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.

Catching Fire #sol19

Catching Fire #sol19

images-1Yesterday,  twelve educators from neighboring districts came to meet with us about adopting the Units of Study in Reading and Writing.  I knew they were coming for several weeks.  We arranged a short presentation, then longer classrooms tour, ending with a panel question and answer with grade level teachers.  I wasn’t sure what grade levels the teacher visitors would teach and I knew their administrators would be coming with them.

I sat down one afternoon and created a list of the important steps we had taken as we began our journey with the units.  Thinking about it made me consider missteps as well or perhaps just difficulties along the way that I hadn’t anticipated.  I contemplated what I have personally learned; that the units aren’t so much curriculum as a general road map.  Head off in that direction.  You might try this.  Keep an eye on your travel partners.  Take supplies!  How to articulate something like that? Also, the units are more story than prescription, a let-me tell-you-what-I’ve-learned sort of thing.

I talked to the teachers about what they would be teaching during the visit.  No, that’s not right.  I asked them what the class would be doing during our visits.  Then I went back on Friday to check in again.  All of the teachers said, the students will be in independent practice.  Is that ok?  Of course, let’s just show them the authentic work.  What I noticed about the authentic work is how it lined up across the grades.  How amazingly you can see in this one slice how each year’s work builds on the next.  I took a few minutes to sketch that out on a slide. Screen Shot 2019-05-21 at 7.13.09 AM.png

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I made one more slide to show what here in this place we considered to be essential to the work:  accountable talk, collaborative work, small group work, growing independence, shortened teacher instruction time,  and integrating reading/writing workshop.  So many things went into each of those talking points, months of planning, considering how that would look at each grade,  guiding discussions with teachers and students, and reflecting on the work with all of the stakeholders.  A long journey, not complete.  But oh, to look back and reflect felt like a deep drink of cool water.

I glanced at the list of typed questions that one of the districts had compiled.  For a moment my breath caught.  I hadn’t considered any of them.  I wasn’t planning on speaking to any of these topics they were thinking.  I breathed in and out.  maybe a few times… Then I thought,  what they see will speak to the work and what doesn’t, they will ask.  The teachers will have answers and I know as well.  I thought I would be nervous, but there with the encouragement of our leadership, it felt natural to share.  I thought of all the things Lucy Calkins says in Leading Well.  It’s a challenging journey and people will want to turn back.  Creating a literacy team strengthens the work.  Celebrating wins of any size is important.  You have to have unflagging, positive, trusting commitment to the work.

The amazing moments began to unfold as we began to tour the building.  We stopped at our learning commons and I explained how our library assistant  helps add to the school based collection to reinforce the work that students are doing.  She displays books related to the work students are doing.  She helps students, teachers, and myself find the books that might be just right to show an author’s craft or teach a student about character or informational topics.  I explained how her partnership was so important to the work.

We stopped in the literacy center and I was anxious about its clearly lived in state and the changes I had made over the last year in response to the units.  Hours of work to organize the leveled library, the lending bins, the mentor texts,  I could see the flaws, the what-elses.  Would they?  They asked a lot of questions about leveling and organizing.  Inside, I could feel myself relaxing in the work and letting myself see it through their eyes.

Then we went to the classrooms!  Seeing through their eyes,  the children were engaged.  The students could explain what they were doing. There were tools for the students to use.  The teachers and students seemed relaxed and happy in the work. Kindergarten was reading and preparing for their super power celebration.  First grade was working in their book clubs on their semantic maps of animals.  IMG_4214-1.jpgIMG_4215.jpg

2nd grade was working on their research writing. Students were making posters, brochures, and  All About books.  Their teacher stopped a minute to talk about anchor charts with our visitors.

