The level three teacher climbs another rung on the ladder, or another landing of the fire tower if you’re an Adirondack hiker, and looks past the rusted lag bolts towards the beautiful, rolling, tree-lined horizon. Let’s talk unit planning.
We’ve already alluded to the importance of having a few go-to lessons that fit into repeatable, universal learning processes. By level three, those go-to lessons will apply at a unit level. Not everything can be year-long. There is undoubtedly learning that happens in a specific unit. You’ll notice that even my year-long connection tool graphic organizer looks slightly different for the Unconscious Bias unit than it does for the Food Chains unit. The fact that each tool is used repeatedly throughout each unit is the level we’re aiming towards in level three of lesson planning.
At least for ELA, level three is the level most teachers think of themselves as having reached. If you have any eye towards backwards design, and an awareness of the structure and length of your unit, you’ve probably traveled a long way down the path towards a well-organized unit.
A science unit, planned at a unit level, might be organized by the scientific method: “Hypothesize, test, observe, refine, test, observe, publish,” or a social studies unit might intentionally organize weeks into, “background knowledge, in-depth document analysis, connect the documents, create a project.” The “I do, we do, you do,” model is the most widely accepted model that teachers are encouraged to apply to daily lesson plans, but which applies just as well, if not exponentially more effectively, to unit plans, and year-long curricula.
The whole idea of a daily lesson plan has disappeared by the time you’re a level three planner, because teachers at this level have an entire calendar mapped out at the same time, weeks or months ahead of time, for entire units. Days to reteach students content and skills that they misunderstand don’t happen by accident after a lesson inadvertently goes wrong, or when everyone fails a quiz by surprise. Instead, they’re built intentionally into the unit plan so that they’re predictable, purposeful, and eventually allow for unit-long data tracking.
Once you’re at this level, though, like level two, it’s easy to get complacent. When you look at your unit plans, like the image of my Short Story 3 Unit shown above, it’s now time to take a good, hard look at the fit and finish of that unit. Are there any outlier lessons that don’t fit in? You might LOVE the four-corner’s discussion in week two, but if it really doesn’t work towards the unit goals, is it just for fun? Is it worth keeping? Maybe through indiscriminate self-assessment you realize it IS very important, but it should go into the “week one, building background knowledge” structure, or in the “week seven, reflect on our learning” structure.
Now you’ve moved that activity, and you’re faced with a hole in your unit. By thinking and planning weeks and months ahead of time, you can look at the other weeks, activities, and resources and fill that hole intentionally, whether it becomes a planned “catch up,” day or whether you realize it’s the perfect place to include a pre-test check for understanding to refine (or create) a predictable data collection structure in your unit.
By thinking about planning at the unit level, and being willing to continually cut what doesn’t work best, and add and expand on learning practices that matter most, your unit plans, and gradebook will slowly streamline until students are asking you that all important question mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.
At this point in your planning ascension, it’s important to move from a 35 day unit including 35 unique materials, to thinking about a 35 day unit as five repeatable seven day structures, or three repeated ten-day learning structures with five days to create an authentic project at the end. There is no magic number, but level three teachers think about learning structures, and not necessarily about weeks.
By nature, once student-directed learning takes over, the teacher has to be prepared to make all their own materials, because the second vocabulary review day will be based on the words students rated the weakest on the first vocabulary review day. Even though the materials will be dependent on student input, I would argue that a level three teacher can keep the structures the same: you know the second vocabulary review day will be a station activity with eight set station activities, one each for declarative and applied knowledge of the four words students rate the weakest. The third vocabulary review day will be a mind-mapping lesson during which students will have a partially complete mind map into which they need to fit the six words that they rated the weakest after the second vocabulary day. You get the point, the more structured your unit is around repeated, intentional learning on a unit-long basis, the easier it is to build in student input, data, and all the other hallmarks of truly expert educational practices.
If level three of lesson planning already allows for expert educational practices, what could possibly await at level four? Click on and find out!
So much of the writing published about education is published by people who don't teach. I figured it was time for a teacher to write about teaching. I've been proud to teach 8th-grade ELA in Dunkirk City Schools since 2007, and to serve at Fredonia State University as an adjunct professor, teaching educational technology since 2017.