Unit Planning: Writing Workshop Fundamentals

Writing Workshop Fundamentals Blog Series - August 2017 - #TWTBlog

WHAT IS UNIT PLANNING?

Planning a unit of study is like planning for anything in life. You can’t predict exactly what will happen, but you can project what you think will mostly likely happen, based on what you know. Just like planning a big camping trip, or throwing a party, you really don’t know exactly how it will go until you get there–but that doesn’t mean you can’t safely assume that a few predictable things will likely happen along the way.

That’s what unit planning is. You take what you already know and attempt to make some safe assumptions about what your students will most likely need support in–and those are the lessons you’ll tentatively plan to teach. Even with a plan in mind, you are always ready to change the plan at a moment’s notice when things don’t go quite the way you expected.

STEP 1: GATHER DATA & RESOURCES

Just as you would never just show up at a campsite without knowing anything about the area (or the weather), or throw a party without any idea who was coming, you can’t plan an effective unit without finding out some basic information about the students you’ll be teaching. Gather up samples of your students’ writing from last year if you can, or perhaps their spelling inventories, and reading levels. Many teachers find it helpful to give an on-demand assessment before sitting down to draft plans, or just before a unit begins with time to adjust existing plans accordingly. For more on on-demands, read this post, What’s An On-Demand, or this post on the joys, wonders, and challenges of on-demand assessment.

As you look at writing samples, you may want to use a rubric or checklist that clearly defines your expectations for the type of writing you plan to teach. If you are familiar with the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Calkins et al) you might use those rubrics, or you might have your own versions. You can use these checklists, as well as state and local standards, to study the samples you’ve gathered to look for evidence of strategies your students are “using but confusing” (as researcher Donald Bear would say).

If you don’t have access to writing samples, you can use what you know about students you’ve taught in the past as a rough guideline to the needs of your new students. Also, when you look at this data, look at it not only for the quality of the writing, but look for evidence of the writing process. (Scroll down to print out a handy reference for teaching using the writing process).

Next, you’ll also want to gather up professional books that might help you in the planning process. The Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Calkins et al), as well as books by Jennifer Serravallo, Ralph Fletcher, Katie Wood Ray, Stephanie Parsons, Stacey Shubitz, Leah Mermelstein and many others will help you create unit plans tailored to your student’s needs, without having to reinvent the wheel.

Last but not least, your own notes and plans from the last time you taught this type of writing. Reflect on how that unit went and revise the plans according to the needs of your incoming students, as well as new ideas you’ve gathered in the year that has passed since the last time you taught the unit. (And if you haven’t gathered any fresh new ideas, that might be a great professional goal for you for the upcoming year).

STEP 2: DECIDE ON A (TENTATIVE) DESTINATION: FIND OR CREATE MENTOR TEXTS & BENCHMARK PIECES OF WRITING

When you plan a trip, you usually don’t just hop in the car and drive somewhere. You could, and it just might be the most rewarding trip ever — or not. The same is true with writing workshop. You could simply have a writing workshop – no unit, no plans, no mentor texts or benchmarks, just time for writing. When I was a new teacher, that was the often the way writing workshop went. The benefit to this was that kids were VERY independent. The downside was that it was impossible to teach anything to the whole class with every kid writing in a different genre, and very challenging to confer in any kind of lasting way when kids might not be working in the same genre for more than a workshop at a time.

Once you’ve decided on (or created) a draft of a checklist or rubric, you can select mentor texts and benchmark texts that make great examples of everything you’ve included as an expectation.

Selecting a few key mentor texts by published authors (or sharing writing of your own) can help inspire your students to create their own texts like the ones you share with them. Also, creating a benchmark text together as a class that is inspired by authentic published texts can immerse kids in the work they’ll be doing independently and can be a shared experience that builds a community of writers.

Think of a benchmark text as any piece of writing that shows all the things you expect your students to do – a piece of writing that looks and sounds the way you hope your students will write, and meets all the criteria on your on-grade-level, on-benchmark, checklist. The book Writing Pathways (Calkins et al) contains great examples of benchmark texts and checklists that are organized into a progression of learning – several benchmark pieces at each grade level.

A mentor text, on the other hand, may or may not exactly match the level of writing your students will do (it might far surpass… or not), but is still quite accessible, and provides examples of great craft moves your students could try out. It may or may not include all the things you expect your students to do – you might use several different mentor texts throughout a unit to hit all the strategies you plan to teach.

STEP 3: MAP OUT A PROJECTED SERIES OF TEACHING POINTS

Once you’ve used checklists, rubrics, mentor texts, and benchmark texts to clearly define your expectations for the unit, your next step will be to attempt to anticipate the series of teaching points (aka: strategies) that you could teach to help students get from where they are currently as writers to where you’d like them to be. (For more on writing strong teaching points, read this post by Stacey.)

One way (but certainly not the only way) to plan a unit of study is to use the writing process as a guide for your minilessons. You’ve already looked at student data to find out what they already know. Now, plan to build on their strengths, and teach into their next steps. Look to each step of the writing process and plan authentic strategies to support your writers.

To print this chart, click here: Writing Process as Guide for Planning

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If you select 2-3 strategies to teach for each step of the writing process, based on strategies that real writers actually use, you will essentially have a unit. You can expand or condense parts of the writing process based on students’ goals. The teaching points can be based on your own experience as a writer, can be pulled from mentor texts, pulled from professional books like The Writing Strategies Book (Serravallo), and based on strategies you’ve seen students using in previous units of study.