Third grade was trying out summarizing practice in response to our professional development on Friday.  Their teacher had fresh  excerpts for the students to do thwork all tied to their science curriculum.  IMG_4223.jpg

Fourth grade was deep in revisions.  The students explained their work, a new one in revision for them.IMG_4219.jpg

We returned after a full trip around the grades to a panel discussion with some grade level teachers.  The teachers answered questions from the group about such a big range of topics until one teacher ask them how it was.  A teacher took a breath and said, it was difficult at first.  We didn’t think the students were going to be able to do the work.  There were a lot of weekends taking home the units and reading.  Also we noticed that students came in knowing how to independently read and fill out book logs.  We saw that they could do the skills.  They were enjoying it. 

In those moments in those hours,  I saw how the units have caught fire.  When someone asked me, how can we do this without a literacy coach,  I answered that you have the power to do this yourselves.  I tell people sometimes that I drank the koolaid, but perhaps what happened is that I helped start a fire.

Monday, Monday #sol19

imagesMonday, Monday #sol19

May 14, 2019

I know it’s Tuesday, however I want to talk about Monday or maybe just Mondays in general.  Yesterday was May 13.  Not a Friday.  The first day of benchmark assessments which I usually look forward too.  Here in New England, it seems we have had a endless rainy spring.  All these things converged.

I didn’t think much about it until I was talking over results with a teacher while strolling down the hall.  He said, this is because it’s Monday.  

Monday?  Monday… Can our teaching and their learning be so fragile that a weekend can change the outcome? What will the summer do?  Well we know what summer can do.

I went on yesterday to do a reading assessment on an intervention student.  She struggled to decode many words in a story that I presumed would be simple for her.  She was hesitant, nervous, and generally anxious throughout.  Monday?

Later in the day,  I had a district wide meeting.  We hosted in our conference room.  It has a broad table and a dozen comfortable chairs.  Airplay and a large screen.  We had a very productive meeting and at the end one of the principals said we should meet in this room every time.  It raised our productivity.  

It makes me pause.  Perhaps the message is that it really is not so much big picture, but all in the details.  Perhaps all the magic we put together for success is the true secret sauce.  Every single careful decision adds up to the mix that works.

As we finish up this year,  I consider how we create the alchemy that makes that magic in a bottle.  Do we avoid tests on Mondays?   Do we bring cookies?  Have comfortable chairs when we meet as adults?  What conscious decisions can we make that might in fact change everything?


Reflection #sol19

May 7, 2019


It’s that time again.  The sweeping rush to the end of the school year and yet as endless activities swirl around me,  I feel like one of those photos where I am still and everything else is moving.  I don’t think I realized when I took on that one little word, reflection, how deeply it was the word for the time.

At the end of the year, we naturally reflect.  We reflect on success and missed opportunities.  We reflect on goals and accomplishments along with missteps.  The balance is… delicate.

I have the opportunity to make a fair number of decisions,  offer even more advice, have endless planned and unplanned conversation, and a little time to reflect.  Our careers and daily work is based on change.  Change for student may equal growth.  That’s an equation that makes sense.  Change for us as educators sometimes doesn’t make that much sense as we stand in the fray.

I have written about change many times.  This isn’t a reflection of change, but I don’t think we can have a reflection without considering how change effects a system and the individuals that populate that system.  When things are difficult for the adults or the children, does that make them wrong?  Does struggle equal inappropriate?  I am trying to reduce struggle or move everyone forward?  What does moving forward mean?  Reflection, right?

As a people we are not so reflection driven.  We are more solutions driven.  We have problem A,  so let’s try solution B.  We notice deficit C,  so the solution must be decision F and so on and so on.  What if solution isn’t the next step after problem?  What if the next step after problem is inquiry?  Observation?  Discussion?  What if in our rush to solve, we have stepped all over our evidence?

So this year,  I am going to do what I usually do in May and June with an enhancement.  I’m going to go to the data and encourage others to go to the data.  I am going to reflection on difficulties and ponder them deeper wondering about their makeup.  I am not going to drive headlong into solutions as tempting as that always is. 

