Keeping Writing Workshop Responsive: New Calkins Units of Study

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hChoice, time, and authentic purposes for writing are all critical components that keep our student writers engaged. But these things will only take our young writers so far. The “Miracle Grow”  that shifts workshop into high gear is in the thoughtful hands of teachers. Besides creating the structures in which workshop can function, teachers make workshop lessons and feedback responsive to student needs.

A common thread in our SU has been confusion about the look and feel of the “new” Calkins Writing Units of Study. “It feels like a program.” “Where is the lesson on editing? My students are ready for it now.”

For the purpose of providing support for teachers new to workshop instruction, Calkins has written out a possible scenario for presenting each lesson. It does look scripted, as Lucy includes what she might say, but unlike a program that must be followed exactly as written, Lucy’s intent is that of  a mentor teacher inviting us into her classroom to watch her teach. It may have the look of a script, but we are not bound to teach the concepts with her words, rather she wants us to make the lessons our own. This came straight from Lucy herself as she  addressed  a full house of Vermont educators at the VCR conference this past May.

When we teach toward the goals of each unit from our own heart, with our own stories and examples, we teach with more power.

When we respond to what we are observing in our students’ writing with just the needed strategy to lift them as writers, just as they are ready for it, we are keeping our learners at the heart of instruction.

This is what makes workshop teaching so highly effective and so much in contrast to one size fits all programs.

In my opinion, the reflective, problem-solving task of looking at what our writers have control of, and deciding where to go next, is also what makes it so rewarding to teach. Workshop allows (depends on) teachers to be professional decision makers.

If you are new to teaching writing, can you use Lucy’s lessons as is? Of course! They are the lessons of a master teacher-but they will become even better if you tweak them for your own learners.

Can you stretch out lessons, or skip lessons based on the need of your students? Of course, keeping in mind you don’t want to stay in the same unit forever, and you want to be moving students toward the unit goals.

Can you supplement or create lessons with organizers and strategies you have used successfully before? Yes, being mindful the mini-lesson structures (connection, teach, active engagement, and link) are important (they are brain-based), and scaffolds should be provided thoughtfully. Our goal is always to move students toward independence, toward writing that reflects their unique voice and choice.

Workshop is most effective when teachers are monitoring and tracking student understandings and capabilities, and using that knowledge to tailor instruction.

It is this responsive, personalized delivery that makes workshop such a rich learning experience, and very different from a program.

What has helped you personalize the lessons for your students? Feel free to share your experiences below.

From my workshop to yours,


2 thoughts on “Keeping Writing Workshop Responsive: New Calkins Units of Study

  1. Lucy’s lessons are helpful, adding the strength of her years of experience, but I liked this in what you wrote: “When we respond to what we are observing in our students’ writing.” Each student is different, and observing/listening to each is certainly what workshop is about.


    1. I agree Linda, Lucy is the master. She makes it look so easy and so seamless! I love that she has provided us such a strong glimpse into her teaching. There is so much to learn from her, as we gradually come into the teaching with our own stories and our own voice.


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