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Short Units, Big Messages

Franki Sibberson

Some years ago, I moved from a 5th grade classroom to an intermediate multiage classroom with grades 3 and 4 students. I realized quickly that my writing workshop would be different from what it was in 5th grade. Although these students were ready to keep a writing notebook, there were things from the primary writing workshop that I felt these kids would also benefit from.

There seems to be quite a bit written on writing workshop for grades K-1 and for the upper elementary grades. When I taught beginning readers and writers, we were immersed in making books and in deciding which format would best suit our needs. For example, If I want to invite my friend to my party, how can I do that? In the upper elementary grades, we did a great deal with writing notebooks, learning to live our lives as writers, coming up with ideas and using a notebook to collect and craft thinking into pieces of writing.

Of course the routines of the writing workshop remain the same. I have always believed that the structure of the writing workshop should be the same no matter what age level the writers. But from a teaching standpoint, how could I set up a writing workshop for the students in my intermediate multiage class -- with some students who were just starting to be comfortable writing, and others who had very sophisticated understandings of the writing process? Which units of study would most benefit these students?

I thought about the big messages that I wanted to make sure my students got from any unit of study. Which things would be critical for them to understand at this transitional stage of writing? After looking at our state standards, reviewing professional resources on writing, and thinking about my own expertise with this age group, I decided on the following big goals. I wanted my students to:

  • Learn to live their lives as writers;
  • Read like a writer, learning from other authors;
  • Revise their writing by thinking about other possibilities;
  • Work on improving the craft of their writing;
  • Think about words and sentences;
  • Use tools to support their writing; and
  • Understand that writers make lots of decisions throughout the process.

Articulating these big goals helped me to plan with a vision in mind. When thinking about how best to meet these overarching goals, I have found that short genre studies work best throughout the year to help my students develop habits of writers. Short genres allow them to go through the process quickly -- they are more willing to learn about revision when they haven't drafted a six-page story.

I also learned that these younger writers seemed to need to create projects more quickly in the year than the older students did. The short genres allow students to produce more pieces of writing. When I have focused on longer genre studies in writing workshop, they seemed to go on for so long that by the time a child completed a project, they were tired of it. They didn't hit the writer's high that should come with publication.

Some short units of study that have helped me meet my big writing goals:

  1. Graphic Novels
  2. Two-Page Spreads
  3. How-To Writing
  4. Poetry

With each of these studies, I am able to assess the skills and strategies that writers use. I can put more emphasis on skills that will help students in future writing by not focusing on skills that are genre-specific. At the end of each unit, I can assess their work with a project reflection sheet -- using the reflection to look at the ways that the big goals have been transferred to each child's writing. Here is a sample reflection form for a how-to writing unit.

For a unit on graphic novels, I might begin with a series like Babymouse by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm. These graphic novels have both depth and simplicity and students of all ages enjoy them -- even students who don't tend to enjoy graphic novels. I would also include newspaper comics. Other series that I might include for exploration are Bone by Jeff Smith, Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson, and The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels. I would collect a basket full of these graphic novels, comic strips from newspapers and others and give students time to explore in order to see what they notice.

For a unit on two-page spreads, I look for examples of books and newspapers that use two-page spreads in interesting ways. Weekly issues of Time for Kids include the center article which uses a two-page format complete with maps, captions and photos. Buzz! (by DK Publishing) is a nonfiction book that also has great examples of two-page spreads.

There are many examples of how-to writing everywhere. In this unit, I rely on cookbooks and craftbooks. I also include nonfiction books such as See How It's Made (DK Publishing), and Transformed: How Everyday Things Are Made by Bill Slavin. Each of these books uses text and visuals to show the process of making everyday items.

When selecting texts for a poetry unit, I look for poems that describe things in ways that students could try. I want them to try new ways to write that they can carry to other writing. Books that I've found successful in a unit like this are All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth, Poems in Black & White by Kate Miller and Ordinary Things by Ralph Fletcher.

I have learned that it's not about the genre, but the goals for my writing program -- things I want to build on throughout the year. With those goals in mind, I can plan short genre studies that teach the writers skills that will carry across all genres. These short genre studies start conversations that I want to expand upon throughout the year.


Franki Sibberson

Franki Sibberson is the Lead Contributor for Choice Literacy. She has worked for over 30 years as a teacher at different grade levels and school librarian. Franki is the co-author with Karen Szymusiak of many books and videos on teaching reading in the intermediate grades. You can keep up with Franki on the popular blog she writes with Mary Lee Hahn, A Year of Reading.