As a school, we are gradually implementing Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP). This is already well established in our lower grades and it is working its way through school year by year. As Year Four teachers, it’s finally time for us to get involved and see what the fuss is all about! To help us with the transition, we enjoyed PD from TCRWP Lead Staff Developer Grace Chough, supported and organised by Nicole Wilson (our Head of English and Literacy Coach). As always, writing about PD allows me to consolidate my learning while simultaneously helping others (hopefully). But keep in mind that I am new to TCRWP and it is, therefore, quite possible that I have misinterpreted or misunderstood some of these points. If so, please feel free to correct me in the comment section below. Also, this post discusses writing only. I will learn about TCRWP reading at a later date. With all that said, here is my overview of TCRWP writing, based on my learning from Grace and Nicole. It’s going to be a long post (maybe my longest ever) but stick with it because there are some important principles here that can be applied to any teaching of writing.
The “bottom lines”
First of all, Grace encouraged us to reflect on times in our lives when writing really mattered to us, and why. I’m sad to say, I have no memories of this earlier than university. Even then, it was for a grade rather than for enjoyment. It was this self-initiated blog that made me fall in love with writing for the first time in my life. The reasons are quite obvious: I have an audience, a purpose, a choice of topics, responses and, for many reasons, it just feels important. It benefits me more than anyone else, but it also has wider significance beyond just me. On an ongoing basis, I am excited and motivated to write because of these conditions. There’s no reason why we can’t provide the same writing conditions for our students. In addition, other “bottom lines” include the belief that explicit instruction, the writing process and sufficient time are all essential components of developing young writers. All TCRWP units have been carefully designed with these conditions in mind and end with some sort of celebration of students’ writing.
A “writerly” life
The main aim of TCRWP is to develop independent, lifelong writers. Is this taught or caught? In my experience, we can teach students the craft of writing and develop their skills but, like reading, lifelong enthusiasm is usually inspired by the people around them. When TCRWP is properly implemented, the classroom should feel like a community of writers and the discussions between students, teachers and peers are very much writer to writer. In TCRWP, the teachers play an important role as writing role models and, to a certain extent, need to be willing to write themselves. This is perfect for me because I already love sharing my blog and my love of writing with my students.
When we have “writerly” lives, ideas and inspiration can hit us any time, any place. This is why, as a blogger, I carry my notebook everywhere with me. As writers, TCRWP teachers and students do the same.
The photo shows my blog’s notebook (that I have always used to capture and develop ideas for this blog) and an example of a classroom notebook from my teaching partner. While there is value in sharing my authentic one, it’s also useful to have a separate one for modelling writing in other contexts and genres. Teachers and students use their writing notebooks to collect ideas and write entries. I think of entries as pre-drafts. They allow students to develop their ideas beyond just words and phrases and, over time, develop their writing stamina. This is the Generate part of the writing process, followed by Rehearse, Draft, Revise, Edit and Publish. Later in the unit, they can choose the entries with the most potential and take them through the rest of the writing process.
When we have a “writerly” life, we intentionally learn from writing mentors. For example, I read other blogs to see how others write in this style. If I wish, I can adopt some of the same techniques. Young writers should be explicitly taught how to do this. When teaching a new technique, it is useful to share an existing, published example of when another writer has used it well. As teachers, we can act as a bridge between the published author and the students, modelling how to learn from mentor texts and apply the same techniques to our own writing.
The key to TCRWP is routine. While teaching points, discussions and genres continually change, the structure of the lessons remains predictable. TCRWP adopts the workshop model. The same model is used across various programmes; it is not exclusive to TCRWP. However, the diagram below includes TCRWP terminology.
In order to maximise the time that students are actually writing, the minilesson should be around ten minutes only and follow a predictable structure: Connection, Teach, Active Engagement and Link. Within this short time, the teacher should briefly explain how today’s teaching point builds on previous learning (Connection), introduce one new teaching point with demonstration, guided practise or examples (Teach), allow a short time for students to practise (Active Engagement) and explain how this teaching point can be used beyond today’s lesson and throughout their writing lives (Link).
2. Independent writing
This section of the workshop is, as Grace described it, the “heart” of TCRWP. While students are independently writing, the teacher can support, guide, nudge, mentor and coach through a balance of one-to-one conferences, small group work and table compliments (all outlined below). The aim is always to improve the writer rather than any specific piece of writing. The approaches are carefully chosen based on the needs of the students. In all of them, the teachers should show a genuine interest in the children and a desire to see them progress as writers.
I use this template to keep track of discussions and teaching points. There might be better templates available elsewhere, but feel free to make a copy. There should only be one teaching point in each discussion so any other noticed issues can be added to the “postponed” section for later consideration.
One-to-one conferences are highly-personalised, student-led discussions about themselves as writers. They follow a predictable structure: Research, Compliment, Teach, Active Engagement (optional) and Link. The Research section allows the teacher to delve deeper into the writer’s habits, routines and goals. Then, they can offer a sincere compliment about a writing strategy, habit or behaviour that the student is already demonstrating (Compliment). This should be followed by one suggestion of how the student can improve as a writer (Teach) and this can be tried out together, if necessary, with teacher prompts and coaching (Active Engagement). Finally, the student should summarise the conference, restate the teaching point and explain how it will be useful moving forward (Link). Done correctly, students should leave conferences feeling proud of their work and motivated to continue writing.
