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Writing Workshop Units of Study: A Day with Lucy Calkins

Photo: So the four hour drive shows in this photo. Oh well. I am adding it to my collection.

So my husband calls and informs me to check my email. "O-kay," I hesitantly obey, knowing something is in the works. An email from Heinemann. "You have a gift from Brayan Bunyi." I open it up to discover that my husband has surprised me with a trip to see Lucy Calkins in Memphis. Without saying a word my husband then says, "I'm the best husband in the world, huh?" He is. Really. I'd like to share the notes I took at her workshop and encourage you to become more familiar with this extremely talented powerhouse. Be warned though. This one is long.

Five Pages of Notes Condensed to a Blog and NOT for Beginners Disclaimer

So, even if you are comfortable with using Calkin's units of study, this workshop was not for a teacher new to writer's workshop. This would be, what I call, an intermediate step. Advanced would be spending a week or two with her during the Teacher College sessions in the summer. So for the one blog reader that sat behind me (Stephanie?), please add in what I have missed or simplified too much. This was, by far, the hardest blog for me to write due to the content covered.

First Off. Writing is Basic

Although I am assuming most of my readers will agree with this, I think this is worth standing up for if your school doesn't look at writing this way. Writing is often undermined in importance to reading and math. Calkins stated that it is easy to argue writing as one of the basics, and at the very least it should be taught 4 days out of the week. The question then lies on time and a question of priority...our greatest responsibility. Really think about the importance of writing in your life. It's pretty easy to create a case for time spent writing.

Small Tips

Writing Partnerships- I've written about reading partnerships using Cathy Collin's ideas, but Calkins had a great tip for writing partnerships.  Pair up two students and call one "Partner A" and the other "Partner B".  They should be paired for just the unit and close to ability. Partner A can be a little more adventurous and willing to try things out. Partner B can be that student that needs a little nudging. Knowing this, you can support students by having partner A start things first during mini-lesson talks. "Partner A, turn to partner B and tell them what you think..."

Differentiation- Students naturally work at their level, but a few modifications may be required. I always say that you can only write as well as you can read. So, students will need mentor texts that work for them throughout each unit. But there will always be a few that need larger modifications. For example, if you state that students should write at least one page a day during writer's workshop (which she suggests), your ESL students may be asked to skip every other line. Their one page is actually half of that, but it keeps motivation high and gives them reachable standards.

Also, you can create small strategy cards with mini-lesson tips for extra support. Laminate them and give them to your students that need it. This is really putting your charts to work, and I am going to do this myself (for each unit) this summer.

Another strategy would be to have students write their story in four or five parts. Folding a paper in half, each section then receives one sentence. Using a lower grade strategy like, "Tell the story on your fingers," you can have students transfer each thought onto a section. You can encourage students to take each idea/sentence and "talk it long" from here. Each section then becomes a page. Placing it all together creates a clear, logical piece that is descriptive.

Finally, this would work for any student, but I'd like to add it to modifications. If you are reading a simple tell sentence/area of writing, don't be afraid to cut it. Literally. Calkins talked of conferences where she physically cut a paper and inserted blank paper in-between with tape. The student then goes back and adds in the missing elements. This would especially help a student replace, "I was sad," with not just a descriptive replacement sentence, but a picture of what that looked like and what they were feeling in a few sentences or paragraphs.

Seed Ideas- A seed idea doesn't mean take that "found your piece" and copy it with edits. It's a starting point where you close your book and start again. In other words, you leave it. Drafts are completed on loose-leaf paper.

If your school values "perfect" writing- One, Calkins suggests that principals not look on the walls in the hallways, but in writer's notebooks. I agree that it is quite easy to see who has been teaching writers and who hasn't. But with that said, some schools sadly value perfect pieces in the hall. Some require it. If this is the case in your school, simply create the following banner- "Celebrate Our Work in Progress." After all, writing is a process for life.

Conventions- What are they using but confusing? This is what you should focus on, but don't worry only about correctness. If a student is using but confusing paragraph indentions, that tells me that they are ready to refine it and improve with instruction. Spelling can be another post for another day.

