A fifth grade teacher from a local public elementary school arrived at our nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Los Angeles, exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and distress. He told my supervisor that his principal had not wanted the students to participate in the group and individual writing project. In this particular exercise, children write adventure stories first as a class, then as a subgroup, and finally, as individuals.

The principal’s last pronouncement to the teacher was “no imagination.” In other words, the stories could only be about historical facts. The fifth-graders were studying New World explorers. En masse, they decided that their Italian explorer was sent by a Portuguese king to the Spice Islands to find “a gold ring with a white diamond called ‘King Adam’s ring.’” The ring’s lineage could be traced to Zeus. The group composed the first few paragraphs of the tale. Later, subgroups came up with alternate story choices, and finally, each student wrote his own ending.

During the ensuing collaborations, the teacher paced around in an increasingly exasperated mood. “Remember all the details we studied!” he interjected into my subgroup. The students were having problems being motivated purely by history and kept suggesting ideas obviously fantastical in nature . “I can see that your workshop skills are kicking in,” he added when students complied with class-acquired details—a ruthless explorer, painted New World natives, a sea battle with an English vessel manned by Francis Drake. One of my jobs was to keep them on task. At the end of the session, it seemed we’d failed the “no imagination” admonition. Is it possible to write historical fiction without an ounce of invention?

For the past five years, I was a teaching assistant at the UCLA Lab School, formerly Corinne A. Seeds University Elementary School. I worked for most of that time with students in early childhood (pre-K and Kindergarten), and one year in intermediate (third and fourth grade). Students were taught to write from their own experiences, utilizing the Lucy Calkins Workshop Method. Originating in 1981, Professor Calkins’ strategy arose during the same period as memoir-driven fiction and nonfiction; it’s based on the writing strategies of journalism. Her program, The Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project, is housed at Columbia University, where eager teachers subscribe and acquire instruction. Calkins has influenced the direction of writing and reading curriculums around the country, and nowhere is this influence more keenly felt than in New York City and the public and private schools in Los Angeles’ tony Westside. The UCLA Lab School hosts teacher development days where demonstration teachers model Calkins’ workshop methods.

In a video linked to her textbook, Launching the Writing Workshop, K-2, Calkins explains her system of “revising.” First, she sets forth an example of what kind of story the children will write by following her directive to focus on “small moments.” She “pictures in her mind” the experience of going to the park and having an ice cream cone. She then draws this picture on the top half of her paper, followed by a sentence underneath. After that, she then decides to “revise,” which translates to stapling another sheet to the first, and adding on a new empirical detail in the form of another sentence. “Today, and every day, for the rest of your life, you can add on!” Calkins triumphantly states.

In order to further facilitate this demonstration of revising, Calkins introduces a general story topic to the class: “Today, when I came into class, there were video cameras.” Children then pair up on the rug, and briefly share ideas for page two of this “story.” When they transition to tables, they are issued special writing paper—templates with a large box on the top to draw a picture in, and a couple of lines underneath, to write on. Using “inventive spelling,” or the use of unconventional, phonetic-based spelling, students sound out words, stretch out vowels, and do their best to write what they hear on the page.

The troublesome aspects of the model emerge when content is explored. Calkins instructs students to write directly from life and many of her textbook manuals repeatedly refer to nonfiction. While writing from experience is certainly a method to corral older (i.e., middle and high school) students onboard, it proves problematic for younger students. Younger children have reams of unfettered imagination, but little empirical data to draw from. I once witnessed how a five year old, who, after writing this sentence: “When I was a baby, I was a flower,” was publicly chastised by her Lab School Teacher. This teacher, however, was carefully following Calkins’ instructions, which clearly mandate to focus on the autobiographical and discourage any kind of make-believe scenarios. Observing this painful conflict enacted daily in the classroom, one experienced early childhood teacher remarked to me: “I don’t think Lucy Calkins knows that much about young children.”

From my experience with children at the Lab School, at the writing and tutoring center, and even with my own children, a narrative does not emerge as naturally or automatically as filmed in the Calkins’ video clip. Before the children are dispersed into pairs to consider topics, a few intrepid hands would always go up, and the question was always the same: “Does the story have to be about something real?” “Yes,” the teacher always replied.

Most children I encountered in my work were unsure what to write about, and required ample assistance devising a “story.” After topics were carefully screened and approved by the teacher, the grueling writing session began. Children were asked to form letters, whether they knew them or not, and sound out words by themselves. Teachers and TAs could help, but careful not to render the entire word. A good finished assignment had many words inventively spelled, and a teacher would even demonstrate misspelling on the board, to further give children permission to sound out words themselves. A sentence with too many spelled words would send up the red flag that an adult has been too liberal or helpful with clues. The end product resembled a postcard of an event, a trip, or an outing, only in a larger format.

the transition to written language immediately dulls and impedes a child’s language…

In his essay, Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, the prominent education psychologist Lev Semenovich Vygotsky assembles research about teaching children writing. He observes that “the transition to written language immediately dulls and impedes” a child’s language. Quoting findings by the Austrian researcher Linke, “the way a seven-year-old writes is equivalent to the way a two-year-old talks”.  He then recounts syncretic practices (like those of Tolstoy) that encourage childhood creativity, the foremost being orally composing stories within a group.

Vygotsky categorizes two types of creative activity, the first being reproductive and the second being combinatorial. Reproductive creative activity is closely related to memory and consists of repeating or retracing previous impressions. The brain retains the previous experience and easily facilitates the reproduction of that experience, much as a folded paper retains its crease. However, if the brain is to be restricted solely to prior experience, it would only be able to adapt to familiar conditions. The second kind of creative activity, combinatorial, allows the imagination to rework elements of past experience and to use them to generate new propositions and behavior. Says Vygotsky, “If human activity were limited to reproduction of the old, then the human being would be a creature oriented only to the past and would only be able to adapt to the future to the extent that it reproduced the past.” Fantasy and reality are not opposites, but rather the organic elements of all innovation. Vygotsky’s premise is that this kind of imagining must be encouraged at the earliest of ages, not only to encourage innovation and invention, but also to encourage empathy, one of the most important of all human emotions.

As shown with the fifth graders composing an adventure tale at the writing and tutoring center, children possess an innate drive to attach fictive details to invented stories, details  that not only elucidate the plot and characters but exemplify the emotions of the authors.  Vygotsky argues that empathy is created by these particulars, whether they be literal or conceptualized.  The poet Barbara Guest once wrote:  “There is no substitute for imagination. Words deprived of their stability—that is if not fed by the imagination—rush around attempting to attach themselves to a surface.” One may question the value and direction of writing that only connects to the surface and limits of the literal self, constricting the empirically transformed enactments from which all lasting writing derives.

Further Reading:

Barbara Feinberg’s insightful essay on Lucy Calkins evolution from thoughtful visionary to dogmatic educator:  The Lucy Calkins Project

New York Times writer Ginia Bellafante’s article on the decisions the New Schools Chancellor of NYC must make:  Schools Chancellor Brings Joyful and Fierce Style

Follow Scott Filkins’ journey in discovering the teaching of Lucy Calkins and his ultimate disappointment with the singularity of her approved writing content: Responding to The Art of Teaching Writing (Calkins, 1994)

Watch Lucy Calkins describe “what writers do.”

Follow Diane Ravitch’s blog and read comments by teachers who use Lucy Calkins in the classroom: Lucy Calkins Gathers Feedback on Pearson Exams

Image credit: Therese Bachand

About The Author

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Thérèse Bachand is a poet and social policy advisor. She worked at the Lab School for five years and currently volunteers at a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Los Angeles.