Middle grades students write—daily. They text, pass notes, send e-mails, blog, and post updates on Facebook. At the center of students’ non-academic writing are their day-to-day thoughts, stories, and encounters that define them as individuals finding their way in the world. The writing students are assigned in school, however, often overlooks their natural inclination to share about their lives. Writing is an activity in which students frequently show little engagement and motivation. But this need not be the case. It is possible to empower students to learn about writing while writing about topics of personal importance.
This article focuses on the unit of study as an inquiry-based instructional framework supporting students’ development as writers in single-subject areas or across disciplines. As teacher educators, we collaborate with teachers and students in a variety of middle grades settings, and we have found this framework works well for a diverse range of learners, enhancing their motivation, engagement, and growth as writers. In addition, a unit of study approach to teaching writing can help students meet the new Common Core State Standards for writing. Specifically, the framework stresses the reading-writing connection as students read and write a wide range of text types, compare and contrast the structure of texts, and analyze how an author’s writing decisions contribute to the text’s structure and meaning (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
In this article, we provide an overview of the unit of study framework for teaching writing and explain how it sets the stage for developing “academic momentum” in students (Strahan, 2008, p. 4). To help readers understand the unit of study framework in action, we describe how a unit unfolds in one subject area, language arts. We then highlight its natural application in disciplinary and interdisciplinary work.
A framework for teaching writing
A unit of study approach to teaching writing offers students an inquiry-oriented experience for learning how to grow and develop as writers in a predictable format (Ray, 2006). The main premise behind a unit of study approach is that students benefit from closely studying the kinds of writing they will eventually be writing themselves. While this makes sense in theory, it is seldom employed in practice. Often writing activities are assigned, not taught. A unit of study framework provides the opportunity for students to actively study and inquire about writing that can be found in the real world within genres people read and write regularly.
Another important premise within this approach is that students are allowed to select the topics for their writing, honoring their voices and the ideas that matter to them. In this way, writing builds bridges between students’ out-of-school lives and interests and their in-school learning experiences. Figure 1 provides a rationale for each aspect of the framework and outlines teacher and student roles.
The elegance behind the unit of study framework is that it offers students immediate support in how to write well in the particular genre under study while teaching how to study writing in the future as well. This approach closely mirrors what professional authors do in the real world. Numerous young adult authors speak to the importance of reading in inspiring and influencing their writing. Young adult author Chris Crutcher advised students to “read a lot, especially in the area in which you want to write” (The New York Public Library, 2002, n.p.), and Julie Anne Peters (2011) stated, “You have to love to read. You have to familiarize yourself with the genre of literature you want to write” (n.p.). Even though professional writers repeatedly offer this advice, rarely does this practice occur in school-based writing instruction. Studying writing is the underlying principle for instruction within the unit of study. This framework embodies practices found in highly successful middle level schools, in that it (a) ensures learning is meaningful and purposeful, as students learn to write in real-world genres; (b) involves adolescents in learning, as students select their own topics and make intentional decisions of how to craft their piece; and (c) offers an inquiry approach to learning, as students take the lead in what they notice as they read and study a genre together (McEwin & Greene, 2010).
Supporting academic momentum
Academic momentum, according to Strahan (2008), is the “strength of a student’s engagement with learning activities” allowing them to approach “new assignments with confidence” and recognize that they have a “repertoire of skills and strategies they can employ” when faced with a difficult task (p. 4). For students who do not display academic momentum, or for reluctant learners, the unit of study framework fosters the necessary integration of “will” and “skill.” The unit of study approach supports the development of will, in that students select topics of importance to them. Writing is hard work, so it becomes imperative that students care about the topics about which they write. Through this inquiry-based unit of study students learn skills such as “reading like a writer,” and they study how authors have written their piece, knowing that they can “borrow” from these authors when crafting their own writing. They begin to study writing in a way that shows them what they can do as writers.
Students who demonstrate academic momentum also have self-efficacy (knowledge that they can perform the task at hand)and self-regulation (knowledge and awareness of how to help themselves while working). Students’ self-efficacy develops as they immerse themselves in and analyze text and as they write in a supportive environment. There is an active teaching element to this process; writing is not just assigned. Studying writing in this way also fosters self-regulation. Students learn how to study other writers’ work, and they come to understand that when they are faced with difficulty, they can look to an author who does that kind of writing well, study how the author did something, and determine if it will work in their writing.
A unit of study framework in action
Students are offered a wealth of possibilities within a unit of study framework. To best understand the nuances of a unit of study, we provide a closer look at how a unit on memoir unfolds in two language arts classrooms. Even though our respective schools—a rural alternative school and a suburban middle school—have different student populations, we have found the unit of study approach engages students and contributes to their growth as writers.
