About the Unit

Mastering the Essentials gives students and teachers the foundation they need to carry out a 21st century writing workshop that will show results over the school year. Teaching writing to young adolescents is enormously challenging because learning to write is not about one skill; it represents a “bundle,” encompassing everything from generating good ideas to editing the grammar of a final draft(Fletcher and Portalupi, 2001). Recognizing just how complex this type of instruction can be, this four week introductory unit aims to make start-up easy, fun and understandable to students, and highly manageable for teachers. But is it really necessary to take so much time to introduce the practices associated with the 21st century writing workshop? What can be gained?

Linda Ellis and Jamie Marsh, the authors of Getting Starting: The Reading–Writing Workshop, Grades 4–8, emphasize the importance of setting the stage when they state, “What happens in the beginning of the writing workshop sets the tone for the rest of the year. It’s critical to establish our expectations and organization, structure and commitment” (Heinemann, 2007, 51). Mastering the Essentials does just that. Students develop an understanding of the overall structure of the workshop and how they will take part in this environment that emphasizes responsibility (for choosing and fleshing out topics, working independently, exchanging writing with peers online), active learning (making effective use of in-class writer’s work time by writing in a sustained manner) and professionalism (producing complete pieces of writing and publishing for a real online audience). Students come to understand and develop essential skills while completing the first assignment, a written “snapshot” that briefly describes a real experience in detail. Students get their feet wet with several stimulating brainstorming approaches that ignite their imaginations, and engage in every step of the writing process while being supported by instruction that meets their individual needs as well as web-based activities increasingly relevant to their day-to-day lives. Ultimately, they produce work for sharing and celebrating. For youngsters, this first project goes far beyond familiarizing them with the practices and guidelines that will be used all year. Students also have an initial enlightening and satisfying writing experience to jump start what is to follow.

For youngsters, this first project goes far beyond familiarizing them with the practices and guidelines that will be used all year. Students also have an initial enlightening and satisfying writing experience to jumpstart what is to follow.

Unit Objectives

Middle school writers will

  1. Acquire an understanding of the expectations and practices associated with the writing work they will complete this year
  2. Effectively execute all the steps of the writing process supported by technology tools and activities: planning, drafting, revising, editing and publishing their work
  3. Conceive and write a short and detailed narratives (“snapshot”) based on personal experiences
  4. Apply fundamental structures (that allow them to place emphasis on the most important parts of a story) and craft strategies (descriptive language, vivid word choice) to enhance the story’s clarity of meaning, focus and appeal to readers
  5. Develop writing strategies that can be generalized across genre assignments.

How to Approach the Unit

Teachers who participate in Mastering the Essentials are provided with a professional development institute, on-site mentoring and a unique set of print and web-based classroom resources for teaching and learning.

By logging on to the program’s website, teachers gain access to a complete set of lesson plans, accompanying classroom visuals and the Online Classroom, a user-friendly area where they can collect and evaluate student work and help students publish for a real online audience. Tech-based teacher resources are accompanied by a print binder that is particularly useful to teachers having limited technology access. Technology-based resources are also provided for students. Their learning is scaffolded with amusing animated shorts, sample writers’ notebooks and other writing samples; and a series of curriculum-based multimedia activities and tutorials that are instructionally on track and, at the same time, highly motivating to high-tech teens.

Recognizing the heterogeneity of today’s classrooms, Mastering the Essentials offers flexibility. To help establish this flexibility and make the writing process successful, the curriculum gives teachers “breathing room” to reteach, add their own unique lessons and modify those provided here in order to meet students’ specific needs. This enables participating teachers to make this unit their own.

Recommendations for successful implementation:

  1. Consider various classroom set-ups that include organizing books and creating a system for students’ writing folders.
  2. Write sample material to serve as models during mini lessons.
  3. Plan links between writing and reading workshops (see Reading Companion), including read alouds, discussion of mentor texts and independent reading time.
  4. Cultivate good writing practices by establishing routines, indicated in chart form at the end of each step (building stamina, providing independent writing time each day), and clearly stating expectations.
  5. Assess student progress throughout the unit (see baseline assessment, checklists and checkpoints, conferring log) and regularly review student work in notebooks as well as in the Online Classroom.
  6. Conduct individual conferences with students regularly.


Using Technology for 21st Century Teaching and Learning
“In truth, we do not have a choice if we want our students to succeed in the world
in which they find themselves. Functional literacy as we know it means that people
are able to process print in their environment, whether it be, for example, newspapers, train schedules, or official government documents.”

(Wepner, Valmont & Thurlow, eds. Linking Literacy and Technology: A Guide for K-8 Classrooms. Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 2000.)

A major goal of Mastering the Essentials is to introduce middle school students and teachers to technological tools that promote learning and are essential for writing: accessing and analyzing online information, sharing ideas with peers and teachers and producing high quality print material through revision, editing, publishing, etc.

Technology provides many tools and supports for writing, particularly writing that is taught through the writing workshop approach. Students not only share ideas, draft, edit and publish their work easily, they also engage in the same writing venture that their parents and older siblings take part in. This makes their effort worth it: it is truly authentic, professional and important.

Mastering the Essentials adheres to principles of cyber-safety by housing student communication in a password protected environment in which only teachers and students enrolled in the program may interact with one another. Student work is published online with permission of parents and contains first names only. No last names or other personal information is posted for public viewing.

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