Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Planning Week 2: Planning a Unit (The Eat.Write.Teach. Rules of Unit-Planning Magic)

In this blog series, we will be working towards our 2014 vision: being a highly-effective teacher. This month, we will focus on the planning aspect of being effective educators. We will look at four areas of planning:
  1. Planning each day.
  2. Planning a unit.
  3. Planning for the long term.
  4. Planning for the unexpected.

It is my belief that proper planning can make all the difference in how smoothly your school year runs. Last week we took a look at our daily planning practices and, in particular, our student learning objectives that should be guiding our daily plans. Now that we are in the practice of effectively gearing our day towards a goal, we can start taking a look at our units and how we can plan those effectively.

Did you ever have a teacher in your career as a student that spent too much time on a unit? Sweet mercy, I know I did. I think we often forget that our students (at the jr. high/high school level) are teenagers and they don't get quite as wrapped up in our content as we do. Not only that, but the current generation of kids going through schools (my generation, actually) are over-caffeinated, over-stimulated, and overgrown. These guys become bored very easily because they are either energy-deficient or energy-abundant, they have spent their whole lives being stimulated by external sources (television, video games, light-up noisy toys), and they are very "grown up" for being so young (which can be a great and terrible thing, which is a conversation for another day).

I had a teacher who spent six weeks on a Shakespeare unit. Six weeks. I loved Shakespeare even as a teenager, but I didn't love six weeks' worth of Shakespeare. I was so bored of it by the end that I was willing to do anything but read/write/discuss Shakespeare.

So, so bored.

I have a great advantage as a high school teacher. I'm still young. I am biologically young and I am young at heart. Often times I think veterans think of this as a disadvantage, but I think it is a great advantage because I remember being a high school student very clearly. Because I remember hating my very existence twenty-nine days into a Shakespeare unit, I think I'm really good at planning with my students in mind. I try really hard to plan my units for effectiveness, efficiency, and enjoyment.

The Eat.Write.Teach. Rules of Unit-Planning Magic

1. The curriculum should be broken up into two-week or four-week units. No less, no more. Use those two-week pieces for your smaller units of study or units that will bore your students to death. (For me, that includes pretty much any and all grammar lessons. If I get bored discussing comma rules after two days, I know my students will too.) Use those four-week chunks for your longer units of study (Shakespeare). Please, oh please, do not exceed four weeks. I've never taught anything besides high school English, but I think it's pretty fair to say that novel units and research paper units are some of the lengthiest units taught in a high school building. Still, there really is no reason for them to exceed four weeks. Your students will be ready to pluck their eyelashes out one by one if you go longer than four weeks.

2. Be strategic in your timing. Unit planning requires strategy. May I suggest that you strategize around potential pitfalls such as extended breaks? It is always my goal to be completely finished with a unit before spring break, for example, because when they return their little brains are fried. It's pretty intense to expect your kids to remember the events of the first three acts of Romeo and Juliet, for example, when they were busy creating their own Shakespeare moments during their break. In addition to extended breaks, consider the time of year. Do you really want to assign a research paper as the last unit of the school year? You might think so, because that way it is as far away from your present as possible, but this is bad planning. Doing something like this will cause you to pull several all-nighters because you had a research paper due the last day of school and grades are due two days later.

3. Remember those SLOs we talked about? Your unit as a whole needs those too. Richard and Rebecca DuFour talk about the Four Essential Questions of a PLC (professional learning community) and whether you are in a PLC building or not, these questions just make sense. The first questions asks, "What do we expect our students to learn?" When we create daily student learning objectives, we are answering that question. When we plan our units, though, we should be asking ourselves the same question. What is it we are wanting the students to learn in this unit? Before we ever begin teaching a unit, we need to answer this question. Create a checklist of the skills you want your students to learn in the unit. You will be able to use this checklist to generate your specific daily SLOs.

4. Organize skills from the ground up and teach them in that order. Once you have a list of skills for the unit, it is necessary to organize them so that they build on each other. Think of it like building a house. You start with foundation lessons, add structural lessons on top of a strong foundation, and finish off with the decor and other fancy things. This happens kind of organically in some classes, like math classes. There is a very recognizable foundation for most math courses and you must have a strong foundation before you can start building. When the foundation isn't strong, the whole structure crumbles. Other classes, like literature, have necessary skills that may be more challenging to organize this way, but it is critical we examine our plans as closely as possible to figure out what students will need to know before they can move on.

Example: my students are currently involved in a poetry unit, where they will be analyzing poetry and ultimately writing their own pieces. However, in order to be able to have an educational conversation about poetry, there are some things they need to know first, like terminology. If I ask them to identify the metaphors used by the author in the second stanza of the poem, they will first have to have a working knowledge of words like "identify," "metaphor," and "stanza." Most of my English units begin with a lesson on terminology; this is necessary for understanding in the unit.

5. Fish Standards are friends, not food the enemy. I know there are teachers out there who hate their state standards or the Common Core standards, depending on your situation, and it kind of boggles my mind. I wonder if the hatred isn't necessarily for the standards themselves, but the powers that be who create them. Anyway, that's another post for another day. The fact of the matter is, there are standards, and we should try to use them. They are in place with good intentions and, honestly, it was a huge relief for me as a new teacher that these standards existed because they tell me the kinds of skills I should be teaching. They are also more flexible than a lot of people think, if you just think outside of the box a little bit. When you are creating that skills checklist from Rule #3, align them to standards.* I really don't get it when I hear a disgruntled teacher saying that the standards are "telling them what to teach." I live in the great state of Indiana (Hoo. Hoo. Hoo. Hoosiers!) where the kids play basketball, the climate is bizarre, and the department of education is a mess. (We had this guy in charge for a while. Gah.) I think it's fair to say, though, that our standards don't tell us what to teach. We don't have a state-mandated required reading list or anything like that. Instead, the standards tell us the skills we should be teaching our students, but how we do that is up to us (or, in unfortunate circumstances, up to your school). Use the standards as a tool to guide your planning, not the solution to your planning problems.

*DISCLAIMER: I strongly believe that there is a time and place for lessons that are not standards-based in the classroom. I believe in the teachable moment, where we can use our time to teach lessons about trivial stuff like whether or not snails have vocal chords (actual class conversation last week) and big stuff like culture and kindness. I do think, though, that it is our job to prepare our students for the next step in their academic lives, and the standards help us do that.

This week's challenge:
Examine your weekly unit and ask yourself the following questions.
  • Is this unit too long or too short? If it isn't in the two to four week range, why not? Is it necessary for it to be this long/short?
  • Is my timing okay, or am I going to run into problems with breaks or getting things graded in a timely manner?
  • Do I have a checklist of skills/content my students should know by the end of this unit?
  • Is my skills checklist organized with a strong foundation first, great structural material second, and a little bit of fancy flair last?
  • Are (most of) the items on the checklist aligned to standards?
Update (01/22/14) - I completely forgot to do this originally, but I wanted to link to this weekly template for helping you plan.

Feel free to leave questions, comments, feedback, and other ideas below! I'd love to hear how you guys make your units come together.

Happy Teaching!