Monday, June 2, 2014

Organize Your Units

One of the speakers at the Advancing Adolescent Reading Initiative passed along this little gem of an idea which has really served to anchor ideas for my students: the Unit Organizer. I've used the concept extensively on my course website. It marked a shift in my unit planning. Where previously I might spend a few days planning a unit and then never really look at my plan, now I refer back to my plan daily because the plan was created for the right audience - my students!

The concept of a unit organizer originates from the USA. The goal is to organize your unit so that a student can make sense of it. My organizers have five sections. Section A serves to explain the scope of the unit within my year plan. Which unit came before? Which unit comes after? What big question guides the entire course?

Section B provides a general schedule for the unit. I have found this to be most effective for providing students with advance warning of tests and quizzes as well as the duration of class time available for projects. (ie: the Position Paper in this unit will comprise 4 class periods).

Section C lists the unit questions outlined in the curriculum. I adjust these questions somewhat to make them student-friendly. I also add questions which I feel are critical cognitive steps to learning the skills or knowledge of the unit. 

Section D provides hyperlinks to the major assignments for the unit. I include both formative and summative assessments in this location. Students can preview future assignments or even get started early if they want. We write a position paper at the end of each unit, so many students check out the topic and then begin collecting research over the course of the unit. 

Section E is where the magic happens. When the unit begins, this section is blank (except for the grey bubble in the centre). We spend 5-10 minutes recording our prior knowledge in the space provided. Typically, this involves attempting to answer each one of the unit questions but sometimes I might poll the students for specific information. (In this unit, I asked the students to write down the names of all Canadian political parties). When we review for tests, we create a concept map with all of the critical information we need to know. At the beginning of the year, I lead the class and they copy my template into their own organizers. Midway through the year, I provide them with boxes and stems which they fill out on their own or in pods. The goal is that by May/June the students will be crafting their own organizers and using them as a studying tool. It's always interesting when the students look back at their prior knowledge and contemplate just how much they have learned...

The digital document is a Google Drawing, which allows students to easily move the pieces of the organizer around. I have also printed the pages out and had the students write with pencil - but the final product suffers and is less portable (many students read the organizer on their phones when they study). I have created a companion page for myself called a Unit Planner which lists the information that is really valuable for me - differentiation strategies, lesson breakdowns, etc. Like my unit plans of old, I seldom refer back to it until next year.

The unit organizer is a great tool. It is a piece of planning which you can refer to regularly, and which really helps students organize the important concepts in their heads. Want to try it out? Make a copy of my blank Unit Organizer and try it with your own class.  

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