Raise your hand if you ever struggle to get started planning a new unit of study in writing. (It’s okay, no one can see you.)
Give me a little nod if you get overwhelmed, trying to decide where to start. . .
Yep—we’ve all been there.
Planning a unit of study for a wide range of writers at any grade level is a big task, and everyone enters in with different levels of expertise and support. You might be starting from scratch with your state standards, or you might be getting a head start with a well-designed resource or unit plan from a previous year. Perhaps you’re transforming the writing task in a familiar unit to align with science or social studies or a PBL unit, and you’re thinking out how it will be similar to or different from what kids have written in previous years.
Regardless of where you are beginning, there is an essential step I would advocate that all teachers of writers take to add clarity to the planning process:
Build in time to write whatever it is you will be asking kids to write yourself.
If kids will be choosing an issue they care passionately about and crafting a letter to an authentic audience with power to make a change, you do that, too.
If writers will be working on multiple memoir pieces, telling stories about themselves that include a reflective layer, communicating bigger themes or messages about life—write one of your own.
If you’re launching how-to writing, skip the tired How-to-Make-a-Peanut-Butter-Sandwich and choose a topic that genuinely fascinates you, something you have a reason to teach others how to do. (Here’s an example from my own teaching last year, when doing the how-to writing myself had a huge impact on the planning and teaching in the unit.)
I guarantee, there are things you will figure out by doing the writing yourself that you are likely to overlook if you do not.
Truly digging in the work of a writer of narrative, informational, or persuasive text requires you to engage with the content and processes of writing in a way that is different from thinking about those skills in a theoretical, academic way.
Here are some possibilities for the kinds of ahas you might experience, engaging in this thinking and writing work:
- What helped you to build a vision for what you wanted to create? Did you seek out mentor texts?
- Where did you find examples of the kind of writing you were trying to do? (And if you couldn’t find any examples in the real world, should you be teaching it?)
- How is this kind of writing similar to something you have already done? What connections might you be able to help kids make?
- What did your planning process look like?
- What did your drafting process look like? Was it linear, or did you write parts out of order? Was there an entrypoint that felt most comfortable?
- Did you try anything you typically encourage (or expect) kids to do that felt artificial or forced (cough, cough)? What might be some ways to think more flexibly about this?
- What strategies supported you with revision?
- Where did you encounter roadblocks, and how did you work through them?
- What would you do differently next time?
- What might you be proactive about teaching writers now, that you might not have thought about before trying it out yourself?
Even if you only reflect on a few of these questions, it will shift the way you continue planning (and ultimately teach) the unit. You will have a clearer idea of the qualities of the mentor texts to look for. You’ll have specific ideas ready for the anchor charts you’ll co-create with writers, now that the critical attributes of the genre (and writing processes) are front of mind.
When you have written what kids are writing, you’ll be able to speak with authenticity as you teach and confer:
- So when I got to this part of the drafting process, I realized I needed to. . .
- Something that really helped me when I got stuck was. . .
- I was surprised at how challenging it was to. . .
- I noticed something similar to what you are describing. . .
- You’ve given me an idea for something I might try. . .
- I was so happy when I discovered. . .
Kids are savvy. They can tell when a teacher really writes versus when a teacher talks about writing as a hypothetical endeavor (that only exists in the real lives of people still in school). There is a distance that can only be closed when it is two writers side-by-side, talking the talk (and walking the walk) of writers.
You might be tempted, if you teach at a primary grade level, to write something overly simple, to match what it is that kids will produce. I would differentiate this writing task from making an exemplar to use with kids—which should look like what you expect kids to create—or even from the modeling that you plan to do alongside kids. This writing may or may not end up being something that is intended for a child audience. Keep your purpose in mind. If you don’t have to genuinely think hard to craft it, then you aren’t doing thinking work parallel to that of the kids.
Here’s an example of a narrative I wrote a couple of years ago for some coaching work in a second grade classroom. It’s called “Chicken Rescue,” and it was an experience I genuinely wanted to capture and share with a child audience. While writing (in advance of the unit), I kept my audience and the characteristics of personal narrative in mind, but I didn’t limit myself based on what I thought a second grader would be able to do independently.
As a result, the piece ended up serving multiple purposes. On the front end, I used the experience to help me unpack the work of a narrative writer with the teacher with whom I was planning. In addition, I was able to use the piece—in strategic layers over the course of multiple minilessons—to make visible some of the writing work of narrative with students.
I was intentional in how I focused these lessons, knowing that the second grade standards should guide those learning targets. For example, a big focus for us was teaching kids to tell stories across pages—identifying more parts within a chronological, small moment narrative—as well as down pages—elaborating on those smaller parts to add specificity and detail. You should be able to see evidence of this strategy in “Chicken Rescue.”
Before the story turned into the version I’ve linked above, it looked like multiple sheets of chart paper posted in a row across the wall, where I first modeled the telling across pages and then modeled the thinking it took to elaborate and write down pages. Writing the piece myself as an adult ahead of time helped me to think through how to do this. (Side note: I did not write all of this in front of students in minilessons. I was selective about which think alouds needed to be live and which parts I could prep ahead of time, sharing the thinking and product/example while avoiding long stretches of kids watching me write.)
No question, it was worth every minute it took to do this writing work myself. Even if I had chosen to write a personal narrative for an adult audience, knowing it would never be used during instruction, the opportunity to try out writing across and then down pages would have prepared me to teach this strategy for elaboration more clearly than if I had never attempted it myself.
So when teachers ask me, “How did you know how to do that?” this is how I know: I write.
It’s not magic—you can write, too. (And my positive presupposition is that you already do!)
And if you don’t (yet), just know it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t even have to show anyone. But engaging in the thinking and writing work yourself will make you a stronger teacher of writers. I encourage you to embrace the messiness of doing the writing work you plan to ask of kids. It will clarify and illuminate your planning and, as a result, elevate the writing work happening in your workshop.