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Units of Study That Go On Forever: Solving Predictable Problems

Units of Study That Go On Forever

A few weeks ago the temperatures began to drop. We had our first hard frost, and the leaves have fallen from the trees. Halloween has come and gone, and winter is on its way. We even made chicken and biscuits for the first time this fall.

In our house, we only make chicken and biscuits when the weather is cold, even though it is a family favorite. Once the cold weather comes, we make it weekly — but we know from experience that by March we will have overdosed on it. All summer long, whenever the craving for chicken and biscuits strikes, we resist it, saying “Better wait until fall, so we don’t get sick of it.”

Everybody knows that too much of a good thing, isn’t such a good thing. So why do units of study sometimes go on and on, despite common sense telling us that it can’t the best thing to do? It’s happened to every teacher. We start out strong, with enthusiasm. We think: This unit is going to be GREAT! This is is exactly what my kids need! This unit is our favorite!  But then, five weeks, six weeks, seven weeks (!!) later, you and the kids are completely sick of the writing you’ve been doing–just like a favorite recipe that you’ve become burnt out on.

Writing units can sometimes stretch on and on for a few predictable reasons. Assuming you teach a writing workshop that is based largely on students independently writing and moving through the writing process, here are a few scenarios that you (or someone you know) may have experienced:

  1. You are new to teaching a genre or unit, so it’s hard to know which lessons to skip, cut back on, or spend more time on. So, you do everything, just to be sure.
  2. You’re at the three, four week point, but you look at your student work and you feel like they still have so much to learn. “They’re not ready yet,” to publish, so you soldier on.
  3. Your unit keeps getting interrupted: by long weekends, holidays, snow days, that sort of thing. What should have taken one week to teach, actually takes two.

Why is it a problem for units to stretch on for a long time?

As a coauthor of the Units of Study for Teaching Writing, a former TCRWP staff developer, and literacy coach, I have always encouraged everybody I work with to aim for a 4-6 week timeframe for teaching a unit of study. (Knowing that if the genre is really important, you can circle back to it for a second unit later in the year). After six weeks (give or take), students begin to lose interest. Also, they begin to lose sight of the writing process. If the first few lessons of the unit of study are a distant memory, it’s difficult for students to draw connections between the minilessons you’re teaching today, and the minilessons that came earlier. It’s similar to taking too long to finish a long novel: Yes, you will get through it. But how enjoyable is it to finish a book when you can’t even remember how it began?

But how do you solve these problems? All three scenarios above are legit reasons for wanting to slow down. But is it worth it? And how can it be helped? Here are a few tips for managing units of study that might go on for too long.

Adapt your Units of Study: Which minilessons can I skip?

From the outset, approach your unit plan as a draft. Your plans will need to change as time goes on. Plan to reassess the plan at least once a week. Begin by setting a deadline for the publishing party FIRST. Plan what the celebration will be. Make it public. Tell the kids about it from the very beginning of the unit. Put it on a school calendar, share the date with colleagues, or even families. This will help hold you accountable to finishing up your unit at a reasonable pace.

Now that you have a deadline, decide on a few benchmark pieces of writing so that you have a few samples to remind yourself (and the kids) of what you are aiming for throughout the unit. Take whatever rubric you are using and decide on the two or three things that are most important in this unit of study. Is this a unit that is really strong on structure and organization? Or does it emphasize craft and voice? Maybe it’s all about elaboration, writing long about each new piece of information? Some genres lend themselves to one thing or another, but you can also look at your students’ past work and use that to determine the two or three “biggies” that you plan to prioritize in the unit.

Now, use your resources to pick and choose minilessons to teach that support the goals you’ve decided on. Remember that you can’t teach everything in every unit. Prioritize. Keep strategies that feel like must-do’s. Be prepared to scratch any strategies that aren’t crucial to your big overarching goals.

