Update, January 1, 2019:  Hi! I have posted each resource as a free download in my new Teachers Pay Teachers store. I just uploaded the files, so they may not all be visible for a couple of hours, but they should all be visible within 24 hours. I hope you enjoy them! https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Buffy-Hamilton

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know I am terribly unhappy with the first unit of study our school has been working with—the Lucy Calkins Deep Study of Character.  Concerns I have include:

  • Lack of academic vocabulary that I know my students will be expected to know on state tests and in future high school courses.  I can’t fathom we are spending 7-8 weeks on a unit that has no mention of direct/indirect characterization, flat or round characters, or static/dynamic characters.
  • Limited number of learning structures that really do not provide much scaffolding for students who are either below grade level in reading and/or writing.
  • Too much unstructured “turn and talk” and emphasis on small group conferencing that is difficult at best for classes with wide gap in abilities.
  • The units are too long in general in terms of time for those on a 45-50 minute literacy period.
  • We’re investing a tremendous amount of precious instructional time on a limited number of standards.
  • I don’t have the time or energy to read 8-10 pages of small print for a single lesson.

With these challenges in mind, I’ve been working overtime to take the concepts in the required unit of study I must use and make it more accessible to my 8th grade learners.  The activities I’m outlining below took approximately 7-8 days of instructional time with classes that meet roughly 45-50ish minutes depending on our bell schedules for specific days.

The second “bend” of the unit focuses on setting, how word choices create mood, and how the setting/mood of a story may impact a character.  After one pass at the mini-lesson using an excerpt from First French Kiss that did not resonate one bit with my 1st period, I used a passage of my own from the beginning of Chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby for our guided analysis of the setting, word choices, and mood; I was delighted with my students’ response to this modification and our guided “think aloud” in my 4th, 5th, and 6th period classes.

After our read aloud session and think aloud mini-lessons (it’s pretty much impossible to limit complex concepts to 10 minutes, ugh), I initially thought it would not be difficult for my students to find two passages in their current independent reading book to find and analyze.

Students had half the period to work on this learning task and the entire weekend to complete their work.  Unfortunately, about only a quarter of my students attempted to finish the assignment and those who did seemed to struggle with accuracy in identifying the setting, mood, and word choices that created that mood.

I decided to punt and let students take another pass at the skills by working on some guided practice independently in class.  This learning activity also gave students a chance to practice using the dictionary and thesaurus in an authentic context as they encountered unfamiliar vocabulary.

The next day I organized students into small teams of four.  Two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 1 from our independent practice as a team, two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 2 from our independent practice as a team, and two groups in each class were asked to analyze Passage 3 from our independent practice as a team.  After reviewing the “steps to success” for creating a template on chart paper and instructions for analysis, teams worked for about 1.5 class periods to craft their posters.  I feel it is important to provide students the opportunity to engage in this learning structure of focused academic talk and collaborative conversations.


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Once students completed the posters, I hung them on the walls outside my classroom and organized by cluster (Passage 1, 2, and 3).  No names were on the front so that students could participate in a gallery walk and do a blind peer review to vote on their top choices in each category as well as their overall top choice.  The assessment gallery walk was one of our station activities we did over two days, and students used a paper rubric and clipboard to do their evaluations before entering their choices online in a Google form I created.


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Some of you on Twitter asked what chart paper did I use for the posters; thankfully, I had a stash of these leftover from last year.  Right now, they are at $9.00 a tablet, but if you watch for a sale, you can buy them for half of that price.

If you like this activity, you can access the materials from this Google Folder.  Some of you have asked if I have a TPT store, and I don’t at this time (though I am finally considering it thanks to the encouragement of many people!).  You will also need to install these fonts for the files to format properly for you:




In this folder, you will also find a “task card walk” that I designed for students to do once they finished their group work early to nudge them back to some independent applied practice.  They wrote their answers down on a sheet of paper I provided and then entered them into a Google Form for grading.  We are not 1:1 at this time, so that is why I did not have students record their responses directly into the Google Form.

Last not but not least, our culminating learning activity was one that I purchased from The Daring English Teacher over at TPT.  I slightly tweaked the activity to have the students do their sketches in the boxes at the top of the page for the setting activity and their written responses ON the sticky notes I provided them to put on top.  I also created a model for them that I used as a think aloud to introduce the activity.  I then shared it with my students as a projected PDF and printed copies that I put in my ever-present neon pouches for them to have handy at their table work spaces for a frame of reference.  Not only did this assignment help students to think through the significance of the setting, but it also gave students a meaningful opportunity to practice the RACE strategy in context, one that is emphasized in all grade levels and subject areas in my school.

I gave students a day and a half of class time to finish this assignment, and I was quite impressed with the quality of their work.  I believe the independent guided practice that we did and then the conversations that happened in the group version of that assignment helped students grow their thinking.  All of these assignments will become part of their literacy portfolios we are keeping in folders in the classroom.  Here is a sampler of their work:

What strategies and learning activities do you like for teaching setting, mood, and diction?  If you are in a school that is required to use the Calkins units of study and have latitude to go off script, what modifications are you making?  What common texts do you like to use to help students have a common mentor text or frame of reference for having discussions to contextualize specific literary elements?

In my next post, I’ll share how I introduced the analysis of theme using:

  • A guided/interactive practice activity taking apart literary elements and putting them back together to think about theme
  • Purposeful highlighting with annotations
  • Note and Notice “Contrasts and Contradictions”
  • Station Rotation work to analyze the “puzzle pieces” of a story we tackled independently and then in groups to discover possible themes