I owe my education career to reader’s workshop, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, and its founder Lucy Calkins. I started as a mid-career switcher with a two-year commitment to teach fifth grade in a South Bronx public school. Two things about my school are worth knowing: It was the lowest-performing school in New York City’s lowest-performing district. And we were devoted to Calkins’s Units of Study.
My initial response to the reading and writing “workshop model” Calkins helped make famous and ubiquitous was willing suspension of disbelief. To the degree I remembered learning to read at all, it had nothing in common with how I was expected to teach it. Next came frustration. My “TC” staff developer spoke in inscrutable koans, encouraging me to “be the author of your own teaching.” When I took that advice and gave explicit instruction, however, she shook her head and said, “That’s not teaching, that’s giving directions.” Frustration gave way to exasperation, then resistance, and finally hostility. I left the classroom determined to advocate for curriculum and instruction thanks to Calkins and balanced literacy. My struggling fifth graders needed a lot of things, but not that.