Small group instruction
When teachers notice multiple students with the same need, they can support them together in a small, teacher-directed group. The structure of this is similar to a minilesson but with greater emphasis on the Active Engagement part. During a small group session, the students should be doing the “cognitive heavy lifting”. First, the teacher should explain why they have been selected for the group (Connection). The teacher should then name and demonstrate the teaching point (Teach) and then coach the individuals as they write (Active Engagement). Importantly, the teacher uses the Link section to set the expectation for upcoming workshops, emphasising that the group is not just a one-off. Rather, it marks the start of a series of sessions together. They should continue to practise the strategy with increasing independence. For those selected students, the next few workshops should focus on the same skill but with reduced reliance on the teacher and an increased expectation to support each other.
A simple way to nudge students is to notice one positive thing that a student is doing in their writing and share it with the rest of their table group. You can gently encourage the other writers to adopt the same strategy.
Mid-workshop instruction (approx. 2mins)
Partway through this independent writing section, teachers get the students’ attention again to offer a quick tip, a reminder or some motivation. This is typically used when students start to lose stamina. After the short input, they are then encouraged to continue with their writing.
The Share section wraps up the workshop and should be around five minutes only. The teacher might use this to recap the teaching point or prompt reflection. Often, it is used as an opportunity for students to share their writing, typically with their regular writing partners. Children are usually aware of their partner’s targets and can, therefore, offer meaningful coaching, encouragement and support with these in mind.
After the week of inspirational (yet intense) training, Grace enjoyed a couple more days in Hong Kong to enjoy the sights, enthusiastically accompanied by Nicole. It was my pleasure to welcome them both to Lamma Island where we continued discussing TCRWP over a lovely seafood lunch. These ladies never switch off from their shared passion and, believe me, it’s infectious!
I hope that this overview is helpful to you, but keep in mind that I have barely scratched the surface! Whether you adopt TCRWP or not, these points are just good practice and can be applied to any programme/classroom. For example, we invited writing expert Matt Glover to school last year. He is not connected to TCRWP but he also promotes the workshop model and shares the same writing philosophy. If you’re interested, click here to revisit my blog post about Matt’s ideas. You’ll notice lots of crossover!
To conclude, I wholeheartedly believe in this approach to teaching writing. It just makes sense! In fact, I wish I had learnt to write in this way and, if I had children, I would want this for them too.
Finally, I recommend visiting the Heinemann website for information and resources. If you have anything to add to this discussion, please contribute below. Don’t hesitate to reach out if I can help you in any way.
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Thanks Adam. I’m belatedly discovering your blog. I’m not familiar with TCWRP, but I feel that your summary was usefully and succinctly presented. I have some takeaways.
I’m pleased that you have found my blog and I see that you have added your thoughts to a number of posts already. Thank you for your support and input. If you have more questions about TCRWP, please reach out to me or Brett (he has more experience with it than me). We’d be happy to discuss it and answer any questions.
Great overview of the workshop model, Adam. The original ideas from the likes of Peter Elbow, Donald Graves and the like have resulted in a model that today is regarded as best practice for teaching kids writing. Indeed the research supports their social perspective of the teaching of writing and the phrase “writing floats on sea of talk” is deeply embedded in this approach. I like workshop, and everything you read below should be viewed in the context of my proclivity towards the workshop model.
Now time for the ‘howevers’. Like all popular “best practices” the initial ideas are often scraped away slowly over time as the philosophy becomes more marketable. Are TCRWP’s materials a product of Columbia University’s research or of Heinemann’s marketing team? Either way, it sells. It feels good. It’s a full package that can replace an entire literacy program. This is where I get sceptical and notice the following…
First, TCRWP’s version of workshop takes a very hard line on the social perspective of writing, ignoring the cognitive. Like I mentioned, the social perspectives are well researched, but are not (in my opinion) the be all and end all. There is a cognitive perspective too. And when we hear TCRWP’s trainers refer to research, we need to ask what kind of research they’re talking about. After all, it’s education: we can pick and choose any research to support the product we want to sell.
That product makes some massive assumptions. First, that people learn from the presence of others and not in solitide. Why must this dichotomy exist? A nuanced view would suggest at least some of us learn to write in a more introverted way whereby we take onboard explicit strategies and are given time to practice (ie, information processing). The workshop model works perfectly for this kind of learner – but not TCRWP’s version. One of their units of study suggests sharing this for the mid Worksop teaching: “[Writers who attend writing colonies] rarely say ‘I’m grateful for the writing seminars that were taught during my stay at the writing colony’. Instead, what they almost always say is, ‘At the writing colony, I was given the greatest gift that a writer could ever have – I was given the gift of other writers.” Sorry, but that is absolute nonsense. Not everyone is an extroverted New Yorker and not everyone learns that way.
