Unit 1: Interpreting Characters: The Heart of the Story
You'll want your classroom library to be spilling over with great characters for this unit. Any books with characters will do -- however, some books will lend themselves to deeper character analysis and interpretation much more easily than others.
Realistic fiction books tend to have the most well-developed characters, and tend to be the most supportive in terms of the work in this unit: character development, character change, complex relationships, lessons, and theme. You can also search your library for mysteries, fantasy, and adventure stories with strong characters. While easier non-realistic genre-fiction tends to be more plot-driven, levels P+ often offer characters that are complex and interesting--perfect for this unit.
You'll find that this unit builds nicely off of the work of the third grade Unit 3 (Character Studies). Depending on the time of year and reading levels of your fourth graders, you might look into borrowing books with strong characters from your third grade colleagues (books that they likely won't be needing until later in the year).
For this unit, you might organize the fiction half of your library into bins by author, series, or similar styles (ex. funny, books that make you think, books in poem form, short story collections), or by character (ex. tough as nails, introverts, reluctant heroes), or perhaps by theme (ex. loneliness, coping with loss, bullying, overcoming obstacles). For this unit, it's ideal to have multiple copies available (especially starting in Bend II) so that partners or groups of kids can form clubs to read and talk about the same book. However, the unit can also be successful with kids reading individual books and then swapping with a partner, or simply reading on their own. Remember that depending on the length of the text, you can plan on kids reading any where from a book a week (level R+), to 2-3 books a week (N-Q), or even 6-8 books a week or more (G-M), so you will want to collect a lot of books so that kids will have plenty to choose from.
Unit 2: Reading the Weather, Reading the World: Purposeful Reading of Nonfiction
For this unit, you may want to draw a curtain over the fiction side of your library, so as to highlight bins of gorgeous nonfiction. In the first part of the unit, you might arrange your library with bins of a wide range of high-interest topics. Anything from different types of animals, to extreme sports, to Star Wars, to space exploration. Gather books on the topics your particular students are passionate about. DK and National Geographic are two publishers that consistently create beautiful, engaging nonfiction books.
In a perfect world, each student would fill a personal book bin or baggie with 3-4 books on a topic, and that is what they would read. If books are in short supply, however, you might compile books in to bins for groups of 4-5 students to share for the week instead of every student having their own private supply of books. Over time you'll want to add to your collection to make it possible for students to hang on to the same books for a week, allowing for rereading, gathering post its, and placing books side by side more easily.
After spending some time researching topics of their own choosing, students will then form clubs and select a topic related to extreme weather and natural disasters. To support this work, you'll need a set of additional nonfiction topic bins, for example: tropical storms, floods, icing, winter storms, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, lightning, just to name a few. The more specific the subtopic, the more easily your students will be able to carry what they learn from one text to the next, compare and contrast, and have interesting conversations. Each club can share a bin of texts, so long as the bin contains accessible texts for every student in the group.
Gathering a wide range of leveled texts on many subtopics, all related to extreme weather and natural disasters is a big challenge. If your are concerned about having enough books, consider expanding the topics to be a bit more broad: cold weather events, hot weather events, events on land, and events at sea, for example. You can give students more options by encouraging them to select books from a range of levels (they can always read books easier than usual -- but should never be required to read something that is too hard). Add in magazine articles, news stories, and other sources if possible. You might consider supplementing the books you have with short (3-5 minute) video clips and digital resources from trusted sources such as National Geographic, Pebble Go, and Time for Kids.
In an extreme book shortage, you might divide your workshop into two parts: a certain amount of time each day to read weather and disasters, then switch over to fiction books. This will help stretch the nonfiction books across the week. Another option is to adapt the unit to spend more time reading a range of high interest topics, and less time in weather and disaster.
Unit 3: Reading History: The American Revolution
I should say from the start, that depending on your resources, as well as the demands of your social studies curriculum, you may decide, in the end, to swap out American Revolution for another historical time period or topic. But before you make that decision, know that most people I know who have tried adapting the unit agree that teaching the unit as it is written is well-worth it. It is ultimately your decision, along with your team, but in many cases, teachers have liked this unit well enough that they've simply decided to teach the American Revolution in addition to the school/district social studies curriculum!
In the first bend of the unit, students will first read widely about the American Revolution. Then, a few sessions in, they'll choose a subtopic to research more deeply. To support this work, you can organize bins of texts related to a wide array of American Revolution topics. Include nonfiction trade books, as well as maps, photographs, poems, songs, and artwork to immerse kids in the language and vocabulary, as well as the images and sights of the time period. Work to include multiple texts on each subtopic (i.e. soldiers, battles, children in the revolution, women in the revolution, Paul Revere's ride, etc.). If you're ordering books, you'll find that there are hundreds of well-written, engaging books related to the American Revolution, right around fourth grade reading levels. The book distributor Book Source is a great place to search for and find books for this unit.
By the second bend, you might drop in a few new texts to each group's bin of texts to foster engagement and interest, as they prepare for debates. Aim to include texts on each subtopic from multiple perspectives (i.e. the British versus Americans, or women versus men, or Patriots versus Loyalists whenever possible. Consider gathering texts for this unit a long-term project, with each school year getting better and better.
In the third bend, each group of students will move on to a new subtopic. You may be able to simply swap bin from one group to another if there is a wide enough range of reading levels contained within each bin. Or you may have several new bins of material for students to choose from. Students can always read materials that are easier than their "just right" reading level, but should not be reading texts that are too difficult to make sense of, or are frustrating, or un-engaging.
Unit 4: Historical Fiction Clubs
This unit will be the culmination of all the character work and informational reading skills your students have learned this year. You'll want to reorganize your classroom library to support historical fiction by creating bins of books from time periods. Ideally you would select several time periods and gather multiple copies of books at various levels for each club to choose from, so that each club is reading within one time period or even one aspect of a time period. Each club will likely read about one or two books per week. For example, one club, reading about Japanese and Japanese Americans' experience of WWII across the unit, might read Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki followed by The Faithful Elephants, by Yukio Tsuchiya, then Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr, and finally Hiroshima by Laurence Yep. In a perfect world, there would even be additional stories to choose from, so that students still have choice over the books they read, even within the boundaries of one historical time period. Ideally, you would also add one or two easy informational texts, video clips, or other resources to each time period collection to give additional background information.
You can plan for a range of levels in each time period bin--kids will be taught the strategy of reading the easier chapter books and picture books first, then working up to the more challenging books. In fact, because of the added challenge of a different time-period, encourage kids to be even more careful than usual when selecting books -- and know not to be surprised if your kids select historical fiction books that might be a level "down" from their usual realistic fiction level. Be sure to compliment their wise decision making.
If you are short on books, you can still teach a very successful historical fiction unit, making due with what you have. Organize the books you do have into time periods as best you can and make a wish list of books you'd like to add to your collection. If you don't have multiple copies, clubs won't be able to read the same book at once, but partners can each choose one book, and swap when they are done so that they will both have a book in common. While ideally kids would stick to one time period to help build a deeper understanding, they could switch time periods if you don't have enough books--or if they have little interest in the books you do have. Better to encourage students to select books they want to read than to rigidly require they stick to a time period.
As you build your collection aim for diverse perspectives from each time period, with a wide variety of main characters. Look for racial diversity, varying gender perspectives, diverse family structures, political and national identities, socioeconomic groups, religious groups, a range of lifestyles, and abilities. If you're ordering books, Lee & Low Publishers, for example, specializes in publishing beautiful multicultural books for kids. Aim for main characters in each time period in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life.