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  • Writer's pictureBrianna Frerich

The Joys of a New School Year: UNIT PLANNING

If you're like me, which I hope for your sake that you aren't, I like to go ALL OUT on planning. This will be my first year as a teacher, so the sheer amount of things to be planned has made me like a kid on Christmas. One of these fun-tabulous things to be planned is perhaps the biggest and most important thing I will plan for this entire year as a teacher: the actual content I will be teaching. The district that I work for is pretty relaxed in their requirements for teacher planning. They don't provide us with any specific content to teach, or any specific ways we have to teach it. They give us a Unit Calendar that has the order of the units, and the dates they are due by. It looks like this:

It has the name of the unit, the length of the unit, and then the date that it's due by. It also includes which different objectives will be covered in that unit, sorted into whether or not the skill is essential or supportive. Again, it's beneficial to work where I do, because the state of Oklahoma has provided us with a set out list of objectives to go with our state standards, so I don't have to do a lot of work coming up with goals that support them. I just have to tweak the ones I'm given a little so that they are measurable, and then I have objectives for my lesson plans, which is awesome :)


So, my district gives us this Unit Calendar. The name of the unit is clickable (we are sent this in a Microsoft Word Doc), and will take us to more in depth print out of that specific unit, which further discusses the objectives and other things aimed at guiding us while we plan lessons for that unit. The Unit Packet (as I'm calling it lol) is several pages, so I won't include a photo of that here, but it does include another set of links to our Unit Tests and Answer Keys. Ever blessed that I am, my district provides us with Unit Tests, so that all of the schools in the district teaching this same content to the same grade level will all take the same test, which they can then use to compare how their different schools are doing. I don't really know how other districts do it, as this is my first teaching job (and in fact, the very same school where I did my student teaching), so I don't have experience with any other way of doing things. But, that being said, I think our way is pretty awesome (no, YOU'RE biased!).


So, district provides us Unit Tests. When I go to plan a unit, the first thing I do is look over its Unit Test. While I do not teach to the test, I do use the test to help guide my teaching. The school I work for is a low-income, inner city school, with a large percentage of non-English speakers. They would typically be designated as "under performing" simply because they are under privileged. That being said, from my time in student teaching at this school, and all the fantastic tips I've learned from the teachers and staff here, the best way to aid these students is to take a direct and simple approach to instruction. Be specific with the skills you want them to learn, and find a way to make the content reachable and applicable to every day life for them. I suppose this really is a good goal for all teachers, but for these students in particular, it is vitally important that teachers master this skill.


In order to isolate the specific skills students need to learn to be successful, I've been taught to study the test for each unit by first taking the test myself. After completing the test, I sort questions into major groups based on their essential content, or the main points of knowledge needed to be able to answer the question correctly. This process allows me to figure out the major sections that I will be teaching for this unit. Typically, the amount of time spent on each of these sections will vary depending on amount and difficulty of content, as well as the number of questions which will be asked of that type on the Unit Test, which allows me to gauge it's significance. By doing this, I can ensure that we spend more time mastering concepts that are of greater significance to a student's success.


As a slightly different but related side note (this totally does relate back into my Unit Planning, I promise!), we teach our students the content that will be the most beneficial to them as they proceed to the next step in their educational journey. In some places, the End of Instruction tests (or whatever your state/district calls them; we usually just call them "state testing" lol) are kind of make or break for teachers, and their students' success (or lack thereof) is of great consequence to them. Again, we are in a low-income, "under performing" school, where the students have a lot of other, much more important things to be worrying about sometimes, such as where their next meal is going to come from, or when their mother is going to get out of prison. So, we don't really push the test thing as hard as some other places. Yes, we stress that the tests are important (for my 8th graders last year during my student teaching, the English test was SUPER important to them, because it determined whether or not they would be allowed to get a drivers license; they definitely cared about that one lol). But we also tell them that those tests are simply a snapshot of how they were doing that particular day, and weren't always the best indicator of their actual level of skills, which is really the truth for ALL students taking end of the year tests, not just my kiddos.


But anyways, so when I go in to plan units, I keep that aspect in mind as well: essentially what I'm doing is preparing my students to be successful in their next math course (Algebra I for my Pre-Algebra students, and Geometry for my Algebra I students), so we focus on skills that are vital to those next steps in the Mathematics sequence.


