A Consistent Structure for Planning Units of Study in Workshop Classrooms – By Jodi Manby

Picture this…a pile of resources, a blank unit planning calendar, lots of page turning, and very little progress in creating a unit. This is how planning a unit of study in writing used to look for me. I told myself, obviously this could not continue! I was wasting so much time trying to figure out where to begin! Sound familiar?

Now any time I am planning a new unit or revising a previous unit, I rely on a few patterns that emerged when the unit seemed to build itself: identify mentors, study genre, analyze on-demand writing, and write within the genre myself.

Finding mentor texts has been a little less daunting once I heard Matt Glover, author of Projecting Possibilities for Writers: The How, What, and Why of Designing Units of Study, say 1that it only takes a couple mentor texts to support a unit…there’s no need for a pile of them! So now, I look for 2-3 mentor texts that I can use both before the unit begins, as read alouds to build some foundation for my writers, as well as throughout the unit, as we learn to try similar craft moves as our mentors. In other words, as I’m reading through realistic fiction stories or perusing nonfiction books, I’m not only looking for a text that I envision my students producing, but my first goal is to find a text that my writers will engage with and that I enjoy reading as well. I’m going to be spending a lot of time with this book, from repeated readings to excerpts pulled for minilessons and conferences — I want to make sure it’s a book I like too!


Yes, my post-it addiction is something my family is trying to curb!

Once I have 2-3 texts I think both my writers and I can get excited about, it’s time to study the genre closely! The first thing I like to do is hunker down with the books and an assortment of Post-it’s.As I read the text closely, I consider the qualities of writing to guide myself in naming the moves the author and/or illustrator is making, and ask myself if I can imagine my writers approximating this writing. Lenses I typically consider are: Meaning (For whom — and why — can we imagine the author wrote the text?), Structure (How will the structure/parts of the text support our study?), Focus (How do the parts of the text work together?), Elaboration (How does the writer help readers envision the story/information?), Voice (What has the author done to support the way we read the text and with what tone?), and Conventions. Having these qualities explicitly identified in the text helps understand the genre itself, and also allows me to be more efficient when conferring with writers. For example, I can quickly refer to a part in the text that demonstrates an elaboration strategy that we might try to imitate.


Once I have a strong sense of the genre and mentor texts to study with kids, it’s time to take the pulse of my writers by administering an on-demand writing sample (a pre-assessment given at the beginning of the unit to collect baseline data on our writers). Questions we might pursue as we analyze our on-demand data: How much of our immersion work have they internalized? What parts of previous units are they carrying forward? What is going well and what are our next steps? 4While it can feel uncomfortable to give an on-demand/pre-assessment on a genre we haven’t formally studied, we want to keep in mind that across our previous units and across years of writing workshop and reading workshop, our writers are building a repertoire of tools to access in any writing experience. As the examples in Lucy Calkins’ Writing Pathways suggest, first we give our writers a quick reminder about what they might already know about the genre, and then let them have at it, so we can see what they know! During the on-demand/pre-assessment, we can study our writers to take note of their initiation, engagement, stamina, volume, and process. One way we can make use of this data is to help set up small group work right out of the gates as we kick off the unit. After the on-demand writing session, the analyzing of the writing begins. I often find it helpful to create a checklist that captures the same qualities I uncovered when I was studying the mentor texts: meaning, structure, focus, elaboration, voice, and conventions. This data will have several implications: it will help shape the lessons throughout the unit (especially at the beginning of the unit), identify patterns for small groups, and provide information to help guide one-on-one conferences. Here’s a sample of checklist I co-created with a Kinder team earlier this year:

Okay, so now I have a clear understanding of the genre, mentor texts, and samples of student writing…sounds like I would have enough information to get my unit off the ground. However, there is one crucial piece of planning that awaits…I need to write! 6When I write what my students are writing, it helps me anticipate some of the bumps or roadblocks they might encounter. If I struggle to find a topic to write about, it’s possible they might struggle as well. If I’m finding it difficult to structure my piece, I can consider/reconsider the paper my writers have access to that might scaffold the structure of their pieces. On top of helping me identify potential challenges for my writers, writing a few demonstration pieces can also help to set my minilessons up for success. If I’ve already taken a few topics through the whole writing process, I can then peel off layers of the text that I’ll use for specific lessons. This way, ideally I always have an opening in my demonstration texts to model in a minilesson.