Rubrics- Your chart of writing strategies becomes your rubric. I believe I have written about this before. It does make assessing easier when it is based on the premises you have taught within a relatively short period of time. Conventions is usually limited to a few, key principles. Four is the highest I have assessed.

Sayings found in Calkin's books and at her workshop:
~Writers...Just addressing your students as writers is very powerful. Remember we are teaching writers not writing ( this saying comes from Ralph Fletcher, I believe).

~Take one idea and talk/write it long

~Let's write in the air- When writers turn to their partners to talk about what they may write, the difference is that we try to speak in a way that sounds like what we may put our words on our paper. It's taking the, "If you can think it, you can say it, if you can say it, you can write it," one step further.

~Zoom in and focus, like a photographer would do. What is it that you are really trying to show here?

~What is this story REALLY about? What's important here? What do I want to say? This can be particularly helpful when determining the time-line of your story. Where do you start it? Where do you end it? Asking the important questions helps you determine that.

~Why is this idea important to me?

~Take out a sentence like a spatula. Used for sharing certain elements that you would like shared and also used for seed ideas.

~Unpack your story

~For teachers- What are they using but confusing? Tells you what to focus on that is developmentally focused.

~Writers, remember this, for the rest of your lives- When ending a meeting or share time. These are, in fact, skills that will help them for the rest of their lives. 

Writing Folders and Writer's Notebooks- You can have students select their own writer's notebook like I did this year (with a size limitation on my side- tiny/skinny notebooks not allowed), you can purchase composition books and have students decorate it with magazine cut-outs, or you can actually purchase writer's notebooks that are similar to the reader's notebooks I have under Heinemann. Regardless, you should have writing folders/tubs that house separate folders for your students, perhaps by table. A simple cereal box covered with pocketed folders will work. Students then collect mentor text examples passed out and discussed in this folder. They also create all rough drafts and editing on loose-leaf paper, making assessment quick and easy. And finally, in regards to modifications, you can provide laminated strategy charts in these tubs/bins for easy access to those who need it.

Big Tips

Units should be no more than a month, with the first publishing cycle full of really bad writing. And you don't want to become the co-author of your student's writing. Once you do, you are committed to that for the year. Let their writing look like a child wrote it, not an adult. One month cycles is desirable.

Mid Workshop Lessons- I will admit that this was a hard sell for me when I first picked up the U of S books. Why would I want to disrupt my class in the middle of their thinking process? But that is exactly what you want to do when you are trying to push students to become better writers.

Simply stated, Calkins uses this mid-workshop lessons to quickly address things she is seeing around the room. For example, if you had just finished a unit and saw many students using a certain element in their writing, you should expect to see that fall by the wayside with the new unit. But don't despair, mid-workshop lessons can help.

I enjoyed Calkin's very dramatic methods of addressing this, like life depending on it and she had never seen anything like it before. "Boys and girls. I have to stop you for a moment. I am confused. I am looking at our published writing from the last unit. Remember we learned...now do it."

So, think of mid-workshop lessons like this. Let's say your students are taking a state-wide writing test. What would you stop and tell the kids as you walked around, if you could? Whether it is sharing a piece that really demonstrates a strength in writing small moments or advising students to go back and do that very thing, mid-workshop lessons help address your observations in the room. Good and bad.

Collaboration- Her recommendations really struck a chord with me. She said you should not be trying U of S by yourself (like me). She said, at least, you should recruit someone to try it out with you. The 3-5 teachers especially. If you follow the 3-5 units of study, you know what I am talking about. You don't want to do this on your own!

If you are fortunate enough to work on a team that does use it, sit down with a blank calendar. Map out what lessons you will cover that month. What 10-15 skills should be known by the end of the study? Then, break up lessons among your team members for some help. They are responsible for turning each lesson into a 5 minute or less lesson for the group. Once everyone has completed this assignment, go through the unit (as a group) in order to get an idea of what the unit will feel like and look like. It also allows you to have a completed piece of your own at the end of your session. This can be completed in less than an hour, depending.