A memoir is a focused memory about a particular time in one’s life. It is a reflective piece, in that the author is older, more mature, and writing about the event with more understanding. Authors of memoirs share not only their experience but also their feelings and perspectives on the particular event (Kittle, 2008; Lattimer, 2003). Because “the most successful learning strategies are ones that involve each student personally” (National Middle School Association, 2010, p. 16), memoir is a natural fit for middle grades students. Writing memoirs is one way for students to “make sense of their lives and the world around them” (NMSA, 2010, p. 21). As writers of memoirs, students reflect on life experiences and their significance. Lattimer (2003) explains, “teaching students to write memoirs builds on their natural self-interest while simultaneously nurturing habits of disciplined introspection and purposeful writing” (p. 25). Memoir writing can be engaging and motivating because students write about an important moment in their lives. Memoirs also allow teachers a glimpse into their students’ lives, learning about their meaningful relationships and experiences.
For our unit of memoirs, we searched for texts that students would find interesting and relevant to their lives. We wanted students to see their experiences in the texts we selected and also show them that memoirs are not about flashy experiences or expensive vacations; they are about everyday experiences or even quiet moments in life. We found examples in which the authors remembered a special pen, a football game, taking a lifeguard test, and an important conversation with a friend.
We also wanted to include a mix of lighthearted and more serious texts. Scieszka (2008) offered readers a humorous glimpse into his life growing up with five brothers, while Abeel (2003) recounted her struggles as she learned to accept her learning disability and recognize her talents as a poet. In addition to the work of published authors, we include examples from past students. Students appreciate and seem to gravitate toward past examples from peers. Teachers who do not have previous examples can often find samples in professional books on writing or at The National Gallery of Writing website (http://www.galleryofwriting.org/ galleries/gallery_of_ncte).
Length is also an important consideration. Examples that are too long often intimidate students; students may feel defeated before beginning. This is especially true for reluctant writers. From the outset, they need to see examples that help them feel this writing experience is “doable.” Having examples of appropriate length allow students to see how authors tell their story within the allotted space. Students can study where authors slowed down or sped up time, elaborated or skipped description, and included certain events while omitting others. These conversations provide students with the necessary skill to make informed writing choices.
Above all, these examples have to be of high-quality, able to withstand close scrutiny, and offer numerous possibilities and crafting techniques for students. In a survey of students’ experiences about writing their memoirs, many identified specific texts that guided their pieces. Kate (all student names are pseudonyms) selected one text to guide her work because she felt the story was similar to her own, while Sam selected one because he felt it helped him use figurative language well. Some students shared they used two or more texts to guide their writing. Because these texts became students’ “co-teachers,” it was critical for us to provide them with the best examples we could find.
Setting the stage
On the first day, we defined memoir and shared characteristics of this genre so that students would develop some foundational understandings to build upon throughout the study. From the beginning, students were aware they would be writing their own memoirs. They would have to comb through their life experiences to select meaningful topics. We helped students overcome the dreaded “I don’t know what to write about” scenario by providing them with numerous opportunities to uncover possible topics. We asked students to respond to following questions to prompt their thinking.
- What story repeatedly gets told about you at family gatherings or holidays?
- What is your earliest memory?
- What is the most important thing that has ever happened to you?
- What is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?
- What is something you’ll never forget?
Students also thought about and made lists of memories surrounding people, places, and certain objects. Students considered defining moments such as births of siblings, getting a new pet, winning or losing a contest, the loss of something special, or a courageous moment. This work helped students find a memory worth capturing and polishing on paper. Because writing is challenging, it was important to help students find meaningful topics that would allow them to persevere through the tough work of writing. One student, Joe, offered this advice for finding the right topic: “Choose a topic that truly means something to you, because if you don’t, it will be very hard to write it with emotion and deep thought.”
Once students found a possible memory, they needed to determine if they had enough to say about it. For students who were reluctant writers or who tended to think more visually, a tellingboard was helpful. To create a tellingboard, students drew images and key words on sticky notes and arranged them on a piece of paper (Rief, 2007). This allowed students to think about their story visually. Kristine (the author) created a tellingboard as a model to share with the class; guided by this example, Courtney created a tellingboard for her memoir about tearing her ACL while sled riding (see Figure 2). Renee found tellingboards to be helpful: “It gives you a visual. You can see your story being told.” Students easily saw how their stories could unfold, and the teacher and other students asked questions about the tellingboards, helping the writers know where to provide additional details or clarify a confusing point.
