• Annemarie Johnson

Preparation Protocol: The “Why” Behind the “What”


This post is part of a collection of posts dedicated to supporting teachers who are in the beginning stages of implementing the Calkins’ Units of Study for Writing.

Do you have any resistant or reluctant writers in your classroom? If not, you must be teaching in utopia! I have met many of these writers during my 28 years of teaching. But you know what? I find that, for most students, their resistance or reluctance comes not from an attitude of defiance or disobedience. Their resistance usually stems from one of the following:​




  • They don’t know the “what”—the target or outcome they are trying to reach.

  • They don’t know the “how”–they haven’t been given explicit instruction.

  • They don’t understand the “why”–why is this important, why are we doing this?

What about writing teachers? Have you met any resistant or reluctant writing teachers? Maybe you are one. I find that teachers’ resistance or reluctance grows from the same places as those listed above. I haven’t met teachers who refuse to teach writing, but I have met many who are reluctant to get started. If your school has recently adopted the Calkins’ Units of Study for Writing and you are having trouble getting started, it might be because you aren’t sure exactly what you are supposed to be teaching or how you are supposed to teach it. But today, I would like to address the why behind the what and how.

Do you understand why a particular unit or writing skill is important? Not just in a general sense like, “Teaching kids to write is important”, but specifically why. If not, you aren’t alone. I would like to fill you in on the secret to discovering the why behind each of your units and the lessons contained within them. The first place to go is your “Welcome to the Unit” on p. vi of each of your spiral-bound units of study. I know the tendency will be to skip over this introduction to get right to the lessons. Please don’t! In these few short pages, you will discover the “why” or the rationale behind this unit. You will discover “where you are driving this bus.” One part of the Welcome to the Unit that I would like to highlight is the section called “Overview of the Unit”. This section is like a roadmap for your whole unit. As you read this section, you will want to take note of the work students will be asked to do in each bend or part of the unit.

As I read this section, I annotate it in a few ways. First, I highlight or box off the words “first bend”, “second bend”, etc.

Then I draw a line to separate each bend–this helps me clearly see that each bend will have a different focus. Next I read about each bend and ask myself, “What is the major focus of this section? Is it on generating ideas, planning, and rehearsal? Is it about elaboration strategies? Is there a particular focus on the use of mentor texts? Does this bend focus on a new project or is it a continuation of the piece from the previous bend?” I take note of these and jot myself a quick reminder in the margin, using a word or short phrase.

I have shared with many teachers that it is extremely difficult to read a whole unit prior to teaching it. In fact, I don’t recommend it because I think it can be hard to keep it all straight in your head until you start teaching it and because it can feel so overwhelming that it prevents you from jumping in and getting started. At the same time, however, it is important for us to have a big picture of the entire unit prior to teaching it. “Where are we driving this bus?”

Reading the “Welcome to the Unit” is so helpful. In just a few minutes you can get a “helicopter view” that can serve as a roadmap for your whole unit. And when we understand why we are doing something, we move away from rote teaching without purpose to teaching with intention.

Tomorrow I will be sharing a Part 2 on the “why behind the what”.

#lucycalkins #unitsofstudyforwriting #preparationprotocol

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