Education, Literacy

The Problem with (Most) Units of Study

There are hundreds of people making hundreds of thousands–some, even millions– of dollars off of the business of developing units of study for reading and writing. As a classroom teacher, I was a fan of units of study, albeit ones that I personally developed each summer in between beach days while my kids were holed up in day care or staring blankly at Caillou on the television.

Now they stare at this. Believe me, it’s an improvement.

As I planned “bare bones” units of study for the following school year, I tried valiantly to hit upon all of my favorite genres of writing (e.g., personal narrative) as well as those I inexplicably felt I had to “cover”: poetry, fiction stories, persuasive essays, and the like (the “like” encompassing such exciting genres as literary analysis, speeches, and research reports). I cringe as I write this, having long since recognized how far down the rabbit hole I had fallen as a teacher.

My units were planned “bare bones”-style because I knew that, no matter how well I thought I knew middle schoolers, I would inevitably need to modify and tweak them (the units, of course) based upon the strengths, quirks, and needs of my students–and that no amount of planning could change that. So I at least had THAT essential knowledge going for me as a teacher.

High five, Me.
High five, Me.

Thus, each summer I happily plowed on, arbitrarily selecting which kinds of writing I felt my students should be exposed to and planning activities that I felt would motivate them to “buy in” to my skeletal curriculum.

During these summers and throughout the academic years that followed, I foolishly believed that I was somehow sparing my students the indignity of being taught using pre-developed units of study–units centered around middle schoolers writing “expository essays” and “office memos” (true story)–created by faceless educators who knew neither me nor my students. Over time, as I worked to make my writing lessons more applicable and transferrable to all of my students’ writing, not just to one assignment, my curriculum planning followed suit, focusing less on “genres” and more on writing “criteria”–though the units I developed still shared a suspicious resemblance to the genre-based ones I had previously created (e.g., instead of a “op/ed” unit I would design a unit teaching students to “write persuasively” Clever, no?).

What I still failed to understand, though, was that the issue was not with the manner in which I designed units of study for my writing students–it was that I was designing units of study. I was, in all seriousness, attempting to predict what my students would need in a given school year–students who I had not even yet met. Instead of focusing on what my students and their initial attempts at composing told me about what they needed–and about what I needed to teach them–I was focusing on teaching units. This even despite the fact that I fleshed out and modified the units I had already sketched out as I got to know my students better.

No wonder each unit felt contrived. No wonder I annually struggled to “motivate” those students for whom writing was a struggle (and/or a bore). No wonder I rarely felt as though the strategies and the skills I taught my students were transferring to their next composition. In developing units to teach before even learning my students’ names, I had neglected what should have been the most important factor in my lesson planning.

And that, of course, is the inherent problem with pre-developed units of study–for any subject. There is no way to know, before establishing the kind of learning community that all students deserve to be a part of, what their needs, desires, and wonders are. So how can we pre-plan what it is we are going to teach them?

The truth is, if we as teachers have a working knowledge of how students develop as writers and of writing processes (because we are ourselves engaged in a regular practice of writing), we can still plan for our composing workshop in a way that honors the processes of assessment and inquiry–and more importantly, honors our students.

How do we do this?

Certainly not by imposing pre-packaged, pre-developed units of study on our students, most of which are arbitrarily organized by genre. Not by insisting that students write a personal essay in September and a collection of poems in April.

And not, I would argue, using an arbitrary set of  standards that purport to know what it is students should know and be able to do in order to be “ready” for a future that is as yet undetermined.

So instead, what if we thought about teaching composition in the most broad terms possible–in terms of “competencies” or “understandings” that are common to most writers but that still leave room for inquiry and student voice/choice? Understandings like…

  • There are many ways in which we read texts (which includes understandings about how to read like a writer);
  • There are many ways in which we compose texts (which equally values words and images and opens up possibilities for multimodal composition);
  • There are many ways in which we think and talk about texts (which includes talking about the texts we ourselves compose and about our own processes as writers);
  • etc.

Some of you may be looking at these and thinking: “but these ‘understandings’ don’t tell me what to teach!”

Which is precisely my point–that we can’t know what to teach until we know our students. That doesn’t mean that we stop exposing our students to genres, or to different processes for writing, or to craft techniques they might not “know” they don’t know. But it does mean we do it in a way that is playful, not prescriptive (Aimee Buckner’s work on writer’s notebooks is great for learning how to do this), that still provides a wide berth for student wonders and noticings from which to build the heart of the curriculum.

I’m ignoring a big “but” here (wink, wink), and that is the one I always hear when I propose this method of building curriculum: but what about the teachers who BEG to use pre-developed units of study? Why not give them what they want?

I would argue that teachers who truly understand literacy development and who themselves write as a regular practice don’t need to rely on writing units of study, despite what some of them might think. And the teachers who do “need” them would be better served with sustained, ongoing professional learning opportunities that will deepen their understanding of composing and of how students develop as writers.

So, foolishly, I’m calling for an end to (or at least a moratorium on) pre-packaged, pre-developed, student-soul-sucking units of study for writing. Foolishly, because I know that doing so is akin to calling for an end to McDonald’s or the Kardashians. Foolishly, because there will always be people who try to package the nuanced thinking and thoughtful decision-making of knowledgeable educators. And foolishly, because there will always be someone to show them the money.


3 thoughts on “The Problem with (Most) Units of Study”

  1. I love EVERYTHING about this post. It is brilliant. I struggle with this as my district attempts to write reading and writing units for every grade level. I find myself on the committee for writing the 5th grade reading units and I so very much disagree with the basic premise of writing one unit, to fit every teacher and, even worse, to fit every child. We KNOW this is not best for kids and yet we do it anyway. I am with you in your call to end units. Instead, I think we look at the many PURPOSES for reading and writing and come up with purposes to structure our teaching around. I don’t even have a problem outlining some common targets that we all attempt to meet through out units, but then leave the majority of the space for our students to fill in. Thank you, so very much, for writing this.


  2. That’s such an insightful post. I have done the same thing during summers, but mostly changed course as soon as I met the kids. In some years, I had the same kids, so that made my planning a lot better. I just took classes on learning differences and disciplinary literacy and your post summed up both of them very well. Will I get CEU’s for reading??


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