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MAKING a Writing Workshop Unit with Design in Mind

On Tuesday, I shared a visual intended to help teachers conceptualize the whole of a writing workshop year before sharing a unit framework that middle level teachers might use to investigate social justice beside their students. Today, I’d like to show you the dashboard behind this kind of unit design.

Those who have worked with me inside of writing workshops and studios are sometimes surprised to learn that I’m a fan of standards and other clear definitions of quality that most associate with anything but creativity. Many can’t understand why I’m all about alignment. A few get it, though–especially those who understand the power of creative constraints. And that’s what standards are, really: Creative constraints. A big thank you to Amy and Dan, for refining my thoughts about all of this in wonderful ways this summer.

An important bit of nuance: When I use the word standard, I’m not merely referring to the Common Core standards or whatever national, state, or regional standards you might be mandated to use in your corner of the world. I’m thinking about local standards, too: The ones that align to your district, building, department, grade level, and yes…personal vision.

I find that defining local standards keeps that greater vision front and center, particularly when teachers and students are designing curriculum. “We call it the Common Core,” I find myself saying so often. “And that’s what it is: The core. Not the whole.”

This is an important truth, particularly when it comes to designing writing curricula.

Distinguishing Curriculum Writing and Mapping from Design

I’ve spent over a decade facilitating curriculum writing and mapping initiatives for dozens of school districts, and while many have watched student learning and performance improve as a result of attending to alignment, many have also withered inside of this work.

Curriculum writing is a marathon, and mapping is no quick walk through the park, either. Both play a crucial role in the creation of coherent learning pathways through any system, but experience has taught me that writing and mapping in the absence of design is often painfully dissatisfying.

When we write curriculum, we may articulate a vision and how our units center around specific questions, dilemmas, concepts, or works. We may align our content, skills, and assessments. We may evaluate the quality of the resources we’re using. We may work up the tasks that our students will complete. We may even create the rubrics that we will use to define quality and assess growth.

When we map, we align our curriculum with those used by others who teach at our grade level. We align grade level curricula vertically as well, to ensure alignment through our Pre-K-12 systems.

This is worthy work, as many of you know from experience.

Design is a game changer, though. It’s something different. It’s also something more.

Photo Credit: Adapted from the work of David O'Connor https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/design-thinking-customer-experience-david-o-connor

Photo Credit: Adapted from the work of David O’Connor https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/design-thinking-customer-experience-david-o-connor

When we design curriculum, we practice empathy with great intention. We uncover the needs and interests of our students as well as our colleagues or staff, and we build our work around them. We immerse ourselves in their realities, interview them, and make careful observations, as we seek a far deeper sort of understanding than numbers and spreadsheets alone provide. Our goal is to define the challenges that our students face–the stuff that really matters. We uncover their hopes and their interests too, so that we might design compelling curricula that serves them well.

Design invites experimentation. We step away from our screens and use our hands to bust complex standards into workable bits. We analyze, tinker, and build. Our plans are treated as prototypes to be tested and improved. This testing matters more than the mapping, especially at the outset, when making a huge commitment to detailed vertical alignment work often results in wasted time, energy, and resources.

In recent years, I’ve learned that quality design achieves much of what traditional curriculum writing and mapping intend to, but it does so inside of a process that feels far more dynamic and iterative.

How to Design a Writing Workshop Unit

Once you’ve articulated a unifying theme for your year, the unit’s center, and essential questions, it makes sense to contemplate the culminating task. What will writers ultimately produce?

This is where I challenge writing teachers to distinguish form from medium. We’re comfortable with form, and we often control it. This is why so many units center around genre and mode. But when we invite writers to define their own purposes and subjects and then translate form through the use of diverse mediums? Well, I find that we awaken the makers in our space, and many of those kids are the ones who resist writing.

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Print is our medium of choice in writing workshop, and we have a responsibility to grow writers who use it skillfully. I’m not suggesting that print-resistant kids be invited to evade the use of that medium altogether. But think about the print-based piece that writers will produce in your next unit. What if you let those kids use a different medium to design it first? What if you invited them to translate their print-based pieces into different forms? What if you invited them to propose projects like these at the start of each unit? Will this require more time? Sure. Will it mean that you might have less time for traditional reading and writing experiences? Perhaps. But great readers and writers are agile users of multiple forms and mediums. It’s not enough to be proficient with print. We need to make space for kids to discover and develop other strengths. Throughout the last school year, I’ve found different versions of this proposal helpful:

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So how might you approach unit design, then? This is my current process: 

  1. Define the national, state, and local standards that you intend to teach and assess. Think big here. What do you intend to help students get better at doing? Move beyond your mandated standards and define the ones that matter most to all of you. Articulate each type in separate documents. In the photos below, we’ve begun to articulate the Common Core Learning Standards as well as standards of quality for the phases of the writing process, the elements of writers’ craft, and specific dispositions we want our students to develop as writers. These are big concepts, and they require specific definition. For instance, which specific standards do we want writers to pursue as they craft their ideas? Practice revision?

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2. Next, break those standards into loose parts, one tiny, teachable target at a time. That’s what you see on the sticky notes in the photo above, which was taken at the very beginning of the process. It’s typical to generate quite a large collection of notes.

3. Mix and remix the targets, seeking connections and using these discoveries to expand and refine your understanding of what they really mean and how they support other targets or standards. Most importantly, contextualize and re-contextualize the learning and the work that your students could do. Tinker with with different possibilities.

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4. Finally, create a coherent and sequential set of teaching points that will guide your mini-lessons as you support students through the unit, one target at a time.

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As you move through this initial phase of the design process, new ideas will often emerge. You might begin thinking about the resources that you will use, the maker challenges and moves you hope to integrate, or even additional standards that you want to explicitly pursue with your students. This is great. Entertain all of those ideas, capture them, and prepare to plan even further.

Next week, I’ll share a framework that will help you assess and elevate the richness and complexity of your unit. See you Tuesday!

Many thanks to Melanie Mulcaster, Pam Taylor, Meaghan Hopkins, Amanda Williams, Melissa Kelly, and Julie Cruise for allowing me to document and share our work from yesterday’s session! 

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