Identifying mentor texts and noting the craft moves you’ll teach into, analyzing what your writers already know, and writing demonstration texts to anticipate challenges as well prepare for lessons are four steps you might take to support your unit planning. Whether you’re taking on new genres or looking to breathe new life into units you teach each year, having a structure to your planning can help lower anxiety and get you closer to launching!


Enjoyed this post on planning units of study in workshop classrooms? Learn more about this topic at our GEMS this Saturday, May 2nd, at Woodcrest Elementary School – REGISTER HERE.

Delving Deeper into Implicit Teaching through Interactive Read Aloud

The power to transform your students’ world into an alternate time period, capture their imagination during an adventure to the time of dinosaurs, and enable them to envision being an insect chased by a buzzing wasp.  You’re asking yourself, “What daily classroom practice has this power for my readers?”  The answer could be: Interactive Read Aloud.  That’s right, those 20 minutes a day of protected, coveted, dedicated time for engaging your readers with text by implicitly modeling reading behaviors and skills.

Understanding Interactive Read Aloud.  Interactive Read Aloud is that daily 2o minutes of implicit teaching when teachers gather their readers close together in their meeting area and model those reading behaviors and skills they want all readers to emulate.

  • Interactive Read Aloud is a time to build community while exposing readers to a variety of texts, genres, text complexities, and text structures.
  • It is a time to focus on listening and speaking Common Core standards.
  •  It is a time to model reading behaviors such as stamina, initiation, and rereading for meaning and fluency as well as a time to model reading skills such as envisioning, synthesizing, critiquing, or author’s perspective.
  • It is a time for revealing our metacognition as readers and making it explicit by modeling our own reading behaviors by thinking aloud, stopping and sketching or jotting our ideas, or acting out scenes from the text.
  • It is a time to model thoughtful, reflective conversations and hone in on partnership conversations that lead to whole class grand conversations, which are eventually student lead, student monitored, and student driven.

Here are some of our tips for creating a thoughtful, effective Interactive Read Aloud in your classroom.

Strategic Planning.  In order to understand how to utilize text in a more effective and engaging way, teachers need to thoroughly read through the text prior to using it during an Interactive Read Aloud.  Knowing what reading skill and behavior you want to implicitly teach your readers, what reading plan you want to highlight for the text, when to stop in the text to model thinking and reactions, or when to have partnerships turn and talk to one another takes a very planful teacher.  Using post-its to mark the spots in the text you want to engage with is a helpful way to feel prepared during an Interactive Read Aloud.  In this video clip of Erin Donelson, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, notice how she sets up her upper grade readers to make a reading plan to follow along with her in this text.  Notice how strategic her planning is, due to her thoughtful contemplation and thorough reading of the text prior to her Interactive Read Aloud.

Interactive Nature.  Implicit in the name of Interactive Read Aloud is that it is an interactive time when readers engage with the text as well as with one another.  The interactive nature can take on many forms, including interacting with the text through stop and sketches or stop and jots on post-its, acting out particular scenes from text,  turn and talks with partners, or whole class grand conversations where readers engage in conversations with one another by responding to each other’s ideas with sentence stems that promote engaged conversation, such as: “I agree with you because…” “I disagree with you because…” “That’s an interesting point…” “Adding on to what ___ said, I think…”  By giving our readers the language to help support their conversations, we are implicitly teaching readers that an important part of engaging with text is formulating ideas and expressing those to others.  In this video clip of Jessica Martin, our Co-Founder and Director of Growing Educators, notice how she supports her readers by finding points in the text that support interaction in the form of acting out scenes to deepen the understanding of characters and promoting the engagement of all her primary readers.

