Unit Planning is a big component of a teacher’s practice. As they help establish the direction of our lessons, doing them well can make a huge difference in our practice.
As teachers, we all know the struggles and challenges we face before ever stepping foot in a classroom. While most people may think that teachers are out enjoying 2 months off in the summer, often, these teachers are planning for (and stressing over) the upcoming school year. A big component of our preparation work includes the formation of Unit Plans (UPs) that allow us to remain accountable to the curriculum(s) we are teaching and provide a general trajectory and course for us to follow in our classrooms. UPs, to non-educators, may seem like simple documents that enumerate the lessons we want to teach and the content we want to cover but the intricacies necessary to create effective Unit Plans are often lost on people not conversant with the process involved in the creation of these documents.
STEP 1: Reading the Curriculum
The first step in creating a UP is to read the curriculum we are teaching. This means reading it cover to cover and trying to unpack the messages, lessons, ideas, etc found within. This process may seem straight forward but reading a curriculum is not the same as say reading a novel. As a teacher reads, she or he does so with the intention to decipher this text so that they are able to teach it. Like any text, a curriculum is only pages between two covers. In and of itself, a curriculum has no meaning unless it is read by teachers and students. In the process of reading this text, the teacher has to consciously make the effort to discern from this document the intentions of the curriculum writers and figure out teaching strategies that are appropriate for the context of their classroom. This includes formulating lessons that touch upon multiple forms of preferred learning in the classroom (i.e. multiple intelligences), coming up with different learning strategies for the different types of learners in the classroom (i.e. differentiated learning), understanding and assessing what students arelady know about the topic (i.e. evaluating prior knowledge), etc.
STEP 2: Making Sense of it All
Curriculums are often dense, verbose and riddled with lots of facts and figures. Bluntly put, there is often more content then there is time to teach and teachers need to make important decisions around the content that they are going to teach. In order to do this, teachers must have an objective in mind when they are teaching a curriculum. What is is that I want my students to know by the end of the term? What is of value to them? How can this curriculum have personal relevance in their lives? These are all big questions and require an absurd amount of contemplation on the part of the teacher. If a teacher does not answer these questions adequately, then often lessons deteriorate and student learning suffers. Having some answers to these questions allows a teacher to better understand the lofty task ahead of them as they undertake the responsibility of instructing youth for the next school year.
One way in which teachers try to make sense of a curriculum (and if not in its entirely, then at least with individual units or themes) is to develop what is known as a Big Understanding, that thing that students will walk away with. Developing this Big Understanding is no small feat and requires lots of head scratching, multiple cups of coffee (if that’s your thing), and an iterative process whereby a teacher tries to refine the Big Understanding into something that is attainable, specific to the curriculum yet broad enough to allow for students to feel a personal attachment.
Big Understandings should be:
- Specific yet Broad
STEP 3: The Process
Once you’ve developed a Big Understanding, you need to be able to then effectively plan your term or year. This is the moment where you start to flesh out your lessons for the next few months. There are multiple ways of doing this and multiple elements to consider. First, you want to create a unit plan that spirals outwards from lesson to lesson. What you are doing is starting with specifics at the beginning of the term (e.g. proving the subject-specific “language” that students will use during the term) to broader understandings of the subject matter. This spiralling approach is tied directly to the need for scaffolding of lessons, that is to say, building from one lesson to the next with each previous lesson adding support to the next so that as we build “height” (or breadth and depth to the subject), students are able to deal with escalating complexity.
There are also highly developed methods that teachers can utilize to create unit plans. One such strategy is to begin at the end and work towards the beginning. As convoluted as that last sentence may sound, this form of unit planning, often known as backward design, asks teachers to think about what they want their students to know at the end of the term/year. If my goal is for students to know A, be able to do B and understand the importance of C, what do I have to do in order to make A, B and C happen? With these goals in mind, I can tailor my lessons in such a way so that I reach these goals.
Planning for the year is a daunting challenge. It is perhaps the thing I look least forward to in my profession. I find it extremely hard to plan for weeks in advance. One of my biggest concerns in the past was the fear that UPs stifled a teacher’s creativity in the classroom. My thinking at the time made it seem that once a UP was established, a teacher was bound to it. But I’ve learnt overtime that while a UP may detail very specific steps in your lesson, by having a Big Understanding that is broad yet succinct enough, you can have a lot of flexibility in terms of what you teach and how you teach it. If anything, the direction that UPs give me now is highly important as it keeps me accountable to the curriculum and the objectives I’ve established for myself and my students.
Included below is an article on unit planning which some might find useful.