Let’s Plan A Unit! (Peter ​Anderson)

For policymakers, journalists, parents, and pundits a daily lesson is easy to understand. The teacher has a 45- to 90-minute period and covers certain content and skills. There are objectives and activities that unfold before an observer’s eyes. There is a beginning, middle,and end of a lesson that a typical observer–who had once been a child and youth sitting a few feet away from his or her teacher–can parse easily enough.

But not a unit. A unit is a collection of lessons lasting one to four or more weeks that has overall goals and an arsenal of activities. The various lessons connect daily objectives and tasks to unit goals. Few policymakers, school reformers, parents, and journalists have a sense of how much planning occurs before a teacher crosses the threshold of her classroom to introduce a new unit to her charges. Searching for resources, constructing engaging activities, getting feedback from students, assessing what students learn, all of these soak up a large chunk of a teacher’s time before, after school,at nights and during holidays. Here is one teacher’s description of a unit he created for his middle school students.

Peter Anderson teaches 7th grade English Language Arts in Northern Virginia. He is a National Writing Project teacher-consultant. This post appeared on his blog December 2,2016.

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.

The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup, Poets.org, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.

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5 responses to “Let’s Plan A Unit! (Peter ​Anderson)

  1. Larry, I just got a notification about this post, and words cannot express how flattered and humbled I am! As soon as I saw the notification, I picked up all of my Larry Cuban books, babbled incoherently to my wife about you, then called my Dad to tell him what just happened. You are one of my idols. Your writing has informed so much about who I am as an educator and how I’ve come to understand education. I just started my second read of Tinkering Toward Utopia. I picked it back up after finishing your essay in Holding Accountability Accountable.

    You just made my year! Thank you!

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