You might even decide to move through parts of the writing process multiple times within a unit – a few days at the start for immersion and gathering ideas, then drafting, revising, and doing a mini-publishing in one week, then doing it again the next week, and one more time the third week, creating “bends in the road” for your unit of study. (See here for a definition of “bends”). The Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Calkins et al) are organized into bends that you might adapt according to the needs of your students..

Here are a few predictable scenarios and how you might alter your unit plan:

If… Then…
Your students have not had writing workshop before. You may want to plan more than one day of generating ideas, to teach more than one strategy for this, and give kids practice with making choices regarding which strategies to use. Your students might be accustomed to only doing what the teacher has assigned–making choices will take practice.
Your students tend to write with low volume. You may want to teach “flash drafting,” during the drafting phase, encouraging students to write a whole draft in one sitting, just getting the words down. Freely. Without worry.
Your students balk at revision. They’d rather stick with their first draft once it’s done. You may want to pull out all the stops to teach revision. Dig deep into the Units of Study and The Writing Strategies Book to find the best, most engaging strategies. Look to a grade level or two younger. Don’t just follow along with your usual unit plan. Think flaps, post-its, special revision pens, scissors and tape. Often kid are much more willing to mark up a photocopy of their original. Go big. Have fun. Revision is one of the most important things a writer can learn.

STEP 4: REMEMBER TO GATHER SUPPLIES

The best laid plans can fall apart if you don’t have what you need when the time comes to teach your unit. Make sure to keep an ongoing “wish list” as you plan and gather everything up sooner, rather than later. Some tips:

  • Remember to order books or reserve from the library well in advance.
  • Set aside time for photocopying writing workshop paper if you plan on using paper with space for sketching and lines for writing. (Click here to read this post on paper choices.)
  • Decide if you’ll use pens or pencils. (Click here to read this post on Pens Versus Pencils.) Gather up enough to last “forever.” You won’t want lost writing utensils to get in the way of student writing.
  • If your students use writing folders, don’t forget to clean out the old writing and resources to help students stay organized. (Click here to read Stacey’s post on what to do with your students’ writing). In general, starting with a fresh, empty folder is helpful for students at the beginning of a unit.
  • Look to similar units of study a grade above and a grade below to map out projected sequences of small group work and conferring, based on students’ goals and next steps.

QUICK TIPS

  • It is incredibly helpful to set tentative publishing dates for all your units of study before the school year even begins. This will help you pace yourself to be sure you have plenty of time to touch on all the types of writing you need and want to teach across the school year.
  • In general, most teachers aim for about 5-6 weeks of teaching days for a unit of study. Beyond that, students tend to lose interest and become disengaged. They can also have a hard time learning and remembering the entire writing process if it’s moving along too slowly. Less than 5 weeks is usually not quite enough time – but sometimes certain types of writing can  lend themselves to a quick 3-4 week unit.
  • Kids benefit from repeated practice, so you’ll likely want to teach the “big three” types of writing (opinion/argument, informational, and narrative) at least twice in a school year. However, you probably wouldn’t want the same types of writing back to back – planning your school year in advance will help you figure out an order that makes the most sense for your situation.
  • Many teachers find it helpful to leave a few days “to be decided” on their calendar when planning a unit. This way you have plenty of time to shift things as the unit unfolds, without racing against the clock.
  • It’s also helpful to leave a few days of free writing in between units of study, allowing students free choice to write any thing they want, any way they want. This adds curiosity and joy to your writing workshop, and gives students an opportunity to transfer everything they’ve learned into all types of writing.

NEXT STEPS: TAKE UNIT PLANNING TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Especially if you are getting ready for a unit of study you’ve taught many times, you may find yourself ready to take your unit planning even further. Or perhaps you’re lucky enough to be working with a team who can divide up the work. If you’re ready, you may want to consider:

  • Read a professional text related to your unit of study and revising your plans to incorporate some new ideas.
  • Consider planning out the minilessons, rather than the teaching points only, and aim for a variety of different kinds of minlessons. (Click here to learn about different ways to teach a minilesson.)
  • Perhaps you’ll try aiming for a balance of minilessons geared toward individual writers, and minilessons aimed at writing partnerships. (Click here for five partnership strategies you may want to teach right away.)

LINK ROUND-UP

Still looking for more? We’ve written quite a bit about unit planning right here on Two Writing Teachers over the year, plus we have a few favorite professional texts to support this work.

Sharing the Work: Assigning Teacher Leaders for Unit Planning by Anna Gratz Cockerille

Write Your Own Teaching Points by Stacey Shubitz

Get Out Your Calendars! It’s June Planning Time! by Beth Moore

How to Read a Unit of Study by Beth Moore

SUGGESTED READING TO SUPPORT UNIT PLANNING

The Guide to Writing Workshop (included in the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins et al)

The Writing Strategies Book by Jenn Serravallo

Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz

DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts
GIVEAWAY: RENEW! BECOME A BETTER AND MORE AUTHENTIC WRITING TEACHER, BY SHAWNA COPPOLA

Renew

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher. Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (If the winner has a U.S. address, you may choose a paper or eBook. If the winner has an international mailing address, then you will receive an eBook.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Renew! Become a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Monday, August 7th at 5:00 p.m. EDT. Beth Moore will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Tuesday, August 8th.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Beth can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship your book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – RENEW BOOK. Please respond to her e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. Unfortunately, a new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.