Once I have taken their Unit Test and isolated the important skills, I pull out my blank calendar. Here's the one I use (it's available as a Freebie for download here):

I fill in the month at the top, and the dates in the tiny boxes to set up the calendar. I may be weird, but I like my calendars to feel "complete," so I usually fill in the remainder of the weeks at both beginning and end of the month, so my calendar will look something like this:

This allows me to plan ahead a little, even if I'm not in that month yet, without having to switch my calendars (I post these calendars on my cabinet behind my desk so that I can reference them quickly as needed through out the year). I do double work (meaning, both the August and October calendars will have that first and last week of September on them respectively), so that no matter where I look during that weird transition-between-months time, I will have that mixed week. That way, I can switch the calendar whenever it's convenient for me without having to keep looking two different calendars.


Once I have the basic calendar set up, I look at our district calendar and write down any dates that we may be out of school, such as professional days, conferences, and holidays. This is a SUPER important step to do BEFORE you begin writing down your unit plan on the calendar. If you forget to do this step, you may accidentally plan something for a day you won't be in school (Guilty as charged lol), which will then force you to have to go back and redo your Unit Plan, which is no bueno for anybody. For the sake of our example calendar, here is what our district calendar has for September:

This may be splitting hairs to some people, but when I'm writing in any of my calendars, I have a very distinct difference between "No School" and "No Classes." For me, it's important to note these differences, so I know when I actually have a 3 day weekend, versus when my students have a 5 day weekend, while I have to work that Friday and Monday as Professional Development days. So, for me "No School" means that I don't have to come in. "No Classes" means that I have to work, but there will be no students. Just a thing I do. I have no idea if it's actually even helpful to anyone else lol


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I'm going to take a moment here to say that the 21 days that my district gives me to teach this unit is really WAY too much time. So, after much struggle and dissension, I ultimately just decided to spend less time on this unit than we are allotted, putting us about a week ahead of schedule. I really wrestled with this decision for a while, but came to the conclusion that overall, this is what is best for my class. And my district is really chill, so I'm sure they'll be fine (if not thrilled lol) with it.

****


At this point, I would normally look back at that Unit Calendar (the first photo above) and fill in the date that the unit is due on my calendar. That would be the day that students test over the unit. Depending on how many questions are the test, my students might get two days to work on the test, but for this particular unit that I'm mapping out, the test is only 11 questions, so students will only get one day to work on this test. So, I mark that due date on my calendar as "Unit 1 Test!"


Because I decided to speed up my timeline, this will actually put my testing date at September 14th instead of the 20th. For the sake of sticking with my actual process of reverse planning, I'm going to go ahead and show you my actual calendar layout for this example just to make it easier. With my new timeline, this is how my calendar would look.

(The yellow lines don't actually go on my calendar lol those are just there to show you guys what I've done that's different from the last image.)


Since we are given our Unit Tests by the district, I like to come up with a review that looks and feels just like our test to get students prepared for what their test will actually be like. I copy the word choice for the question, the same style of answer, I even try to make the incorrect answers incorrect in the same way as the actual test. It isn't a direct copy of the actual test, but it's as similar as it possibly can be. It also goes through each question on the test twice, so I have two example problems for each type of test question so that students get plenty of exposure to those question styles before the test. Is that more work than they'll be able to finish for that class period? Probably. But then they have something to take home to work on (because it WILL be homework if incomplete) and study that evening for the test (yeah, see what I did there??)


So, I like to give this like a mock test the day before the actual test, and I tell my students that this mock test will give them a good indicator of their preparedness for the next day's test. It will allow them to see where they are struggling, seek help if needed, and understand what they will need to study that evening in order to be successful on the real test. (Sorry, sidetracked!)


I will usually begin my review process with a fun, game style review in the form of a relay race, Kahoot quiz, or the like. Something fun to keep students interested in the review. I like to do the fun, group-themed one first, and then do the more serious, individual one the next day, followed by the most serious: the actual Unit Test.


So, adding the Review sequence to our calendar would look like this:

So, because I decided to do my unit in 15 days instead of the 21 days my district actually gave me, after I get those three major things out of the way, we will still have 12 days to work with.


