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.



By Colleen Cruz


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