If you tuned into the podcast last week, you know I received this email from Shannon, a teacher with big questions. Here’s what she wrote…
“I am in my 8th year of teaching, and while I love aspects of it, I work 10-11 hours a day and am burning out. And, I feel that I’m on an island sometimes at my school—I have to re-teach skills that they should have been taught in earlier years, etc.
I have one foot out of the door of the teaching profession. I find myself awake at night trying to figure out how to do a good job teaching both reading and writing, and getting in all the skills.
How do you do whole class novel units? And teach all the skills? Say, I want to teach Gatsby, and focus on character contrast and figurative language. Is it ok to focus on just a few skills each unit? How do you make sure they get practiced sufficiently, while also making sure to have time for current events/reading informational text stuff? How long do you spend on a unit to make sure you can test them and build background prior? Do you have them write a lot of literary analysis essays?
How do we then factor in teaching all of the types of writing–expository, argument, narrative, while we have to teach all these reading skills?”
Last week, we took a look at the big picture – how to plan the year to cover what you want to cover without getting overwhelmed. This time we’re zooming in on planning a unit for one whole class text, and how to make all the decisions that go with it.
You can listen in to episode 188 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
So a quick review, last time we talked about the practice of mixing and matching texts with skills, and layering consistent programs in with those text-based activities. I quickly ran through examples for a couple of units, one on memoir book clubs and one on The Great Gatsby.
This time we’re drilling down on the process of creating one single unit of your year, devoted to a certain text or text set.
Ready to dive in?
Start with Skills
OK, first things first, you have a few decisions to make.
What skills do you want to cover with your students while reading this text? Are you working on understanding themes? Building a command of literary language? Writing and supporting strong thesis statements? Strengthening group dynamics and discussion abilities? Sharing ideas around books through multiple modes?
Knowing what you want students to come out of the unit with will really help you as you build your unit plan. But before you make final decisions about this, also consider…
Essential Question or Text/Era Focus?
As you shape your skill set, you’ll want to decide the foundation of your unit. Are you going to build from an essential question, and bring in related poetry, nonfiction, essays, articles, songs, etc.? Or are you going to make the text itself your main foundation, building in complementary work around the era, literary movement, and author?
Let’s walk through a quick example. Say you are teaching Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
An essential question for this text might be, “How can an individual thrive in society?” In between reading sections of Walden, you might listen to episodes of Dr. Laurie Santos’ podcast “The Happiness Lab,” consider mindfulness and positive psychology practices, read snippets of Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, and watch a Ted Talk about developing creative confidence. You might want to set one-word goals, create vision boards, and dive into passion projects. You might want to do research on activists making change around issues that matter to them and create research carousels to present. There are so many possibilities, depending on the rest of your course and the skills and genres you’d like to cover with the unit.
Alternatively, if you want to focus deeply on the era, movement, and author, your unit will look different. You might read some of Thoreau’s other work, as well as Emerson’s. You might go on a virtual field trip to Thoreau’s land and cabin. You might study what was going on in American history at the time and look at related art. You might orchestrate a class transcendental challenge to try something new, or write stories in a fictional world shaped entirely by transcendentalism. You might create a hexagonal thinking discussion around the principles of transcendentalism and the various works you’ve looked at, with both historical and modern connections.
Whichever angle you choose, you now have a lot more possibilities to think about as you choose skills.
Structuring the Reading
Once you know your angle on the reading, and you’ve building a list of skills/standards/genres/concepts you want to focus on in your unit, it’s time to lay things out.
While it seems logical to simply divide up your reading by the number of days in your unit, assigning a small chunk each night, I don’t suggest it! The pressure to “cover” the reading each day is not what you want.
Instead, lay out your unit to give time for kids to read larger chunks of your whole-class text(s) over more days. You can still remind them to be making progress in the big text when you give out the homework at the end of each class. I’d also suggest skipping comprehension questions as you divide up the reading into homework – you probably know this about me. I’m NOT a fan.
