Common Core Literacy: Lucy Calkins-1, David Coleman-0

March 25, 2012 — 17 Comments

Lucy Calkins

The difference between reading an article or a book by Lucy Calkins and hearing her speak in person is a difference that cannot be measured in nuances; the difference is measured in hearing the decibles of her passion.

On Saturday (3/24/12), at the 82nd Saturday Reunion held at the Teachers College at Columbia University in NYC, Calkins stood before a packed house of elementary and middle school teachers in the Nave at the Riverside Church to deliver her closing session, “Walking Courageously Forward in Today’s Common Core World: Literacy Instruction, School Reform and Visions of Tomorrow”.  Hours before the keynote address by children’s author Pamela Munoz Ryan, Calkins had been energetically wandering with a microphone to periodically announce the location of a second keynote address for K-1 teachers or explain a new voucher system for lunches to speed up the notoriously overcrowded lunch lines. She waved for  people to make room in the pews for others and directed her aides to circulate with pads of paper to gather e-mails of participants. (NOTE: Please, Ms. Calkins; get a Twitter account or just have us send our e-mails to a web address!)

According to the jam packed schedule of workshops, she then presented at 10 AM: “An Introduction to the Project’s Thinking About Common Core-Aligned Upper Grade Reading”. At 11AM she presented the workshop, “In the Complicated World of Today, What’s Changed and What’s Stayed the Same About the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Ideas on Teaching Writing?”, and she was spotted checking in on other presentations during her “spare time”.  All this before delivering her final address back in the church at 1PM.  Calkins is already a one person educational seismic wave, which made her opening, a lifting of the lyric from a Carole King’s song, “I feel the earth move under my feet”, much more than metaphoric.

Lucy Calkins is the Founding Director of the Reading and Writing Project LLC and the  Teachers College Reading and Writing Project as well as the Robinson Professor in Children’s Literature at Teachers College where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program. She has authored several books about teaching writing, and she has recently co-authored a book, Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement.

Much of the speech was directly lifted from her article, “Explore the Common Core” where she advocates for teachers to embrace the Common Core to be a “a co-constructor of the future of instruction and curriculum, and indeed, of public education across America.” She writes,

“As challenging as it must have been to write and finesse the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, that accomplishment is nothing compared to the work of teaching in ways that bring all  students to these ambitious expectations.The goal is clear.The pathway is not.”

In confronting one of the possible pathways, Calkins leveled her most serious criticism. She called attention to two of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) authors who have emerged very publicly as spokespersons, David Coleman (Student Achievement Partners) and Susan Pimentel (Education First), and reminded the attendees that neither has been a classroom teacher. “What is alarming is that they feel empowered to continue to write the Common Core,” she declared. There are a growing number of CCSS support websites that illustrate her frustration, for example, Coleman’s well-documented lesson plans on the study of informational texts such as The Gettysburg Address with his explanations on videos are found at  Ironically, while most historians praise Lincoln for the brevity of this address and the precision of its language,  Coleman’s lesson design would have students spend six to eight sessions in a close reading of the speech. Calkins complained that  extended close readings like Coleman’s are “text dependent activities” and that there are “no questions that transfer to another piece” as well as the unreasonable commitment of time to one common text.

Her frustration also stems from the New York State’s Department of Education’s adoption of many of Coleman’s additions to the original CCSS in providing models for curriculum development. She sounded a loud chord of caution against Coleman and others who write “around the standards” in presenting their curriculum models. She rhetorically challenged Coleman, “Where is the evidence do you have,  David Coleman, that your method works? Where is the evidence that the close reading you describe is improving literacy?”

She then modeled a quick lesson on the poem “To a Daughter Leaving Home” by Linda Pasten, where she effectively refuted Coleman’s tedious approach of laboriously parsing every word in a text. She dismissed the notion that the discussion of any piece “ends at the four corners of the text,” adding that “one cannot infer or understand a metaphor without drawing from [one’s self].” Instead she recommended “sticking as CLOSELY to the text as possible, and in a response, have the student respond to the question ‘how do you know?'”.

Calkins also expressed concerns that in order to meet  CCSS “they [administrators] will add more…informational texts, more close reading. That will not work” she concluded emphatically.  Instead, “The problem facing schools is fragmentation and overload;” adding more to the teacher’s curriculum requirements will not be effective. Chiefly, she explained, the CCSS is, “not about a curriculum of compliance. This is about accelerating students, ramping up student achievement;” the CCSS is a “call for school reform.”

Because of CCSS, however, there will be enormous amounts of money spent on developing curriculum, resource materials, and testing. Authors of the CCSS, educational consultants, publishers, testing services are all looking to develop materials in order to help school systems meet the CCSS.  CCSS has spawned a new industry. Calkins detailed the anticipated expense of implementing the CCSS as $15.8 billion with $7 billion of the expense committed to technology so that students can complete testing online. When the “number one reason preventing student achievement is poverty”, in a time of shrinking budgets, Calkins described her discomfort with implementing  such costly programs and the inevitable auxiliary expenses that will be spent school district by school district in trying to meet the CCSS.

