by Amber Villa-Zang, Faria PD

How Unit Plans Prompt Reflection

One of the best ways to strengthen our teaching is to find time to review and reflect on what we do. Unit plans provide a perfect opportunity to reflect on how we teach the specific content and skills that are the focus of a unit. In this blog we’re going to walk through 5 steps to strengthen a unit’s alignment by triangulating between the content, standards, and skills.

Academic standards spell out what students should know and be able to do in the classroom within a given subject and grade level. To borrow a metaphor from Carol Tomlinson, standards are the basic ingredients listed in a recipe. And while they’re essential to a meal, they need to be skillfully prepared if they’re going to be edible. And let’s be clear, reviewing standards alignment in a unit is NOT about checking off a box. IT IS an opportunity to think like a practitioner and explore how best to help students learn. 

The Difference Between Content and Skills

Content and Skill Chart 1 1 Distinguishing content from skills allows us to take granular look at what we need to teach students. By breaking them down, teachers can think through the most effective instructional strategies and activities to apply in the classroom.

Looking for more on content and skills? Check out our blogs 5 Ways to Punch Up Your Unit’s Content and Skills or Content and Skills: Balancing Depth vs. Breadth

Reviewing Unit Plans, Unpacking Standards

Step 1: Pick a unit to review. I suggest selecting unit you’ll be teaching soon. This is a great way to preview a unit and re-evaluate what you do. 

Step 2: Begin by reading through the content listed in your unit. While you do this, think through how you teach the unit, the materials you use, and see if you’re missing anything. Next, read through your skills. Ideally the skills category should show what we want students do with each element of the content listed. Make a note of any elements that are listed in the content category but missing in the skills.

before content and skills image

As I review my 10th grade ELA unit, I notice that while I list “flat characters, voice, and foil” in the content category, I don’t specifically mention them in the skills category. I keep that in mind while I move on to step 3.

Step 3: With fresh eyes, closely read the standards you have aligned to the unit. If you haven’t yet added standards to your unit, this is the perfect time to select standards 

When writing a unit it can be common for teachers to select the standards that, in general, align to what they teach. Yet when they outline the content and skills for the unit, they simply list the topics or content from a textbook or resources. This instantly creates a disconnect between the standards listed and the content and skills that are taught.

If we want to truly build curriculum that’s aligned to standards, It’s important to carefully read the standards, and then break them down into meaningful (aka teachable) parts. Part of the review process is then re-examining how we are bringing the standards to life in our units. This brings us to Step 4. 

Step 4: Unpack the standards.

I truly believe that one of the many super power of teachers is translating the robotic language of standards into concrete learning for students.

The first step of this is to carefully read and annotate your standards. To do this grab a highlighter, a pen, and copy of your standards. To identify the content, literally highlight the key nouns in the standards. This is what we want students to know.

Next, identify the skills within the standards by circling the key verbs. Then list or paraphrase each unpacked standard. This really allows you to see the essential learning within the standard. While the process might seem rote, this process is actually very powerful in that it:

1. Clarifies what a standard says (look at enough standards and you know it’s not always straight forward).

2. Pushes us to once again put on our practitioner hat to examine how to help students truly master the skills and content listed in the standards. 

Ambers Blog 1

Ambers Blog 2

Step 5: Compare the list of unpacked standards with your content and skill and look for opportunities to revise what you have to be more specific, granular, and aligned the standards.

Ask yourself: how do I want students to apply the concepts listed in the content category. It’s one thing for students to be able to define a complex vs flat character. It’s a very different thing for them to list and examine the motivations of a character to determine for themselves if a character is complex or flat. 

Content and Skills Chart3 

In the before example I simply list the literary term motif, but I don’t connect it to the broader element of theme, which is what I want students to do. As I went through the process of reviewing the content and skills in my unit, I used the unpacked standards to help me rethink the best verb to use for the skills.

Sure, the standard says to “analyze characters” but if I push myself to think about what I’ll actually do in the classroom to help students in the process of analyzing a character, I realize I’m going to have them list and examine a character’s motivations.

Similarly, by looking more closely at the standard, I realize that if I want students to write a strong narrative essay, I need to break down and address the specific content that goes into writing a strong narrative. This it also helps me to clearly define the skills student’s will need to demonstrate to write a strong narrative essay.

This level of specificity in listing content and skills helps teachers design learning activities that are targeted and rigorous. And it helps to weed out the activities (often handouts) that are more busy-work than meaningful-work. Down the road it will also help with collaborative conversations with colleagues as we talk and compare how we teach concepts both across grades and between.

It’s not super illuminating if all our ELA unit plans grade 6 through 12 say “students will analyze character”. If we really want to find ways to help students grow in a deliberate and targeted way, we need to specifically document how students analyze character across each grade level. 

[See full unit plan here]

Now it’s your turn! And let us know how it went. Share your reflections, things you learned in the process, or tips you’d like to share with others! Tweet us

Amber Villa Zang 05


Amber is passionate about pedagogy and the role school leaders and teachers play in creating and providing dynamic, high quality curriculum and instruction. For the past eight years, she’s traveled the globe, leading professional development sessions for domestic and international school districts. Amber supports districts in developing standards-aligned curriculum and guides teachers through the process of developing integrated units of instruction. She also collaborates with district curriculum planning teams and leads professional development sessions for differentiated instruction.

Amber graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Secondary Language Arts. She spent seven years in a public high school teaching a wide range of Language Arts courses, including Senior IB. She also coached volleyball and was active in the school community.


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