Assignments Vs. Strategies- I loved this example used. If your mini-lesson goes like this, "Boys and girls watch me hop. Hop. Hop. Hop. Great. Now turn to your partners and hop. Now I want you all to hop for me." This is not writer's workshop. Strategies are just that. Strategies. They can help you, if you need help, but it is not a formulaic thing. For example, it may help to suggest that a small moment story begin with dialogue or a small action, but a student may start the piece with the weather outside which matches the environment in the story. As Calkins stated, "Celebrate complexity!" Writer's workshop shouldn't be a factory, cranking out the same thing by all the kids at the same time.

Assessing on Demand Writing- One of the resources I have yet to look at, but most certainly will is: http://www.readingandwritingproject.com. Calkins has does not give out writing prompts, rather has students write about an idea. She calls this "On demand" writing. From here, she uses this sample pieces of writing to determine where her students and class are. The site mentioned is about 30 pages of developmental writing pieces and what they are comprised of. If, let's say, your class is a level 6, you should focus on teaching level 7 next. She stressed not to turn this into a stringent formula. It's just a general resource guideline to determine what you may want to focus on for individual students and whole group instruction. This is especially important to me when you don't know where to go with that "strong" writer.

Units of Study Has Results- Calkins offered to give up part of her lunch to talk informally with any teachers that came back early. About ten of us did, and we just sat in a circle on the floor about subjects that mattered to us. The one thing that was empowering to me was when Calkins talked about areas that have adopted the basal for instruction and had a regimented approach verses places like New York that are using Units of Study across the board. Basals, according to Calkins, just don't cut it and are not providing "results". Calkins' work is, and it is working in areas like New York where socio-economic and diversity are at their extremes.

And Essays: The Land of Debates

I am not a fan of the hamburger approach, as it does not appear in any other setting besides school. I especially disagree with the five sentence model as any published book will show you something else. However, I really agreed with Calkin's approach to blending real-life vs. school essays in the classroom. I will come back to that topic mid-week.

A Special Memphis Visitor: Calkin's Brother

I kept wondering why Lucy Calkin's was presenting in Memphis. With participants coming in from as far as Texas I figured there had to be some connection for her. The connection is her brother. He is a sports commentary writer for a Memphis paper. Her brother got up and spoke about his experience as a writer. Calkins said this was the only time they had shared the stage together before.


To learn more about our classroom, visit us here. Also, please feel free to share your thoughts or questions. I promise I wanted to share much more than this!

FYI- Calkin count- 20, including the title.


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Hey Danielle,

You sound like you are in a great spot and ready to go. I would highly recommend following the tips mentioned here. That would include utilizing a calendar, condensing lessons into 5 minutes each to get an idea of the entire unit, and going through this together with your team. It is not easy. My only tip is to not turn it into a script and make it your own.

Best to you,



I recently purchased Calkin's U of S for my 4th grade classroom. I cannot wait until next year! I am blessed to work with some wonderful people, and I think they will be on board as well. Any tips on where to start? What to do or not to do? Thanks for sharing everything you do!



Thank you so much for writing me. My respect for you is incredibly high, and I can't think of any other author I'd want more to comment on the blog.

And thank you for changing the way so many of us approach teaching writers. Your work is such a blessing to the educational world.



lucy Calkins

My son Miles sent me this blog and suggested I might want to comment. His tech skills are better than mine....What a nice conversation to listen in on...And Happy Happy Birthday!
Lucy Calkins



And more notes are coming! Originally I was going to post them tonight, but I just didn't find the time. Look for the remaining notes I took tomorrow. Again, thank you for making me feel better about Calkin's notes. As you know A LOT was covered, so I was afraid I would water them down in a blog. I am just fascinated with her, and try to imagine how she started out. What an amazing educator and person.

Regarding Sharon Taberski's videos. They were 400 dollars! I used them for a few PD in-services with my schools, so I don't have them with me anymore (although a teacher offered to burn them illegally for me- what a rebel). I just don't remember what the videos were called, but the entire video series lasted 2.5 hours or so.

Much respect,



What a great job of sharing the heart of a Lucy Calkins workshop! If I had known I would have had this blog entry to keep, I wouldn't have even taken notes! It was a great day, and you captured it well.

