New Teachers

Common Core and Planning: Organizing a Unit of Instruction

March 10, 2014
Photo credit: Thinkstock

Planning a unit of instruction demands skill and mental exertion—a fact that is not apparent to parents and legislators who believe that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) tell instructors how and what to teach. Despite advocacy groups’ arguments to the contrary, the CCSS is, for the most part, a destination, not a roadmap.

To illustrate, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.10 states, “By the end of grade 11, read and comprehend literary nonfiction in the grades 11-CCR text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

Note that the standard does not explicate what or how specific comprehension strategies should be taught. Thus the responsibility for operationalizing standards, day in and day out, falls on the teacher, who carefully plans the scope (breadth and depth of content) and sequence (the order in which content is learned), and is able to execute instruction in a way that capitalizes on what TeachThought calls instructional fundamentals.

Even educators who deeply understand the new standards for their content area and grade band may struggle to leverage their CCSS-knowledge into an effective unit plan. Alas, those lessons that fall flat from unsound unit architecture make for long class periods for instructors and students. So how do you plan a successful unit, one that does not feel like the first float in a failure parade?

Curriculum Units: 2 Organic Planning Approaches

Before exploring how to develop unit plans with the CCSS in mind, I should note that instructional units are the ubiquitous framework of extended curriculum because they organize a variety of experiences, texts, skills, knowledge and assessments, thus allowing students to meaningfully master a repertoire of competences. A high school English teacher, for example, might allocate six weeks to a poetry unit in which a whole range of learning activities—from vocabulary to research skills—would be covered in the context of studying poetry.

Bypassing the role of curriculum mapping for now, there are two organic methods of planning. Some teachers start by reading the CCSS and identifying the specific objectives they want to accomplish, followed by a rigorous search for learning experiences and materials that meet those objectives. Others collect ideas, rich materials, lesson plans and activities, based on their intuition about how students within a developmental range learn through and about a particular discipline; next they look at the CCSS to assign standards and objectives to the newly acquired content. Either approach will get you to Rome, but attempting both simultaneously burns time and energy.

Accumulating Unit Resources

Searching for content on the web will quickly turn up too many resources to fit into the unit. So that you don’t accumulate chaff, ask:

  • Will the content help students develop skills and knowledge that will serve them two weeks from now?
  • Will it engage learners?
  • Is it a key component in CCSS?

I would caution against the wholesale rejection of instructional ideas that do not perfectly align with the CCSS. To illustrate, none of the ELA CCSS standards mention empathy, though learning to empathize with diverse characters is important for literature study and the future of our planet. Teacher educator Shawn Vecellio summarizes how to think about guidelines and curriculum choices, writing that an instructor should examine “all the standards of her discipline to see how they figure into problems and processes of the world, then teach those in rich, robust, and realistic ways. In her aim to have students hit the target, she knows that they need not focus solely on the bull’s-eye.”

Which Unit Configuration Should You Use?

As you collect ideas, it will be helpful to think through how the content might be sequenced. As long as your district does not make teachers adhere to a pacing guide, there is no best curriculum order, despite what that emphatic instructor down the corridor says. Michael Stephen Schiro has identified several possible configurations:

  • Simple to complex
  • Easy to difficulty
  • Prerequisite learning
  • Whole to parts or parts to whole
  • Chronological
  • Developmental
  • Close at hand to far away
  • Known to unknown

We know that skill and knowledge acquisition are inextricably bound with an ever-changing learning context. Therefore, how you order a unit should not be based on rigid or packaged curriculum, such as textbooks, test-preparation workbooks or scripted programs. Those “scientifically” sequenced products are not supported by contemporary models of learning, and will ultimately lead to the same grim outcomes as units that tour one disconnected standard after another or that meander through a patchy collection of fun activities. Therefore, trust your understanding of the learning context and customize the unit accordingly.

A clear unit vision will enable more effective organization of lessons, and can be achieved by asking these questions:

  1. What one question or problem focuses the unit?
  2. How do unit activities meet professional standards?
  3. What end product or performance will students find motivating?
  4. What would it look like if all my students were wildly successful at mastering the unit goals?

Ultimately, a unit plan should be passionate, not mechanical; critiqued, not received; personal, not clinical; not art or science, but art and science—never perfected, because curriculum is you, and you are always learning how to better meet the needs of students.

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