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Making Units Short(er)

I’m back, with a vengeance – or at least a plan to blog twice a month.

For those of you who are new to this blog, my latest book, UNSTOPPABLE WRITING TEACHER, is in its final production stages (May 15th!) This blog is meant to support and add on to the work began in that book. I’ve asked teachers to share their writing troubles and questions with me either through e-mail, Twitter or this site.

This week’s blog addresses April McDowell’s note – “My trouble is how to keep a writing unit to six weeks. Ours currently take about three months each. (I know.) It's not my mini-lessons… I keep those to 10-15 minutes. We've got a good amount of writing time: 50-60 minutes four times a week. Class size is small. I think the editing phase is probably taking too long. But that alone doesn't account for why a unit takes three months to get through.”

First off, I think it’s important to put out there that what April is addressing - time -is one of the biggest challenges that teachers face. I feel like most of us believe that we could solve most of our teaching problems if we just had a little bit more time. I will also fully admit that when I first started teaching writing I got through only two units during the entire school year: memoir and poetry. That’s it. I can only imagine how painful it was for my kids to keep revising and revising that same piece over a four to five month time period.

That said, there are a few tips and tricks I have gathered over the years to help tighten up the units I teach to make sure that I do not drag them way past their sell-by date.

1. Choose a deadline and make it public

When I once complained to my teaching mentor about my units going too long, she asked, “What’s your unit deadline?” I confessed I didn’t have a deadline. “How do you know when to wrap up your unit? How do you know how to pace things?” I mumbled something about staying in a unit as long as it took to let everyone finish. “The first thing you need to do is to set a reasonable deadline and make it public. That way your students know when a project is due and it also keeps you honest.”

I took her advice and did exactly that. On our writing bulletin board I kept up a constantly changing sign, which read, “New Publication Coming Soon” with the next unit’s deadline. I also made sure to add the deadline to our class calendar and mention it in my monthly newsletter to the parents. By making it so public, my students and I felt compelled to make working on our writing projects a priority, especially as the deadline loomed. Additionally, having a set deadline gives us a chance to teach kids about the importance of pacing and learning how to push through tricky parts in writing to make sure the work gets done. A definite life skill if students plan to have a long academic career.

2. Use assessments to customize a unit

Many teacher have developed the routine of having students write an on-demand piece or else use an early notebook entry as a benchmark to help show growth. And many of us know we can also use that information to also tailor a unit to match the needs of the students currently in our class. However, wise teachers make sure to do this sort of assessment at least a week before the new unit launches so that they have the time to reflect on any trends they are noticing in their class. If there is a lesson that ¾ of the class already is using, then that lesson can be removed from the whole class progression and moved to a strategy to teach to a small group of students who need it. By using the information picked up from student writing, teachers can often trim a good handful of lessons off the top, sometimes saving as much as a week of teaching time.

Alternately, some teachers might find that their students need some foundational skills and might decide to cut back on some of the more ambitious lessons, instead front-loading lessons that might be needed to offer a base for future teaching, whether with whole class or small group instruction. Another thing that can drag a unit out is finding out after a unit begins that you need to backtrack to teach those foundational skills.

3. “The less you know, the faster you go”

Several years ago, I was talking with Lucy Calkins about wanting to support teachers whose units were going too long. She said, when it comes to unit planning, “the less you know, the faster you go.” It took me a minute to digest what she was saying. She was talking about us, the teachers, and was referring to our knowledge base. When we are new to a unit, or have a shallow depth of knowledge about the content, we are often tempted to try to learn it deeply by taking the students along through our learning journey – no matter how long it takes. When we teach a lesson that doesn’t go well, we often feel compelled to try to re-teach it. Which could be fine if we had great alternative strategies to teach, but if our knowledge is shallow, we usually re-teach the same lesson without new results.

In other words, the more insecure we feel about a unit, the more likely we are to drag that unit kicking and screaming through the mud for days and days longer than need be.

The thing is, if we don’t know a lot, one of the best ways to build our knowledge base is to see something through a cycle from beginning to end, picking up tips and ideas through our experiences. I know for myself, I was a thousand times better as a teacher on the last day of my first year in the classroom. I now had one year under my belt and knew so much more from simply having gone through the experience. The more we go through a unit the more we understand it, and the better we are at teaching it. Most of us have at least two go-arounds of a particular type of writing in a school year. We can move quickly through the first go of that unit knowing we can work out the kinks when we teach a new version of that unit later in the year, or perhaps in future years.

Kids also benefit from having several units under their belts. Having moved their way through the writing process once, even in a less than perfect way, will allow them to be a different sort of writer. They will have new experiences to add to their repertoire.

If, on the other hand, you actually have a spectacularly deep well of knowledge in a genre, then by all means, vaya con Dios – teach 'til your heart’s content. If you have a degree in fiction writing, for example, your fiction unit could very well take two to three months and still not be enough time for all that you have to teach. For you, Lucy could have just as easily said, “The more you know, the slower you can go.” But, if you happen to be that teacher and do take longer on units of expertise, you will want to look over your curricular calendar to decide which units you can compress a bit.

4. Build student independence

On more than one occasion I have heard Carl Anderson say, ‘Don’t be the writing workshop gatekeeper’. What I have interpreted that to mean is that often the reason students are not moving forward in a unit is not because they can’t, but rather, we are not letting them. It can be tempting to make sure that students need to check with us before they move from planning to drafting or from revision to editing. We might want to monitor supply use by always requiring students ask permission to get new paper. We might want to demand that every mentor text a student studies has been pre-approved by us. When we do this, we can, more or less, control writing quality.

But it can cost us.

Students who must always go through the teacher before moving on to the next step of the writing process could have a harder time internalizing their own process. They might start to doubt their own sense of when is a good time to move from one step to the next.

But, also importantly, we can lose valuable time as students wait their turn to have their work approved by us. Some students are ready to move on and are stuck in a holding pattern. Other students might not be ready to move on, but by not writing during the time they are waiting for us, they are also losing important writing practice time – time they could be using to strengthen their skills.

By teaching students how to pace themselves, by creating tools, by teaching students routines and how to rely on peers for feedback, we can move through units much more efficiently as well as giving students the autonomy they need.

Of course, the downside is that the pieces, at least at first, that the students produce, will not be as high of quality as they were when the teacher was the gatekeeper. However, with time, as well as clear and consistent teacher feedback, quality will improve.

5. Trust the process

Finally, if you are reading this, the chances are pretty good you are a writing workshop teacher, or at the very least are curious about writing workshop. If so, you know that at the heart of the workshop model is the belief that students can learn to write by understanding that writing is a process. When we teach units, we should remind ourselves that the very first time a student takes a try at a piece of writing, it is likely to not be as good as it will be later.

We know this, yet it is so easy to forget. So we often get stuck on one step of the process or another, trying to get that just right idea or structure or craft move across to our students. But, when we trust that writing gets better as a writer takes it through a process, we are less likely to over linger on teaching one writing strategy or another. Instead, we will remember that everything we teach will build on what came before it and add to what will come after.
Additionally, when we remember that the whole of the school year is also a process, that each unit a student completes helps build strengths the child can and will likely use later in other situations, it can be easier to move on.
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