Navigating Through Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to implicitly model how readers, of any proficiency level, navigate through text.  Modeling reading habits can include such topics as re-reading, using a bookmark, text directionality, navigating a table of contents, book introductions or picture walks in fiction text.  With nonfiction text, such topics for modeling may include: highlighting text features, organizing note-taking for finding main idea, questioning strategies with sentence stems “I’m getting a hunch that…” and noticing writing craft moves.  Notice in this video clip how Jodi Manby, one of our Growing Educators Staff Developers, sets up a book introduction for her primary readers during Interactive Read Aloud with a text that will eventually be used to launch a persuasive writing unit of study.

Notice how in this video clip, Jodi enables her readers to navigate the text and engage in the interactive nature through turn and talks with their reading partners.

Supporting Content Area Text.  Interactive Read Aloud is an ideal time to build your reader’s content area knowledge, to prepare them for an upcoming science or social studies unit of study, to engage them with nonfiction text prior to an expository writing unit of study, or simply to implicitly model how readers plan for reading informational text differently than other genres.  Weaving content area text into your writing or reading workshop can be bridged by supporting the thinking work during your Interactive Read Aloud.   This can be 20 minutes daily of dedicated time to study a particular genre or subject such as biographies, insects and animals, or the American Revolution, while exposing your readers to complex text and supporting them with strategies that enable them to access the content while navigating the text complexity.  In this video clip, notice how Jessica Martin navigates through content area knowledge while supporting her primary reader’s access to the structure of nonfiction text.

Enjoy this sacred time with your readers and inspire them through your own love of the written word.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Cultivating Independence During Workshop

Notebooks, journals, and book baggies counted and distributed. Check.

Writing pens (a variety of colors, of course) and stacks of post-its, ready for use. Check.

Meeting area and classroom library arranged just so. Check.

As many of us return to our classrooms fresh off a long and adventurous summer, our minds turn to planning and preparation.  Piles of post-its with long ‘To Do’ lists line our teacher’s desk, bags brimming with supplies litter our classroom floors, and books, books, and more books piled high on our student desks, ready to be leveled, ‘stickered’, and placed in our classroom libraries.  As you begin your journey of preparing for the new school year, how are you planning for your launch of an independent workshop?

We recently had an amazing opportunity to spend a day with educators from the Tustin Unified School District doing just that–preparing and planning for their strategic workshop launch.


GE Staff Developer Angela Bae working with Tustin teachers: Thinking about the Grammar Share during an independent writing workshop

Here are our top five tips for building independence with readers and writers during a strategic workshop launch:

  1. Routines and Habits: Consider building in routines, habits, and expectations for how workshop flows in your classroom early on.  As your readers and writers learn what’s expected of them, you will be able to maximize your workshop time.

    How Writer’s Can Prepare for Writing Workshop

    Woodcrest 3

    Woodcrest Elementary School: Routines for Set Up during Writing Workshop in Primary Classrooms

  2. Anchor Charts: Charts build independence for your students.  Your readers and writers will learn to refer to them for strategies and reminders.  Consider a spot in your room where you can hang these charts so readers and writers can easily access them.
    Andrews Chart

    Andrews Elementary teachers, in Whittier City School District, created a chart reflecting upon why they love charts!

    Carlos WWS Collecting Carthay

    3rd Grade Carthay Center Elementary Teacher Carlos Alvarez’s Chart for Building Independence in his Writers during the Collecting Stage of the Writing Process

    Ms. Moore's Process Board

    Woodcrest Elementary’s 2nd Grade Teacher Ms. Moore’s Writing Process Board for Building Independence during Writing Workshop

  3. Partnerships: Consider how you want your partnerships to function in workshop.  Preparing for the purpose and expectations for workshop partnerships and making those explicit to your readers and writers will help build independence.  You might choose to have partners assign themselves A and B (or yellow and orange) status as an efficient way to organize their turn and talk time.


