Written by Megan Davenport and Elizabeth Clarkson, Ed.D February 2020 Updated by Kelly Jensen October 2023
As members of the Professional Development Team at Faria Education Group, we spend a tremendous amount of time with school leaders and teachers discussing curriculum and unit planning. We coach teachers to design standards-aligned curriculum that uses the unit plan as the major organizational structure. We facilitate conversations about the components of a solid unit plan. We support school processes and structures to ensure unit plans are reviewed and revised on a consistent basis. With all of the different levels of planning and discussion we engage in, we remain focused on planning at the unit level. Why?
How is the curriculum organized?
Unit Planning from an Administration Perspective
School leaders, including instructional coaches, department heads, or building principals, are responsible for many curricular tasks, such as ensuring vertical alignment. They are also beholden to accountability organizations, such as accreditation and licensing agencies. When these leaders have systems in place to capture unit planning across their teams, they can quickly and effectively provide evidence of required components within their curriculum alignment to these agencies.
Ongoing Review and Adjustment
Curriculum work is constantly evolving over time. When schools have strong systems for unit planning in place, their curriculum is available to review and revise. WIthout the unit planning systems and structures, information can be disorganized. It can be difficult to identify gaps, redundancies, opportunities for collaboration, and spiraling. It can also make strategically modifying curriculum based on assessment data challenging, if not impossible. With a unit planning structure in place, the process of curriculum review and revision becomes a manageable task.
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 PLCs (Professional Learning Communities)
Collaborative time in PLCs is limited and valuable. When a school or team has a consistent unit plan and formatting practice, teachers can make the most of the limited time together allotted for collaborative curriculum work. This is a benefit for administrators and teachers.
Transitions & Institutional Knowledge
Faculty transitions in schools are an annual inevitability, Teachers transition grade levels, content areas, and courses, international schools work with visa requirements and routinely transition teachers in and out of their school communities, and educators move on to roles outside of the classroom. When schools use consistently documented unit plans to organize their written curriculum in a central repository, that scope and sequence of information becomes part of the educational fabric of the school. While this is a benefit for leaders responsible for curriculum maintenance, students will ultimately benefit as 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.
Planning at the Unit Level from a Classroom Teaching Perspective
Investment of Time
Units of instruction are part of a teachers’ professional portfolio: a collection of one’s best professional work. An upfront investment of time 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 assessment data. For new and novice teachers of a grade level or subject area, 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 units.
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 changes and that printed material can become out of date before new resources are available. When units are written to address standards, content, and skills, a teacher has more flexibility to supplement these resources and store them for future reference. The units are the basic structure of a grade or course and they remain the backbone.
Teachers, in addition to administrators, understand that planning at the unit level is beneficial because it provides a set of data points to anchor PLC and grade level meetings. Conversations can stay focused and deeper collaboration can be facilitated during these meetings.
Getting Teachers Onboard with Unit Planning
Embed the process of unit planning into school culture
In order to be successful and meaningful, unit planning must be embedded as part of the long term operations of the school. Once this process is implemented 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:
- review assessment data
- offer feedback during classroom observations
- talk to prospective students and families at the admissions level
- 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 as a single component within the larger school context.
Find or make the time for teachers to work together
Intentionally and strategically creating time during the school year for unit planning conversations can be a challenge and will require creativity and persistence. Unit planning is not a stand-alone initiative, but something that must be built into existing school processes. There may need to be additional time dedicated to the initial documenting of curriculum at the beginning of a new process. But once that is complete, teachers can shift to focus on maintaining and revising units as one way to support larger curricular goals.
Get creative! Consider 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 should work to avoid treating the task of unit planning as a one-time only initiative or neglecting to communicate rationale with teachers beyond compliance. Strive for building it into the school culture. Teachers get discouraged if they see unit planning as one more item 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!