How To Read A Unit of Study

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As the school year comes to a close, many of the schools I work with are launching into a week or so of in-service, summer institutes, and other professional development. It’s “curriculum season” in many places around the country. For many writing teachers, that means diving into the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and colleagues. (Click here and here if you’ve never heard of them!) I’d like to share some tricks for reading the units, whether this will be your first experience with the Units of Study, or you’ve been using the units for many years.

Full disclosure: I coauthored one of the units, and work very closely with all the authors. Also, my work requires that I teach all the units K-8. The advice below has been gathered from my experience working with teachers in schools across the country.

Step 1: Keep an open mind. Seriously. You might think that you are willing to try anything, but then by Session 4 you’re starting to think, “Well I could just change that…” By Session 10 you’re thinking, “Well I could just do this session the way I did it last year…” Then you’ll decide to use a different kind of paper, and you’ll skip this and add that… and by the end of the unit, you’ve actually told yourself that you’re not going to do very much of the unit at all–even though you thought you were being completely open-minded the whole time. Instead, I recommend reading each session with the intention of teaching the session as it is. Then, during the school year, you’ll adapt your teaching to the KIDS,  rather that preemptively adapting all the sessions before you’ve even given them a try. Resist the temptation to try to squeeze the new ideas to fit with what you already know, or what you’ve always done in the past.

Step 2: It’s not a script. Okay, that’s not really a step so much as it is a fact. The units are written as a guide, a suggestion for how the unit might go. No two groups of kids are the same, and no two teachers are the same, so you WILL need to make adjustments. This might at first seem contradictory to Step 1 above, but actually it’s not. The sessions make it pretty explicit that you can substitute your own examples, your own stories, connections, and ideas. The books are overflowing with advice for how to make each unit your own.

Step 3: Think long-term. As authors, we knew that our audience would be rereading the series year after year and we knew that we needed to pack the books chock full of advice about teaching writing, and about teaching in general. With that in mind, each year you might pick a lens with which to read. Maybe your first year, you’ll read just to figure out how to teach the minilessons. Then in Year 2, maybe you’ll read to pay more attention to the coaching notes in the sidebars. In Year 3, you might dive into the suggestions for conferring and small group work, and the charts in the second half of the  If…Then Curriculum books (charts you might not have even known existed the first year).

Step 4: Read each minilesson. Take notes. This is what I do: I read the minilessons in parts. First I take the “Connection,” and I distill the main point. “What am I doing here?” I think to myself. Then I do the same for the “Teach,” the “Active Engagement” and the “Link.” I use a large post-it and make a few bullet points for each part of the minilesson, and that is what I teach from when I’m sitting with kids during actual writing workshop. Reading this way helps me figure out what I’m going to be doing, and then I don’t have to read directly from the minilesson like a script while I’m teaching!

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Connection, Teaching, Active Engagement, Link. My minilesson plan goes on the post-it.

Step 5: Do the work that the kids will do. I cannot even imagine reading the units without trying out some of the writing that the kids will be doing. First of all: It’s fun! Second of all: I don’t think I could really digest the sessions without trying them out on myself (and sometimes on my husband, or my daughter, or my nieces and nephews…)

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My own writers notebook. Here, I was trying out possible thesis statements to model for kids. I label each of my entries with the grade level and sometimes a page number or a session title to keep me organized, working in classrooms across grades and schools.

However you decide to go about reading the units (or any professional texts) this summer, it’s always better with friends. Recruit some of your colleagues to read the units with you. Maybe you’ll divide up units and then report back to one another. Maybe you’ll all pick one unit to read together. If you can’t get friends to read with you, tell as many people as you can that you’re going to be reading. That way, you’ve committed to it and you can feel great when you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.

Happy summer, everybody! May you write lots, read a ton, and come back to school energized and inspired.