Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Lucy Calkins Writing Units of Study~ Reflections



When the Writing Units of Study came to our district in 2006, I pushed back hard, although I had purchased The Art of Teaching Writing a few years earlier. Year after year, I would turn to these units when I got stuck teaching a specific genre (like memoir or essay), and again and again, I would put them down and seek out other resources.

Why did I push so hard against Lucy Calkins’ Writing Units?

  • Reading Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words had already “revolutionized” my understanding of writing instruction. This happened towards the first year of my teaching career and I was in love with how Katie helped me believe in myself as a teacher of writing.
  • The units of study were purchased for us and handed over after the year had started. In the midst of “I have to be ready to teach writing—tomorrow!,” reading a 200 pg book about the unit didn’t feel like the best use of my time
  • Little to no support was given through PLCs, district training, etc. to help us muddle through the books (it also didn’t help that these units were purchased during a switch in literacy specialists in the district).
  • I am the kind of reader that has to read every word, hence I read VERY slowly. If you have looked at or read the Units of Study, you know that Lucy Calkins has packed the units full of coaching tips, assessment ideas, lesson extensions and examples, writing theory, etc. Time was always of the essence and I could not make myself skim the books. Because of that, I also could not get a good sense of the beginning, middle, and end of the unit quickly enough, and I, like most teachers, like to know where I am going and why today’s lesson matters later in the unit.
  • Last of all, I felt like the books were meant to “hand over curriculum” to teachers to be a top-down push from any district in the United States who wanted to control what teachers were doing in our classrooms. While I now know that this is not how Lucy intended the books to be used, I also know that there are plenty of districts where the intent of the curriculum as a guide to good teaching is misinterpreted.

A Change of Heart

Did you know Lucy now has a READING Units of Study? This past year, I was in a book study with two other teachers at my school and the literacy coach. A Guide to the Reading Workshop introductory book held beliefs of most everything I believe to be true about teaching reading and more. Good start! We were all about to begin our nonfiction reading units, so we decided to pilot the Navigating Nonfiction unit, and found it to be fantastic in teaching our students fresh ways to think about nonfiction. We even went to see her present on the Reading Units of Study in March.

Since my mind was opened a little more towards Lucy Calkins, I decided to give the Writing Units of Study one more chance by reading the first unit this summer, from beginning to end, no matter how long it took me!

Now that I am more comfortable reading Lucy Calkins’ style of writing and more acquainted with the format of the Units of Study, I am happy to say that I can read them more quickly and skim to get the general sense of the lessons and overall unit. It also helps that I have focused my attention on them at a time when I am on break and before the school year starts, before the craziness begins again.

And, drumroll please…I have decided to use the “Launching Writer’s Workshop” as a foundation for my first nine weeks writer’s workshop. Anyone who has heard me discuss the Writing Units of Study knows  how big of a turnaround this is for me :) Here's a quick list of reasons for my change of heart:

  • I was able to get through the whole book (I know this seems silly, but how can you use it to teach if you have "reading block" towards it?)
  • Now I "get it"...I feel like this unit gives me a pretty good start for the beginning, middle, and end of the unit. I especially love how it pushes students through the writing cycle (which I think I sometimes lose at the beginning of the year when I spend a ton of time on generating strategies). In this unit, students draft at least two personal narratives.
  • I really want students to build independence as writers, and I definitely iterate and reiterate that they are "responsible for their own writing," but I also teach in a way that my minilessons are critical to students being able to move on. This means that some students (fast writers, those who are motivated to write and work more at home, etc.) spend time waiting for me (who is waiting for everyone else) to be ready for the next critical part of the unit. With the quickness that Lucy moves students through this first unit (only giving them 2-3 generating strategies sprinkled throughout the unit and moving them to drafting quickly), I feel like I may be able to set up a better workshop where students write more (different topic) drafts and publish their most favorite one. 
  • And maybe...just maybe...it's because the OLDER I get as a teacher, the more help I want in planning out what students will do. Now, by no means am I ready to read off of a script all day long (or even for one subject), but I am ready for someone to hold my hand a little more so that I can stop trying to be a SuperWomanTeacher who does everything from scratch.
Tomorrow, I will blog about  the mentor texts I plan to use and how I see myself modifying the unit…until then, here’s a link to a pretty detailed overview of the unit from the Austin Independent School District. (I scored this gem when I decided to google search notes for the unit :) Unfortunately, I have not yet found the same caliber of notes for the other units, but  I will keep searching. My advice, DOWNLOAD IT, SAVE IT, AND PRINT IT NOW. This is a great place to start to help communicate the unit to colleagues (and even if you have read the unit) to help you modify the unit with your own ideas. I love that I can see the scope of the unit in 18 pages, and go to the real source for the more detailed versions.
Launching the Writing Workshop Plans (overview of unit)

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