Third Grade: Fairy Tale Adaptations Writing Unit


I just finished working in third grade classroom for a coaching cycle and the unit we chose to tackle was the Unit 4: Fairy Tales, from Lucy Calkins’ Writing Units of Study.  I have made it my goal, that as we (I) finish these coaching cycles, to share with you what we learned along the way as well as any modifications we made.  Currently, I am in the process of two cycles–one in Reader’s Workshop and one in Writer’s Workshop.  These are being conducted in our Literacy Studio Classrooms that are preparing to open in the fall.   I know with the limited amount of professional development we have been able to offer in conjunction with the immense amount of information provided in the units, it has been a struggle to feel these have been strongly implemented.  Part of sharing this journey with you is to let you know I get it.  I am right here beside you, trying to make it all work and struggling just as much as you.  Therefore, I find it critically necessary to share in the struggles and triumphs in order for us to expand our thinking, learn and brainstorm with each other, and be transparent in what is working and not working.  I will tell you up front that in neither of the coaching cycles I am in right now have we gone verbatim, day-to-day through her units.  It just hasn’t been possible.  While they provide a nice, linear path to learning (as do all resources) we know our students do not always learn in that way or at that pace.  Calkins knows this, too.  So, the bigger piece behind this is to communicate with you that when we did not follow her outline, what did we do and why did we choose to do that?  How did we know?  The answer to those questions lie in the heart of our pretest data.  So, let’s start there.

1) Narrative On-Demand

In the front matter of the Fairy Tale unit Calkins suggests to simply give the same narrative on-demand that was given to students at the beginning of the year.  Her justification was that when students were asked to include fairy tale elements they often got lost in them, and then you were not able to see their true writing abilities.  Additionally, it would allow you to see growth the students had made across the year with narrative writing.  We toyed with this idea because initially we were going to give a fairy tale on-demand.  Ultimately, we decided to go with our gut.  The reason being that we felt it was important to see who did get lost in the elements of a fairy tale because this would be critical to guiding them as writers of one during this unit.  We changed the wording of our on-demand to read as follows:

“I’m really eager to understand what you can do as writers of fairy tales today, so will you please write the best fairy tale, the best Small Moment story, that you can write?   Make this be the story of fantastical characters, magical moments, and scary action.  Think about all the elements of a fairy tale, and decide which ones best fit the story you want to tell.  You might focus on just a scene or two.  You’ll have only forty-five minutes to write this fairy tale, so you’ll need to plan, draft, revise, and edit in one sitting.  Write in a way that shows off all you know about fairy tale writing.”

As you can see, we kept most of the language the same from the narrative on-demand, making only a few small modifications to tailor it to fairy tale writing.  In general, our results fell under one of three categories:

  • students wrote a traditional fairy tale with no changes
  • students wrote the fairy tale they wrote at the end of second grade
  • students created an original fairy tale of their own (this was about half of the class, and of those only about 4-5 students got lost in the storytelling elements of a fairy tale.  By this, I mean jumping from one element to the next without appropriate elaboration or transitioning.  The teacher noted these particular students do this in all their writing, so it was not specific to the fairy tale).

After looking at the pieces holistically, we began to look for specific areas of need.  Craft and elaboration were two areas that nearly the entire class fell into.  This was not surprising as this is the crux of any piece of writing.  This led us to our next modification.

2) Minilessons

Rather than starting with the first lesson of the unit where students immediately begin adapting, we stayed in the traditional fairy tales one more day to focus on author craft moves that move a story forward.  We developed the anchor charts below to begin talking about this work.

We worked with the traditional version of Cinderella to determine where these craft moves took place in the story.  Since this is pretty complex work to open the unit, we also provided them question stems to help them think about each of these.  We modeled this in the minilesson, showing students our own thinking and helping them recognize that all these craft moves weren’t happening throughout the story all the time.  Additionally, we wanted them to know there were more than just the four we initially had them thinking about.  You can see that two more were added from our work that day–character motivation and repetition.


3) Writing Tools

The blank four-page booklet that Calkins refers to in her first lesson (which became our second), completely lost our students.  I’m not sure if it was the teaching of it or old habits we have not broken yet, but students wanted to write their entire story, not just the summary of each part, in that booklet.  It was felt like due to fact that the tool was a booklet itself they felt it should be filled with an entire story.  So, we switched our tool to a story mountain, creating on anchor paper and providing them a copy as well, and gave them post-its to plan their scenes on.  This worked much better as students were familiar both of these tools, making the process much more efficient.

These are the three main changes we made in launching the unit through the first bend.  I am sure there are more to come as we move into the publishing phase, but I wanted you all to see some critical points where we made changes.  Remember, this was all based of pretest data as well.  So, if this is something you have not traditionally spent a lot of time on I would suggest thinking about how to make time for that.  When our students aren’t getting a concept or idea, it’s much easier to modify along the way when we have data to look at because we can see clearly what it is that they are needing and provide the appropriate scaffolds for that.  Therefore, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the before and after on-demand.  It aids in goal-setting, growth, assessment data, and in-time teaching that directly meets students needs.  You get a lot of bang for your “teaching” buck with them!


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