Copy the Cult

Copying was known as cheating in the schools I attended growing up but experience has taught me that copying is often a very important part of the learning process. In my visual arts class, I often have students copy a photo portrait of their own face in pencil. Copying allows them to discover knowledge about proportions, shading, different textures and even drawing techniques. Students are not the only ones who can learn from copying–teachers can too. In fact, using techniques or units from other teachers can actually be an effective form of professional development.

As a teacher who enjoys inquiry-driven modes teaching, I’m not a big supporter of ready-made types of curriculum. Commercial curriculum makers often have a particular audience or culture in mind when they create their product. As a result, these units or textbooks rarely appeal to my class. That is not to say they don’t benefit my teaching. I often rely on bits and pieces from textbooks and resource guides. I also draw on local authors like Adrienne Gear for her expertise. Her reading and writing resources are easily adapted to different classes. However, a steady diet of “canned curriculum” is not engaging to my students.

This is why Jennifer Gonzalez’s unit on narrative writing pleasantly surprised me. I’ve just finished teaching through it for the first time this term. It was awesome!

Much like Gear’s units, it was organized into a series of mini-lessons that were laid out topically. This made it very easy to adapt or skip lessons based on the strengths or prior knowledge of my class.

Each of the lessons also came with presentation slides and pages of clearly organized notes for the students. For example, the lesson on writing dialogue outlined some very simple rules that were clearly diagrammed so that the students could quickly refer back to them as they were writing their stories. These notes were (and will continue to be) an excellent resource for my students as they improve as writers.

One of my favourite mini-lessons in the unit was on pacing. Gonzalez explained how good stories have time jumps. They skip to the most interesting parts of the story to keep the momentum going. She also used a box diagram (below) to show how each story event is shrunk or blown up based on its importance. Some of the most dramatic events are expanded and developed in great detail while less important parts are squeezed into smaller summaries.

I can’t say enough good things about this unit. I only wished I had found it earlier in my teaching career. If you are interested in checking it out for your own class, it can be found here. There are several other units listed on her Teachers Pay Teachers account that I would like to investigate in the future. As I was writing this post, I bumped into her persuasive writing unit. It looks excellent too!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Jennifer Gonzalez’s website, the Cult of Pedagogy and her Youtube channel, I highly recommend them both as great resources.