What Makes an Effective Unit Introduction?

Beginning a new unit can be tricky.  How do you best introduce it to the students in an engaging manner?  How do you get them excited or hooked on the content information?  How do you help assess the students’ prior knowledge?  Do you need to have an opening activity?  These questions often plague me as I plan a new unit.

My co-teacher and I recently planned a new unit on Africa for our Humanities class.  We wrestled with how to begin it.  After a mini-unit on perspective, how would we jump into a cultural study on Africa?  How would we get the boys excited about a place that is so foreign to many of our students?  We finally came up with some ideas that we liked.

Today, we began our new Unit on Africa in Humanities class.  We began the unit by sharing and discussing one of the guiding questions for the unit: How does your perspective guide you when learning about new cultures?  We dissected the question for the boys so that they understood what it was asking.  We defined some of the vocabulary terms for our ELL students.  We also told the boys that this question will act like the river cutting through our unit.  It will tie everything we do throughout the unit together.  

Then, we had the students complete an activity to assess their prior knowledge of Africa.  Before class had began this morning, I took down all of the world maps we had hanging on the walls.  We then gave the students a piece of paper and a clipboard on which they drew the outline of Africa based on their prior knowledge.  Inside the continent they were to list everything they already knew about Africa.  We discussed some possible topic ideas to use: Culture, People, Food, Traditions, etc.  We assigned each student a different part of the classroom so that they would not be able to see what their peers were doing.  While we encourage group work and peer tutoring, we wanted this pre-assessment to be all theirs.  The students silently created their maps and filled them with information.  While most students had a good idea of the basic shape of Africa, many of the boys knew every little about the continent.  Much of the information the boys had already learned was very biased and stereotypical.  They mentioned learning about animals, watering holes, jungles, and deserts.  This is great information for us as teachers to know so that we can be sure to educate them regarding the other side of Africa, the Africa that many people like to ignore: Child soldiers, starvation, lack of clean drinking water, and disparity of wealth.  Once they had each completed their list and map, we had the students share their map with their table partner to compare and contrast.  The boys had some great conversations with their peers.  We then showed an accurate map of Africa for the boys to see their inaccuracies.  Some of the students seemed a bit shocked.  I then explained what shape I saw in Africa as a way to imprint the shape of the continent into my long term memory by making connections.  Sideways, Africa looks like the skull of an animal.  I pointed out the ear and eye.  Then, I had the boys share what they saw in the shape.  They had some great ideas: An elephant’s ear, wolf, and the Patriots symbol.  This helped them better remember the shape of Africa for future reference.  

Then, we helped the boys put Africa into the context of the greater world.  We provided the students with a world map that had Africa blanked out.  They needed to draw an accurately placed and proportional Africa on the world map.  We then handed the students a larger sized version of the same world map with Africa clearly marked.  This lead into a discussion of what the students noticed about their drawing.  The students made some keen observations:  “The top part in my drawing was too far north, Mine was too far south, or Mine was too small.”  This activity helped the students understand where Africa is in the world.

Our final introductory activity was focused on helping the students understand how large Africa is.  We gave the students each a pair of scissors and had them cut out the other continents and see how many they could fit inside Africa.  They had fun cutting and arranging the countries in a unique way.  The average was three continents.  We then shared a visual aide with the boys that displayed how many different countries could fit into Africa.  It then compared the total land area of all of those countries to Africa.  It’s a lot larger in size than many people realize.  We then discussed how today’s activities helped broaden the students’ perspective of Africa.  Many of the boys didn’t realize how large Africa truly is.  They also didn’t fully grasp its location in the world.

We ended class having the students examine why each student has a different perspective.  This then lead into how these altered perspectives can teach us a lot.  We can learn about different ways to view the world from our peers.  The students seemed excited about this discussion and today’s lesson.  Hopefully, this introduction into our unit on Africa inspired them to want to learn more.  While this was only one way to begin the unit, we hope that it was an effective and engaging way.  We’ll have to revisit this in a few days as we dig deeper into our study of Africa.


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