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Unit Planning: It’s Not What You Thought It Would Be

        During university professors drilled this process into me: read the curriculum, plan the unit, plan the assessment, reflect on your teaching. It was a cycle repeated in every Curriculum and Instruction class. My friends and I could site curriculum outcomes and whip together an impressive series of lessons in a flash. Through 16 years of experience, I have learned that this is certainly NOT all there is to it. Unit planning remains one of my favourite tasks in teaching. It is the dreaming phase. It is that time before instruction, that time before you may have met your students, that time when all is fresh, exciting and possible! But do you know what it also is? It is the time for focus, restraint and actually…leaving things just a little un-planned. Let me explain.
What so many of my university professors failed to teach me as an undergrad is that teacher reflection should be about two things: 1) what are the students learning and to what degree are they learning it?, and 2) what have I taught them and what does this mean I have to do next?
You see, the reflections and the assessment should not have been the afterthought of the unit planning. The assessment of student learning and the teacher’s reflection on instruction have to happen continuously throughout teaching. And so, you see, a unit plan has to be a little loose. A little open-to-changes. Because when you get the end of the first lesson and see that students already understand photosynthesis, then your next lesson needs to build on that. The ability to both plan a unit and “keep things loose” can happen only when the teacher is so comfortable with the curriculum and developmentally appropriate demands, that the purpose for instruction is crystal clear. The teacher has to know exactly what the purpose of the learning is. WHAT WILL STUDENTS KNOW and BE ABLE TO DO as a result of their classroom experiences? When the teacher knows (like knows it deep-down-in-their-soul) the specific purpose of the learning, then the process of learning can be flexible to student interests and needs.
I used to make unit plans that included a lesson for each specific learning outcome, like I was taught to do. And should you ever have the chance to read the mammoth that is the Manitoba Social Studies curriculum you will see that there are never enough school days in a year to complete instruction in this way. It was also a very linear and cumbersome way to get students to learn factoids (and then promptly forget them after leaving my class). Today the curriculum documents are not my only resource for planning lessons.
When I started teaching, the only resources for educators you could find on the internet were obscure educational research papers and printable resources like worksheets. Oh my, how far the internet has come in 16 years. Some of my favourite present-day online resources include Teachers Pay Teachers for it’s variety and cute-factor and Nearpod which is an app and a website for virtual fieldtrips.  I love the philosophy behind the forever-free Khan Academy, but since it lacks Canadian content and early years content, I often use, which is a wonderful site with interactives, video mini-lessons and much more.
Yes, the variety and interactivity have come a long way, but a word of caution: there is a lot of crap out there, and we Canadians can thankfully ignore all the common-core drills and test-prep packages the Americans use. On the internet these days I see a plethora of “craftivities” that look adorable, but cause me to wonder about the educational value. Yes, sometimes, an activity is just for fun. But let’s not make that the daily habit of instruction. When you or your students go online, you always have to think about the purpose and the process. That is, WHY and HOW will this page/activity/printable/unit/material/virtual experience help learners to grow?
            As anyone who has fallen down the virtual rabbit hole can tell you, one can get lost in what the internet has to offer. And teachers, you cannot do it all. There is always going to be another link, another activity, another new unit plan on offer. Stay focused. Think about the essential outcomes. Think about your students’ interests and abilities. Tailor your planning to suit student growth.
I make a unit plan now that includes:
1)      a tonne of frontloading (that is, lessons to get them interested. Give them something to think about. Show them videos - Thank you teachertube, read them storybooks, let them partner-read non-fiction books – RECORD their ideas and questions – let these be your guide for next lessons, get them talking and asking questions, get them observing the content and making connections – WHAT connections are students making to previous learning/experiences?)
2)      a few key learning experiences (emotionally hook them to the content with something fun, weird or shocking like a science experiment or a guest speaker or a webquest with their learning buddies – WATCH: what are students saying? Are they using content-specific vocabulary? Are they thinking critically?)
3)      plan a culminating activity to see what they have learned in the end.

  Fellow teachers, how do you plan with the end in mind while allowing flexibility? And how do you use Internet resources to help?


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