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41. Curriculum Series #5—Establishing a Reusable Unit Arc

by Lindsay Lyons
August 3rd 2021

We’re getting into unit arcs in #5 of my Curriculum Development Mini-Series. Unit arcs are ⁠considered the backbone of units that are student-centered and grounded i... More

Welcome to the fifth episode in our curriculum design series. If you haven't listened to the previous episodes, go ahead on back and listen to teaching for justice, the research talk about rubrics. We had a guest episode on P. B. L. A. Driving question episode and now we are at the point where we're going to dive into a unit park. We're talking today about the protocols or activities that make up a unit, how we can repeat them in replicable patterns to not only decrease the amount of energy and time that goes into lesson planning and unit planning as a teacher but also to increase the predictability and consistency and skill development of our students. So let's dive in. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive. I'm a former teacher leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar. If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a pro principal superintendent instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts, if you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for teacher ship podcast, let's dive in.

I still remember sitting across from my curriculum coach who was amazing, her name was Janice during my 3rd year of teaching and when she shared the concept of a unit arc, I could barely believe it, I was awestruck, well at the same time thinking really I can do that, I can just repeat these protocols. Every single unit can be the same arc. This saves me so much time. And with the introduction of this one concept, my entire idea Of what was possible with regards to curriculum design drastically changed. And so all of a sudden I saw a path forward that involved creating really amazing topical units without spending 20 hours every weekend to finish them. Which is what I was doing in my 1st 2.5 years of teaching, my unit creation process skyrocketed after the introduction of this one simple tool of the unit arc and I'm so excited to dive into it today with you, here's how I define a unit arc, The pattern of purposeful learning experiences in which students engage throughout the unit.

As with any unit, we're going to pack it with learning experiences for our students, we will always want to be a student centered in our pedagogy. The key difference with the unit arc is the intentional pattern. It follows the pattern of purposeful learning experiences and so this pattern becomes predictable to you as the creator. It saves you a lot of time from reinventing the wheel, so to speak, each unit, but it also becomes predictable for your students because you're going to reuse it from unit to unit, they're going to become familiar with each protocol specifically, but also where we're going next in the broader context of the unit. So once I developed my own unit arc for my courses, I no longer spent hours determining which activity to prepare for each lesson, because the activity given the particular day within the unit was pretty much the same every time I created a unit. So the same arc, the same templates for specific activities, stayed with me from unit to unit. And so then my prep time was focused solely on just collecting and organizing the specific content material that would vary from unit to unit.

So what's an example of a unit arc? I want to kind of paint a picture for you around what this could look like and it's gonna vary by subject. It's going to potentially vary by grade, it's going to vary from teacher to teacher based on what your teaching qualities are your preferences, but also the strengths and preferences of your students as well. So here's just one example, this was for context. Originally intended for social studies content, I've used it for social studies for literacy for various subjects as I'm coaching. So here we go. First lesson, hook, so we're hooking students in second lesson and perhaps a second few lessons that might be more than one lesson, but we are establishing prior knowledge of we know from pedagogy from john Hattie's research on effect sizes that integrating new knowledge with existing knowledge that students already have coming into the class, not only reward students for the various knowledge that they bring in and recognizes that they are not empty vessels.

We are actually increasing student's ability to learn when we link existing knowledge to new knowledge. So prior knowledge having at least a day, I usually use like a circle activity or something to elicit what knowledge we have on a particular topic and then going into kind of an overview some broad content ideas, some enduring understandings or maybe themes that we're addressing in the particular unit. We might have a day on that and then we might have a day or two on primary sources as a social studies teacher. Primary sources were really important for your E. L. A. Folks, you might have a text, a core text that you're introducing and starting to dig into at this time. This could be content that provides a context for a science experiment or a math project but we're really digging into what are the text that we're going to use to frame our conversation throughout the unit. From there. I would often have a discussion case studies where students got to choose and go on different paths of sub topics within the larger topic we're all talking about in a unit.

