When I last posted to this blog, I was living my own teacher dream. I was working in the district I had sought-out the moment I graduated college. I was blissfully designing my own daily schedule and my own daily instruction from scratch. Very few textbooks or mandates clouded my dream, and I felt a lot like a chef, “cooking up” fun and engaging lessons and activities for my students. I lived the promise I had made when they hired me – I was the person who came in early and stayed up late and showed up on the weekends because I loved doing this job and having this freedom to do it the way I wanted to.
I was one of quite a few teachers in my district (after all, they had “raised” me into the teacher I was) who could practically hiss and spit when the dreaded “P” word was spoken….p-r-0-g-r-a-m. We were always a little paranoid, and would speak in hushed whispers about our fears that someone above was going to try to push a program on us. We knew we were lucky to have the freedom and flexibility to be so creative with our work, and very few other schools operate this way. It was what drew most of us to the district in the first place, and we had become fiercely loyal to our way of doing business.
For a long time, our paranoia was just paranoia, but eventually, the reality was upon us. We were asked to review some sample materials for reading instruction. Thankfully, one of the products that was provided was the Units of Study for Teaching Reading. Many of us fierce, passionate, creative teachers had been using reading and writing workshop for years. We had read the professional books, gone to the Saturday reunions at Teachers College, and sought out workshops when they were available. The Units of Study product was based in the philosophy that we were already using, so if we had to spend our precious budget dollars on something other than children’s literature, THAT was what we wanted to spend them on!
When I was one of the teachers clawing and biting because the “P” word had been used, a colleague made a comment that stuck with me. I had shared a Facebook meme (originally from John Spencer’s blog) that read, “Telling a Teacher to Use a Boxed Curriculum is Like Forcing a Chef to Cook Hamburger Helper.” This represented exactly how I felt about “programs” and everything I loved about teaching. However, this colleague’s response was, “Yes, but sometimes Hamburger Helper is what you need to get started…” I remembered her words when it was time to bring the Units of Study reading materials into our school. One of the reasons our reading and writing workshop program wasn’t as robust as it had been was because we had quite a few new teachers join us and other teachers change grade levels. There wasn’t any common training, materials, or expectations, and everybody was trying to do the best they could with the situation they were in. As a young teacher with no children, no health or family issues, an overabundance of enthusiasm, and a reading specialist degree that led me to a lot more training in this area than my peers, I had the special knowledge and time on my hands to do this kind of work from scratch day in and day out. But not every teacher is in the same situation as me. The Units of Study were the common ground we needed for each teacher to build something great in their own classroom.
Lucy Calkins said it herself in the Guide to the Readers Workshop that comes with each grade level’s Units of Study kit. It’s just “professional development in a box.” It’s not a program. It’s not a script. It’s a way for teachers to learn the philosophy I’ve always subscribed to, build a school-wide curriculum based on that philosophy, and “cook up” a class full of readers. There are many different ways to whip up an outstanding chocolate cake, and each chef will make it differently based on his/her specific talents and preferences. But in the end, there are a few key ingredients and steps to the process that have to be present in that recipe. Likewise, there are a few key ingredients and steps to the process that we can all benefit from learning in order to grow a generation of readers.