teacher, without the million dollar price tag. Here is the money section from a Hoover Institute review of Lucy's material:
So Do Her Methods Work?
Calkins is shaping the education of millions of children, yet no independent research backs the efficacy of her programs. Aside from grumblings from the New York City teachers required to work under her system, there has been remarkably little open debate about the basic premises behind Calkins’s approach, or even feedback on how the programs are faring in the classroom.
What controversy exists generally centers around two concerns: First, her programs do not explicitly teach phonics—which she calls “drill and kill.” She favors a “whole language” approach to literacy, which builds on the premise that reading and writing develop naturally in children. Her detractors argue that this lack of direct instruction leaves many children, especially those who already struggle, at a disadvantage.
The other argument, perhaps resonating with a larger audience, is that her methodology lacks real content, has no reference to any knowledge that should be learned. In The Art of Teaching Reading, she explains that she doesn’t want “all reading and writing to be in the service of thematic studies” but instead seeks to “spotlight reading and writing in and of themselves.” Calkins’s insistence that students should focus mostly on writing about their lives rankles the many educators who believe that curriculum should be focused on content-rich material, and that students should read and write about information outside of their own personal lives. Broadening one’s knowledge base strengthens reading comprehension, builds vocabulary, and deepens knowledge of the world, all of which help students understand the text, but also, as E. D. Hirsch writes, “what the text implies but doesn’t say.”
What has not been openly questioned is the assumption that Calkins has retained her ordinal stance, that it is the teacher’s job to midwife a child’s own, often richly imaginative voice, rather than impose her own. Calkins’s program originally gained its popularity, at least in part, because of its mission to help children make their distinct voices heard. She was known as a champion for flexible, creative teaching, uniquely attuned to children. “If we adults listen and watch closely,” she wrote in 1986, “our children will invite us to share their worlds and their ways of living in the world.” And while this impulse continues to inform aspects of her approach, she has tended over time to become increasingly focused on enforcing her own methodology; many of her techniques limit children’s genuine engagement with reading and writing. This insistence on only one way to do things, not surprisingly, has translated into a demand that teachers quiet their own impulses, gifts, and experiences, and speak in one, mandated voice.
Recently, Common Good, a bipartisan organization committed to “restoring common sense to American law” asked New York City public school teachers to keep a diary for 10 days and consider specifically “how bureaucracy impacts everyday teaching.” The results were presented in a town hall–style meeting attended by more than a hundred educators and union representatives. One of the topics was “mandated teaching,” which referred specifically to the required presence of Calkins and Teachers College in city schools. The responses were almost universally negative.
This entry from a teacher’s diary is typical: “Administrators expect all our reading and writing workshops to adhere to an unvarying and strict script.…For example: ‘Writers, today and everyday you should remember to revise your writing by adding personal comments about the facts.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m a robot regurgitating the scripted dialogue that’s expected of us day in and day out.”
A kindergarten teacher reported how she was instructed to ask her students, on the third day of class, “to reflect on how they’d grown as writers.” She explained that the children were still preoccupied with missing their mothers and felt the assignment was “ridiculous.”
The truth is there isn’t one way to teach writing, or a limited number of ways to have conversations with children about their imaginative work and their lives. Calkins would have done well to heed the counsel of Donald Murray, whose prescient caution she quotes in The Art of Teaching Reading: “Watch out lest we suffer hardening of the ideologies. Watch out lest we lose the pioneer spirit which has made this field a great one.”

Barbara Feinberg is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She is the author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Protecting the Imaginative Lives of Children, Beacon Press, 2005.

So, citizens, inform yourselves. Stop voting for a board of education that has no clue about education. Hold your superintendents responsible for implementing mandatory crap and calling it a best practice. Talk to a teacher about this stuff. Find out how we really feel (promise to keep conversations private, because we all fear for our jobs).

UPDATE: There are some folks who really like Lucy Calkins, and they feel as if those of us who rail against it are being unfair, or trying to hurt feelings, or something. This is a pretty silly way to get your point across. If you think Lucy Calkins--a whole language advocate--is the best way to go, then state why, don't whine and say it works for you, therefore it should work for all.
Also, let's make it clear that the program has different assets and liabilities depending on what age students are using the program, the competence of the teacher, the background knowledge of the teacher regarding the teaching of reading and writing (besides LC) and myriad other considerations.