To learn about memoirs, students need to read many memoirs, looking for common characteristics across texts. The goal for this reading is to inform their writing. The teacher should read key pieces aloud so that students can hear how the writing sounds. The teacher should be thinking aloud as well. Teacher think-alouds help students realize features they can notice in other texts, such as dialogue, point of view, and descriptive language. This is often necessary because asking students, especially reluctant learners, to do this on their own limits the instructional potential of each carefully gathered piece, as they might not notice multiple aspects. For example, in Bauer’s (2008) “My Entire Football Career” the teacher might note the use of first person, limited dialogue in important places to indicate exasperation or despair, playful language, the inclusion of the author’s inner feelings, and the humorous title. After an initial teacher think-aloud, students could share their “noticings” from another example. If students read a section from Abeel’s (2003) My 13th Winter, they could note repetition of the word “can’t” and rhetorical questions used to emphasize feelings of isolation and loneliness. This helps students begin to develop a sense of language and knowledge of what to look for when reading the other texts. In addition, as Ally stated, this “reading helps because, as you’re reading someone else’s ideas, you’re coming up with ideas of your own. The reading will inspire you.”
Close study and mini lessons
In the unit of study framework, teachers have students read texts with the expectation that their writing will be similar to the texts they study. Students engage in close study, a term used to describe the process of naming what authors do in their writing. Close study of texts helps students make explicit what they have already begun to notice from their reading. During this stage, teachers and students read and discuss the memoirs with the guiding question: “What do you notice the writer doing in this text that you think is interesting and makes this good writing?” (Ray, 2006, p. 134).
One way to help students study a piece of writing is to teach them how and why to annotate text. Annotating text helps readers see how a piece of writing works as a whole. Marking and coding text helps students visually see how authors craft their memoirs. In addition, students can return to the text when facing writing difficulties. This provides students with ideas and options to try in their own writing.
During close study, teachers and students continue to have conversations about their “noticings.” Class charts serve as reminders of key features students noticed in texts. The teacher and students discuss each of these “noticings” and ponder why the author made certain decisions. For example, in one classroom the teacher and students charted the use of intentional fragments and repetition as a way to control the pace of the reading and noticed repetition could also draw the reader’s attention to an important point in the story. Such dialogue provides students with a language to talk about writing. The charts also serve as reminders, as students can return to the charts or to the actual texts to aid in their decision making. One student, Allyson, found this useful in her own writing: “When I see a good example of something, I try to follow it.”
Mini lessons can be used to teach specific aspects of the genre under study (Atwell, 1998), such as beginnings and endings, which can often be difficult for writers. The beginning sets the tone for the piece, while the ending lingers in the reader’s mind. Students need to carefully craft these aspects of their memoirs and doing so requires knowing options so that students do not rely upon “one day” beginnings and “the end” endings. Together, the opening and ending paragraphs or sentences can be analyzed for possible options. From Arnold’s (2008) Reading Can be Dangerous, students noted his use of the words “dangerous” and “true” in the opening and ending sentences. This guided Ryan’s decision for the opening and ending of his memoir. He began his memoir about his first touchdown with “Would you ever think a sprained ankle could be a good thing?” and ended with “Now you can see why a sprained ankle was a good thing for me,” similar to what Arnold had done. Other students also commented on the helpfulness of looking closely at texts. Natalie reflected, “I learned how to make a dramatic and original lead and conclusion, and those things are usually the hardest things for me to write.” Melissa was proud of her introduction because of her intentional decision to start her memoir in the middle of a problem that occurs in the story so that the reader would be “hooked.” Justin specifically credited studying conclusions as having given him “good ideas of ways to leave the reader with something to think about.”
Writing under the influence
Through immersion and close study of texts, students are ready to “write under the influence” of the strong examples of writing they have read and the authors’ crafting moves they have noticed (Ray, 2006). Although students are encouraged not to begin writing their drafts immediately, writing does not occur solely at the end of the unit. Many times when students complete a quick first draft, they are reluctance to revise it. Beginning too quickly can lead to students writing under an “awareness” rather than an “influence.”
Conferences. Throughout the unit, we held smallgroup and individual conferences to address students’ specific writing needs. We avoided vague good/ bad conversations by asking students to pose specific questions about their drafts. We also worked with students to see how they incorporated specific techniques in their drafts and discussed their rationales for doing so. This teacher-student collaboration helped students learn to pose questions and articulate their intentional decisions about their writing while providing an opportunity for students to receive feedback about their writing.
