I haven’t been in an elementary school for the first week of school in eight years; I had forgotten what a magical time of year it is to be there! My first week of school for the past eight years has been in an intermediate school-grades four through six. I, of course, love the first week of school no matter where I am located, but there is just something indescribable about the aura younger children walk into to school with. Wide-eyed, ready to love anyone who is kind to them, elementary students radiate what schools should try to be all about-excitement over whatever lies just up ahead….
I advised a friend recently, when she worried about sending her youngest off to school next year-how hard that first day alone would be for her, to ask the principal to be a greeter at the school her oldest attend. Standing in a school hallway that first day (not having to worry about your first lesson or the growing pile of paperwork demanding attention on your desk), directing students the right way to a classroom, assisting a new student nervously trying to negotiate the building, is guaranteed to snap anyone (maybe not the Grinch, pre-Cindy Loo Who) into a happy place. Even if no student needs help, I know that just greeting familiar student faces after a summer away, is a happy thing.
We are trying to continue to grow our writing instruction and ourselves as teachers of writers. I know from personal experience, how nerve-wracking it can be for a teacher to jump with both feet into something new. While I think Lucy Calkins is absolutely brilliant, I believe the Units of Study for Teaching Writing books are a little hard to read and then process what they would look in your classroom. I still use them, recommend them, buy them, but I want to share a couple things I have learned about “using” them over the past years.
Let me tell you how it went for me the first time I tried one of the lessons from Units of Study for Teaching Writing, grades 3-6.
I read the lesson, and re-read the lesson and decided a little note card would help me remember all the key points I wanted to make sure I hit. After all, the first lesson in the book does span more than ten pages.
I did the connection. I told them what I was going to teach them. I demonstrated using my writing on chart paper what I wanted them to do.
I kept demonstrating.
My mini-lesson stretched out to 25 minutes. Realizing that I was out of time, I skipped the active engagement section, and sent them off to write.
For about six minutes.
I congratulated myself mentally on getting through the mini-lesson during those six minutes and got myself ready for the share portion of the lesson. I skipped the conferring part of the lesson.
I called them back to the gathering area and congratulated them on the work they had done as writers. Then I proceed to do a share-
letting every child share one thing (the only way I knew how to do a share) while watching the clock tick by for my read-aloud time.
Had reviewed the lesson and my “cheat sheet” notecard. Realized that I hadn’t done the part of the lesson where I showed the students how an author had done what I was teaching them. Read the picture book aloud to them-highlighting the parts that illustrated my point. Realized that once again, the time was almost gone, sent them back to try it in their writing,
For about six minutes.
I think it took me three days to get through all the parts mentioned in the first lesson. Needless to say, my first unit of study lasted ten weeks instead of the suggested month.
You get the idea.
I didn’t realize that of all the things I was trying to do, the independent writing time and the conferring (that I usually skipped) was the most important part of all those lessons. I could see my students growing as writers in front of my eyes, but didn’t realize how much more they could have done if I had just stopped talking sooner and provided them with more time to work independently while I met with individuals and small groups to teach the writer, just what they needed. You don’t get much more differentiation than that!
I had known for years the power of individual reading conferences to help students grow as readers-I hadn’t realized that the same thing held true for helping students grow as writers.
So, if you are new to Calkins’ Units of Study, learn from my mistakes. No matter how long you think it will take to get through one lesson, discipline yourself to give the students writing time that grows in length as they grow in stamina that first week. Get through the first four mini-lessons in four days (or five if you really can’t bear it) and move on.
You’ll be glad you did…