How can educators meet the CCSS in specific ways? “Students should have clear goals so they have a sense what is expected by gathering performance data,” Calkins advised, “Note what has changed with the student and [note] what changes are we expecting. A school should be able to identify [exemplars] what is expected at each grade level.” She also urged teachers to “embrace the call to nonfiction literacy” in order to build knowledge. “Change is hard,” she noted, “but research shows that fear will not make people change; the only effective way to change is through is support groups” suggesting that teachers need to collaborate in support groups to meet the CCSS.

Listening to Calkins was a more than a pep talk. Her reasoned approach to the CCSS was not born solely in the ivory towers of academia nor at a table of educational policy wonks. Her advice to read the CCSS as “gold” comes from her ongoing commitment to improving education coupled with her experience with  students and the teachers she supervises.

Had the audience the opportunity to respond to Lucy Calkin’s line of verse from the song “I Feel the Earth Move”, they could have easily chose another title from  from Carole King’s Tapestry album…”Where You Lead, I Will Follow.”

17 responses to Common Core Literacy: Lucy Calkins-1, David Coleman-0


    I am very much in agreement with you!


    Let me cite myself:I agree with Lucy Calkins and “the many others who take issue with the way the Common Core Standards were written, by whom they were written, and how that work was funded. But …the CCSS as a document of expectations is not pernicious because of its origin….Educators need to conduct a close reading, look deeper into the standards, and determine what knowledge, skills, and practices are implicit in the document. Educators need to deconstruct the CCSS to understand that even if David Coleman doesn’t ‘give a shit’ about what young people think or feel, embedded in his own writing of the standards are opportunities to inquire about personal reflection and experience” (Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bath Water, WordPress, 2011).

    The CCSS are much easier to read and much more direct in terms of what good readers need to be able to do than were many state’s previous standards. Granted, Coleman is not a teacher. I heard him him model the teaching of King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and though his approach was much like my approach with AP students, his style would prove totally ineffective with most of the students I encounter both in my own teaching and as a literacy consultant and coach. But he is not in control of our teaching–he wrote the recipe but he does not bake the cake. That responsibility belongs to practitioners who are trained with the tools and in the art of teaching.


      Thank you for your thoughtful response. Calkins did not give me the impression that she considered the CCSS pernicious (although she did bemoan the expense). Her issue was with the continuing “rewriting” of the CCSS (apparently NY is adopting “additions”). I believe that is where her issue with Coleman was focused. She did advocate that we read the document like it was “gold” not as “curmudgeons” (and provided a brief demonstration of both). She echoed a sentiment similar to your last line, “That responsibility belongs to practitioners who are trained with the tools and in the art of teaching.”
      I do teach AP, and while I may spend an inordinate amount of time on Hamlet (three-four weeks), there is no way I would spend the amount of time Coleman advocates on a single piece.
      Thank you again for responding (so few people do!)
      PS: I have been on your website and read an exchange between you and “Abigail Adams”…very interesting.


        Thanks back at you–you are right–so few respond. Something I believe but do not assuredly know–many write based on what they’ve read secondhand, having not read the primary source, in this case i.e., CCSS.


    Common Core is the Soylent Green of education! When you put too many students into the same mold, some are sure to become Pink Slime. If you are a NAZI, and you know it, clap your hands.

    Teachers should be demanding; local financial support, of local programs to support the local economy. When the students are acclimated to local standards, they can advance to state and national requirements.


      Well, with some of your sentiments I am in agreement (“Teachers should be demanding; local financial support, of local programs to support the local economy.”) But Nazis? I am sorry, but that is a gross overstatement that reduces the use of the term Nazis as hyperbole. The real Nazis were not hyperbole; they were inhuman.

    bestbookihavenotread April 10, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Lucy Calkins’ approach has helped me keep a level head about the whole CCSS. I love hearing her talk-you are so right about the nuances.


    Syncophantic writing – RWWorkshop is a cult that has no legitimacy beyond its own dictates. Theory of language use – no. Outdated philosophy – yes. In bed with business – definately! Please – direct me to the peer-reviewed work of Calkins, Anderson, Glover et al


      I am not entirely sure what you mean by “syncophantic writing” (BTW: spelled “sycophantic” and “definitely” does not have an “a”). Are you referring to a sycophant as the author (student) or are you referencing the process of writing? A simple search of the Internet brings a plethora of peer-reviewed articles about reading and writing workshop, some in support and others in opposition. However, the point of my blog post was to point out that many of the “close reading” requirements in the CCSS have no evidence at all of their effectiveness in improving reading and writing. Perhaps the biggest concern I expressed was that these requirements are promoted by David Coleman, an individual who has not taught in a classroom. Consider also that there is little to no training for teachers as to how to implement many of the untested requirements of the CCSS. Fortunately, many of the principles of the reading and writing workshop model can be used in meeting many of the reading and writing standards. I do not see reading and writing workshop as a cult, but rather I understand reading and writing workshop as good pedagogy. Thank you for taking time to write.

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