My state scores for my 2nd graders the last 2 years in a row have far exceeded the state, district, and grade-level average in my own school--by and average of 10 points! I shun Lucy Calkins, I shun Everyday Math and Scott Forseman Math. Why am I successful? Honestly, it doesn't take much more than being smart yourself, learning a little theory, finding out what standards need to be met, and then teaching the kids! If you can't do it, well, then, you just can't do it. I believe teachers are born, not molded!

More railing against Lucy Calkins here. Some of the problems folks are having with these reviews are that they emanate from right-wing machines. Just because someone is Right, doesn't make them always wrong. People are simply more complicated than that (yes, simply complicated. it works)!

34 comments:

Anonymous said...

YOU are nuts!
Seriously - this professional understands the Common Core and she has dedicated her life and research to making students successful as 21st century learners.

I am sitting at her confernce right now!!

Anonymous said...

As a Lucy Calkins advocate much of the information you have included does not reflect Lucy's thinking or findings at all. Lucy does not believe you should not teach phonics. In fact she states in her books (did you read them - she mentions this several times) that phonics needs to be taught explicitly during word study and within writing and reading lessons. She is simply stating that a worksheet is an isolated method of learning and there is no real connection to actual usage of the practiced skill. Richard Allington states that students do not need this massive amount of phonics instruction. (look into his research he is a former IRA president and a fantastic researcher in how children learn to read). Instead they need support in reading and writing, back to the basics (also refer to Mike Schmoker) and a teacher to guide them through complicated texts and levels of high quality writing through the use of mentor works.

I have used Lucy Calkins for three years now. I have watched my students learn to use similes and metaphors, construct an appropriate sentence, write vast amounts of text, and learn the three types of common core text and this is in kindergarten, no less! Lucy does have a unique style of teaching but she herself states in her books to never use them as a script. Her curriculum is meant to be professional development in which teachers can listen in on other classrooms and build a curriculum using what you have learned.

I am disappointed in your total "black and white" viewpoint on Lucy. It is not a script. It is not a program. It is not a total whole language approach. Lucy often references Reading Recovery teachers who have studied Marie Clay's intensive and only truly proven intervention to literacy which involves a very balanced approach to learning to read. Phonics included.

Every teacher that I have watched fail with Lucy are the teachers who refuse to accept the fact that they are not tied to every movement Lucy scripts in her book when she herself says that is not what it is meant to be! Stop playing victim to a "push down" and get up and do some research. Lucy has PLENTY of it to support her work. To be honest, it sounds as if you are the person who has not done the leg work to find out the value and research behind it. You are simply taking the example and experiences of yourself and the teachers around you, which is not a very valid data point in comparison to others who use it.

Bronx Teacher said...

And you teach where?

Anonymous said...

I teach in an inner city school in the midwest.

Anonymous said...

I too have a sheep literacy coach who has her head up Lucy Calkins' ass (our district pays thousands to send her a couple times a year with the rest of the sheeple to do whatever it is they do.) Then she comes back with ideas we all hate but have to implement ... oh, and pictures she can post on her Facebook with the caption "I love Lucy." Meanwhile, our students can't spell worth crap not can they write their way out of a paper bag.

Anonymous said...

^ nor instead of not. Auto correct, obviously, but I can just see some member of Calkins' cult calling me on that. I teach in the largest school district in Georgia, btw. We continue to lower the bar (giving partial credit for words spelled partially correct, for instance ... wtf is that?) and the kids continue to hit it.

Anonymous said...

She in my opinion is like the Oprah of teaching. People are so SCARED to criticize her I am sure that Lucy is one of MANY MANY good researchers. However, I do get scared they way she has become some type of cult. People get so upset when you question her. I think she is on the right track, but I feel like some kids do need grammar, spelling etc. Our Lucy coach basically tells us we are doing "damage" if we have kids do sight words during reading. I just feel like most of her books is bragging how she has reached her "peeps" in the inner city! Just scares me to every put all of eggs in one BASKET!!! We don'e get ANY PD's outside of Lucy for reading or writing! I feel like we have STOPPED listening to other academics...I think

Anonymous said...

If you understood how children learned to read you would understand how paramount unconventional spelling is for emergent readers. Writing actually precedes reading and works harmoniously in creating a skilled reader/writer who understands how print works. Feel free to disagree although the work, research, and evidence from Marie Clay's findings would discredit your unfounded opinions about inventive spellings being unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

I wish them luck landing a job using a resume utilizing their invented spelling.

Anonymous said...

Lucy Calkin is a scam in so many ways. She has high turnover in her office, she's crazy and has no managerial skills and has no people skills. It's amazing that Columbia allows her to continue to promote herself and preach this bs to teachers where studies show it DOESN'T WORK. yET, she's like a used car sales person preaching this bs.

