Advice for Launching Reading, Writing, or Phonics Units of Study
by Lucy Calkins
I'm hearing from lots of people whose schools are launching or preparing to launch Units of Study in reading, writing or phonics—and I’ve been getting many requests for advice on how to make sure the work is successful. Here are my thoughts.
View the Video Orientations
Start by watching the orientation videos—there is one for each grade. My co-authors and I thought hard about the most important advice we can give you as you get started with the units. We've overviewed the year, helping you think about whether to teach the units in sequence, and suggesting alternatives that might work for you. We've then focused on giving you an overview of the first 2–3 units for each grade to help ensure your work with your students is the most productive it can possibly be from day one.
Note that these videos were made before we published a new series in writing, Up the Ladder books, and before a few other more recent publications: the forthcoming Units of Study in Phonics, Show and Tell in K Writing, Word Detectives in 1 Reading, A How-To Guide to Information Writing in 2 Writing, Mystery in 3 Reading, Lit Essay in 5 Writing. Always the newest publications will be our best, building on the previous work, but the orientation videos will nevertheless be enormously helpful. They are designed for teachers at a grade level to view as a team, pausing to talk, reflect, and plan together.
A word about Up the Ladder: If your kids are new to writing workshop, I'd get at least one set of the Up the Ladder books to share between grades 4 and 5 and I'd strategically distribute them so that those teachers can teach an Up the Ladder opinion unit before a core Units of Study opinion unit (etc.). You can chop those units up and teach the first 2 bends, not the whole book, if you so decide. I call Up the Ladder the "Oh s*@#!" curriculum—a resource to use if you’re getting started with the core Units of Study and realize they seem like a big stretch for your kids or for you. In that circumstance, these new units will be a godsend. One thing teachers will especially love are links to video demonstrations for each minilesson.
Study the Guide and Watch Demonstration Videos with Colleagues
Next, read the Guide to whichever series you are adopting. It is essentially a TCRWP institute on the page. Ideally go between reading a chapter, reading the relevant materials from the kit, and watching videos from TCRWP's Vimeo site on that same topic.
For example, read the chapter on minilessons and read some of the minilessons from your first unit and talk about the alignment of the unit and the chapter and the videos. Ideally, then do something with colleagues—such as role play giving minilessons. Work on how to get them down to ten minutes.
Read Chapters from the If/Then Book
Be sure to read the chapters in the If/Then guide for your grade that overview how a year-long curriculum might go. Also be sure to review the information in the second half the If/Then books for the writing units about the mainstay conferences you will lead to respond to particular challenges.
Do This Work Over Time
The work I have described above is a big deal and will require some time. I hope school leaders give you and your colleagues release time or paid summer time to do some of this. If they do, I know you'll end up doing a lot more than you are paid to do, and your teaching will be worlds better.
Advice for the Next Couple of Months
BUT, while doing the above, there are some other things to do that can't wait. First, these final weeks/months of the year are a perfect time for two things. First, find a school near you that is doing TCRWP Units of Study and go visit. Try to choose a school that works with a TCRWP staff developer as that makes the world of difference. (By the way, if people SAY they are TCRWP staff developers, look on our website to confirm. There are a remarkable number of people who bill themselves as connected to us, but, perhaps were only one of 1,500 to attend a workshop a decade ago.) To find a school near you to visit, go onto the Facebook page and ask “Is someone near ______ using Units of Study?"
Meanwhile, this is also the time to pilot teaching a Unit of Study. You know your class well; the management work is behind you. Just jump into a unit. You could teach the first unit, altering parts of it that talk about this being the start of the year. In writing, I'd use the Up the Ladder series if you can. If not, you could also start with any of the opinion units—although for grade 5, I would do the Lit Essay one, and for middle school, I'd say Unit 1. For reading, I'd teach Mystery for grades 3 and 4; book 3, grade 3 for grade 5 (trust me); and book 4 for K-2.
When you teach a unit, remember a few things. These are designed to be 4-5 weeks. Do not let them last more than 5 weeks. Try not to break sessions into two or to add many sessions (other than occasional work days for kids to catch up with your teaching).
Also do not worry about purchasing all the titles that are mentioned in the books other than those that are in the trade packs and absolutely get those. The other books—ones fleetingly mentioned—are just examples and you can substitute ANY book. But yes, there are ways that your library can get enhanced to support the kids' work. I'll publish this advice at some point this summer. But for now, the main thing is that you need lots and lots of high interest accessible (easy) books in single copies for kids to read. More than you may have dreamt possible, as their volume of reading will skyrocket.
Consider PD Options
Finally, if you want some professional development, I'd absolutely try to get it from the source, which is TCRWP. There are lots of options for PD for reading and writing workshop that will be generally roughly relevant, but to launch the Units, I'd try to get launched in training that is specific to the Units themselves to avoid confusion.
Your district can ask us for a "Quick Start" Day of professional development as you start any of our work and we will always say yes to doing those days, even on relatively short notice. We will also lead about 15 mini-institutes at TCRWP next year and the information on those will get released soon. For example, I lead one in early October on the essay. There will be one for teachers of kids with IEPs. We also partner with about 1,000 schools all over the world and consider that work to be the heart of what we do.
I hope this helps. See you on the Facebook page and at my Office Hours, most Thursday afternoons.
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Lucy Calkins is the author of the best-selling grade-by-grade Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Grades K-8 and Units of Study in Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing, Grades K-8 series, which have quickly become an indispensable part of classroom life in tens of thousands of schools around the world, the new Up the Ladder: Accessing Grades 3-6 Units in Narrative, Information, and Opinion Writing series, and classroom essentials such as the groundbreaking TCRWP Classroom Libraries and the Workshop Help Desk series. Lucy is also the author or coauthor of numerous foundational professional texts with Heinemann, including The Art of Teaching Writing, Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, Grades K-8 , Pathways to the Common Core: Accelerating Achievement, and One to One: The Art of Conferring with Young Writers. She is also the author of The Art of Teaching Reading.
In her role as the Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a New York City–based organization that has influenced literacy instruction around the globe for more than thirty years, Lucy has developed a learning community of brilliant and dedicated teacher educators who have supported hundreds of thousands of teachers, principals, superintendents, and policy-makers in schools that bear their distinctive mark: a combination of joy and rigor in the classrooms, and entire school communities—teachers, principals, parents, kids—who wear a love of reading and writing on their sleeves.
Lucy is the Robinson Professor of Children's Literature at Teachers College, Columbia University where she co-directs the Literacy Specialist Program—a masters and doctoral program that brings brilliant teachers and coaches to TCRWP schools everywhere and to the Project itself.