How To Plan A Curriculum Unit in 4 Simple Steps with this FREE Template

One of my favorite teacher things to do is curriculum unit planning.

Now, before you roll your eyes, close the tab and go back to Instagram Reels,
don’t panic.  And listen for just a minute.

I’m a planner.  I’m a control freak.  I like to know what’s
coming.  And I think that’s exactly why as soon as I got a teaching job,
I was planning out what curriculum units I might teach during my first year
teaching first grade.

But it’s not just about me.  Kids need structure and organization to
their learning.  When we just teach a string of random lessons, it’s less
effective for kids because they are having to do all of the extra work on how
to process and remember that random information.

When we organize the lessons into big ideas or units, it serves as a brain
filing system for kids.  Now they know exactly how to organize their new
learning and where to find it in their brain when they need it.  Think of
it like a learning anchor… similar to anchor charts.

I know you may still have a racing heart and be ready to bolt, but writing
units doesn’t have to be that hard.  I have written over 100 units for
Science, math, integrated literacy and content units, and Bible
units.

And I’m not gonna pretend like it’s always a walk in the park, but there are 4
simple steps that I follow every time that makes curriculum unit planning simple,
effective and FUN!  I promise you CAN do it.

(Psst.  Feeling stuck with the boring units your district has written
for you or are included in your textbooks?  You can totally use this
process to elevate the existing units and make it work even better for you
and your students while still “following” the district outline.)

Write Your Big Idea

The first step is writing your big idea.  What’s the big idea?

See what I did there?  A big idea is the main understanding or take away
that kids must understand by the end of the unit.  It’s the
umbrella.  It’s the overarching idea.

It’s not just a student objective.  Instead of, “The students will be
able to count to 120,” it’s, “Counting to 120 is useful.”

Instead of, “The students will be able to read and comprehend CVC words,”
it’s, “Authors write to tell stories.” or “We read to understand stories.”

Instead of, “The students will be able to name characteristics of birds,”
it’s, “The survival needs of animals determine their characteristics.”

The big idea zooms out a bit so that it can be connected to multiple topics,
standards, objectives, and even subjects!

Still struggling with writing a big idea?  Here are a few tips…

  • Don’t use TSW (The students will) like you learned in college for writing
    objectives.
  • Write it like you are writing the topic sentence for an expository or
    opinion writing essay so that it has multiple supporting points available.
  • Brainstorm and list key words or phrases (like community, rights,
    responsibilities).  Then write a sentence using as many of those as
    possible (Individuals within a community share rights and responsibilities).

Our big idea was posted on a huge bulletin board in my first grade
classroom.  This was one of my first bulletin boards I had made when I
started teaching.  Because organizing the lessons for my kids was top
priority.

This is the first big idea board I had (so excuse the ancient picture).
I taught in an IB school so we were required to include some IB lingo with
it.  But we made it work for us too! 🙂

Here is the next big idea board I used in a new school, new classroom.
With wayyyyy less bulletin board space.  I used the chalkboard to post
our big idea quote on.

And when I homeschooled my second grader, I included our big idea in our
learning space as well so we could constantly refer back to it and make
connections.

Plan Your Essential Questions

Once you have your big idea, you are ready for your essential questions.
An essential question is just what it sounds like… a goal that is essential
for kids to understand2 the big idea… in question form!

If we go back to the umbrella strategy, the essential questions (EQ) are the
supports for the umbrella.

They still are NOT learning goals.  They are a little bigger.  And
they must connect to the big idea.

A unit can have anywhere from 2-4 essential questions.  They can have
more, but I find that keeping it to 2, 3 or 4 is much easier for the younger
kids to manage.

If I go back to the big idea example I used from my
first integrated unit, the big idea was, “Individuals in a community have rights and
responsibilities.”

The essential questions for this unit are…

  • What is a community?
  • What are my rights and responsibilities?
  • Who is part of our school community?
  • What makes our learning community successful?

Your essential questions need to be smaller in scope than your big idea, but
bigger than an individual lesson.  Typically, we work on an essential
question for a week or two.

And you may notice from the umbrella example above that the essential
questions are listed in the order they will be taught and there is a natural
progression of learning happening.

Sort Your Standards Into the Essential Questions

Now you will want to use your district’s pacing guide or your own pacing to
decide which standards fall under which essential question.

For
this integrated social studies and literacy unit, I added the Social Studies standards for each essential question.
Then, I looked through our literacy standards for the first quarter and chose
standards that would support the essential question and help develop those
social studies ideas.

So, for the essential question, “Who is part of our school community?” I will
add reading and writing standards for informational writing and reading.

Getting the standards set in place first ensures that I have my standards in
mind when I am planning lessons.  Instead of just forcing the standards
to fit into lessons I want to teach and possibly leaving out standards.

Set Your Daily Goals and Lessons

After writing your big idea, listing your essential questions and sorting your
standards, you are ready for the “fun” part.

Writing your goals, lessons, and activities.  When I’m in this initial
unit planning phase, I am just listing the activities or goals or lessons that
will help kids fulling answer and understand the essential question.

And, of course, tie back to the big idea.

But I’m not writing detailed lesson scripts.  It’s basically like I’m
jotting notes down to myself so that when I get to that week and start
planning, I’ll remember what I was thinking and can elaborate then.

In our umbrella example, this is the raindrop phase of planning!
🙂

And, no, there doesn’t have to be exactly 3 activities for each essential
question.  I just love symmetry, lol!

For our
beginning of the year integrated unit, it would look some like this…

Now, I have my unit at a glance planned and I can add this plan to my lesson
planning file or folder to have handy when I am planning.   Here’s a
FREE digital template
in color and black and white for you to use to plan your curriculum unit.

This unit I used in my example can be found
here
and I’ve already done the detailed daily planning for you and included all the
print and digital materials you need! 🙂
And if you need help pacing out your standards or just want to take a peek at
what my entire year looks like, check out
this first grade pacing guide
that also comes with digital templates to make your own!

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