Friday, March 11, 2011

Planning Units of Study: Immerse Yourself First

Every time I sit down to plan a unit of study in writing, I begin with envisioning. I start with the same big questions I ask myself at the beginning of every unit of study: Why am I teaching this? What do I want my students to learn? I close my eyes and try to imagine the mini lessons that I will teach during this unit. On more occasions that I care to count, what do I see?

Absolutely nothing.

Has this ever happened to you? Every time it happens to me I feel frustrated and overwhelmed. I begin to question if this unit is even possible, whether it’s “developmentally appropriate” and feel ready to throw in the towel and move onto something more comfortable and familiar.

Then I regroup. I begin to think about what I’ve done in the past to make planning more successful and it occurs to me: I need to look at samples of books from the genre that I am thinking about studying with children. Without a clear picture of these mentor texts in my brain, I find it impossible to establish my objective for the unit. Only flipping through the pages of books helps me to understand my goal and envision possibilities for mini lessons.

Great teacher educators like Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins and their respective colleagues have long impressed the importance of beginning units of study by sharing mentor texts and examples of the genre with students. I can’t imagine asking students to write in a genre without first showing them what it looks and sounds like. How it ever occurred to me to envision teaching a genre without first immersing myself in what it looks and sounds like eludes me. But I promise you this: It is a mistake I will NEVER make again. From here on in, planning a writing unit of study will always begin with a pile of books and some quiet reading time. I know now that it is only then that successful envisioning can begin.

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