    Building Independent Partnerships: Establish Seating Spaces and Yellow/Orange Status for Partnerships

  4. Mentor Texts and Materials.  Consider how your workshop texts and materials will be organized for independence.  Your readers and writers will learn where to access books and materials, including: post-its, pens, draft paper, publishing paper, and markers.

    TK Library 95th St School

    Lise Traphagen’s TK Classroom Library at 95th Street School in LAUSD

  5. Meeting Areas. Think about how your meeting area will flow and make sense for all your learners.  Consider accommodations you can make to meet the needs for all learning types in your room during workshop.

    Kate's Meeting Area Ideas

    GE Staff Developer Kate Riedell’s Recommendations for Sensory Supports in our Meeting Area to Meet the Needs of ALL Our Learners

Now, with just right books, journals and notebooks, writing pens, mentor texts, and meeting areas prepared and ready for building independence, enjoy your workshop launch this Fall!

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Upcoming GEMS Saturday Conference

Welcome to a brand new school year, full of possibilities and endless opportunities to grow professionally.  We are very excited to invite you to join us for our first GEMS Saturday Conference for this new school year.  What a wonderful way to begin your year.  Our focus includes using balanced literacy to support  the implementation of the common core and you will attend sessions that support planning a strategic launch for your reading and writing workshops this year.

What: Use Balanced Literacy TO Support Implementation of The Common Core;

Plan A Strategic Launch To Your Reading and Writing Workshops

When: Saturday, September 7. 2013

7:45AM: Light Breakfast

8:30-9:15AM: Keynote Speakers Jessica Martin and  Renee Houser, Growing Educators Founders and Directors

9:20-11:30AM: Sessions

Where: Carthay Center Elementary School


6351 W. Olympic Blvd. 

Los Angeles, CA 90048

Cost: Only $25

Growing Educators Staff

Growing Educators Staff

To register, click here or on-site registration the day of the event is available.


Unlocking the Common Core: Insight from Educator Rob Ross

Rob Ross delivering the keynote address at our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy

Rob Ross delivering the keynote address at our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy

We were honored to have renowned educator, literacy expert, former Teachers College staff, director of curriculum and assistant principal of Westminster Charter School in Buffalo, New York, and friend Rob Ross with us this week at our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy.

His keynote speech focused on bringing victory to schools in preparing to implement the common core state standards this fall.  He emphasized it’s how teachers “position” themselves that’s really important when we think about the common core.

In his address, he suggested ten things all educators need in order to gain a victory in the common core era, using the analogy of a soccer game to illustrate his points:

10. Mentors: we all need amazing mentors around us

9. Practice: we need time to practice our craft of teaching

8. Tournaments (being a part of something): attending conferences and bringing back information to colleagues

7. Uniform: everything we need to teach (books, books, and more books! Also, workshop resources)

6. Coaching: it’s about teamwork and coaching each other

5. Work the field: how does reading come alive in your classroom and campus?

4. Referees and Rule Books: our guiding concepts and rules for how we act and what we expect. Community-building: the team is only as strong as the weakest link, so make sure everyone feels they are a part of the team

3. Hmm, left that number out!

2. Play defense: have colleagues support you

1. Goal Post (guarded): your class and students are part of the team. Every teacher on campus makes them who they are.

In a reflective closing, Rob urged us to ask ourselves, “How do I look at the common core with a lens of what’s good for kids?” Books are key he suggested. With “power and passion you will make this work” Rob said. Thank you for an inspiring week Rob!

