Expect Unexpected Engagement When you try Hexagonal Thinking in ELA


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53: How to Plan a Unit for ELA

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So you’ve gotten your classroom ready, gotten to know your students, laid out the order of your texts and units for the year. But what comes next? How do you plan a unit so you can fit in everything you need to do?

Planning things out in advance helps you feel like you have control over your curriculum, and actually makes it easier to fit in all the creative activities you want to do. You can be sure that you are hitting all your priorities as you define the many wonderful parts of your unit.

Today, I want to share a few strategies for unit-planning success with those of you who are newer to the process. It can feel so intimidating to try to fit everything in – vocabulary, reading, writing in different genres, different types of discussion, research, passion projects, grammar, journaling, blogging, projects, acting, speeches, etc.! You’ve got your list of standards or the priorities of your grade level, and somehow you’re supposed to stir all this together and produce the perfect unit.

This episode will help make unit planning a simple 1-2-3 step process for you. You can listen below, or on iTunesBlubrry, or Stitcher.



So here’s what I do…

1. I start by breaking down the reading and spreading it over the days of my unit. My first step is just to type up a list of the meeting dates for class for this unit and spread the reading out over those days.  (This basic start is in bold, below).

Then I start to think about what priorities/standards I want to focus on during the unit and how I can weave those in.

For this example, let’s say my priorities for this first unit of the year are to introduce our vocabulary routines to the class, get students started with journaling, do some independent reading every week, teach them how to do a Harkness discussion, and review thesis statements and writing introductions. These priorities will help set up a successful year for us.

2. From there, keeping in mind my priorities, I add some specific activities like discussions, writing mini-assignments, vocabulary, independent reading, etc. (These are in purple, below). 

3. Next I consider what my major assessment at the end of the unit is going to be, and how we need to prepare for that. I sprinkle in the prep and figure out the deadlines for the final assessment. I often like these final assessments to be creative spins on tradition, as with this one. Students will produce an argument-based video, using the work we’ve done with thesis statements to make an argument related to what they think the real message of The Outsiders is and how it can apply to our world, today. (These are in blue, below).


For example:

Opening Unit for the Year: The Outsiders

Week One (dates)
Day One: Journal Entry (Outsiders themed prompt), introduce Harkness discussions, choose words from vocabulary units one for word wall posters
HW: The Outsiders Chapter One, Vocabulary Word Wall Poster

Day Two: Harkness Discussion of The Outsiders, writing introductions mini-lesson
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Two, Vocabulary Word Wall Poster

Day Three: Vocabulary Poster Rotating Circles Activity (posters due), Outsiders – Related Podcast and Discussion
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Three, Two Thesis Statements 

Day Four: Journal Entry (Outsiders themed prompt), thesis statement sticky notes activity (thesis statements due)
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Four, study for vocabulary quiz unit one

Day Five: Vocabulary Quiz, Mini-Book Talks from Me and Introduction of Choice Library, Independent Reading (help students select books)
HW: independent reading

Week Two (dates)
Day One: Harkness Discussion, writing workshop: introductions
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Five, Vocabulary Word Wall Poster

Day Two: One-Pager Activity
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Six, Vocabulary Word Wall Poster

Day Three: One-Pager Gallery Walk, Vocabulary Poster Rotating Circles (posters due)
HW:The Outsiders Chapter Seven

Day Four: Related Ted Talk (encourage sketchnoting) and Partner Discussion
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Eight, study for vocabulary quiz unit two, bring independent reading book

Day Five: Vocabulary Quiz, a few more book talks, independent reading (check in with students who look bored and help them find a new book)
HW: independent reading

Week Three (dates)
Day One: Harkness discussion, thesis statement brainstorming contest
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Nine, vocabulary word wall poster

Day Two: Introduce iMovie, create short videos surrounding a theme from The Outsiders
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Ten, vocabulary word wall poster

Day Three: Journal Entry, vocabulary poster rotating circles (posters due), work on short videos
HW: The Outsiders Chapter Eleven

Day Four: Final Harkness discussion of The Outsiders, pairs write a thesis and introduction together
HW: study for vocabulary quiz

Day Five: Vocabulary Quiz, Independent Reading, Introduce Video Project
HW: Independent Reading

Week Four (dates)
Day One: Brainstorming Session for Outsiders Argument-Based Video Project
HW: video storyboards

Day Two: Workshop – storyboards, videotaping, image creation, iMovie editing
HW: videos

Day Three: Workshop – storyboards, videotaping, image creation, iMovie editing
HW: videos to full draft stage

Day Four: Peer Feedback for videos, answer final questions
HW: final videos due

Day Five: Argument Video Viewing & Awards Voting, Independent Reading
HW: Independent Reading


  • Start with the really big picture. This applies to the year too. On the year level, just schedule out the dates of your units. On the unit level, just schedule out the dates for your reading.
  • Sprinkle in your range of priorities. On the year level, this may mean blocking off two days a week to sneak in independent reading, one day a week for passion projects, or one day a month to do test prep. On the unit level, this means figuring out which days you want to have for vocabulary, discussions, reading, writing, media analysis, etc. 
  • Choose your final assessment and then work back through your unit to make sure you introduce it fairly early and give time along the way to work on it and ask questions. This may mean shifting some of your activities a bit or even cutting one or two of them. No problem.
This is how I always plan my units. Then when it comes time to plan each specific lesson (usually the day before, let’s be honest), I peek at my units and define what exactly the lesson will look like based on the general activities I’ve already laid out. Then I create the handouts or jot down the directions I want to share, and get ready to roll. 


Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!

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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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