Case studies really are opportunities to highlight different context specific examples of the larger themes for trying to teach in the unit. So this could look a lot of different ways for a lot of different subject areas but choosing a case diving into it and then I would actually rotate kind of case studies discussion when times and other protocols as kind of this inner repeating pattern within the larger unit arc project work time project presentations are going to be the second to last activity in a unit arc and then finally reflection, which is often an activity that's typically skipped on over when we are talking about a unit arc because we're done, the grades are in and we're moving on to the next unit. But this time for reflection is very critical for students to be able to think about what are the skills that I practice during the student. What do I want to do differently in the next unit. And this can be really powerful to just take the time to do as well as get feedback from your students about what worked or didn't work from a pedagogical lens because then you can actually change your next unit arc and adapt as you go in line with what your students need or what their interest levels are.

We're thinking about this arc of engagement as we're thinking about our unit arc where the interest is sparked early on with our hook lesson Again, this can look however you want it to look, but it might be a current event that's happening in the moment. It might be a documentary that connects two key concepts that we're going to cover from historical lens, but we're going to show a documentary about a modern issue or a case study that is relevant today. That we're going to add additional context to as we dig into the history later. That's a social cities example. This could look like a science experiment that is kind of peaking interest around what's going on. How did that happen? And we're going to dive into how later in the unit. Then again, we're building on students existing knowledge. We're laying the foundational knowledge with the overview of key concepts and important primary sources or other texts that are useful for your content area. And then students are given space, they're able to explore to discuss, to research down whatever rabbit hole they want to go down in relation to the larger topic.

And they're going to at the same time be really applying their learning in novel ways. They're going to leverage their creative souls to produce summary, meaningful work. And of course, as I said, there's a culmination of the unit in a project presentation of some kind, ideally with an authentic audience. So it's not just the teacher or even just the class that's seeing it, but there is an audience outside of the classroom experiences, whatever it is the students created and then of course that reflection moment, what went well, what did students find helpful in terms of strategies or the types of teachers support that they were offered? Did they want to repeat a specific protocol again and again. Did a certain specific protocol need just a little tweak or are we going to leave this one behind and never use it again. One of the most popular questions I get when asked about a unit arc that repeats over and over is do students get bored of the same activities if you use them repeatedly? And surprisingly, students were rarely bored. In fact, many of my students that they liked the predictability of knowing what was coming next and I found that the content more than the process was what determined whether an activity was engaging or not.

That said, you know, your students best, so feel free to do whatever feels best for your students. One of the protocols that did get a little tiresome for my students was circles because they engaged in it every single week. It was the most common protocol that I used and because they also had circle protocol in other classes, I think that kind of compounded if it was just me using it once a week, I think it would have been okay. But despite being tired of the protocol, if the topic of discussion within the circle was engaging enough, they would be really excited to engage in that conversation. If it was a question that was not super interesting or a topic that they didn't want to dive into or they already dove into in another class that week then we would get kind of another circle that kind of thing. So just be really mindful about your ability to use the content as a driver of engagement and the protocol. Just as the pedagogy that supports students engagement with the content.

Now within a specific unit arc we have what are called protocols and these are just the lesson level activities that students are completing to engage in the content. You can call them whatever you like, other people call them procedures or learning routines. But basically these are the structured ways in which students engage in the learning E. L. Education calls them protocols because I'm familiar with E. L. Education curriculum. I just have been using the term protocols. I also think it speaks very nicely to the structure and the structural elements that we need to think about as we set up for our particular lessons or activities. When I talk about protocols and specifically talking about student centered protocols which are gonna ask students to grapple with the work a lot more than to be a teacher centered protocol and they might actually not require too much direct teacher involvement. Of course teachers can always support students as needed during protocols but students really benefit from that grappling and that independent work time. Of course the activity needs to be within their Z. P. D. Or their zone of proximal development.

In other words they're able to accomplish the task with some peer support or maybe scaffolding questions that are built into a protocol. But they can mostly do it on their own and have some success and not get to that level of frustration where they just quit. So it's important to be aware of what our students strengths are. Give them that room to explore grapple and struggle but have that struggle be a productive one. One of the most important things I learned about protocols is that in E. L. Education experience and research they have found. If you have 3 to 5 go to protocols that span a few different purposes. That is the most effective range of protocols. We don't need to know 100 different protocols. Each teacher doesn't need to do that money. Probably gonna get overwhelming to students to constantly be learning a new one. And it's a lot of work for the teacher to learn new protocols. And to prep materials for new protocols. You re use protocols you can actually spend less time making new materials for teaching new directions for these class activities. In addition to the reduction of the cognitive load for students right?

