Posted in Education, Teaching

The Art of Organizing a Unit

I am not an artist, in the art class sense of the term.  While I do enjoy drawing and coloring, I’m certainly no good at it.  My creative juices are released in other ways.  However, I do like sitting down and creating something from nothing.  Turning a lumpy piece of clay into a tippy, small bowl is almost therapeutic.  Bringing an empty piece of white paper to life with a pencil and markers has always brought me joy.  I guess I just like making things, which is why I love curriculum design so much.  Taking a bunch of standards, transforming them into objectives, and then creating a cohesive and engaging unit around those objectives has always been one of my favorite parts of teaching.  There’s something fun and exciting in trying something new, taking an old activity and putting a new spin on it, or trying a different type of lesson for the first time.  While there are many correct ways to build and design a unit, there are also many wrong ways to do it too.  Just like in art, if you don’t follow the proper proportions in drawing a human face, it will look more like a Picasso portrait than the Mona Lisa.

I’ve recently started creating my next STEM unit on Chemistry.  In doing so, I’ve realized some of the errors I made in building my first unit on Astronomy.

  1. I should not have mixed the two science portions together.  The Knowledge and Application Phases should have been completed before the Synthesis Group Project was started.  Instead, I had the students working on them concurrently.  It just seems confusing, in retrospect.  I think the students are even beginning to get confused.  Which project is the Application Phase again?  So, for my next unit on Chemistry, I’m going to have the Science Knowledge Phase be part one of the unit and then the Partner Project will be part two.  The boys will finish part one before starting part two.  This way, things, hopefully, won’t get confusing for the students.  Plus, I feel as though they need the knowledge foundation in place before they can design a house upon it.  The knowledge must come before the application of that knowledge.
  2. I’m rethinking my due dates and workload as well.  I feel as though I tried to cram too much into such a short unit.  I ended up making a bunch of extra credit activities because I over planned.  While generally over planning is not an issue, I feel that in this instance it is.  The Application Phase won’t really be finished unless the students complete the final extra credit part.  I don’t like that.  So, as I’m crafting my new unit, I’m thinking about the nucleus of chemistry.  What do they really need to be able to understand regarding the field of chemistry?  They’re going to see much of this material again in high school.  So, I’ve tried to really focus on the skills the students will need to attain to be successful students.  This way, I’m only crafting activities that pertain to those skills and that small body of content.  I’m also thinking about the due dates.  While I do want the focus of this new unit to be on Time Management, I also don’t want the students to rush through lessons or activities in order to meet deadlines.  I want the boys to dig deep into the content and assignments.  So, I need to keep due dates in mind as I plan this new unit.  It’s tricky.
  3. For the astronomy unit, I put way too much effort into explaining the directions on my Haiku unit page.  Most of the students just read what they needed to do and ignored all of the other details and instructions.  While the words I had written were important, in my mind, they were trivial to the boys and they just skipped over them.  So, rather than spend the extra time laboring over every atomic and finite detail and instruction, I’m just going to briefly outline the activity or assignment.  Why beat myself up over something that simply gets ignored by the boys?  Yes, following directions is an important life skill, but we will still have plenty of opportunities to do that over the course of the unit.  I just won’t verbosely explain the hows and whys of each task.

So, as I build and generate this new unit on Chemistry, I’m excited for what the future holds.  I’ve never tried a unit on Chemistry before and I’m hoping that the way in which it is deigned will allow the students to enjoy it and engage with the content and concepts covered.  There is a fine art to conceiving and organizing a unit and I’m feeling quite good about how this one is coming together.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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