Sunday, June 22, 2014

Reflections on the Past Year of Writing Workshop

I'm writing from the comfort of my little hotel room in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood.  For the next six days, NYC will be my home away from home!  I've always loved and have been drawn to New York, so I am just thrilled to be able to stay here for an extended time.  Tomorrow, I'll join a sea of teachers from all over the world at Columbia's Teachers College Reading and Writing Project June Writing Institute.  To say I'm thrilled is an understatement!

To mentally prepare for my week ahead at Teacher's College, I've been reflecting on my year of fully implementing Lucy Calkin's Units of Study in my fifth grade classroom.  I reread some of my blog posts from the past year (see links at the bottom of this post), looked through some student writing samples, and thought about how my lessons went.

This was a common sight in the classroom this
year:  Students sharing their writing with each other.

I could say so many things.  It's hard to decide where to start.  So, I'll just go for it.  Here it is from the horse's mouth.  The biggest, stand out reflections- in the form of my written stream of consciousness:

  • Teaching writing workshop well is hard.  In fact, teaching it even semi-well takes a lot of work!  However, it is so worth it.  My students' writing and more importantly, their love for writing grew exponentially this year!  At the end of the year, most of them even said writing workshop was their favorite subject.  Not only did I see their growth, but also they saw their own growth and growth in each other.  I put in many hours to truly throw myself into the Units of Study, as did my students.  Every single second was worth it.  
  • Mini lessons simply cannot be longer than 7 minutes.  It's funny how the bulk of planning is centered around the mini lesson while this portion of the writing workshop requires the smallest amount of time.  Good mini lessons are concise, clear, and direct.  The point is to get students off and writing as soon as possible. 
  • As a teacher, I doubted myself at times.  I questioned whether I was doing the lessons "right."  Every time I questioned myself, I looked to a colleague, my staff developer, or someone else for support.  Their answer for me always came back to my students.  The response was always, "Look at your students' writing.  Do you see growth?"  The answer was always- yes.  So, when in doubt, look to your students writing for guidance.  Always. 
  • It took a village this year.  The success in my classroom is directly related to the commitment every single staff member at my school made.  Each and every one of us, with the encouragement and support of our principal, made the commitment to teach the Units of Study in writing.  Not only did we teach them, but we lived them!  Teachers' Lounge conversations, staff meetings, and many casual interactions were all focused on how it was going and how we can improve.  We all supported each other.  If we even had one or two naysayers in the group, it would have been a very different year.  100% staff buy-in and commitment made all the difference.
  • My students rock.  Not only did all of my colleagues make the commitment to the Units of Study, but also so did all of my students.  They were absolutely thrilled when our staff developer, Alissa Levy, came to visit.  They also consistently asked to have more writing time.  They loved sharing their writing with each other.  In fact, sometimes I would log on to their Google docs at night at home to find many of them conferring with each other online about their writing.  I even once wrote a comment to one student that said, "Go to bed.  It's late.  Stop writing."  Their dedication was inspiring.
  • After reading this blog post: How to Read a Unit of Study, on the Two Writing Teachers blog, everything came together for me.  If you haven't read it yet.  Stop reading this and click on the link now!  I wish I saw the advice given in step 3 when I first started with the Units of Study.  I am one of those teachers who tried to focus on everything- that was a mistake, and it drove me batty for a while.  I now see that I should have picked one thing in which to devote my time.  Teaching with the Units of Study is a marathon, not a sprint.  And, there is nothing like the feeling of finishing a marathon.  All it takes is one step, then another, then another.  Just focus on one step at a time- not the finish line. 
  • To add on to my above point, the workshop is about process and learning, not about creating a perfect finished product.  This idea needs to be internalized, practiced, and communicated to students.  Mistakes and taking risks need to be celebrated.  They're all part of the workshop learning process.  The product is truly just a result of dedication to the process. 
  • It takes time.  The Units of Study take time to learn, time to implement, and require time for reflection and refinement.  The time is well worth it.  Yes, it will be hard.  Yes, it will be time consuming.  And, yes, it will be worth it for every single one of your students! 
Now... I'm off to the hotel lounge to cheer on Team USA in the World Cup!  See you tomorrow, #TCRWP!

More reflections from my year with the Units of Study:

What About Those Students Who Just Hate to Write? from 3/4/14

Writing Small to Capture the Big from 2/19/14

Putting Ourselves in Our Student Writers' Shoes from 2/13/14

Student Writing + a Connected Staff = Powerful Collaboration/Learning from 10/15/13

Four Days of Transformational Professional Development from 8/11/13


  1. Christina,
    Thanks for sharing your reflections. One statement that I heard more than once this year (from teachers implementing the UoS) was: "I thought about quitting but the students begged for more writing time!"
    Looking forward to seeing you this week!

  2. Thanks, Fran! Great meeting you today. I look forward to chatting more as the week goes on!


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