Monthly Archives: November 2015

November and December: The Perfect Time for the Writing Mini-Unit

If you’re reading this in mid-November, your next month is about to be an interrupted mess.

Partial weeks, holiday programs, special events, and distracted students define the final four weeks until winter break. Sometimes it seems like we can’t get anything done during this time period. We have this great long-term project idea that will be highly engaging for students to keep them motivated through the holidays. Every day is planned out perfectly so the unit ends the day before break. It supposed to work flawlessly, right? Unfortunately, that never happens. I’ve been there. You probably have too. One program bumps a lesson to the next day, which gets delayed by snow, which gets bumped by a music performance, until you’re trying to cram a week’s worth of work into that final day in December when nobody’s mind is on school (not even yours). Why do we do this to ourselves?

There is a better alternative. I call it the writing mini-unit. These one-week units fit perfectly into the fractured weeks ahead. So what is a writing mini-unit? Well, it’s going to mean different things to different grade levels. I’ll explain what I have planned for my students and the thinking behind my decisions, and hopefully it will be something you can adjust to fit into your classroom.

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First, when deciding what content might work best in a mini-unit, think about the big writing projects you have coming up in January, February, and March. Then, develop a mini-version of that unit to teach before the break. This way, you can teach the basics of the genre or skill now and build upon them later.

For example, in January, my students will write a major persuasive piece – a letter we actually send out to a self-selected audience. So, in late November, we will do a mini-unit on persuasive writing. We’ll learn a few of the basics as students produce a persuasive paragraph reviewing a movie, television show, or video game. Just a paragraph! Resist the urge to develop this into a monster piece that swallows all your time and your sanity. The students will benefit from a bit of prep work in this genre before that major piece later in the year.

Additionally, during the second semester, my students will write a large informational composition about a self-selected state history topic. They will be doing lots of research, including finding sources and paraphrasing what they learned. So, in early December, we do a writing mini-unit about animal adaptations. Students work with a partner, using our lessons to learn about researching a topic, to create a short Google Slides presentation. Since our state science standards include a section on animal adaptations, we’re hitting two birds with one stone! The kids are motivated, interruptions and delays can be handled, and I’m not going crazy.

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Think about what big writing projects you have coming up after winter break. Are there some background skills students would benefit from being exposed to early? Try shaping those in writing mini-units to use in late-November and December instead of the massive unit you might be worried about getting started right now. The kids will be glad you did…and so will you!


Exploring Story Elements

In our fourth grade Reading Workshop, I’m set to teach a brand new mini-unit this week about story elements. I’m writing this to help myself fully think it through, and I hope it can be useful to you as well. My team and I developed this unit after we noticed our students struggle with the following standard:

  • 4.RL.2.3 Describe a character, setting, or event in a story or play, drawing on specific details in the text, and how that impacts the plot. (This is the Indiana version, but I believe Common Core has one that is similar, or maybe identical.)

Our students struggled with two parts of the standard when it came up on our state and district assessments. Some weren’t sure about the vocabulary used, including the terms character, setting, and plot. We certainly worked with all these concepts throughout the year, but as we reflected, we discover that we often used the term “events” instead of plot or “where the story takes place” instead of setting. Combine these decisions with the fact that around half of our students were English Learners, and we had made a story elements mess.

Second, we failed to clearly teach how characters, setting, and events impact the plot. This concept can be confusing, even to an adult seeing it for the first time like we were. Unless you have been teaching this recently, answering the question, “How did the setting impact the plot of the last book you read?” is probably not the easiest thing to verbalize.


So, we put heads together, did some research, and developed our plan for the week:

Monday – Story Elements – This day focuses on the precise vocabulary students need to use to meet this standard: character, setting, plot, and impact (a verb our state lists as one to know). I’ll start with a book we have already read, naming each element. We’ll read a fun story, My Lucky Day, and name the elements, creating an anchor chart together. Students will then complete a graphic organizer using their own books during independent reading.

Tuesday – A Character’s Impact – Last year, as third graders, my students learned a lot about character traits. I plan to build on this knowledge in Tuesday’s lesson. A video I watched online suggested using a story were two different types of characters react differently to the same problem. Two examples that would work are The Ant and the Grasshopper and The Tortoise and the Hare. Students can examine how a character’s qualities affect how they attempt to solve the same problem. These texts should illustrate this well.