Paul Dufficy said...

The key problem with Calkin’s approach is that it has no theoretical understanding of the role language plays in learning. I have just sat through a session with Carl Anderson – an acolyte of Calkins and he listed the five lenses through which he assesses writing. Meaning was number 1 and conventions number five. Grammar was slotted in under conventions. Could someone from the Calkins camp please explain how we can have meaning without reflecting upon the choices we make from the linguistic system. Number 2 was voice. Once again, without a sense of how our language choices fashion our texts we might as well read tea leaves. Any theory of language development that is based around ‘naturalness’ privileges those with access to social capital. The marginalised are ultimately blamed for their marginalisation.
The other issue is that this approach actually de-skills teachers. Scripts, mantras, sacred texts, the isolation of dissenters…it has all the hallmarks of a cult. Until the workshop approach opens itself to independent research and states clearly it’s linguistic theory, it will remain for me, snake-oil.

Anonymous said...

I find it very left brained and what bothers me most, is that it states the obvious while using terminology which turns something simple and common sense into a something complex, while robbing the teacher of their own creative approach. It reminds me of the O/C approach to organizing your socks, which could also be made into a two volume manifesto by someone just like Lucy.

Anonymous said...

Interesting...
I won't say more until I "come clean" and let you know that I was a student of Lucy's. But you'll want to keep reading, I promise (and I'll try to keep my writing free of the grammatical errors that slowed me down as I read this post, aside from the quoted article):
I was raised not too far from your school and I taught in Bed Stuy but I am now out in Jamaica. The Reading and Writing Project's (because that is who owns the curriculum) Unit of Study is like any other curriculum, just packaged differently. Any educator worth their weight in salt should come to realize by now that it must be tailored to fit your community of learners - student, teachers, and parents alike! Now I'm grateful to have been trained in the workshop model, because I have it as a tool in my instructional toolbox, but if you read it like a script, you do the same thing any other curriculum does: you handcuff your learning! This program was never meant to be the be-all-end-all of teaching reading and writing, only to give you a road map to which you can add your own pit stops and destinations as needed. I too cringe at the thought that the UOS is forced on teachers as an instructional script, but when we debate, we ought to debate the pros and and the cons. Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

I use The Writing Workshop and Lucy's scripts for my lessons. Here is the key to making this work. I also pull in other resources, for example, Words Their Way for phonics instruction since Lucy's Approach doesn't account for phonics. I recieved so much criticism from the teacher that just retired. She taught the method of everyone write about what I'm writing about. She expected perfection during all phases of writing. My students write excellent pieces. The focus at first is getting their thoughts onto paper. Then improving what they write by adding more details and playing with sentence arrangement. Finally they publish by editing and correcting spelling mistakes. I find that by not focusing on spelling and grammar during all aspects of the writing they become more confident in their writing and try different things. As part of their writing journal they keep track of words they mispell most often and refer to that during writing. When they turn in the published copy I do hold them accountable for grammar and it definately effects their grade on the paper. I used this same method for my response. I've read it through twice. I'm sure I've left grammar mistakes a plenty in this. I was taught using the old method of sentence structure and spelling list. It didn't make me a better writer and it didn't help me improve my grammar or spelling because it wasn't connected to anything. Anything taught in isolate is quickly forgotten. When meaning is attached they are more likely to retain that information.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the author of this article. This program is for sheep. It is for people who cannot think for themselves or figure out how to teach. It is for principals and other teachers - not me - who are too stupid to do anything but continuously adopt textbooks and programs for teachers to use because they don't know how to teach. This is the biggest waste of money and the biggest pile of crap I have seen in my 20 years of teaching. What a waste of taxpayer's money. Every year, the stupid ones at my school continue to propose textbook and program adoptions so that they can say, "Open your books to page 20 and read the story and do the questions at the end." Year after year after year. What do I do? I bring in reading material that is challenging and interesting. I allow the students to question as they read and then answer those questions. It is called the Inquiry Method of Reading and Writing. Get ready, if you decide to use it, you will be busy. It is messy, but my students are so much smarter than the rest of them.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the author of this article. lucy should be a shame of herself for push this program on students. I have taught for twenty-four years and I know a scam when I see one. Her program is missing a few key components:
1. Love of writing
2. Why is important to write
3. How writing can be fun
4. Pre-writing activities that are student led.

And my last gripe: WHY DO I HAVE CHANGE A TEXT BOOK IN ORDER FOR IT TO WORK FOR MY STUDENTS THAT SOMEONE(LUCY) WAS PAID TO WRITE.

