start with the big picture

thoughts and tools for instructional planning beyond the lesson

i recently saw a discussion about whether we should start with the lesson or start with the unit when planning instruction.

is this a question? deep learning doesn’t come in random bites that can be contained and planned in 55 minute units. meaningful learning takes place over time — cumulatively woven together in a tapestry of rich text, conversation, writing, reflection, experience.

the answer is DEFINITELY definitely start with the year (or bigger – the school experience, beyond our grade teams) — then the unit — then….

HOWEVER: we teachers are not often given the right tools for planning the big picture first! particularly if we don’t have strong curriculum adoptions.

most of our teacher preparation programs focus almost exclusively on the infamous lesson plan, and many district unit-planning documents are a wild disorganized scroll-o-rama containing the list of the literacy standards covered in the unit (surprise! it’s all of them!) and the content topics covered (just kidding! you know they don’t give a sh*t about science or social studies) and maybe some of the books they used to use for this unit but actually probably don’t use anymore.

(see: my life as a first year teacher with a 19 page google doc that i couldn’t make heads or tails of. this last paragraph was just copy-pasted from my 2014 diary.)

so i want to share some useful (ahem and extremely simple) tools that i’ve developed over the years, with a few recommendations:

  1. start with the whole year! the WHOLE year. the biggest picture. break it down into units or month, but keep the big picture really clear and simple — bullet points, no standards or objectives jargon. a one pager is no place for your measurable verbs — we just want the gist. you can find a year-long curriculum map on my lil resource page here.
Keep it simple! This template is linked on the Resources page of this site.

2. once you have your units or month-by-month laid out, it’s time to dig into unit planning. this should outline your long term content and literacy targets, your key assessments and final products, the anchor texts that sit at the heart of the unit, the fieldwork or expert visits that will bring your unit to life (more on this from the brilliant mind of Ron Berger and EL Education educators here). i find the template below to be the most useful way to organize and think through these medium picture instructional choices. BUT without the week by week breakdown, this is way too vague to be actionable.

Unit planning (or what EL folks call Expedition Planning — because learning is a JOURNEY) helps you articulate how you and your students will build towards something deep, meaningful, and important. It is not written in stone — but it’s thinking that we need to do ahead of time.

2b: tl;dr IMPORTANT PART HERE: when you plan units, the MOST useful unit and underutilized unit of planning is the WEEK. make your life simple, make your planning clear: break it down week by week! give yourself a clear topical sense of what you and your wonderful students will be reading, writing, thinking about each week and how it builds week by week. (Please do NOT make each week focused on a given literacy standard. For more info on that, please read Text at the Center (Liben/Pimentel) and this piece on content-rich literacy.)

once you have your week-level learning targets, or “headlines”, mapped out, a one pager capturing the broad strokes of each lesson can a really manageable, high leverage way to build toward individual lesson plans.

this kind of weekly one pager is a great starting point for daily lesson planning — particularly if you use a strong set of instructional routines that make the flow of individual lessons fairly consistent.

3. make the big picture VISIBLE to children — and engage them in thinking about where they are going with their learning!

i didn’t see a syllabus until the spring of my senior year of high school. WHY? why do we withhold this info from students and their families?

if you have a curric map that scopes out the broad strokes of the year, share it with families. this can be a great ‘back to school night’ activity — offering families something more concrete to discuss and ask questions about. i like to give kids a one pager “syllabus” of the major topics we’ll learn that year during the first week of school. they annotate it with question marks, exclamation points, hearts — and discuss it with their classmates.

likewise, anchor charts mapping out the big picture of the school year or the long term learning targets of a unit can give clarity and a sense of purpose to everyday lessons: all of this is building toward something.

big picture planning is so important because it holds us accountable to kids’ long term learning and growth beyond just our classroom. this is part of why high quality curricula can be so powerful — but so many of our schools leave teachers to figure it all out on their own.

whether that’s you, building the plane as you fly it, or you’re managing a hefty curriculum and trying to make sense of it — these tools are for you.

the first week of school, students annotate and discuss a syllabus of the school year with the things they are most excited to learn, areas they think they’ll want more help, and questions they have about what they’ll learn in 4th grade. this syllabus doesn’t contain ALL of what we’ll learn (some things will emerge organically in the course of the year — in this particular school year, for example, we ended up doing a deep-dive on yemen that came of an impassioned class discussion about current events and culture, which certainly wasn’t mapped on the ‘syllabus’.) but it gives me and them a sense of clarity about where we’re headed

PS please let me know what you find most useful, how it works for you, and if you have questions about how to leverage these templates to deepen learning with your students!

Published by callielowenstein

Teacher Leader. Currently teaching 1st-2nd Grade Intervention in DC Public Schools. Past: Supporting teacher prep programs with Deans for Impact. Bilingual public schools in NYC and Oakland. International education and impact evaluation in West Africa, India, Latin America.

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