Written by Megan Davenport and Elizabeth Clarkson, Ed.D, FariaPD
As professional development facilitators at Faria Education Group, we spend a tremendous amount of time with school leaders and teachers discussing curriculum and unit plans. We coach teachers to build strong content and skills that are aligned to standards while using the unit plan as the major organizing structure in their curriculum. We facilitate conversations around the components of a solid backwards design unit plan. We support school processes and structures to ensure unit plans are reviewed and revised on a consistent basis. It’s a natural question to step back and ask ourselves, “But why plan at the unit level?”
Great question! To listen to an audio clip from Curriculum Conversations click here, or keep reading to understand the benefits of unit planning from an administrators’ and teachers’ perspective. We’ll also offer three tips on building buy-in from teachers that will help them to invest their time and effort into the process of unit planning.
How is curriculum organized?
Let’s review a few key terms and orientate ourselves to the conversation. Think of these components as building on each other.
- Curriculum Mapping is the process of capturing the written curriculum.
- A Unit of Instruction is a section of the curriculum map and involves dividing the course and its information into logical segments, usually about 2-4 weeks in length.
- A Lesson Plan describes one learning session within that unit.
Depending on the perspective of one’s roles and responsibilities in the school, unit planning offers different benefits that can help achieve the goals.
5 Benefits to Planning at the Unit Level from an Administrators’ Perspective
- Efficiently Provide Evidence of Alignment:
School leaders, including instructional coaches, department heads, or building principals, are responsible for certain curricular tasks, such as vertical alignment. They are also responsible to agencies and organizations, such as accreditation and licensing agencies. When they have systems in place to capture their unit planning work, they can quickly and effectively provide evidence of various parts of their curriculum alignment to these agencies.
- Ability to Review and Revise:
Curriculum work is constantly evolving over time. When schools have a strong practice of unit planning in place, their curriculum is easier to review and revise for alignment. WIthout that unit structure, information can be disorganized. It can be difficult to identify gaps, redundancies, opportunities for collaboration, and spiraling. With a unit planning structure in place, the process of curriculum review and revision becomes a manageable task and allows for multiple people or teams to contribute at the same time.
- Time Management:
Teachers need strong lesson plans to help them organize their day, but an instructional leader might have limited time to review these lessons in meaningful ways. Unit plans offer a higher level look at Stage 1 and Stage 2 components of a backwards design unit. Reviewing a unit plan is more realistic and allows time for quality feedback and thoughtful reflection that will be more helpful to the teacher.
- Structuring your PLC Time:
Educators all know how valuable PLC or grade level meeting minutes are. When a school has an agreed upon unit plan and format to guide them, teachers can make the most of their time together. This is a benefit for teachers and administrators!
- Smooth Transition:
Teacher transitions in schools will inevitably happen – teachers move from grade to grade, maybe even changing subjects. International schools work with visa issues requirements and routinely transition teachers in and out of their school communities. When schools are using unit plans to organize their written curriculum, that scope and sequence of information becomes part of the educational fabric of the school and its curriculum. Students will ultimately benefit because incoming teachers have a solid place to pick up for that grade or subject and outgoing teachers leave behind the best of their own contributions. A smooth transition for teachers helps keep a strong curricular alignment and a viable and guaranteed curriculum.
4 Benefits to Planning at the Unit Level from a Teacher’s Perspective
- Wise Investment of your Time:
Think of units as a teachers’ professional portfolio, a collection of one’s best professional work. An initial investment in time quickly pays dividends in the future. Although curriculum review and revision are a healthy part of a school’s culture, with solid units in place from the year before, teachers can easily adapt, adjust, and improve their units based on new resources, feedback from observations or students, and reflection on the unit’s overall effectiveness from the year before. If you are a new teacher to a grade or subject, the units are a great place to quickly get up to speed on the expectations for that grade level.
Units are organized in a pacing calendar and can be easily adjusted at the beginning of the year to ensure appropriate time is given to each unit. By pacing these units in advance, teachers can ensure the more challenging units are given appropriate time and/or spiraled throughout the year. Once this pacing calendar is complete, teachers can quickly see if their teaching is on track and can make adjustments for future weeks.
- Less Dependent on Specific Resources:
Teachers might find that a textbook’s material is not a match for students’ academic level at a given time in the year. We also know that information, especially in subjects like science or social studies, change and printed material could be out of date. When units are written to address standards, content, and skills, a teacher has more flexibility to change and update resources as better ones become available. The units are the basic structure of a grade or course and they remain the backbone.
Teachers, in addition to administrators, also see planning at the unit level as beneficial because it provides an established structure to PLC and grade level meetings. Conversations can stay focused and allows for more productive collaboration during these meetings.
3 Tips for Getting Teachers On-Board with Unit Planning
- Make the process of unit planning a useful and authentic part of your school culture:
We want to make the process of unit planning part of the long term operations of the school. Once this process is embedded and sustainable, schools can quickly get the information they need to inform conversations and decisions. They could use the curriculum maps, organized by units, to 1) review assessment data, 2) offer feedback during classroom observations, 3) talk to prospective students and families at the admissions level, and 4) showcase grade level content during open house sessions or share with the public on other platforms. Unit planning then becomes helpful to both teachers at the instructional level but also for administrators within the larger school context.
- Get creative and find the time for teachers to work together:
Finding time during the busy year for unit planning conversations can be a challenge and will require some creativity and persistence. Unit planning should not be a stand-alone initiative, but something that is built into existing school processes. There may need to be additional time dedicated to documenting curriculum for the first time, but after that, teachers should focus on maintaining and revising units as one way to support larger goals. Get creative! Think about formal (early release and late start days, long term PD schedules, PLC meetings) and informal times (support from specialist teachers, early morning donuts and coffee, after school snacks) and focus on collaboration!
- AVOID unit planning as a compliance task:
Schools want to avoid treating the task of unit planning like a one time only initiative or ONLY for compliance purposes. Strive for building it into the school culture (see Tip #1). Teachers get discouraged if they see unit planning as the “next new thing” added to their to-do list, and will wait for the next new initiative to land on their plate tomorrow. Unit plan with a purpose and tie that purpose to student success at your school!
Dr. Elizabeth Clarkson began her career in North Carolina public schools. After living in several other countries, she now considers North Carolina her home again. She has worked as a teacher, literacy coach, and principal in public and private schools in the United States, Ecuador, and Brazil. She combines her experiences in schools and nonprofit education to view all education conversations within the larger context of community, its values, and influences.
Elizabeth earned her Bachelor’s degree in Birth-Kindergarten Education at Appalachian State University. With a deep appreciation for the learning process and a passion for international perspective, she completed a short study program in Reggio Emilia, Italy and her Master’s in Educational Psychology from the University of Colorado. Drawn to coaching and committed to providing supportive leadership in school settings, she completed her Ed.D in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia with a dissertation focusing on effective professional development. She continues to draw from her experiences in academic coaching and international living to support schools in developing strong curriculum processes that support their unique values and identities.
Megan Davenport’s passion for education is at the forefront of her work. Megan earned her master’s degree in education from Arizona State University and bachelor’s degrees in sociology and business management from the University of Montana. Thanks to her academic background, Megan takes a well-rounded approach to working with schools and benefits from knowledge of organizational structure as well as change management paired with classroom experience and a love of helping children learn.
Megan consults with public and independent schools both domestically and internationally and enjoys synthesizing knowledge gained from working with a wide variety of schools to provide training and professional development for educators.