Do you struggle to fit in all the standards you need to teach? Are you required to plan curriculum units but aren’t sure how to start? Do you want to use integrated instruction but aren’t sure what to do? 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I am here to help!  In this post I will explain how I map out my curriculum units. A free unit planning template is included in this post to help you get started.

Unit Planning vs. Thematic Units

I have always preferred to plan units over lessons. It takes a little longer, but it is easier in the long run.  Unit planning starts with the concepts students are trying to master, and the lessons and activities are planned to support the mastery of those concepts.

Some people confuse the concept of a unit with a thematic unit. A thematic unit is just one type of unit plan. A thematic unit centers all lessons around a particular topic (ex. Baseball, Colonial America.) One of the problems with thematic units is that teachers would sometimes make the theme fit an activity they enjoyed – but wasn’t necessarily very academically oriented (“fluffy”).  

To help you understand how to plan a unit, I will walk you through how I think through a unit below.

1. Start with the End in Mind

First, identify the skills students should have by the end of the unit.  

I select the main standards I need to cover.  After that, I ask myself how the students will demonstrate these skills at the end of the unit.

These are some of the questions I consider:

    • What skills should students master in this unit?
    • What performance task will I use to evaluate their abilities?
    • What are the expectations and criteria that I will use to judge how well students mastered the skills?
    • Are there any other ways students might demonstrate their abilities?

As I wanted to integrate social studies and language arts in my unit, I first selected the social studies standards I wanted to cover, then I looked at language arts to see what skills/tasks could pair well with my social studies content.  (I think it is easier to start with core content and then decide on skills.) In the sample unit, I decided we would focus on how immigrants impact Florida and understanding Florida’s industries.  For the language arts standards, I decided to focus on opinion writing and reading skills.

In order for students to show mastery, they will need to write a short essay on immigrants and write an opinion on a Florida Industry.  They could also use oral responses and reading comprehension to demonstrate their learning.  After that, I decided on the evaluative criteria I would use: factually accurate, grammatically correct, clear reasoning, etc.

2. Decide How to Reach Your Goals

The next step is to decide how you will support students in reaching the final goals.  Think of it like a trip: once you have selected a destination, you still need to prepare for your trip.  What information will students need?  Students will need to learn about immigrants to Florida, as well as the major industries.

Now decide how students will learn that information.  What do you need to teach during the unit?  For example, in order to select important facts, students will need to be able to determine the main ideas in a text. Students will need to read and analyze texts on Florida immigrants and industries.

3. Select Your Questions

By questions, I mean the overarching ideas running through your unit – like an essential question.  What specific ideas do you want students to explore throughout the unit?  Some people like to pick the essential question(s) in step 2, but I find it easier to determine those questions after I have the unit mapped out. (I also think it is easier to write introductory paragraphs at the end, so this just depends on how you work best.)

An essential question for my unit was, “Why do people move? ”  Students should understand that push/pull factors cause people to move.  The information  students will learn in the unit should relate to the essential questions you select. 

4. Finalizing Your Unit

At this point, I analyze which standards I need to integrate into the lessons.  In my unit,  I focused on just three social studies standards, but it also integrated reading, writing, and language standards.

In other words, you already selected the big goal in step one – the core content and skills you want students to master. In steps two and three, you prepared for your unit by deciding the general things students would need and your big ideas. Now you need to plan which specific standards and skills you need to teach in order for them to achieve mastery of those final goals. 

Once I zeroed in on which standards I need to cover, I made a list of skills students would learn in the unit (that they would be able to transfer to future units and activities.)  For example, students would be able to use what they learned about synthesizing information from multiple sources to a future project. (Another example could be including a grammar lesson before writing the essay.)

At this point, I was able to plan my daily activities.  I planned what we would complete in each class period and the materials I would need to prepare.  If I overplanned, I could always take time from the next class period to complete the day’s work. (You don’t want to plan so much that you need twice the amount of time to finish though or you will not get through all your standards by the end of the year.)

Yes, planning a unit does take time, but in the end you have lessons planned for a week or more (and saved so that you can use them again next year.) You also know that you are setting up your students for success, because you are building their knowledge and skills throughout the unit.  (Of course, as the units are taught, teachers should reflect and update the units.  For example, if something didn’t work, edit your unit so it is ready for next year.)

I find that unit plans are more efficient and effective in the long run. They save my personal time because I don’t need to plan every weekend (my units usually take 2-3 weeks.) I also feel more relaxed, because I don’t feel like I am just throwing things together – the units are focused toward a goal. As an elementary teacher, I feel more positive about reasonably covering all standards, because I am integrating the different subjects in a way that makes sense – and freeing up class time because I am not covering each subject separately.

Free Unit Planning Template

In case you are interested in unit planning or already use it, I’m giving you a free Unit Planning Template and my unit on Florida’s Immigrants & Industries! Fill out the form below to get yours today!