Writing Workshop Units of Study: A Day with Lucy Calkins
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.
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.
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.