#TCRWP: A Week at Columbia University

I just got back home to Texas from the best professional development week of my career. I attended the Grades 6-8 Summer Writing Institute at the Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project, at Columbia University. TCRWP is manned by Lucy Calkins, the mother of workshop model and creator of the Units of Study. As a secondary literacy coach for 70+ districts, I have been doing my best to support teachers as they voice a need for more time, for help understanding how to give students choice, what “self-sustained reading” and “reflective writing” look like in their classrooms, and for ideas on how to build capacity in their below-level readers and writers. I have been a proponent of writing workshop for years, workshop being the single most joyful time I spent in my classroom, and the structure within which students saw the most growth. I arrived in New York on Sunday, eager to explore the city and learn as much as I possibly could.

The first morning, I arrived 20 minutes before registration to an already lengthy line. I was given a tote bag with a notebook, a binder of materials, a book on writing workshop, a book full of mentor texts, and other various goodies. We were ushered into Riverside Church, a beautiful architecture that took my breath away. Over 1,200 educators, grades 3-8, filed into the church, all eager for the first keynote, given by none other than Lucy Calkins herself.

Stood in line to get a photo with Lucy herself!

Though small in stature, Lucy’s words had large impact on myself and those around me. She challenged us to see the value of writing as it helps us cope with trauma, as it gives us voice and power, and as it helps us to access new information. She reminded us that this work, teaching writing, is ultimately about “I see you.” Writing is vulnerable…it is revelatory of the people we are, the people we pray we don’t become, and the people we want to be. “I want us to be brave rebels…dancing for a writing workshop that invites students to be open, vulnerable, passionate…let us dance for a writing workshop that helps us truly see our kids, where they truly see each other,” Lucy stated. I couldn’t write fast enough, my hands cramping from notetaking within an hour on Monday morning.

This feeling of finger fatigue was a common theme throughout the week. Each day, we would meet with a small group specific to 7th & 8th grade instructors. My group was led by Cheney Munson, who was an absolute delight. Have you ever been around a teacher who made you think to yourself, “I would have LOVED to have been in his class!” ? That is Cheney. The way in which he spoke to us constantly felt like a friendly invitation rather than a rigid command; as a result, I wrote more (as a student) in his small group than I have in years. Small group time consisted of the “nuts and bolts” of writing workshop. Cheney would teach us about a structure, then would model pieces in which we became students. We learned about mini lessons, gathering spaces, conferencing, small group instruction, sharing and celebrating, and gained specific tools to help students generate ideas and be intentional with talk. We learned about partnerships and strategic coaching. And we wrote. We wrote daily, and often. By the end of the week, we had developed a closely-knit writing community with our group.

I also went to a large group session each day for 6th-8th grade educators led by none other than Mary Ehrenworth! Mary was so clever and funny, and clearly so passionate about working with adolescents. Mary would approach the work we did each day in small group through a larger lens. She would give context to the theory behind the work and would provide other methods and ideas to help students gain access into the work. Each day, Mary would make fun “NYC” recommendations and would model various strategies for us, regaling us with stories from her adolescence that left us audibly reacting (ask me about the stapler story)!

After large group, we were dismissed for lunch, then returned for choice workshops. I gained more resources for offering representation in texts, went to a session on management and structure within workshop, and went to two graphic novel/cartoon workshops that were so enjoyable!

At the end of each day, we had a collective keynote. Two of my favorite keynotes were Gene Luen Yang and Cornelius Minor. Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator, used comics to tell his own story as well as giving insight into how comics bring stories to life. I had never known the history of Superman as an opposition to the Klan and am so excited for Yang’s issue of Superman coming out this October! Cornelius Minor had come to our literacy conference as a keynote speaker in July, and I really enjoyed chatting with him then. We’ve since become Twitter friends, and he truly inspired me to continue pursuing leadership and refusing to sit silently, waiting for others to make change happen in the world.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that there is an entire other level of PD happening online! I so enjoyed sharing my thoughts and hearing the thoughts of others during the week using the #tcrwp hashtag. I even recorded some Periscope recaps on the first 3 days!

Ultimately, this week was the best professional development I’ve ever attended, hands down! Being around likeminded educators in an environment that focuses on the heart of students and our belief in students definitely recharged my batteries. I can only imagine how incredible the reading institute will be next week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad to miss it.

Stay tuned for more blog posts focused on specific reading and writing topics, strategies, and tools! I can’t wait to share my learning with all of you!