If you use the Units of Study books, or some similar resource, you might photocopy the table of contents and highlight the minilessons that definitely address your priorities, and draw a line through the minilessons that don’t seem related to your goals. If time is of the essence, here’s a tip: those minilessons that are written as a letter to the teacher? Those might be non-essential unless they tie in to your particular goals for your students.

But my students aren’t ready yet? How can I move on if they haven’t “mastered” this?

It’s tempting to compare writing instruction to math, where one skill clearly builds on the next, and the next. But the truth is, no one ever “masters” all the writing strategies in a single unit of study. Growth as a writer takes practice, practice, practice. Over time, over different pieces of writing, across different genres. Spending too much time on one single piece of writing, or one single genre, is taking time that could have been invested in the next new story, or trying a new genre.

As you near the end of one type of writing, rest assured that all the same qualities of strong writing will be taught again in the next unit–and the next–and the next. In fact, moving on to a new genre might help some students who struggled. For example, a student who couldn’t write with detail in a narrative unit might have much more success in and information unit, and vice versa.

Secondly, use the writing process to keep your eye on the prize throughout the unit and help with pacing. The ultimate goal in writing workshop is to teach students how to generate ideas, plan, draft, revise, edit, and publish. How they do each of these steps truly isn’t that important. For example, if you teach a strategy for drafting by starting off with a strong lead–the important thing is that they start drafting–not so much the lead.

The quality of the writing will improve with time, repeated practice, and experience. Moving too slowly, or expecting perfection with each strategy before you move on to the next could bog you and students down. Expect imperfection! Wrap it up, and start fresh with a new unit. Each new unit gives your students another round of repeated practice and new experiences with the qualities of writing.

Argh! We keep getting interrupted by long weekends, holidays, and snow days.

One way to deal with this problem is to build in some “cushion” days when you plan your unit. Some teachers plan for one day a week to be a “repertoire” lesson. This is where you teach students to use ALL the strategies you’ve taught that week–not just one. It might sound like:

“Today I want to teach you that writers don’t just use dialogue one day, then describe images the next, and put in precise verbs on another day. I’ve taught you each of these things separately, but writers actually think about all three things all the time! Today as you write, try to use all the strategies you know to make your writing come alive.”

Those planned “repertoire” days give you a little wiggle room, so that every single day is not always introducing something new.

Another strategy is to plan your units to be four or five weeks long instead of the maximum of six, so that when setbacks occur, you can dip into that fifth or sixth week if needed. Many teachers I work with plan four or five days of “free choice writing” at the end of each unit before the scheduled publishing party so that if needed, they can extend the unit of study without bumping the next unit back even further.

As in teaching, so goes in life: Expect the unexpected. Embrace imperfection. Beware of too much of a good thing.

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  • This giveaway is for a copy of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher: Real Strategies for the Real Classroom (Link to: http://www.heinemann.com/products/e06248.aspx). Thanks to Heinemann Publishers (Link to: http://www.heinemann.com) for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter this giveaway.)
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BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

50 thoughts on “Units of Study That Go On Forever: Solving Predictable Problems Leave a comment

  1. This is so applicable to every teacher of writing workshop! I especially love how you stress that the students won’t master every single thing taught in one unit of study…and we need to be okay with that!

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  2. Thank you! I’ve been struggling with this– again. It’s true that writing is never about mastering a skill unique to that unit and they will be reviewed, retaught, re-experienced in another unit– so much better than dragging it out. I appreciate the timeliness of your post!

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  3. I cannot believe i found this post in my mail this morning! I have been agonizing over the fact that I am not done with the narrative unit. I am tired of it, the Ss are tired of it. I finally decided last week to put together all that we can, put it away for awhile, and move on to informational. But I can’t help but think that I can’t seem to get it down. This is my first year so I do forgive myself, somewhat. So thank you for this post. It was just what I needed and lifted my spirits.

