How to unit plan- and not lose your mind
Unit plans can be really fun or really stressful, depending on the moment. Sometimes, I have a great idea to plan a unit, something transformative and relevant, but it ends up just living inside of my head because I never get a chance to put it to paper. Other times, I can write a unit in little to no time at all, and I don’t end up losing my head over it. I’ve done some reflecting to figure out what stresses me versus what works, so you don’t have to.
Ultimately, what helps me the most in terms of organizing a unit is looking at what my hard deadlines are. Maybe I want my big, unit summative to take a full week of class time so that kids aren’t stressing at home, or maybe I am prepping for a state test and need to work around that testing day—either way, I have those dates in mind and can use them when planning.
Then, I look at the skills my students need to work on, and what skills they need to review in other to get to that summative. For example, right now I am planning an argument unit. Per our district pacing guide, fourth quarter is dedicated to the reading informative texts standards and teaching argument. In order to get there, students need to know how to write paragraphs, how to cite evidence, how to determine what is a credible source, and what strategies are considered good practice in winning arguments. Now that I know this, I can look at the standards and connect them to my unit, then start looking for articles that can become a vehicle so students access those skills.
As this starts to come together I start to think, what can bind all these things together?
Essential questions are my jam when it comes to unit planning, because they bring entire units and curriculums together. They become ongoing conversations with kids about what they are learning, and they start to connect things to their own lives.
I teach ninth grade, and rather than framing it as a coming-of-age thing, I ask students to connect what they are learning to heroism and villainy. Our binding question is “What makes a hero and what makes a villain? Are all heroes good? Are all villains evil?”
In thinking of this, I fold this into our unit. I ask students, how can being good at crafting arguments craft villains AND heroes? What historical evidence can you find for both heroes and villains being good orators? Who were the most famous heroes and villains in history, and do you think they were good at arguments?
This puts it so that students are handling their own learning. So, looking back at the overall unit, I start to think, what products should students be working towards that can fall into the skills, the essential questions, and the overall district pacing guide? For me, I came up with a project-based learning school improvement plan. Students will conduct interviews, create proposals, and ultimately present their findings to decision-makers.
Working with other teachers for accountability
I didn’t come up with everything on my own. My biggest enemy sometimes is that my ideas can live inside my head. When I have big aspirations for big projects like this, I try to get together with other teachers not just because they’re awesome, but also because it gives me accountability. If a unit plan is living in another teacher’s head and we are both planning on doing it with our children, then there is more of a chance that the unit will get done.
Not to mention, having another teacher to work with means we can both look at logistics of setting things up, we can add in perspectives as far as what we think may be obstacles and what solutions we can come up with.
So what can you do?
- As soon as you can, write down your timeline.
- Figure out what skills students need to learn
- Determine what skills students need already have to learn grade level skills
- Create an essential question
- See what articles or texts you can use to teach skills
- Determine if you can fold everything into one unifying idea, like a project or novel