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Planning the Best Curriculum Unit Ever

Teaching is not natural.

The public believes, incorrectly, that classroom instruction is as natural as showing your child how to fish or helping a nephew play Ms. Pac-Man. But those comparisons don't take into account the profoundly specialized discourse of K-12 instruction.

Answering a learner's question with a question, creating a holistic rubric, or (take a deep breath) facilitating a high-level discussion of new content on the Thursday before prom with 35 diverse students (two of whom present ADHD behaviors) while an administrator evaluates you . . . all of this requires a ridiculous constellation of specialized, unnatural skills.

That alien skill set means that even the most brilliant teachers cannot just wing it. They have to plan.

While the public has no idea how much mental muscle curriculum planning requires, corporations that sell education materials do know. Unfortunately, their support is often in the form of selling "sure-fire" scripted curriculum that "guarantees" growth (if teachers will just follow directions). There are, however, several reasons why scripted curricula-in-a-box doesn't work:

  • Because what works in one classroom often won't work the next period, flexibility, intuition, and judgment calls by instructors are needed.
  • Values and motivations vary by classroom.
  • Pre-packaged curriculum undermines teachers' professionalism and agency.
  • Cultural sensitivity does not come in a package.
  • All students are not at the same level of development.
  • Scripted lessons interfere with the all-important teacher-student relationship.

Finally, pre-packaged programs are overwhelmingly used with poor minority populations, according to Jonathan Kozol, who argues that this practice is characteristic of a "deeply segregated system in which more experienced instructors teach the children of the privileged." In other words, the rich get richer, and the poor get skill-and-kill worksheets and laminated platitudes. For all these reasons, it is imperative that teachers develop their own unit plans.

Unit Planning

If teaching was natural, baby sitters would be hired to -- poof! -- transform classrooms into epiphany zones.

Fortunately, a unit plan can help us master specialized classroom discourse. Don't think of units as just curriculum artifacts. They are also a mapping process that enables teachers to think carefully about research-supported, teacher-learner-content interactions that help kids meet standards and grow up to save the world.

Within a unifying theme, a unit guides the sequence and pace of skills and knowledge acquisition described in more granular detail by lesson plans. Its importance should not be underestimated, says education consultant Max Thompson, who identifies bad curriculum design as the cause of widespread achievement gaps. Tangentially, Thompson emphatically states that because it raises achievement and is connected to how people organize their thinking, the "focal point of learning, especially for students impacted by poverty," should be vocabulary.

To assess the quality of an existing unit plan, the four most important questions to ask are:

  1. Is the unit aligned with standards, objectives, and guidelines?
  2. Is there a balance of teaching strategies, learning strategies, and authentic tasks that engage and meet the needs of diverse learners?
  3. Have I sequenced the activities clearly?
  4. Do the formative and summative assessments measure the knowledge and skills identified in the objectives?

The next section will help with the necessary, unnatural, invisible, and painstaking process of writing unit plans.

How to Use the Downloadable Unit Plan Document

To help you develop a new unit, overhaul curriculum, or just tweak an existing plan, I created a printable checklist of potential unit elements, broken into eight sequential planning steps:

  1. Describe your vision, focus, objectives, and student needs.
  2. Identify resources.
  3. Develop experiences that meet your objectives.
  4. Collect and devise materials.
  5. Lock down the specifics of your task.
  6. Develop plans, methods, and processes.
  7. Create your students' experience.
  8. Go!

You may be tempted to save time by skipping steps 1-5 and immediately begin writing your lesson plans, but that will cost you more time and limit the effectiveness of curriculum. Those first five steps will help you map out the learning journey and destination. You're not supposed to do everything on this checklist. Think of the downloadable doc as a menu of the different formats, features, models, and sequences that you might consider as you develop curriculum.

If some of the terms are unfamiliar (we're dealing with an unnatural discourse, after all), look them up in The Glossary of Education Reform or ask your fellow Edutopians for more information in the comments below this post.

A universal unit-planning checklist might not support your curriculum development style or suit your grade and content. I hope, however, that the list of possibilities encourages further professional exploration. And if a colleague asks, "Did you consider _______?", you'll be able to say yes.