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  4. Thank you for these tips and this post. It is exactly what I needed to read and reflect on right now. I unfortunabtely can not do writer’s workshop daily because I teach “English language” one hour a day to students in a French immersion program. If all we did it daily – I would never have time for reader’s workshop. My solution to a real time crunch has been to teach the “workshop” structure and to have a switch every 2/3 days between reader’s and writer’s workshop. This means my small moments unit – which has been productive and powerful – is now in almost the 9th week and I have taught around half the lessons. I feel like I could keep going but I can also see the need to change it up. I am going to re-examine my priorities and find a way to pick and choose, then wrap it up with a celebration.

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    • Thanks for your response Maggie! Have you thought about teaching a major/minor for 4-5 weeks at a time? That means a full writing unit for several weeks, while reading still happens but takes a backseat, then switch to a full reading unit while writing goes on the back burner. Kids would still have a few min to independently read while in a writing unit, but your minilessons and most of the time would be writing. This way your unit can build momentum instead of constantly shifting focus. Lots and lots of middle school teachers I work with teach units this way!

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  5. This is a timely post for us as we enter this week having come away from Halloween, parent teacher conferences, Hurricane Irma and the end of the nine weeks, to now Veterans Day, American Education Week, Boosterthon, and Thanksgiving…do we really ever get a full 5 day week??? Thanks for posting! I will definitely be sharing with others at our school:)

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  6. This post came at a perfect time as I was just talking with a kindergarten teacher about how to choose what to focus on within a unit of study for half day kindergarten. Your section on adapting provides some helpful thoughts. Thank you!

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  7. Thank-you, thank-you, thank you! I have Bend 3 yet to go in the first UOS for the year and feel like we have been working on Narratives for TOO LONG!! I was planning to launch this week, but perhaps, I will just use their first published piece and move onto the next unit! Like you said, we can always revisit this! I may even do Free Writing this week as the kids reflect on their published pieces from Bend 2 and help them to set new goals for themselves! Thank-you for giving me the “permission” to do this!

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  8. This blog series has been so helpful, and this particular post is just what I needed to read today. Thank you for sharing your insight and expertise!

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  9. I really think it is important that we help teachers realize that we do not need to cover EVERYTHING in one unit of study. We really need to look at what that group of students’ needs are, rather than the prescribe set of lessons set forth in a planned program. We need to allow teachers to use programs, such as Units of Study, as a resource to guide their instruction, not dictate it. Thank you for your thoughts on this topic, as I have seen this struggle often.

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  10. Thanks for this relevant post! I’ve been struggling with trying to move on when they don’t get it…thanks for the reminder that we’re teaching the same skills, just in a different form.

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  11. Thank for you for this post! I was just thinking my students were done with our how to unit this week. Thankfully we wrapped up, celebrated, and will start an of them unit tomorrow!

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  12. This is the perfect post for this time of year – everything feels like it’s dragging along. Great info and reminders on how to navigate the units!

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  13. Love this and most definitely perfect timing. It is difficult when you see the students starting to get burnt out knowing you still have a chunk of the unit left. I am glad to know I have been doing the right thing but ending the unit earlier versus pushing through. Thanks!

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  14. This post couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time! I was just having this conversation with our literacy coach. I love the idea of planning for 4-5 weeks, then dipping in the last week as extra time if needed Thank you!

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  15. Thank you for helping me to realize I am not alone this year with my worries and difficulties while teaching writing to fifth graders after teaching first and second grade the last few years. When you invest so much time in learning, understanding and teaching a TC (new to me) unit, it’s hard to know when to put on the breaks. Your suggestions for planning ahead are so helpful and to always remind ourselves that writing is an ongoing, lifelong journey!

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  16. This post had many great suggestions. I especially appreciated the idea that “you can’t teach everything in the unit” and to choose lessons and strategies that meet the goals of my students.

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  17. This is great advice! I worry often that I have dragged out a unit of study. I like the idea that many writing skills come back around in another writing unit.

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  18. This post was so timely! This is exactly how I’ve been feeling. Thank you for the helpful reminders on how to keep our writing units to 4-6 weeks!

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