Quick question ~ You mention somewhere on your blog about CDs from Sharon Taberski that have pictures of her classroom environment. Would you mind sharing the titles of those with me? Do they come with one of her books?

Thanks, Angela. And if Lucy Calkins herself could comment on your blog, I'm sure she'd say you've made her proud:)



"The page"




So I am not the only crazy one! Let me give you two resources that help with working on this alone for now. Then let me follow that by saying I will officially set something up near the end of the blog to do just that. I bet some readers already have resources that would help out teachers new to U of S.

www.proteacher.com- Last summer several teachers posted lesson plans and overviews of each lesson. It was VERY helpful for me.

http://curriculum.dpsk12.org/elp_writing.htm- This site is a life saver. If you play around with this Denver district site, you can find calendar overviews, written lessons plans in short and long format, and benchmarks. I did a lot of copy and pasting for my lesson plans turned in this year. Click around and you will find what you want.

Seriously, I will revisit your idea next month....my blogging time is winding down. :(



Michelle S.

I too have been using U of S all by myself in fourth grade for two years now. I love it! It has made a big difference in my students ability to produce and reflect on their writing growth.
It is a lot of work! I've managed to "Launch the Writing Workshop" and dabbed a little in "Narrative writing." I've also picked a few lessons here and there from "Writing about Reading...but so much needs to be done to prepare these units.

Maybe we should organize a summer curriculum workshop online and we could all read and contribute to the pot. Now there's a thought...




I have never been a fan of 6+1. I won't go into it as it seems those who use it really enjoy it. I just seems a little forced to me (okay, I went into it a smidge).

So, with that said, I 100% endorse that you switch over to Lucy Calkins. You will see the difference, as you can richly teach writers how to write in depth. The quality of writing is more authentic and engaging. I used the 3-5 kit without my kids having prior experience. I am the only one in my school using U of S. I will admit that it was a bit of a challenge, but we still managed to do well with it. I would not use the primary kit, although it builds on the 3-5 kit.

And no writing prompts for U of S (not a fan myself). What she does suggest a lot of is talking. "Write in the air," and prompts to further talking. An example would be after kids turn to talk, she interrupts and says, "And the important thing about that is," or, "I'm starting to think that," and so on. I'll add several of these for my essay post coming out tomorrow evening.

For Lucy Calkins prep, you may want to read The Art of Teaching Reading. Meanwhile, I would look into ordering the U of S kit and becoming familiar with it over the summer. I will be spending some more time with it myself this summer. We can always improve on what we do. :)

Hope that helps,




Still on the budget, but this was a surprise from my husband. He is honestly the sweetest guy down to his core. He knows I have this whole photo collection of authors that are important to me. He also knew Lucy Calkins was one of my missing authors. He TOTALLY did this on his own, picking up our mail and seeing an ad for her coming. I might add that he was super proud of himself for his good deed. It was very much worth the near 4 hour trip to see her.

Regarding math, this is my summer project. I am pretty confident that regarding state testing we really, really covered the needed material. We used A LOT of music to teach the concepts. My three musicians were: Rockin' the Standards, Mr. Duey, and www.songsforhigherteaching.com for this year. These CD downloads and math notebooks helped me keep the textbook closed for much of the year. We used math notebooks a lot to help understand the process more, as textbooks do a pretty lousy job of this. I am looking into a math resource book suggested by a blog reader that translate Japanese practice books into English. They focus more on problem solving and multiple approaches to solving problems.

And honestly, Joe, I am confident you are one of those sweet teachers that no one can get mad at, huh? You are always filled with compliments for me. I am pretty sure you are an upbeat person that lifts others up as much as you can. I appreciate that. Thank you so much!