Celebration of writing. At the end of the unit, students shared their writing publicly. Through sharing their experiences and having an audience respond to their work, students experienced satisfaction and witnessed the power of writing. While some students may have been hesitant to share at first, students became excited once peers responded positively to their writing, and soon others became eager to share.
There are many ways for students to share their writing. They can participate in author’s chair, in which students can read either a section or their entire memoir to their classmates. Students can also read their pieces in small groups. Publishing students’ writing (e.g., posting on a class website or binding into a class book) is another way to make their work public. In Kristine’s school, the students each received a printed copy of the class memoirs. She noticed that Jeremy, a student at the alternative school, was exceptionally proud of his work. The day after receiving his memoir book, Jeremy brought it to community service so that he could read his memoir to his supervisors. Jeremy said it was the first time he had felt proud of the work he had done in school. This highlights how publishing student work helps students feel like their writing is important and valued.
Disciplinary and interdisciplinary possibilities
The unit of study framework offers ways to help students grow as writers in single- or multiple-subject areas. It is an intentional way to support students as writers and to help them learn the written “norms and conventions of each discipline” as recommended in the common core standards (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010, p. 60).
The unit of study framework provides students with a wide array of learning experiences. When they are immersed in reading, students learn why particular genres are relevant to each discipline. When they engage in close study of texts, students examine not only what experts write but also how they use language and important vocabulary to convey meaning. When they write an original piece about a scientific happening or historical event, students demonstrate their content knowledge, and, because students are fully involved in the writing process, they take on the roles of scientists, mathematicians, historians, artists, and musicians. The unit of study approach is designed to help students see the value of writing in the disciplines and to learn how to communicate within the typical discourses of each field.
For example, the art teacher could have students write artist’s statements to correspond with their artwork. Students would examine several artists’ statements to study how they describe their process and reflect on their artwork. A social studies teacher could have students study and write political commentaries to think analytically about a historical or current event. A science teacher could have students study and write an op-ed piece about a recent controversial topic. Through each of these units of study, students would become knowledgeable about the writing done by professionals in the fields of art, political science, and science. Such activities could help students understand how writing helps professionals create and disseminate knowledge in their fields (See Figure 3 for a listing of possible genres in each discipline.).
The unit of study framework offers interdisciplinary appeal as well. When curriculum is integrated and relevant, students can see “the many connections that link various topics and subjects,” helping students “recognize the holistic nature of all knowledge” (NMSA, 2010, p. 22). For example, for an interdisciplinary unit on water conservation, students in science could study water as a non-renewable resource, which could include learning about the water cycle, properties of water, and problems of water. In social studies, students could explore how government, industry, and nonprofit organizations influence water conservation. In ELA, students could study editorial or feature article writing and use their content knowledge from science and social studies to write an original piece about water conservation.
Writing is never easy work, but our experiences with students in a variety of middle grades settings have taught us what is possible when students learn to write in authentic, engaging ways. The unit of study is a predictable framework that guides students through a process of learning how to study writing to inform their own writing. This framework supports students in building and sustaining the academic momentum needed to tackle future writing challenges, and, in the words of one reluctant writer, it makes learning writing “easier than I thought.”
|This We Believe characteristics: Meaningful Learning, Challenging Curriculum, Multiple Learning Approaches|
Abeel, S. (2003). My thirteenth winter: A memoir. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Arnold, T. (2008). Reading can be dangerous. In J. Scieszka (Ed.), Guys write for guys read: Boys’ favorite authors write about being boys (2nd ed., pp. 30–32). New York, NY: Viking.
Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading and learning (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Bauer, D. (2008). My entire football career. In J. Scieszka (Ed.), Guys write for guys read: Boys’ favorite authors write about being boys (2nd ed., pp. 33–35). New York, NY: Viking.
Kittle, P. (2008). Write beside them: Risk, voice, and clarity in high school writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
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Peters, J. (2011). FAQ. Retrieved from http://julieannepeters.com/ files/JPFAQ.htm
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Rief, L. (2007). Writing: Commonsense matters. In K. Beers, R. Probst, & L. Rief (Eds.), Adolescent literacy: Turning promise into practice (pp. 189–212). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Scieszka, J. (2008). Roommates. In J. Scieszka (Ed.), Guys write for guys read: Boys’ favorite authors write about being boys (2nd ed., pp. 10–12). New York, NY: Viking.
Strahan, D. (2008). Successful teachers develop academic momentum with reluctant students. Middle School Journal, 39(5), 4–12.
The New York Public Library (Interviewer), & Crutcher, C. (Interviewee). (2002). Author Chat with Chris Crutcher [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from http://www.nypl.org/ author-chat-chris-crutcher
Previously published in Middle School Journal, January 2013