Unfortunately, the units of study are riddled with this sort of sugar coated ideology of extreme constructivism, which translates quite poorly between cultures (and even within). I fully support products being developed even with the most extreme ideologies in mind, so long as it’s made clear to the rest of us. Because, let’s face it, teachers aren’t trained to always spot the ideology present in educational products. But the hard truth is that sales are a strong motivator. An educational product that speaks directly to the biases of the traditionalists or the progressivists will sell.
That’s not to say the units of study are worthless. I’ve learnt a lot from them and I enjoy planning from them. They were developed by experienced educators and there are pearls of wisdom from some of the great writing teaches of the past few decades. For example, the lessons on voice in the Grade 3 personal narratives unit are spot on (ironically because they speak to the mind of the individual), and the practice of using editing strips on the go is great (because this is what writers do – revising is not a stage but an iterative process).
Therefore to those who adopt the units of study in place of literacy programs, I suggest doing so critically. They’re a great guide based on the best practice of the workshop model. But they’re written from a particular bias (as are all programs). If we know what bias we’re dealing with, we can better adapt it to our classrooms.
Thanks for raising these important points.
I completely agree with your argument about ‘the gift of other writers’. I haven’t read the notes on that particular session so I lack context, but I for one don’t like writing alongside others. I prefer to go into my own little world away from everyone else. However, I still see other writers as a gift because I learn from them all the time, just not DURING writing. Is that what they are getting at? Like I said, I haven’t read the rest of that lesson.
While I enjoy TCRWP, I will be implementing it critically (as we should with anything). There are one or two other points that I question, but I am not familiar enough with it to have a valid opinion at this point. We can discuss these later. On the whole though, I do like what it offers. I’m not sure about the research but I accept much of it based on experience and what seems like common sense. I’m not as academic as you!
Thanks for bringing these points to my attention.
Written with great structure and clarity! I could almost visualie the summary. Can you give me a sample lesson / process of this in a grade 1 or 2 context ? I’m trying to strengthen the language or my learners in all aspects right now (LSRW) and I could really do with some guidance.
Thank you for the kind words. To see the lessons in full detail, you’d have to purchase the unit books from Heinemann. To get a feel for the lessons though, you can just do a Google search for TCRWP lesson plans. There are plenty online (you can spot them by looking for the TCRWP terminology such as Connection, Active Engagement, etc.). But the unit books are much more comprehensive and worth a look if you can get your hands on one.
Enjoyed reading this, lots of things I want to try, but in a very simple organised way. We’re currently updating our writing approach with a focus on process over product. Within this a lot of time and lessons are given to edit and re-writing before making a final copy. Does TCRWP suggest any specific points with regard editing work and re-writing during the writing stage of the lesson?
I’m not completely sure about this. Maybe someone else will be able to provide a better answer for you. However, my understanding (for what it’s worth) is that revising and editing are part of everyday writing but there isn’t a specific part of the workshop dedicated to this. Rather, as the units progress, the later lessons focus on revising, editing and publishing a final piece of work, but there is lots of emphasis at the beginning of the unit for just collecting ideas. Revising and editing are emphasised towards the end of the unit rather than the end of each lesson… I think. If I’m wrong, hopefully someone will correct me.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and good luck with your new writing approach!
Hi Loz, Adam asked me to weigh in on this as a long-term practitioner of TCRWP. While I do not speak officially for TCWRP, years of practice, training and summer institutes have brought me to the following understandings: It is important that teachers and students understand that the writing process is not linear. Rather, it is an interconnected web where multiple components might be happening at the same time, in various orders. I have come to recognize a resistance to revision and editing lessons towards the end of the writing process often comes because the writer has already done much of that work without realizing it and therefore doesn’t actually see a purpose for then going through those “steps.” It is far more powerful if we teachers recognize when a writer is engaging in revision or editing during independent writing time and teaching to that in a timely manner in a conference or small group.
In addition to that, it is important for students to understand that writers reflect on their writing to make revisions and that there are reasons for why they do this. In the same vein, it is important that students understand that writers write with an audience in mind and that there are language conventions which a writer must attend to in order to effectively communicate his/her ideas. Writers will edit in order to make sure that they are doing this. Personally, I find that I often design minilessons to help students come to those understandings. I support those minilessons further during conferences and small group work with writers who are at a point where editing or revising strategies could be leveraged in the context of what they are currently working on.
There is a delicate balance between making sure that students understand craft, writing conventions, and spelling and grammar, and making sure that attending to these does not inhibit the actual writing. I find that the balance is different for each writer. I know that I have found it when they recongize and articulate how revision or editing empowers them in making their writing even better. Even more, when they choose a strategy or ask for help in achieving the desired effect.
Another caveat that I learned early on is that if we aren’t very purposeful in teaching students about why writers revise and edit, it becomes another assignment, which they will dutifully complete, sometimes at the expense of their writing. I love poetry for the opportunity it provides for revision as playing around with our writing to see the different effects it can have. I think that is a whole other topic though;-).
Thanks a lot for sharing your experience and insight. It is very helpful! You’ll be receiving many questions from me over the next few months! – sorry in advance!
Thanks again for offering your help!