Catching Fire: Adopting the Units of Study as a Process

cropped-img_5340.jpgCatching Fire:  Adopting the Units of Study as  Process

May 22, 2019

This week I had the opportunity to explain our school/district’s journey with the Teachers’ College Units of Study in Reading and Writing to a group of visiting educators.  Distilling a long complicated journey into a two hour span was difficult but helped by a visit to the the important places in our school where this work is happening. Here is what I considered when I began my share and what I noticed as I presented.

When I think about our journey into the units of study, I echo several important points made by Lucy Calkins in the book, Leading Well.  Much of what was completed here at our school echos these ideas. For me, it was about seeing something worthwhile, something that could transform literacy education.  What’s that old term? The Units were a disruptor.

Here, we were workshop teachers.  That means many different things to different people, but for us, it meant that we had a reading workshop with a lesson, guided reading, and some independent practice.  We also had writing workshop with a lesson and a slightly more prescribed guided practice. We were following the state standards based on the common core and had explored a framework for reading and writing.  

I began to think about early adopters to the units.  I didn’t call them that at the time, this is a term from Leading Well.  However, I bought a personal set of the fourth grade units that I saw presented at the TCRWP Reunion and began to discuss them with a fourth grade teacher I was collaborating with that year.  No consultant, no training except my reading, visits to TC, and a burning desire to get them going. We began to try the core units that year in reading.

In the next year,  we bought a set of the units for the literacy center and I began to shop them around to keystone teachers, teachers I collaborated with in their classroom, met with during planning, or who I knew were looking for innovation.  They shared their ideas with their professional learning communities and the fire started which just the faintest of embers.

The school district began exploring the units and hired a consulting team to manage the professional development and advise.  The initial teams in our home school were becoming more excited about the units as teams, some planning and trying, watching videos and experimenting.  The sparks began to fly.

Last year as the district suggested experimenting with the units, many grades at our school jumped in,  teaching the core four and experimenting again with others with the help of our professional development model and team planning.  In pockets, change was happening and growing. We began to develop resources, involve our entire school and openly talk about the progressions of learning.

This year,  in the district’s first full adoption year of reading and writing, all the classes here are openly teaching the units.  We spend our professional development time unpacking units, studying vertical alignment, and thinking deeply and richly about our practice.  In our classrooms, the lab is open. We are examining our practice and daily adjusting to fit student needs, build student engagement and agency.

So when I was able to take the tour and articulate the vision,  talk about the evolution, see through fresh eyes without the agenda of coaching or consulting, intervening or problem solving,  I could see the fire burning. Every student in each grade level class could articulate what they were doing, how they were doing it, and what the next step might be.  The classrooms were filled with homegrown work that spoke the evolution of not just the year, but conscious choices designed to grown student agency and thinking in literacy.  Students were doing things naturally with little adult support that were authentic displays of their growing knowledge of literacy: independently reading and sharing at kindergarten, creating semantic maps at first,  designing their own independent writing projects at second, reviewing summarizing at third in work related to their science curriculum, and at fourth, designing their own presentations in varying genres to articulate their learning about a biographic figure.  It was nothing short of amazing.

It was then, though probably before, that I knew that the fire was spreading across the grades, the teachers, the classrooms,  and most importantly in the way that students viewed themselves as learners. Maybe I am a fire starter, but definitely I fanned the flames.  

Here are the secrets to success

  • Be unflaggingly committed to the work.  Always displaying a positive, trusting commitment to what you know students and teachers will be able to do.
  • Go to the source.  Watch videos, read facebook posts, follow blogs, twitter, go to Teachers’ College.  Get your professional development from the people who know in the closest place possible to the knowledge, in the best way you individually can.
  • Get early adopters.  Teachers who try things out with no fear are the best carriers of the torch.
  • Find ways to help teachers achieve early wins.  Some things are just natural for students and enhance management and outcomes.  Some of these include: accountable talk, shortened teacher instruction time, flexible small group work, and integrating the reading and writing workshop
  • Know that teachers will have trouble.  The work is messy and can be complicated.  It requires trying and sometimes failing, but mostly persevering.
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