Updated: May 16, 2021
Original post 15/11/2015
Tokyo International School
I work at Tokyo International School (TIS) an IB World School. TIS is a rare breed: it is one of only three, PYP authorized schools in the world which are also officially recognized by Columbia University Teachers College (NY) as a 'Reading and Writing Project School’ (TCRWP). The others are Frankfurt International School, Germany and Victoria Educational Organisation, Hong Kong (Neville 2015).
A 'Project School'
Many international schools use a reading/writing workshop approach. Several of these use the Columbia University Teachers College materials. Some even send teachers to the college’s Summer Institute. But to be recognized by Columbia University as an official ‘Project School’ means going one step further. It requires truly buying into the approach. It means all of the above and also building a relationship with the Teachers College. It involves being assigned official, Columbia Teachers College literacy developers to work on an annual basis with your school. We have just had two developers in our school for a full week facilitating very costly, but exceedingly rich professional development.
TCRWP in a Nutshell
The TCRWP is a reading and writing, teaching & learning methodology and written curriculum. It demands a specific lesson structure and it provides a series of detailed, written units and a large resource bank of teacher rubrics, continua and student check-lists. The units and assessment materials come in grade level packs and are organized as text types. The units are presented in detail right down to a script to follow should a teacher choose to do so. A workshop lesson is divided up into four main parts. There's a mini lesson followed by independent and guided tasks which involves some conferring or coaching on the part of the teacher, there's a mid lesson teaching point and a final sharing session at the end.
But Are Reading & Writing Workshop and The IB PYP Compatible?
That’s a good question. As an IB Consultant, a PYP Workshop Leader and a IB Visiting Team Member this question has been praying on my mind. My professional integrity is at stake and more to the point so is the student learning at my school. I really need to be able to get a handle on this stuff so, I’ve been doing some thinking.
It's Not Transdisciplinary!
One of the most common criticisms of TCRWP is that it is not transdiciplinary. But the notion that the TCRWP units have to be taught in isolation is a myth. Students apply the skills and strategies of a reading and writing workshop across the curriculum. The text types complement certain subjects and certain transdisciplinary themes. For example explanations and procedures correlate to science investigations for example in How The World Works.
There is also scope to make rich, conceptual links between concepts in language and other subjects irrespective if you are using TCRWP or not. Take AUDIENCE in Reading, Writing, Music and Art, PATTERN in Poetry, Art Gymnastics and Mathematics or STRUCTURE in Music, Reading and Writing. Languages share the same concepts of course, so our native Japanese classes learn the same text types (which are concepts) as the homeroom often simultaneously.
The TCRWP reading and writing units are carefully sequenced to maximize learning. Student learning is a crucial point here. PYP schools are not being transdisciplinary just for the sake of being transdisciplinary. IB asks us to make connections across the curriculum because (when done well) it improves student learning. Logically though we ought to first evaluate student learning before we jump in and spend time on being more transdisciplinary - perhaps the juice may not be worth the squeeze!
Obsessive Compulsive Curriculum Disorder
There's a general obsession in the PYP with the programme of inquiry being the sole place for integration. This is cultivating disjointed learning in some PYP schools. Creating invitations for Sport Day or writing an enticing menu for the school canteen is just as authentic, motivating and purposeful as writing about a unit of inquiry might be. Both contexts transfer skills and strategies and promote learning. I wish more people would think outside of the POI box! The IB (IB 2014) demand language right across the curriculum and application to the real world (IB 2009).
Incidentally, our school has done a pretty good job at ensuring our reading and writing units align to our programme of inquiry. Our TCRWP staff developers are behind this - they support us on this path.
With that said, we probably rank logical scope and sequence above being transdisciplinary. Both practices are encouraged by IB. Our school chooses to follow much of the published scope and sequence of the TCRWP units: it dovetails our curriculum. Most importantly it improves student learning: developing confident, independent readers and writers. And we have the data to prove it!
Would IB support our decision? Of course, IB is interested in the best decisions for student learning!
It's Not Inquiry!
Here's the second most common skepticism coming from IB-ers: TCRWP isn't fitting with inquiry. Let's first agree on what we mean by the term inquiry. I like the definition advocated by Art Costa: 'inquiry is the methodology of constructivism'. The IB (MTPYPH 2009 p29) provides us a definition and very useful indicators. I'll critique each section of a workshop through this IB inquiry lens.
The Mini Lesson
This is a ten minute section of instruction usually with students seated on the carpet. The TCRWP expects the following components: a CONNECTION, TEACHING POINT, INSTRUCTION, ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT and LINK.