After taking the Unit Test myself, I determined that there were 3 Essential Skills that my students would need to know: Simplifying Expressions (3 questions on the test), Writing Expressions (2 questions), and Substitution (6 questions). During the Substitution section, I also plan to review the Order of Operations (aka PEMDAS). So, if we divided out each section evenly, we would be able to spend 4 days on each section.


As a starting point, I typically run my sections the same way: Notes, Practice, Practice, Quiz. The first day we discuss a topic will be Notes and an assignment called an Error Analysis, which is where students will be given a problem completed incorrectly, and they will need to correct it and explain why it was incorrect. That is all day one. Then, the next two days will be spent practicing the concept in some form. Sometimes it's manipulatives or some other group or partner activity (the fun day), and a least one day of an individual "paper and pencil" (we are actually a 1:1 iPad school, so...."finger and screen?") assignment. More practice days can be inserted (or removed) as necessary, but this is the typical layout for each section. The final day in the sequence, Quiz day, actually begins with Practice anyway, so students will essentially see 2 and a half days of practice, followed by a short Quiz to check progress.


In our example, even though substitution takes up about half the test all on its own (6 questions out of 11), the actually process itself is super simple: students are given a letter with an assigned number value and are asked to plug it into the equation. Therefor, we can probably just modify the Notes, Practice, Practice, Quiz principal to include only one day of specifically Practice. I want to begin this section by discussing PEMDAS, because it will be super important, not only for solving the problems in this section, but also for the remainder of their mathematics education. So, our PEMDAS reminder day will be a preliminary to the Notes, Practice, Quiz sequence, and will take the final of our 4 days we've allotted for each section. And finally, because students will need to know about Expressions before they can really start Substitution, this section will be the last thing we cover before the big test.


After adding the Substitution section to our calendar, it now looks like this:

I abbreviate a LOT because I have two plans to fit on one calendar. As long as you can understand it, save yourself the trouble and abbreviate lol Also, you can see on the 7th that I made myself a note that Algebra I gets homework over that 3 day weekend. I don't give out a ton of homework in my class, but students will be returning to a quiz on that following Tuesday, so I feel that it's important for me to give them something to look at over the break.


So now that we have Substitution on the calendar, we can move on to the Expressions portion. I determined that there were two topics relating to Expressions that we needed to cover: Simplifying Expressions and Writing Expressions. Simplifying is going to be the easier one to start the year off with, because students will have to think the least in order to do it. So working in reverse planning style, that would mean that we need to add Writing Expressions to our calendar next.


This is where stuff starts to get really easy. I already know that each of my sections is 4 days long, and I already have my Notes, Practice, Practice, Quiz plan, so now I just copy and paste! :)


Once Writing Expressions has been added, our calendar will look like this:

Again, note that students are given homework over the now 4 day weekend (these kids get a lot of time off right up front lol), to ensure that they are prepared for the quiz on the day they return to school.


Now we can add Simplifying Expressions to our calendar in exactly the same way:

And that's it! There's my Unit Plan for Unit 1! It's a pretty simple process. I learned reverse planning my freshman year of high school in JROTC, and I've never looked back! It's like seriously my planning best friend :) I do it for everything, even when I'm just planning when I need to get up in the morning in order to leave the house on time. Furill, amazing lol


This computerized version obviously looks a lot nicer than my real Unit Calendar, which is actually all on paper and a hot mess. In case you were curious, here is my real Unit Calendar for Unit 1 (I haven't gotten around to planning anything else yet, so September isn't full yet lol)

Eh, I guess it doesn't look as terrible as I thought. But you can definitely tell it's a lot more cramped with Pre-Algebra on there as well. And you can see my fancy color-coded week system, which I'm sure I'll make a blog post at some point about, so don't worry ;)


But anyways, this is the calendar that is posted on my cabinet for every month, and then I also copy this same calendar down in my lesson planner so that, again, I have the same info everywhere I look.


I really like this system for planning. I learned it during student teaching from a fantastic teacher who has really mastered the art of including simplicity in your teaching. And really, I definitely feel like it makes life easier to have a set routine for doing things. Plus the organization, routine, and uniformity are right up my alley, so it was definitely love from the first plan. ;)


This is just my way, but I would love to hear yours! Make sure to drop me a comment letting me know how you do it! I'd love to hear them all and steal the ways I like ;)

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