I am unfamiliar with Lucy Calkins and her units of study. I participated in a book study last year that covered the 6+1 Writing Traits. I am dabbling in it a little bit this year, but for some reason, the hump I can't seem to get over are the prompts. I have had success using it, and there is variety between my students when I follow the program, so to speak. I just cringe at the thought of using prompts, or even quality literature to dictate what my students will write about. I know that there should be some kind of guidelines or parameters. I just can't imagine someone hovering over me to tell me what topic to write about.
When appropriate, I share pieces of my own personal writing from my Writers Notebook that I keep at home. I talked to my students about how writing really is an expression of yourself and how it's a permanent and tangible testament to the part of you that others can't see. I want to give my students the flexibility to write about their fears, interests, passions, and burning questions. I truly feel like that's when they produce the most phenomenal compositions.
So, this leads me to a few questions. Can the units be taught to third graders beginning with the second set if they have never been exposed to this method prior to third grade? Also, are there writing prompts? Are there any prerequisite books that you should read before beginning to teach it?


Joe Pendleton

What happened to the budget? Your husband sure gave you a nice gift. I have read a ton of Lucy Calkins' work. She is a very impressive person and has made a positive mark on Language Arts. Don't confuse this with hero worship, but i think what you are doing is just a great! Your sharing with teachers is one of the greatest gifts I have been able to read and use. Keep doing what you are doing! I don't know what your reward is or if you get a reward from all your postings. Given a choice to go to a Lucy Calkins workshop or an Angela Bunyi workshop...sign me up for yours.

Do you teach math? If you do what program are you using. As my team and I continue to grapple with next year it looks like I will be teaching 1 section of reading for 1 1/2 and 3 sections of math. We use Chicago Math and I haven't taught Math for 7 years.

By the way I am reading the books you recommended and so are my co-teachers. We are making some good intelligent reading choices.

Thank you again for all of your great sharing and advice. I have recommended you and your site to everyone I know.




First, thank you for reading the blog each week. I don't get my stats very often (3 times this year) so it really motivates me when I hear things like this. Also, phew on your comments. I don't think I have ever been more stressed out about a post before. There was SOOOO much more than this and, unfortunately, you can't put one day of Lucy Calkin's depth into a blog. You just can't. I kept thinking about the blog reader behind me and how she might think I watered this down. I am thinking of typing up my notes and offering it as a Word doc. with the next post. Maybe I'll have a better piece of mind that way.

Regarding your grade change next year, it sounds like you are in a perfect situation to convince them to join on with you. I would perhaps create a general calendar and unit overview for your soon-to-be teaching partner. There should be some relief in having someone offer a plan for the year.

Good luck with the grade change...



Hey Jahna,

In a small way, I am hoping you get a K-2 position because the units of study for the primary grades is so much easier to use and follow. Calkins said this herself. I did, however, feel a little better about my biggest concern-the essay unit. My info. on that will come later this week. You know I kept apologizing for my lack of confidence in this area. I'm ready to go with this now. :)

And good luck with everything. You are almost there! Two weeks and counting before you jump into full-time job hunting. Resumes galore, resumes for all!

Side notes- That's just for you (and Karen).


Anna Dutfield

Hi Angela,
WOW!!! I am seriously envious. I have been using Lucy Calkins' Primary Units of Study for two years, and have discovered just what my students are capable of. Their writing is so amazing for 6 and 7 year-olds. The last time I taught upper elementary, the 3-5 units weren't out yet. I can't believe you got to hear (AND MEET) Lucy. Your summary of your time at her workshop is excellent - I feel like I was almost there with you (wishing I was there!!!). I am very interested to read more about the essays later this week, as I will be doing more essay writing when I teach grades 4 and 5 next year (for sure, now!).

You mentioned that one major suggestion Lucy offered was to NOT use the program in isolation (on your own). I have tried to engage my colleagues in trying the units, but many see it as just another resource, and won't give it a chance. Any ideas about how to get others on board?? I will have a teaching partner next year who will also have a grade 4/5 class and I am hoping to at least convince that person (don't know who it will be yet) to join me in using the program.
Thanks so much for such a wonderful blog!!! I come back every week!!!!

Jahna Vaughn

You are OUTSTANDING Bunyi...I am BLESSED to have been under your mentorship for the short time I was! I am looking forward to using some of your strategies and what you have learned from these events in my classroom someday (sooner than later I hope!).

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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