Getting Started with the Units of Study

It’s summer vacation! That glorious time when teachers stay up late, sleep in later, and do absolutely nothing but soak up the sunshine. Just kidding! Most of the teachers I know (including yours truly) spend their summer breaks getting ready for the year to come: planning, planning, and more planning to ensure a smooth next school year. If you’re reading this blog post, I suspect you may be doing just that. Maybe your school has adopted the Units of Study for Reading and Writing for the very first time, or you’re moving to a district where you’ll be teaching it for the first time, or you’ve decided to purchase your own curriculum kit to use in your classroom (go you!). All over Facebook and Instagram, teachers who are new to the Units of Study are asking the same question: “Where do I begin?” It’s a great question, and one that I was asking myself just a few years ago. I wish that I had somewhere to turn to for guidance back then, and I hope this post can help some of you get started with the wonderful, amazing, complicated, intimidating curriculum that is the Units of Study.

First Things First: What is It?

The Units of Study is a curriculum written by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP, for short). Because Lucy is the Founding Director of the project and has such a major role in the development of the Units, a lot of people have taken to just calling the curriculum “Lucy,” as in “we do Lucy.” But Lucy is only one part of the incredible team of researchers and writers who pen the curriculum and its supplemental resources, so I will only ever refer to it by its name: The Units of Study, or UoS for short.

The Units of Study is the main curriculum used by teachers who implement Reading and Writing Workshop in their classrooms. It is founded on the research that supports Balanced Literacy and workshop style teaching. There are two versions of the curriculum. The Units of Study for Teaching Reading (abbreviated RUOS) is currently available for K-5, and has units for 6-8 rolling out this fall. The Units of Study in Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing (WUOS) is available for grades K-8. Each grade level gets its own curriculum box for the UoS, complete with four spiral bound units, sticky notes for your minilessons, a guidebook, a book of extra units, and a book with performance assessments and learning progressions. There’s a LOT of meat to this curriculum, and getting started can feel a little like staring up a tall mountain. I want to share my best advice for digging in to help make your climb a little easier.

Getting Started

Okay. You have your curriculum kit (hooray! lucky you!) and you’re ready to dig in. Here are my steps for getting yourself acquainted with the Units:

  1. Set your grade level kit in front of you. Take out all of the components and familiarize yourself with what’s there. You don’t need to read it all yet, but just flip through to see what the different pieces are. You should have four spiral bound units that contain minilessons, ideas for conferring points, and share points. You will also have a Guide to the Reading (or Writing) Workshop, which contains all of the nuts and bolts to Workshop teaching and teaching from the Units specifically. Another book in your kit is called the If..Then..Curriculum. It contains additional units that you may want to teach during the year, but they are not as fleshed out as the spiral bound units. Finally, there is a book called Reading (or Writing) Pathways, which contains assessment information and the invaluable learning progressions. Oh–and I forgot–there is also a pad of sticky notes to use when teaching the minilessons in your spiral bound units.
  2. Once you have gotten a feel for all the bits and pieces that came in your kit, your next step is to watch the free orientation videos. In order to access them, you need to provide some information to Heinemann, but it’s fast, completely harmless, and free. There are videos for Reading and for Writing. The videos are about an hour long and will walk you through the pieces of the kit, your first spiral unit, and an additional unit in the kit. You’ll get to see real teachers teaching lessons from your grade level unit and get a feel for how your year will go. Don’t pass the videos up–they are extremely informative and easy to digest, especially for those of you who are visual/auditory learners.
  3. Your next stop is to grab your Guide to the Reading (or Writing) Workshop. This book is going to become your bible for teaching the Units of Study. It’s a book you need to read cover to cover, and then read again with some lined post-its, a highlighter, and a pencil. Since I own my own curriculum kit, I have written all over my Guidebook, and if your district doesn’t mind, you should absolutely do it, too. Pretty much any question you have about workshop teaching and the UoS can be answered by turning back to your Guidebook. When I first got my kit, I put off reading it in favor of diving straight into my spiral units. I would skim through occasionally when I was confused about something, but I really regret not sitting down and reading it thoroughly. My coworkers and I participated in a book club for our Reading Guidebooks this year, and it was SO helpful to read through and discuss with colleagues who are also doing Workshop. If you have the chance, I recommend it!
  4. Take a look at this year’s Scope & Sequence for units that was published by TCRWP. It will help you to get a big picture of your teaching year. There are three different sequences: One for schools that partner with TCRWP and receive onsite PD, one for schools with students who are experienced with the UoS but don’t receive help from TCRWP, and one for schools where students are inexperienced with the UoS or are working significantly below grade level.
  5. Now that you have an idea of which unit you will be teaching first (usually it’s Unit 1 in your kit), go ahead and read over your first unit. Pay special attention to the Unit Overview at the beginning of the unit–it’s the must-read information to set you up for success.
  6. Finally, join the Units of Study Facebook groups. Thousands of teachers from all over the world are there asking and answering questions, sharing their challenges, and celebrating their triumphs. Lucy Calkins and all the rest are there, too, so you can get advice straight from the source! There’s a group for Reading, a group for Writing, and one just for Middle School.

I hope these steps help get you started on your road to the Units of Study! One last word of advice: This curriculum is heavy on reading. For the students, and for you. The creators of the Units wrote them with the presumption that not all teachers will be receiving in-person PD, and they have filled the materials chock-full of information about Balanced Literacy and workshop teaching. However, to access all of that juicy information, you need to be ready to read. A lot. The most common complaint I hear from my colleagues is the sheer amount of reading this curriculum expects you to do. Coming from a boxed curriculum with a scripted teacher manual, this can feel impossibly daunting. However, we as teachers can’t expect our students to read for information if we’re not willing to do it ourselves. You will be so much more successful in teaching from the Units (and really, any other curriculum) if you set aside time to read the materials!

Best of luck to you in your teaching journey! If this is your first time teaching from the Units, get ready to watch yourself teach in a way you never dreamed, and get ready to watch your students’ engagement and achievement skyrocket!

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  1. Beautifully put! I was just at a week long training for the writing UoS and I’m so excited to implement it in my class this fall. Reading your entry makes me wish we also had the reading UoS! Thanks for your helpful posts!

  2. Where were you last summer when I had all the kits at my house and no clue where to begin?! I’m the literacy coach for my building, and was so happy I had convinced admin to purchase the UofS…
    Now, one year down, and I will go back and finally view those grade level videos!

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