When I first read 180 Days Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Galagher and Penny Kittle, I was intrigued by the way they approached planning and teaching within their four essential writing units. Instead of taking the “4 x 4 approach” of four big essays across the school year, they “plan for students to create a series of texts using a progression of skills.” They call this “taking laps around the track” and with each lap, they increase the complexity of skills. They further explain that by completing multiples laps, their students will increase their volume of writing, which will lead to deeper understanding.
Sadly, I was pretty much a 4 x 4 teacher. We took one genre of writing, immersed ourselves in mentor texts, taught minilessons, and produced a piece of writing. We did this with each writing genre required in our state standards. I knew Gallagher and Kittle’s approach to planning instruction would help me and help my students as well. My units are not as in-depth and are not quite structured the same as the units in 180 Days, but we have slowly moved away from the 4 x 4 classroom.
The emphasis on research skills takes a big jump in the 6th grade, so I knew this was an area where I might explore the planning of a unit and where students may benefit by using a series of laps.
I wanted students to master basic research skills while creating a small research project. They were not yet ready to tackle a full research essay. The unit began by teaching them the skills of using keywords to begin a search and evaluating websites. Many students at this age need to understand the difference between searching and “googling a question.”
Once they learned how to find reliable sources, we moved into finding information that was relevant to their research topic and question. Finally, we tackled paraphrasing and summarizing information to use in the project.
The final product for this first lap in research was a collaborative slide presentation that we called an eBook. The mentors we used were the books in the If You Lived Series, in which the books are written in a question/answer format. The is format was perfect for the researching of a short question and when put together with others, became a book. Each class brainstormed times and events they were interested in learning more about, voted on a topic, and chose questions to research. After researching, each student created their own slide using the question/answer format and the information they learned.
This project was small enough to teach basic skills of researching yet a fun way to work collaboratively with classmates while demonstrating their learning. By having students complete this first lap in research, I believe they will be better prepared to tackle their next research project – an argument in an open letter format.
Have you tried planing instruction using laps similar to Gallagher and Kittle? If so, we would love to hear your success story.
Leigh Anne Eck is a middle school English Language Arts teacher who is currently participating in the #100DaysofNotebooking challenge.