Purposeful Planning: Unit Plans Part 1

Hello all! Today I will be starting off a new series of posts, how I plan with purpose and meaning behind my lessons and learning experiences with students. I think that a good place to start is to take a look at how I approach my units and design the learning experience surrounding my students. Are you ready? Let’s go!

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

-Aristotle

Yes, I just quoted Aristotle and there is a very good reason. Many people out there think that excellence sometimes is a mixture of luck, skill and more luck. Being at the right place at the right time and having the specific skills to be successful leads to excellence. I am going to argue that and say that is not completely accurate. Excellence is often by design.

Teams become powerhouses because they have a program, vision an established culture. Schools are great schools because they have a strategic plan. Teachers can become excellent by using promising practices that connect and involve our 21st century learners. Excellence can be designed and planned (with a little bit of luck and skill…).

Enough with the “real talk”, let’s get to unpacking how I approach the unit planning process. Ready? Let’s start with step one!

Step One: Gather Some Data

Before you start planning your next awesome unit you need to collect some data. Being data driven in your decision making is one of the best way to ensure that you are having your shareholders (ie. students) part of the planning process. In this step I would collect two different sets of data and compare it against each other. WARNING: I WILL BE USING MATH!

Unit Focus = (Student Voice + Community Interest + Profesional Capacity) / Resources Available

This simple equation can easily look very intimidating, but it can be very easy and simple with the right approaches. Let’s explore each part of the equation and offer some solutions.

Student Voice

First, let’s establish that there is a clear difference between Student Voice and Student Noise. Complaining and venting from students is not constructive and is just noise. Student Voice is the opinions, information and facts collected from students in a reliable and valid manner. Russell J. Quaglia has done some great work on creating ways Student Voice can be fostered and developed. I highly recommend taking a look at the previous links!

I could write another post on student voice, but that is not what we are here to find out. So, what are some ways that I gather student voice and limit the noise?

  1. Listen to Them: there is power in simply listening to their thoughts and ideas. Hallway conversations can be powerful when the right question is used and we listen to our students. Avoid asking “what would you like to do” and try probing for their interests with “what do you do for fun outside” or “when you and your friends get together, what do you do”. You might find out that they have a passion for a specific activity, or that they avoid activity outside of your classes. Both can be powerful pieces of information.
  2. Use a Survey: now before you give me the virtual eye roll and say “yay, another survey”, hear me out. Using tools like Google Forms is an amazing way to gather data on student interests and trends. Questions can be crafted to have students select from a specific list of activities and even add in their own ideas. It’s a great way to probe the student voice and find out what their interests and passions are. Unfortunately there is a drawback, if you do not use the data collected you lose reliability. Students are not fans of voicing their opinions (at first) because there is a sense of vulnerability. Use the data collected to enhance and enrich the experience.
Community Interest

If teaching internationally has taught me anything, it is that no two places are the same. Each school and community of learners are different and what has been a “hit” in one place does not mean that it will be a hit everywhere else. We need to be aware that each school and community has its own “cultural activities”. These can be based on cultural values of the location (ex. the value of team sports in North America is completely different in East Asia) or the values of the school.

Using the listen to them and survey approach in the previous section you can gain some data and insight into what these interests are and how they can compound student interest and engagement.

Professional Capacity

Let’s talk about you, the professional educator who is passionate about their craft and wants only the best from their students. Looking into one’s professional teaching capacity is a lot like looking at the capacities of a business. We both are trying to sell a service or product to an individual who may or may not want it. It only makes sense. To be honest, a professional who is confident in the area they are teaching is a much more powerful professional who feels that they are outside of their wheelhouse. I do advocate stepping out of your comfort zone for growth, but you do not need to jump out of it without a parachute.

Don’t worry! You do not need a business degree to find out what your capacities are as an educator. If you have never heard of a SWOT analysis, it will change your life! This an excellent way to reflect on your capacities as an educator and create meaningful ways to grow and create amazing learning experiences for your students.

To simplify a SWOT analysis, all you need is a piece of paper, a pen and answer some questions about yourself:

1. Strengths
-What do you do well? What unique resources/expertise do you draw on? What do others see as your strengths?

2. Weaknesses
-What are your areas of improvement? Where do you lack resources/expertise? What are others likely to see as a weakness?

3.Opportunities
-What opportunities/development are open to you? What are trends/information that you can take advantage of? How can you turn your strengths into opportunities for learning?

4. Threats
-What are threats that could impact learning? What are you competing with to make the experience enjoyable and fun? What threats expose your weaknesses?

Resources

Now that we have some data about student voice, community interest and your professional capacity, we need to factor something that may be completely out of our control, resources. We need to take a close look at what our facilities we have available, the equipment that we have on hand, accessibility to technology, the time of year and weather trends, and accessibility to ordering additional equipment. Each of us a unique teaching and learning environment and that plays a HUGE part in the types of units that we can offer.

The demand for a fielding and striking unit focusing on learning how to play softball might be huge from the students and you might be pretty competent and confident in designing that unit, but if you don’t have the equipment needed to learn in a safe and meaningful matter or a safe area to play and develop skills you might want to think of alternatives.

Closing Thoughts

Now, you may be thinking that this was a pretty simple process. That was not the point of this post, it was meant to have you reflect and analyze the types of learning environments that you may be designing for your students. If at any point you took the time to think about your specific situation, students and learning community, or your own professional capacities then I accomplished my goal!

Stay tuned for the next post when we look at establishing the purpose of your units!

Take care and stay active!

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