There is an adage: if the teacher is working too hard, the students aren’t working hard enough. There are many cases where this is true: in a writing conference when the teacher is doing all of the talking, during the revision process when a student is following a teacher’s notated directions, in a lesson where the teacher is putting on the whole show.
Of course, there are times in which a writing teacher must work hard. In a well-functioning writing workshop classroom, it can seem as if the students magically work with independence and agency. It can be tempting to think, “that teacher sure has an easy job!” when we see her crouched alongside one student, while the others work industriously. But as we workshop teachers know, much behind-the-scenes work goes into providing the kind of environment and instruction that leads to this kind of independence. One of the most important ways a writing teacher sets the scene is to carefully plan his or her units of study.
Planning a unit of study is no small thing. There are many parts, and many many pages to get through and reflect upon. One way to help make the planning process less onerous is to assign a teacher leader to each unit (assuming, of course, the teaching team plans to teach the same units across the year). Of course, the teacher leader should not, and could not, do all of the planning for the other teachers for the entire unit. Each teacher must plan a sequence of teaching points depending on the specific needs of his or her students. However, there is much general information to learn about each unit of study that would benefit all teachers.
I suggest assigning a teacher leader for each unit either at the start of the year or soon after. Going forward, you might consider doing this at the end of the school year for the year ahead. In addition to assigning a teacher leader for each unit, be sure to assign dates for each unit – start and end dates, as well as dates for the initial planning meeting (a week or two before the unit begins).
At the planning meeting, the teacher leader for the unit could give the rest of the team the lay of the land of the unit in such a way that teachers feel armed with enough information to more efficiently do their own planning.
A teacher leader might share:
- Unit Flow / Bends in the Road. There is something so wonderful and powerful about someone giving a 3-5 minute synopsis of a unit who knows the unit well. This might go something like, “At the start of the unit, after you assess your writers, you’ll teach them to look for story ideas everywhere. They’ll spend a lot of time growing ideas for stories, trying out potential plot-lines, and getting to know characters. Then, in the second bend…”
- Writing Process / Kind of writing students will be doing). Tucked into the discussion of how the unit goes, it might be helpful for teacher leaders to share the kind of writing most students will be doing in each part of the unit. For example, “In the first part, kids are mainly working in their notebooks. You can expect the notebook work to be really varied: sometimes they’ll be making character charts, sometimes they’ll be storyboarding with sketches, sometimes they’ll be writing scenes.”
- Conferring/Small Groups. It will be important to give teachers a heads-up for some of the potential problems students may encounter in each part of the unit. For example, “Be on the lookout for students who are veering far away from the realistic. They’ll likely get tripped up if they try to include too many fantasy elements in their stories. OR, you might want to keep an eye on volume while kids are working in notebooks.”
- Charts. Even though not every teacher’s charts will look the same, the teacher leader can share a list of some of the main anchor charts in each part of the unit. One brilliant teacher leader I worked with recently simply searched on Google or Pinterest for examples of the kinds of charts that would go with a unit, and picked out a few great images to bring to the meeting. Creativity abounded.
- Mentor Texts. At some schools, teacher leaders are in charge of procuring the most-used mentor texts for the unit and distributing them to the team. At others, teacher leaders just let others know what the mentor texts are in plenty of time for teachers to choose and locate their own copies.
- Demonstration Writing. It will be very helpful for teachers to have a sense of the kind of writing they need to have at the ready when the unit begins. Bonus points for teacher leaders who choose a few key teaching points and guide their colleagues to do a bit of writing right in the meeting.
Happy Planning, and please share any other tips you might have to streamline the unit planning process.
A final piece of exciting news – thanks to this beautiful community of readers and Slicers, we reached our T-shirt sale goal, and we will be able to contribute to pajamaprogram.org, a very worthy cause. We’ll have more information for you soon on the final contribution amount. Those who purchased T-shirts can expect them to arrive in 1-2 weeks. We hope to see you sporting them at NCTE!
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).