Anonymous said...

Whomever wrote the article should look in the mirror. Your writing was full of grammatical errors. Physician (or educator) heal thyself!

Bronx Teacher said...

Oh, poo on you. I have two typos. Big whoop. Besides, I wrote only the first few paragraphs.

I didn't proof read. Steven King even has editors!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anonymous of 10-13-15, it should be whoever, not whomever...just saying...

Anonymous said...

I need to add to my previous comment. Who is the genius who introduced "small moment" into education circles? The correct term is brief!!! How can we teach people to write if the "gurus" can't even use English correctly!!

Room314 said...

I have a couple of questions-
1) Why the hatred of this woman? If her program is so horrible why has Brooklyn adopted it? It seems that your anger should be focused more on the people adopting the program.
2) How long has Brooklyn been using the program?
3) Not living near NYC, I am interested to know the poverty of the schools that are using it, (my school is 84% and I am wondering if that is a limiting factor with its success).
4) Is there a program out there, that you know to be more successful?

I am currently reading A Guide to the Common Core Writing Workshop and although Calkins likes to toot her own horn, many of her strategies coincide with other writing workshops that I have read about and studied. I admit that I haven't gotten to the "small moments" book in the curricula, but is it so bad that students would write about what they know?

I would love to have professional dialog since our district will be adopting Calkins next school year. I would like to know what the teaching gaps that you are seeing, and how you are supplementing around that? It seems that many of these posts are very anti-Calkins. Without the anger, I would really like to hear your stumbling blocks, so that I can prepare for them.

Thanks and best of luck to you.

paulrobb@hotmail.com said...

It is so sad that anyone within the realm of education would post such a misguided and vitriolic criticism of a legitimate approach to teaching children how to write well. An honest debate on the strengths and weaknesses of this program is fair. Attacking Lucy Calkins as "legally insane" is not. Some of your specific criticisms appear to have some legitimacy. For example, most writing should be connected to content. The criticism of the scripted nature of related instruction seem to be more related to school district choices regarding implementation rather than specific elements of the program model, per se. To the best of my knowledge, this model is not scripted. The primary focus of the program, despite any minor criticisms, is based solidly on effective formative assessment practices that provide clear learning targets, rubrics and feedback processes. Any argument that these practices are not effective is ignoring the substantial research that supports the use of formative assessment practices in the classroom. In particular, I find the six traits plus framework to be valuable as a model for good writing, although there are certainly other ways that one might slice and dice the writing process for instructional purposes.

ed notes online said...

while there may certainly be good things to say, what is legally insane is trying to do this with large class sizes.

Anonymous said...

I"m using Lucy's writing curriculum this year and it has raised the level of my student's writing. Lucy never meant her curriculum to be used as a script. It is meant to aid teachers and school to develop their own curriculum. If teachers are being forced to follow a script, that is the fault of the school district, not the curriculum.

Anonymous said...

If you think Lucy Calkins and the TCRWP methods don’t work, then you are not watching capable teachers implement her suggested practices as intended. Lucy is a national treasure. Perhaps you just don’t understand what you are reading and viewing. Too bad for you, and too bad for any kids you work with.

Anonymous said...

In my school district, we must use the terminology (small moment, etc.) or we get slammed on our job reviews as not knowing pedagogy. For my recent master's degree, I did a research project on TWP. It's the writer's workshop model that is effective, not LC.

Anonymous said...

This whole discussion is a hoot! The district I work in adopted Lucy as our curriculum. We have used it with fidelity for the last 4 years. None of us are a big fan of it. Our students do not come from the elite schools of Maine that I am sure she piloted the the program in. The grammar, sentence structure, conventions, spelling etc. lacks tremendously. Our students hate writing because it is so structured. Is dictated by our district to use Lucy exactly as it is written. I am happy to see that we are not the only ones who are not happy with the program.

Anonymous said...

Lucy, I am sure you and your staffers on reading this. You owe it to everyone who uses your program, to answer to the debate going on here.

Anonymous said...