If you feel strongly that you need to check in and validate kids’ day-to-day effort in reading, I suggest using creative discussion warm-ups here and there that will check for reading AND serve a purpose in helping students review the reading before jumping into conversation. You can collect and mark these warm-ups for a small grade without feeling like the accountability police.
Now is also a good time to layer in the complementary texts you’re going to explore, in whatever genres and across disciplines. Give each one a day or two in your unit calendar as you’re laying things out.
Consider your Discussion Method(s)
When I’m using a whole class text, I prefer to have one ongoing discussion method that students are working to become better at. For me, it’s Harkness, and I will probably want to include a Harkness discussion once or twice a week. Whatever method you like – whether it’s breakout groups, Fishbowl circles, Socratic seminar, or Harkness, consider using it throughout your unit and guiding students to improve their group dynamics and participation each time.
With Harkness, a student observer makes notes on the round-table, student-led discussion and provides a report on how it went and a suggestion for improvement for the next time at the end of each discussion. Then you can remind the class how they will be trying to “level up” during the next discussion (for example, using more quotations to support their points, trying not to interrupt each other, staying on topic more effectively, etc.).
Hexagonal thinking would be another interesting method to repeat throughout a unit. You could schedule three hexagonal thinking discussions across your unit, increasing the complexity slightly each time. Students would slowly master the method and deepen their conversations as they practiced it, giving them another critical thinking tool by the end of your unit.
Schedule in your Ongoing Programs
We talked about this in the last episode. Part of unit planning with be to choose days for your consistent programs that do not necessarily relate to your individual unit or text.
Do you have a regular practice of asking attendance questions on Mondays to develop community? Great, keep it in there!
Want to do writing mini-lessons and practice each Tuesday to develop the argument skills you want to see in place for the in-class essay you’re doing at the end? Perfect!
Do you have a classroom partnership with students in Brazil? Save fifteen minutes every Thursday for your students to write on their exchange blogs.
You don’t need to spend every minute of every day on your current text. In fact, I think continuing your programs with choice reading, vocabulary, grammar, writing, podcasting, genius hour, partnership, etc. will help keep your curriculum vibrant. This is a key time to consider what your goals for the unit are. If you are looking to hit key writing elements, speaking standards, exploration of multiple modes, etc., now is a great time to schedule the programming that will help you hit on those things. You don’t have to have every lesson 100% planned as you make your schedule at first, you can simply pick out the days you will eventually cover that material.
Option: Choose a Buy-In Project
One effective tool for creating buy-in around a whole class text is to work on a highly engaging project alongside it throughout the unit. This project helps make the text more interesting to students, motivating them to care about it, which in turn enriches the project with their increased understanding of the text. See how nicely that works out?
Let me give you some examples.
Staying with our transcendentalism theme, a tie-in project could be for students to produce and publish a podcast called “This Teenage Life,” in which pairs of students each produce an episode in which they interview an adult in their lives about their experience as a teenager, what helped them thrive, and what advice they’d give themselves, looking back.
Students will have a chance to dig into the essential question of the unit (Remember, “How can an individual thrive in society?”), practice their interviewing skills, work on the creation of a real-world media product, and put their writing and grammar skills to use in creating show notes. Sharing the podcast to the school community or even publishing it to the world (with the proper permissions) will provide a motivating real-world audience.
I’ve done group scene performances of Death of a Salesman and Long Day’s Journey into Night to create buy-in around these texts, class poetry slams for poetry texts, and an independent reading festival with younger students in attendance to wrap up a choice reading unit, among others, and I’ve repeatedly found that these overarching buy-in projects create momentum for the whole unit.
So now you’ve got a clear unit focus, you’ve chosen paired texts you want to use, you know what skills you want to cover, and you’ve chosen your consistent programs and final project. At this point, you just need to make sure your elements are slotted into your unit calendar. I suggest you give students the unit calendar showing what you’ll be doing each day and what the homework will be each night at the start of the unit. Then you can simply progress through, designing the lessons as you go or batch planning, knowing your context and priorities.