Readers & Writers Workshop

The rich Lower School literacy program is based on research and methods developed at Columbia University Teachers College. The goal of the curriculum is to teach not only foundational skills like decoding and recognizing words but to produce life-long facility with written language. In the words of Teachers College, the curriculum is designed to develop "powerful readers and writers who read and write for real reasons - to advocate for themselves and others, to deepen their own and others’ knowledge, to illuminate the lives they live and the world they are a part of." 1 What does this look like in the classroom? Please read on for a few snapshots.

In the first grade, students learn about note taking from "information books" (what adults call non-fiction). The teacher begins the lesson by asking her fourteen eager students to join her on the rainbow rug in the front of the classroom. She explains that they are going to learn about a way to "capture their thoughts" when reading. She draws an analogy to a book the class read together earlier in the year about a child capturing fireflies in a jar. She explains that when good readers learn something new – something that makes them think, "Hmmm, I didn’t know that," – they "capture" it in a note so that they can remember it and share it with others. Next, each student receives a sheet of card stock with four colorful sticky notes neatly attached. The first grade teacher tells the children that she will read a short passage aloud and that she wants each of them to capture something and to "stop and jot" it on one of the sticky notes. She guides the students in practicing this several times and each time, asks the students to share what they captured with a classmate. When the students seem prepared, the teacher asks that anyone who feels ready to do this on their own display a "thumbs up." All do! The young readers then fan out to all corners of the brightly decorated classroom. Each child has an independent reading spot. For some this is sitting at table; for others, it's lying on the floor with feet up on a chair. To all, it means working quietly on the task at hand.

Watching individual first graders work on this new skill is a great illustration of how different each child is and how a skilled teacher with a small class can support them. One young reader becomes so engrossed in his book that he needs some gentle reminders to stop and jot. Another is so intent with the note taking that she writes right past the bottom of the sticky note and onto the page. Mrs. Gonnella helps a third who is having difficulty deciding which book to read. Students are allowed choice in some of their reading so that they learn to value reading as a door to learning interesting things, not a "subject" to be studied.

In the fifth grade classroom, students are learning to read deeply and use their prior knowledge to interpret what they read. The teacher begins the day's lesson by handing a clementine to each student and asking them to think about how reading might be analogous to eating a clementine. This leads to a good group discussion about peeling away layers of meaning. The book for read aloud today is Fox, by Margaret Wild. It is a story that seems simple on the surface but includes enough ambiguity in the characters and their actions that it provides a lot of opportunity for discussion. In order to get the students thinking about what the book might be about, they are tasked with a silent activity. They are asked to go to a large table where she has set out copies of illustrations from the book. The teacher instructs them to study each illustration carefully and jot down a few words or a phrase on the paper surrounding the illustration to describes what it makes them think about. This way each student has the opportunity to anticipate the story they are about to hear and to learn what their classmates are thinking as well. When the students complete that activity, they gather in the "reading corner." The teacher reads to them with great expression and pauses where appropriate to ask probing questions such as, "Was there a word in that sentence that you didn't expect?" Followed by, "Why do you think the author chose that word?" By reading and pausing to ask questions, teachers model the habits of good readers and help students develop an appreciation of the value of literature.

This curriculum is used throughout the Lower School. I hope these two snapshots give you a good idea of what it looks like in the classroom.

1 You can learn more about the philosophy and research that supports the Columbia University Teachers College Reading & Writing Project, at http://readingandwritingproject.org/about/research-base. The quote in the text is taken from this page in the website.