Independent Reading & Writing (Individuals, Groups & Partners)
This is the bulk of a reading & writing workshop. Careful class management facilitates a great deal of independence and choice during this time. For example in a writing workshop each child may be at a different stage in the writing process. During this time children are building a repertoire of strategies and working on their own personal targets. The teacher's role is a facilitator and coach discussing and setting personal targets. The teacher may conference with individuals or small groups. The way a teacher coaches and confers (e.g. questioning techniques, visible thinking strategies) determines the depth of inquiry.
My understanding of this section is somewhat limited - I am still a beginner. So with that backdrop: the TCRWP 'share' is mainly a celebration when students share aspects of their reading and writing with the class. To promote inquiry I would prefer further emphasis on reflection about both what and how we have learned.
The IB (2009) states: "Inquiry, as the leading pedagogical approach of the PYP, is recognized as allowing students to be actively involved in their own learning and to take responsibility for that learning. Inquiry allows each student’s understanding of the world to develop in a manner and at a rate that is unique to that student." (IB MTPYPH p29) Well for certain a reading and writing workshop is exactly that!
Assessment FOR Learning
PYP takes the stance that all students are on a learning continuum. A PYP teacher’s job is to appropriately challenge each child to progress along this continuum. TCRWP views children in exactly the same light. Assessment FOR learning (assessment to inform instruction and differentiation) is integral to the workshop approach. This is evident during the mini lesson. The ‘active engagement’ session is primarily for assessment FOR learning. Tools and strategies such as mini white boards make students’ thinking and conceptions visible so they may be grouped, supported and challenged accordingly.
In the 'classic' TCRWP workshop approach individual student/teacher reading and writing conferences are paramount. Individual assessment and individual target setting is the primary role of the conference. This is all moving students along their personal continuum.
Assessment OF Learning
Where TCRWP fails in my mind is in its assessment OF learning. Teacher rubrics and (more to the point) student self-assessment checklists, state the USA grade level which the child is currently working at. Benchmarking against grade level norms is appropriate data for a teacher, school and parent to be able to access and muse over, but I see no benefit in informing a Grade 1 child that he’s still working at Kindergarten level. Such information has no place in primary school and is contrary to research on a growth mindset.
The good news is that with the simplicity of a black marker pen you can ‘erase’ the grade level from the TCRWP assessment tools; effectively producing a developmental, learning continuum. Our TCRWP staff developers have absolutely no issue with us doing this so... problem solved! The workshop approach thus is entirely fitting with PYP assessment practices.
The final issue many IB informed critics have with the TCRWP approach is unit planning. The TCRWP reading and writing units of study come in detailed, scripted packs. Some of these packs are contextualized using USA-centric case studies such as the American Civil War. They are hardly relevant to our Japanese context!
But what these same critics often do not realize is that no-one at Columbia University is telling teachers they must follow the script. The script is to be viewed as an exemplar. Sure, it's something to follow and hold onto if you feel the need, but it’s not a TCRWP expectation. Similarly the case studies within the unit packs are also not compulsory. Our TCRWP staff developers actively encourage us to weed the units - to throw out the irrelevant content and replace with relevant matter from our programme of inquiry. The skills and strategies are transferable of course and can be applied to any case study.
Lastly there is the issue of the PYP planner. There is no defense here: the unit TCRWP books are not a PYP Planner – far from it. The standards and practices clearly state that all planning which can be arranged around a central idea should be planned on a PYP planner.
The PYP Planner
I respond to this in two ways. Of course any advice for us to move in this direction would be entirely appropriate. But, if someone recommended that this is something we should implement any time soon, I would ask that they show me a school which has ‘successfully’ (and show me the proof) planned its entire reading and writing programme on PYP planners. If the critic is unable to do so, then it would be fair and prudent to take such advice on the chin, but to refrain from taking action until we had worked out a solution in its entirety.
My second response is that the TCRWP units of study can be transferred onto PYP planners in exactly the same way I blogged about in the past. Tokyo International School has this projected on our PYP action plan for the future: we have other priorities right now.
Is the Columbia Teachers College Reading and Writing Project compatible with an IB education? ABSOLUTELY: IB is all about drawing upon best practices to enhance student learning! The key is thinking critically and finding common ground. If you are a teacher who feels the same I would love to hear from you; we are always looking for kindred spirits at TIS! I also would love to hear other, different opinions as I constantly evolve my thinking and learn from others.
Appendix: International Schools Which Are TCRWP 'Project Schools'
American School of Barcelona
American School of Paris
Chinese International School - Hong Kong
Colegio Nueva Granada - Bogota
Concordia International School - Shanghai
Frankfurt International School
International School Nido de Aguilas - Chile
Shanghai American School
Taipei American School
Tokyo International School
United World College-Singapore
Victoria Educational Organisation, Hong Kong