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Designing a Unit in Workshop: Just Try It

The NCTE Annual Convention begins this week, and as always, its onset has prompted me to try and synthesize a year’s worth of thinking around one pressing topic.  What I’ve been considering this year is the value of units of study within a workshop classroom–the hows and whys and what ifs of planning for complex, themed units.

So, we know that teachers who engage in a workshop classroom often have many of the same routines in their schedules:  time to read, time to write, time to talk.  They often have many of the same components:  mini-lessons, booktalks, mentor texts, conferring.

These are all good things.

They are all engaging practices on their own, but to take on real power, they need to be strung together, applied again and again, over the course of units of study and throughout the year.

When I work with teachers who are diving into the workshop model for the first time, I model as many of these components as I can.  Teachers are engaged–they write, they read, they look at the craft of poetry, they analyze articles.  They are energized and enthused to try these strategies with their students.

But every time, I see one smart teacher, her brow furrowed, her face concerned, in the back of the room.  She tells me, either in person or on her evaluation card:  I don’t see the rigor in this model.

And she is right.  In one day’s work, students are only advancing incrementally.  If we just have fun every day playing with words in our notebooks, listening to podcasts to study their craft, or doing book passes ’til the cows come home, our students are not growing by leaps and bounds as readers or writers.

And that’s where designing strong units of instruction comes in.

Whether it’s reading or writing instruction, harnessing the daily moves of a workshop routine to build toward an authentic product is where rigor lives.

I like Kelly Gallagher’s words to sum up the idea of starting at the end when designing a unit:

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Begin by thinking about what you’d like your students to achieve.  Did you just hear an amazing commentary on NPR?  Wow, what a great writer that guy is–I want my students writing like that.

Start with your vision.  That’s where you begin.  Then you ask yourself:  what do my students need to know in order to write like that?

That’s where the workshop routines come in:  booktalk examples of strong nonfiction writing.  Teach mini-lessons that get at the craft of strong commentary writing.  Flood your students with mentor texts, both published pieces and each other’s work, so they can see both the process and the product.  Let them experiment with drafts in their writer’s notebooks–lots of ungraded, low-stakes practice should live there.

At the end of the unit, don’t destroy all of your hard work by trying to “grade” everything objectively with a rubric.  Our beautiful mentor Penny Kittle sums that up nicely:

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When best drafts land on your desk, ask:  how do I know students achieved what I wanted them to?  Utilize self-assessments, celebrate the writing, respond authentically.  Consider how each student advanced individually.

Our students deserve high quality instruction that offers them choice, volume, and authenticity.  They deserve units that will allow them to continue to build on their constantly-increasing mastery of their reading and writing skills.

I’ll be sharing more about planning units in an Ignite Session on Saturday morning, from 9:30-10:45, in room A412.  

And I’ll discuss how and why to build rigor into your workshop units in more depth on Sunday afternoon, from 1:30-2:45, in room B211.

Will you be at NCTE?  Please let us know in the comments.  We would love to meet you!

If you can’t make it to Atlanta, you won’t be missing out–tune in to Twitter using the hashtag #NCTE16 during our session times to join the conversation.

 

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6 thoughts on “Designing a Unit in Workshop: Just Try It

  1. Start with a Question | November 29, 2016 at 7:40 am Reply

    […] I was planning for NCTE, I framed my thinking around […]

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  2. […] is going to discuss perspective and assessment, Shana will share insights on unit planning, Jackie is focusing on mini lessons, and I’m going to try not to pass out from sheer […]

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  3. Gary Anderson November 15, 2016 at 9:06 am Reply

    Heck, yeah. “Unit” too often means subject matter content–Of Mice and Men, Transcendentalism, Irony, etc.–but with a process-oriented approach like the workshop model, a “unit” can (and should) be an element of one of the processes! Process is content.

    Looking forward to seeing you within the next few days …

    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • shanakarnes November 16, 2016 at 6:52 am Reply

      Looking forward to seeing you so soon, too, Gary!!!

      Like

  4. Lynn Hagen November 15, 2016 at 8:25 am Reply

    I’ll be there! Can’t wait to meet you in person!

    Like

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