This year I’m going to take a hard look at my practice, at the systems I promote and the ones I don’t, at the ideas I was so sure of and reflect on that certainty.  I hope to listen and contemplate, and reflect.  Not always looking backward, but not leaving those experiences in the rearview until I have truly thought about them.

My plan of action:

Collect data of all kinds.  Student driven data.  Teacher driven data.  My own numbers.

Ask myself and others some big questions:  How did we grow?  Where we didn’t, why didn’t we?

Ask other people for their reflections about our shared work.

Mull it over.  Mix it with a few more discussions and readings and distance.

Then begin again.

One Last Poem (or two) #napomo19


April 30, 2019

Poetry month has been so much fun.  With playing with poetry myself, trying it out with students, and then giving teachers a sandbox of poetry to play in,  I have really learned more about poetry and enjoyed all of the poems I created and read this month.

The students’ poems have been especially rewarding.  They were open to trying and enjoyed the experiences.  I share these last two poems today from students.  An ode to Character Studies and a response to the book, Clancy.  The joy of being in community with these writers is immeasurable.


This is an acrostic poem spontaneously written in response to the book Clancy by a third grade reluctant writer. He shared the poem with his class to rave reviews.

Trying on Poetry #sol19

Trying on Poetry #sol19

April 30, 2019

Just when I think I’m old and stuck, some little spark from the universe ignites right in front of me.  And so it was the day after the March Slice of Life Challenge, that Elisabeth Ellington decided to join some other bloggers in playing with poetry for National Poetry Month.  Perhaps feeling brave from a month of writing,  I was inspired to tag along as well.  So with her inspiration and Mary Lee Hahn’s inspiration and the inspiration of poetry itself,  I went to the Home Depot and loaded up on paint chips.   Then I ordered metaphor dice and haikubes on Amazon.  Then I bought a book PoemCrazy.  I started to write.   One of the  school responsibilities I have is to plan and execute monthly professional development.  The execution of that monthly development is a blog for another day.   Suffice it to say that we mix grade level teacher teams into vertical team and then work on some shared learning.  Fairly standard stuff.

Inspired by writing poetry, the clever tools Elisabeth introduced me too, and the fact that our curriculum meeting was the hour after the first day of school after spring vacation, I decided a poetry try on was in order.  I  planned 5 stations of poetry try outs.  Thanks Mary Lee Hahn for this inspiration,  she did it with some fifth graders.    I choose all of the poetry inspirations that had inspired me over the month,  haikubes,  nail polish poetry, paint chip poetry,  magnet poetry,  Ekphrastic poetry,  and cell phone snap shots poetry.  I set out simple bi-fold station directions, gave minimal directions. 

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and off they went.

It didn’t take long for laughter to fill the room.

They were trying out metaphors.  Laughing over nail polish names.  Scrolling through their phones for photos.  Marveling over the names of paint colors.

and writing…

They were talking and writing.

In the end,  when we had our share, they didn’t share what they might do.  They saved that for their exit tickets.  They shared their poems.

Success like this is a gift.  Collaborative spirit is a goal to strive for.

Their exit tickets were full of superlatives… and also inspiration.  Many wanted to work in these quick try-outs again.

Thank you Elisabeth for your inspiration.

Mentor Text Poetry #napomo19

\Mentor Text Poetry #napomo19

April 26, 2019

My small group and I read The Quiet Book.   Here is the Happiness Book my second grade friends created.


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The Happy Book

There are many kinds of happiness.

Birthday happy.

First day of summer happiness.

Recess time happiness.

Christmas presents happy.

Cake time happiness.

Butterfly on my head happy.

Seeing my parents after school happy.

Spring coming happy.

Jump-roping happy

There-is-going-to-be-a-big-dip-in-this-rollercoaster scared happiness.

Heart happy

There are so many kinds of happiness.


a happy little list poem.  Uneven from two voices but still smile worthy.