I want to comment to all the Lucy-bashers out there. We often hate or fear that which we do not know or understand. It is clear that you don't have a solid understanding of Lucy Calkins' body of work. Ask yourself some questions: have I really read all of her handbooks/units of study and participated in a study group with others in an attempt to absorb her vast knowledge and expertise in literacy? Have I worked with a team to develop our own curriculum map utilizing the instructional strategies which are laid out in Lucy's units of study? Have I read the "script" she proposes in an attempt to learn the effective, common language of facilitator of a writer's workshop? Have I had effective literacy coaching in which I have seen "Lucy" lessons modeled skillfully? Do I understand that the routines proposed by Lucy Calkins are research-based best practices, backed up by many other writing experts and which include the importance of choice, connecting new to known, active engagement, and cooperative learning to name a few. Have I ever had the privilege of hearing Lucy Calkins speak at a conference and discovered that she is an advocate for teachers and children, and that her intentions are NOT to have people follow a "script", but for teachers to use their own creativity and expertise as they teach literacy? And finally, some of you might ask, where am I as a writer myself?

Anonymous said...

This is a great debate with many great points. I think most of the information posted here is correct. As educators, we would be neglectful to only use information gleaned from one program. After 27 years of teaching, I have gathered information from several reading/writing gurus. I have tested them in my classroom with students...some work well, some not so well. The problem is when a teacher throws all of his/her eggs into one basket. Like any prepackaged program, there are pros and cons, strengths and limitations to even the almighty Lucy Calkins. Take the parts that work for your students and supplement/combine them with other strategies that have been successful. If you need to rely solely on a singular program and follow it like a script, you probably should excuse yourself from the profession and let someone else that is more qualified take your position.

Sue Umpleby said...

Lucy Calkin is a person...not a program,not a curriculum, and not an approach to writing. She is pretty remarkable because she has spearheaded a community of learners that is constantly growing and changing...incorporating new research, studying best practices, questioning methodologies. She will be the first to say that if you want to be a great coach or leader in education, you stand beside the teachers and students you are working wit and learn alongside them. She is smart, responsive, and very humble. It sounds like the issue here is not with Lucy or even the units of study, but rather with an administration that relies on compliance, not buy in, to implement programs. We all are more successful wen we feel empowered. Here's hoping that you're able to see how empoweringi it is to teach using the units of study nd have opportunity to learn from a mentor, the wy many people have learned from and with the staff developers at TCRWP, if you're really lucky, Lucy Clkins.

Anonymous said...

In my 20+ years of teaching I have found that the answer never arrives in a box of curriculum. Never. The answers are discovered by excellent teachers collaborating together and going after great professional development based on the needs of their particular school. In these past 3-4 years, the best practice I have learned is what I found myself - for free! Teaching Channel, Pinterest, Twitter, etc.

Knowledge is now a commodity, I can find anything I need on my phone. The publishers should be running scared. What will school districts do with all the money they're not spending on curriculum? Pay us what we deserve? One can only hope.

anonymous said...

Lucy Calkins won the contract in our school district... and our school board hasn't even voted yet! Our ELA chair found a way to send dozens of teachers to a week-long training seminar in NYC last summer so they could pilot the program. Many told me today they thought the program had already been chosen. Why else would they go for training? What concerns me most is a word that hasn't appeared in this discussion: dyslexia. I'm an educator, former journalist and father of a dyslexic daughter. She has suffered through 8 years of ineffective education (not LC but other whole language approaches). Making LC the cornerstone of the ELA program will guarantee that children like her and those living in poverty don't get the explicit phonics instruction they need. Calkins has said that dyslexia is overdiagnosed and blamed her program's failures in NYC on families that don't read to their children. The LC "research" many have cited here is either decades old or published by Heinnemann itself. Yes, let kids' interests guide their reading and writing, to a degree. We learned that in M.Ed. programs. Do we really need to spend a fortune on LC materials and seminars to implement that? And when LC ignores phonics in her program many schools ignore it entirely. A LC sales rep told me today that the materials don't address differentiation for dyslexia because "that's special ed." Really? Statistics, including those backed by the U.S. government, indicate 1 in 10 people have some level of dyslexia. Add working memory and ADD to the mix and it becomes absurd to believe that all children are "natural" readers and writers. All can benefit from phonics. Some, like my daughter, need more phonics instruction than others. That differentiation should occur in the classroom, and it can. I hate the iPads our district gave students, but only because teachers have no valuable resources and training for them. Electronic devices with sophisticated software are the key to true differentiation. They won't replace teachers. They will make teachers more important as facilitators armed with real-time data on every student's progress, able to intervene instantly when help is needed. I've seen that future. Unfortunately, Lucy Calkins is standing in the way of purchasing the resources to make it happen now.

Irishflame said...

I work with a lot of schools and the ones using Lucy Calkins complain that it doesn't work. You are not alone. The administrators seem to love it but not the teachers or the students. Many are looking for something better, especially for middle school. The schools using Writing Lessons are happy with it and it's working. You might try that.