Units of Study: A Writing Coach’s Perspective

Mary Anne left this comment:

Mary Anne, on August 17th, 2008 at 8:56 pm Said:

Here is what I would love to hear more about. Can you talk a little about your experience with Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study? I am using it for the first time and, although I have lots of experience teaching writing, I would love to hear your feedback/tips about using it.

Great question!

I depended on the primary set quite heavily my first year of coaching. I think it is very straightforward. The set up of the book is nice, with the happenings in the classroom on one side of the page and the thinking behind the happenings on the left side of the page. I soaked in as much of the “thinking behind the scenes” as possible. This is what helped me develop a state of mind for thinking in terms of units.

The “If Students Need More Time” suggestions are nice and offer possible minilessons which you can develop yourself.

As far as the Units of Study for Grades 3 – 5, I don’t think they are quite so straightforward. In my opinion, there is so much packed into each day, that they can be broken up into two or more minilessons. The first time I taught the Personal Essay Unit, I found myself really having to study each day’s lesson, take copious notes, and then deeply think about my “version” of the lesson. (I also leaned heavily on Stacey’s experience in this unit. I was so thankful to have someone to go to as questions arose!) Also, the mid-workshop shares, seem like another focus lesson to me. I encourage teachers, especially those new to writing workshop, to pull these out as a separate focus lesson for another day.

Another Units of Study resource, is Fletcher and Portalupi’s Teaching the Qualities of Writing. The book outlines the lessons for each unit. The lessons are printed on a card and on the back of the card are any materials you would need for the lesson.

In our district, K-2 teachers are standing on the shoulders of Calkins and colleagues via the Primary Units of Study. Grades 3 -4 are depending on Teaching the Qualities of Writing. Grades 5 -6 are using the Intermediate Units of Study. Grades 7 -8 are being guided by Nancie Atwell’s Lessons that Change Writers (which is designed for 6 – 10 grades). Please understand, I’m not saying that these resources are solely attached to these grade levels . . I’ve used them all at different grade levels and there are wide grade spans on each resource. It is simply the way it ended up shaking loose in our district. I’m an advocate for drawing on as many resources as possible.

No matter what unit of study resource you use, I have two key pieces of advice.

  1. Check out the CD-ROM — It is an excellent (and I mean excellent) resource.
  2. Keep the state of mind that these resources are simply a guide for what your students could possibly need. Often they are right-on-the-money . . . other times, they are off the mark. Use your professional knowledge to deviate when necessary.
  3. Yeah, I know I said two, but this one is important too! Know that these resources are a way to get off and running with teaching Writing Workshop. For the first couple of years, you can stand on someone else’s shoulders. Over time, your units will develop and change and be driven completely by your students’ needs, state standards, and your good sense.