Ask Moving Writers: What does a writing unit look like?


We are spending Mondays this summer answering reader questions in a series called Ask Moving Writers. If these reading our answers sparks yet more questions, please feel free to ask below and join the conversation! 

Here’s our first question: 

Dear Moving Writers,

Hi, Sylvia,

I think I’ve tried every conceivable way of planning a school year to incorporate all of the reading and writing I want my students to experience. I have alternated every other day (reading workshop/ writing workshop); I have even alternated semesters (semester 1 writing workshop + independent reading/ semester 2 reading workshop + independent writing).  This past school year, we read something (independently, or in literature circles, or as a whole class) for 2-3 weeks and then followed it with a 3-4 week writing workshop in that same genre.

I’m not sure I will ever have it completely figured out.  But here’s the one answer I do have that works every single time: predictability.

Predictability is the underpinning of the way I plan anything at all — from a single class period to an entire writing study. Here are my predictable non-negotiables:

  • We read everyday.

  • We write everyday.

  • All reading and writing are rooted in choice.

  • We are all happier and learn better when there is a predictable structure to class.

So,  whether we are focusing on a reading study or a writing study, the days feel very much the same:

A Day in Workshop

Keeping the every-day-we-read-and-we-write rule in mind, we begin with some writing (Notebook Time) when we are in reading study mode, and we begin with some reading (independent reading) when we are in writing study mode!

(But since this is a writing blog, though, let’s just tackle the writing part of class from here on out!)

But this isn’t what you asked, is it? You asked about what an average week or an average unit plan looks like; you are getting at the big picture — how to move a student from having nothing on the page to having a piece of publishable writing?

A predictable pattern to a writing study gives students the space to think and gives teachers the ability to clear away the mental clutter of worrying about what’s next in order to be present for her students right now.

So, here’s an approximation of the mental map I use to organize a writing study. These are the elements of every single writing study — whether we are writing poetry or literary analysis:

Copy of A Day in Workshop (5)

Of course, this isn’t always the case. There are always some writing studies that take longer — especially when I find out mid-workshop that my students need something that I didn’t anticipate. And I also routinely work in opportunities for pieces of “tiny writing”,  which only take a week or so.

What does this look like in a real classroom? Take, for example, a writing study of By Heart essays from The Atlantic (a wonderful source of authentic literary analysis!)

Screen Shot 2017-07-05 at 9.41.49 PM


Since this study took place during the 3rd quarter, students were familiar with using mentor texts and could move through this phase of the writing process rather quickly. Then, we spent two days writing off the page and gathering information — the passage the student would use from the text, the personal stories she would tell, particular quotes of interest that she plans to unpack. This was followed by eight days of mini-lessons. We certainly didn’t teach every single skill that popped up in the “By Heart” essay. Instead, we chose the most techniques we thought would be most fundamental to students’ success writing these pieces. You’ll notice that we don’t have any work days or peer feedback days built into this particular unit — this is partially due to timing and partially due to the fact that most writers seemed to be finished and ready to publish by the time we were finished with our final mini-lesson.

In writing workshop, predictability creates freedom. Nancie Atwell says that these routines ensure that, “I do not have to panic.” I am free to confer with my students, listen to their intentions, and teach into their needs. My students are free to take risks and truly explore their ideas through writing because they know what to expect.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for asking!



What predictable structures help your students grow in writing workshop? What other variations would you suggest we all try? Leave a comment (or a question!) below, on Twitter @rebekahodell1, or on Facebook


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