Wednesday – The Setting’s Impact – This is the most complex of the week’s lesson. As I mentioned earlier, the impact of a story’s setting can be hard to verbalize. Honestly, I needed to learn more about this practice myself, so I read about different ways the setting can impact a story. First, a setting can change the decisions characters make – think secret passages in the movie Clue (but don’t use that with students!). Second, the setting can affect the mood – think The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Finally, the time period a story takes place can affect what is acceptable for characters to do – think any Underground Railroad or Civil Rights Movement picture book. Now, how am I going to do this in one day? I’m not yet sure. I’ll probably have to make tough decisions.

Thursday – An Event’s Impact – This one will be the easiest for students to understand because students already have a strong background on important events in fiction through our work with Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s signposts described in their book Notice and Note. I imagine this lesson being a lot of hypothetical “what if” questions, such as, “What if this didn’t happen? How would the book be different?” Hopefully we can spend time discussing the more complex issue of setting today as well.

Feel free to pluck this week out of my classroom and use it in your own. Let me know if any adjustments you make really work for you!

The 40ish-Hour Quest Continues

Three meetings, one traffic jam, and one family fun night…but I’m still on course.

Last weekend, I wrote about my quest to reduce some of my time spent at school, without losing any of my effectiveness. This quest has been inspired by Angela Watson, who has been talking about a “40 Hour Teacher Workweek” on her blog, in her book, and on her podcast. I’m not looking to get to 40 hours, but I feel 45 is a solid goal that will allow me more time with my family.

Here’s how it’s going:


  • Arrival Time: 8:00
  • Departure Time: 4:35
  • Time spent at home: 20 minutes
  • Notes: I was strangely excited to get started with this process. I had planned for my planning time using my form and was ready to get going, so ready I left my house without brushing my teeth. (Reverse!) Once I was at school with my teeth brushed, the most beneficial choice I made was to do the “around the room” tasks before sitting down after dropping my students at gym class and at dismissal. After delivering them, I would shuffle through homework folders or fill out the next day’s agenda. Once the room was ready, I sat at my computer to begin the next task.


  • Arrival Time: 7:55
  • Departure Time: 4:35
  • Time spent at home: 15 minutes
  • Notes: Tuesday went similarly to Monday, with one major difference – I was able to get ahead. With all of my Tuesday tasks finished, I found myself plucking tasks from other days. This felt fantastic. Even a meeting about testing data didn’t set me back. Little did I know, getting ahead was soon to prove very important.


  • Arrival Time: 8:20 (Yikes!)
  • Departure Time: 4:40
  • Time spent at home: none
  • Notes: What a mess! Just three minutes after I left my house, traffic was completely stopped. I sat stewing for awhile before peeling into the closest neighborhood to try to find a shortcut through what turned out to be a labyrinth. After driving in circles, I finally called my wife to get me onto a road I’d heard of. Twenty minutes late to school, I was frazzled, but since everything was ready, I wasn’t out of control. The day progressed smoothly. Our weekly professional development session after school meant I couldn’t get much ready for Thursday, but considering how the day started, this was a win.


  • Arrival Time: 7:50
  • Departure Time: 4:40
  • Time spent at home: none
  • Notes: What I enjoyed about this day was the ending. My daughter’s school was hosting a fall event and book fair. In the past, I might meet my family at an event of this nature, not stepping in my house until after 7:00. This day, however, I made it home, talked with my son, changed clothes, and was much more relaxed.


  • Arrival Time: 8:00
  • Departure Time: 4:40
  • Time spent at home: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Notes: Unlike most teachers, I like to get a lot done when I get home Friday night. I don’t like work lingering over me. I start with the grading of papers because it’s the task I least look forward to; I’m glad when it’s done.


  • Saturday Worktime: 1 hour, 30 minutes
  • Sunday Worktime: none
  • Notes: I mentioned earlier, I don’t like the dark cloud of work hovering over my weekend. Right after breakfast, I put an old race on television and got started. Recording all the grading from last night came first, followed by my plans and updating my classroom website.

The Final Math: 46 hours and 40 minutes. Not quite the 45 hours I was shooting for, but I consider it to be a step in the right direction. This experience of charting my time has been very eye-opening, and I plan to write a reflection of what I learned in my next post. I encourage you to try charting your hours too!