Next Level Unit Planning: Beyond the Fundamentals of Writing Workshop

Feb 2018 Blog Series - DRAFT

WHAT IS “NEXT LEVEL” UNIT PLANNING?

Before diving into taking your unit planning to the “next level,” I’d recommend being sure you’ve read this post: Unit Planning–Writing Workshop Fundamentals. There’s some important information there! Then, think of this post as the sequel to that one.

Taking unit planning to the next level means not only do you have an outline of strategies and lessons you intend to teach–but you might also plan for the predictable small groups and conferences you might need. Perhaps you’re also planning ahead for cross-disciplinary connections to the unit you’re planning.

I like to think of unit planning in levels, like Jedi masters:

Youngling:

You rely on a resource, like the Units of Study for Writing Workshop (Calkins, et al) to guide your teaching. This is a GREAT first step.

Padawan:

You draw from resources, perhaps several to guide each unit, but you make adaptations in pacing, stopping and starting points, and in which lessons to teach or not to teach.

Jedi Knight:

You pull together your plans for each unit from multiple resources, and consider the needs of your students carefully. You’re not afraid to plan an entire unit of study from scratch, and you feel confident about changing the plans as needed. Your units generally do not take longer than 4-6 weeks to teach. (That last bit is key).

Jedi Master:

You plan according to student needs first. Your on-demands, conferring notes, reading and writing data of all sorts are front and center when you plan a unit of study. You decide on the goals of your units first. Then you pull from multiple resources to plan a unit that will meet your students goals. (See that post I mentioned earlier to learn how to become a “Master” unit planner.)

Jedi Grand Master:

A “Jedi Grand Master” can do everything a master can do — but ALSO plans ahead for predictable conferences and small groups. A Jedi Grand Master unit planner is also thinking ahead about the skills taught in a unit of study for writing that will transfer across content areas– not incidentally–but intentionally teaching for transfer.

So, now that we’ve all decided we’d like to be Jedi Grand Masters of writing workshop unit planning, what are some concrete things we can do to get there?

USE DATA + YOUR UNIT GOALS TO ANTICIPATE STUDENT NEEDS

Of course, if you’re already a Jedi Master at unit planning, then you already are using student data to set goals for your units of study, and then plan strategies to help your students achieve those goals. Now, to get to the next level, you’ll need to use that data to help you predict small groups and individual conferences you’ll likely need to teach during each bend.

One way to do this is to identify overall goals for each bend in your unit. Then look to your student data to see who is already fairly close to the goals of that bend – and make a list of those students. Now look to see who is further from meeting those goals, and furthest. If you have three or four lists of students, you can start brainstorming strategies for each group.

For example, perhaps I know that the overall goal of Bend 1 in a unit of study is to generate ideas for informational books, as well as to plan for how the books will go. Based on my on-demand assessments, I might know ahead of time I’ll have at least three groups:

  1. Students who have trouble generating any topics at all: I could teach them to bring in photos and favorite collections from home to inspire them to write about an interest or passion they have. I might also send home a interest inventory for family members to fill out so that I can gather information from them (sometimes the adults will clue me in more than the students will!)
  2. Students who are having trouble narrowing their focus, or perhaps need help moving from a broad topic to a more angled idea about the topic: I might decide to teach this group to freewrite or draw freely everything they know about their topic so that they can begin to find a subtopic, or an idea they are having. This might help them move from “All About Sharks” to a more focused topic: “How Sharks Survive,” or a more focused idea for their writing: “Sharks are an endangered animal.”
  3. Last, but not least, I know I can predict there will be a group that has little trouble coming up with great topics and/or ideas (depending on the grade level), but they do have trouble planning how their writing will go. Perhaps I’ll plan ahead to gather some great mentor texts so that students might model their own plans after some beautiful nonfiction books, articles, or reports.

THINK ACROSS CONTENT AREAS

Researcher and expert teacher Grant Wiggins used to often use the example of soccer drills versus actual soccer games when he spoke about transfer. He often told the story of how when he was a soccer coach, he noticed that sometimes the hard work his players did during practice didn’t seem to transfer to real games. He realized that his players needed more practice with the real thing, so he started including more scrimmages and matches as part of their practice–and they got better.

If your kids can write amazing information books (or stories, or poems, or essays, you name it) during writing workshop–but fall flat during science and social studies, then they are struggling with transfer. There are a few really simple things we can do to support kids in using everything they know about great writing every time they write –not just during writing workshop.

  1. Opportunity: It’s not uncommon that kids just aren’t getting the message that they could be doing the same amazing work during science or social studies — or even math. If you aren’t already, and it is within your power to do so, you can intentionally plan to teach students students to write an information book as a culminating project for a science or social studies unit. If you aren’t the content area teacher on your team, a simple way to get started is to share copies of your students’ information or argument writing with the science and social studies teachers, along with your rubric, so that they have a clearer picture of what they could be expecting from your students.
  2. Timing: You can reasonably expect kids to do high-level writing in content areas after they’ve learned to do it on high-interest topics during writing workshop. For example, if your students write informational books or articles on topics of personal interest in November/December, then any time after December they can write an information book or article in science or social studies– and can do it in half the time because they’ve already been taught how to move through the process and the strategies will be familiar to them.
  3. Visual Support: Using the same anchor charts and tools across the day to support the work they are doing in the content areas is incredibly powerful. Save your anchor charts until the end of the year so that you can bring them out as needed during any content area.

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.

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

DIY Literacy by Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts

Back and Forth

GIVEAWAY!

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing by Lee Heffernan. 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.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of Back and Forth: Using an Editor’s Mindset to Improve Student Writing, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, February 11th at 7:00 p.m. EDT. Melanie Meehan 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 Monday, February 12th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Melanie can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book 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, Melanie will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – BACK AND FORTH 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.