To hear more from Rob Ross, follow him on Twitter: @RobRossNY

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Listening to Children: Honoring Their Insight and Building Upon It

We were honored to have Dr. Megan Loef Franke as our keynote speaker on day two of our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy.  Dr. Franke is a renowned educator, researcher, author, professor, and Chair of the Department of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Professor Megan Franke and Jessica Martin, Growing Educators Co-Founder

Dr. Franke emphasized the importance of really listening to children, acknowledging what they say, and building upon their thinking to further their learning.  In doing so, this honors the thinking children are doing and enables us as educators to facilitate a learning environment in our classroom that is equitable, engaging, and creates a culture of building upon student’s strengths.

Dr. Franke suggests that really listening to students and engaging them in conversations about their thinking may be a culture shift in many schools, but is essential for students to grow in their thinking.

Dr. Franke gave us some tips when thinking about true, authentic listening:

  • Listen to what the student says
  • Take something specific the student says and ask them a specific follow up question about what they said
  • The student will learn to explain more and think more

Dr. Franke’s Keynote Address at our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy

Equity in schools is a predominant theme in Dr. Franke’s work with urban school in Los Angeles and she suggested that all students need to have a chance to explain their thinking, within an organized classroom structure, including: partners, small groups, whole class, with the teacher, or another adult.  She went on to say research shows that engaging conversation around details of each others ideas in a classroom matters to our students’ success.  The notion that someone is listening to your ideas and you are engaging with someones ideas helps students achieve. Dr. Franke urges all educators to transform schools by starting small, reexamining how we structure what happens in classrooms, by listening to students daily, and engaging them in meaningful talk around their thinking.

She says, “Listen to what students have to say, they’ll surprise you!”


For more about Dr. Megan Loef Franke’s work, click here.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney

Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices

In his intriguing new book Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, renowned author and educator Ralph Fletcher challenges educators to think about creating boy-friendly classrooms so their voices can be heard.  We were honored to have Ralph as one of our keynote speakers at both our 3rd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Writing and our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy, as well as our guest speaker at our recent conference: A Day with Ralph Fletcher.

Author Ralph Fletcher and Growing Educators Co-Founder Jessica Martin

In both his keynote addresses, Ralph Fletcher discussed working with apprehensive writers and how to create classroom environments that are safe places to write where risk-taking is supported and encouraged. He also discussed what subjects our boy writers are passionate about, what motivates them as writers, why they like to incorporate violence into their stories, and how much violence should be allowed. He challenged us to think about why we so often misread and misunderstand the humor boys include in their stories and to revisit writing genres that are more boy-friendly, including graphic novels, fantasy, and true fiction.  He suggested that parody and satire are a central genre that motivates boys to write.

Ralph also discussed other differences between girl and boy writers: girls draw in nouns, boys in verbs. They essentially live in the action of a writing piece, hence some key elements of boy writers include forbidden objects, chases, danger, and a social nature to their writing: boys show connection by what they do (action) together (research from Newkirk).

Ralph Fletcher at our 2nd Annual Summer Conference on the Teaching of Reading and Balanced Literacy

Growing Educators: A Day with Ralph Fletcher

Ralph also discussed the role of mentor text in supporting all our writers, urges us to give students an opportunity to react to text, and cautions us not to “squeeze all the juice out of a mentor text.” He also supports the idea of boy writing clubs to foster a sense of connectedness our boy writers crave. Below is a list of mentor text Ralph suggests will support our boy writers:

  • Couple of Boys Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee
  • Let’s Do Nothing by Tony Fucile
  • The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman and David Roberts
  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri and Jesse Joshua Watson
  • How They Croaked: The Awful Ends to the Awfully Famous
    by Georgia Bragg and Kevin O’Malley
  • The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander
  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • A Tale of Dark and Grimm Adam Gidwitz
  • Ice Drift Theodore Taylor
  • Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos
  • King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography by Chris Crutcher
  • Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka
  • Bad Island by Doug Tennapel
  • Guy-Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs to Know by Ralph Fletcher

To learn more about Ralph Fletcher and boy writers, check out his Blog or Website.

Written by Growing Educators Staff Developer Courtney Kinney