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 that 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!
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? While 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! When 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.