What does lesson planning look like for you? Do you outline weeks at a time or plan more day-to-day? It can be overwhelming to think about planning a whole unit of instruction, but I promise that it’s worth the time you spend up front. Unit planning can be a really effective way to think about the learning outcomes you want for your students and the methods you’re going to use to get them there. This leads to more purposeful planning and teaching!
Your district might create unit plans for you to use. If not, I promise you can make them on your own! I like using a comprehensive unit planning template to consider many different aspects of the unit I want to teach.
So what should you know if you are new to instructional unit planning as an upper elementary teacher? Let’s dive in!
You’ve probably heard this before. None of the read-alouds or centers or escape rooms you choose are any good if you don’t know what you’re doing them all for.
Backward design involves starting with the learning outcomes and goals in mind. This helps us design more effective units of instruction. Writing statements like, “Students will __________” makes it clear where we want students to be at the end of the unit. Once we know that, then we can figure out how we’re going to assess it and how we’re going to teach it.
This doesn’t have to be complicated! It just means taking the standard(s), determining the content knowledge and skills students need to learn to master it, and then creating the assessments and lessons.
Your district might require you to create essential questions or essential understandings for each unit. These can be another helpful way to guide your planning. My advice is to pick 3 at most and keep them simple and kid-friendly.
Keep Your Unit Planning Standards-Based
For me, lesson planning is the fun part. But going down the Pinterest rabbit hole makes it easy to wander away from the standards you need to teach. To stay on track, I like to list the standards and objectives right in my unit plan. When I look at pacing and planning the individual lessons, I can check them off as I go.
When you’re planning, you’ll want to have your grade-level standards, county standards (if you have them), and pacing guides handy. If you’re in Virginia, find the SOLs here.
Consider Cross-curricular Connections
I LOVE using cross-curricular lessons to teach content units. This is a great method to keep students engaged and help them make connections to other areas of study. This doesn’t have to mean that every minute of the unit has to hit multiple subject areas! Even just including one or two cross-curricular lessons in the unit can be really effective.
Collaborate with Staff
We tend to think about unit planning as only involving our grade-level team, but there are many more options!
I recommend reaching out to other staff in your building to collaborate on your unit planning! Think about chatting with your librarian, reading teacher, music teacher, PE teacher, art teacher, tech specialist, and other educators who can support a particular unit.
And of course, don’t forget any ESOL/ELL or special education teachers you work with, too.
Plan Assessments at the Beginning
I find it really helpful to know how students will be assessed before I plan the lessons. This is especially helpful if you’re using performance-based assessments or informal assessments that might involve other skills you need to teach or review (like tech skills). Once you’ve decided the standards and objectives of the unit, you can design your assessments.
Scheduling assessments on a unit plan calendar helps to make sure you’re assessing students throughout the unit and not just at the end. Planning ahead also helps you check that you’re using different methods to assess learning since you’re not planning at the last minute. You don’t have to fully create the assessments yet, but it’s good to have an outline of what you’ll do – and good to share with students early on, too.
Depending on the unit, I might also use a pre-test or other activity to gauge what students know and don’t know before I get too far into the planning (especially in math).
Get Creative with Technology
It can be really easy to see using technology as a box to check off. Or to just plan to use it the same ways you usually do.
By thinking about how you’ll use technology when you start planning the unit, chances are you’ll find more exciting and creative ways to integrate technology. I like to think of it in 2 ways: technology for teaching and technology for learning. That helps me to think about how I will use it vs. how my students will.
I’ve never dared to write my lesson plans in pen. Field trips, fire drills, snow days, etc., can easily push you off schedule. When I design a unit of instruction, I like to always include a little wiggle room in case we get behind. Having a flex day allows you to catch up if needed or go more in depth if you have the time.
I always sketch out the lessons for the unit on a calendar to make sure everything is covered and so I know how much time I have to teach a topic or skill. Creating a pacing guide is a good way to keep yourself in check when you get started teaching the unit.
If you want to save time getting started with unit planning, you can grab my upper elementary unit plan template!
Don’t Forget to Reflect
My last tip for getting started creating unit plans is to make sure you reflect! It just takes a minute to jot down some notes about what went well and what you need to tweak for next time.
As you can see, there’s quite a lot that goes into unit planning before you even get started planning the actual lessons. You can make unit planning as simple or as detailed as you like. Either way, using a unit plan template is a great way to stay organized and make sure you’re not forgetting anything. And you may find that you prefer making unit plans for some topics or subjects and not others. If you give unit planning a try, I hope these tips help you!