There's more brain space to focus on the content and the learning as opposed to that wasted energy. Learning the steps of a new protocol. So there's a lot of benefits in the less is more approach to protocols. Of course you can always rotate in A new protocol to mix things up beyond the 3-5. But 3-5 I think is a really healthy goal and we can align each one of those 3-5 to a purpose, a larger goal for the activity. I just want to talk about what those different purposes might be. E. L. Education defines their purposes on their website as text based. So students are interacting with text discussion, peer feedback, decision making, and presenting in terms of how I used these in my class and how I've supported teachers to use protocols in their classes. I've adapted this list just a little bit to focus mostly on the first three. So that would be text based discussion and peer feedback. The biggest results I have seen have come from protocols that have those three purposes and I would actually add another piece to this.

I don't necessarily think of it as a similar protocol purpose on par with the other three. It's a little bit different but independent work time and how to structure independent work time is another piece that I've used as an interchangeable protocol within the larger unit. Arc. If you can identify one, go to protocol for each of these four total protocols. I think that's all you really need to map out a week or even better a full unit. So your content or your teaching style may make you gravitate to one of these purposes more frequently than the others. And that's totally okay. You can have multiple protocols for your most used purpose. In my high school class, I had to core discussion protocols but I use them in different ways and at different rates. I used circle protocol as I said earlier in the episode weekly. Mostly this was for current event discussions that we could process what was happening in the world and also to build community with one another. I used more content focused. Socratic seminar discussion protocol for students in an academic setting.

So this was maybe once or twice a unit and really what students were doing here is practicing collecting and analyzing evidence so that they could form and present academic arguments. So a little bit different purpose within the larger purpose of advancing student discussion. My challenge to you now is to go ahead and build out using the protocols that you use already things that your students have loved and been really highly engaged in going to list out those protocols and see if you have at least one or two protocols for each purpose. Text based discussion, peer feedback and any other purpose that you come up with depending on your grade level or your subject area, you might come up with different purposes and that's totally fine to adopt that list. Take a moment to list out all of your different protocols that you love and then try to move them into an arc. Thinking about student engagement in the arc of student engagement throughout a unit. What works best as a hook activity is a hook activity. Its own purpose within the protocol purposes.

How often do you want to have discussion? Is it going to be weekly? Is it going to be bi weekly? What kind of discussion do you want them to use? When are they going to get an opportunity to work collaboratively or get your feedback on their written writing or any other project they're creating. These are the kinds of questions to think about as you start to map out that unit arc from there. Once you have your unit arc mapped out, let's say typically your unit is 20 days or 30 days and you have day one is typically this protocol, day two is typically this protocol. What you can do is then determine what worksheets or templates or materials go with each protocol and if you have one template that you can just slightly adjust each time, maybe you don't even need to adjust it and students can just put in the new new content or use it in parallel with a new text without adjusting the worksheet template itself, then you don't have to re create activity, worksheets or new content in that sense for what is going to be in front of the students during an activity Every time that you do it, you just have, Oh I'm doing Socratic seminar, this is my Socratic seminar worksheet, I'm going to have the students right in the specific content based question.

Everything else is going to remain the same. There's a great opportunity there to just have your students help you out in the personalization in applying the content and mapping it into the worksheet and then you're saving yourself a lot of time with that kind of reusability of the protocols themselves. If you are really interested in taking a deeper dive into protocols. I have amazing news for you. So I have a curriculum bootcamp course which is a self paced online course for educators that they can use to develop start to finish units. A lot of teachers have told me you know I can't use P. D. Money for this. My administrator doesn't have many left. I want to buy it for myself but it's just too expensive. Can you give me one piece of the course that I could buy for a lower cost? And I've been hesitant because I really think the start to finish element of I'm going step by step by step. I'm not gonna miss anything. I understand why we're doing it. There's like the rationale that's included as well as each of the templates that's so valuable to creating a really great unit.

However I also recognize the teachers do not get paid enough and it might be helpful if you're just getting started with curriculum design to just start thinking about your unit art specifically. And so what I am doing is pulling my protocols module from my larger curriculum bootcamp course and selling that to individual teachers who just want a glimpse at the course. So that protocol module called purposeful protocols is going to be available to purchase. I will link to it in the show notes and I just want to tell you what you get when you dive into this module, you'll get some several lessons. One is going to be just on the protocols 101 purpose of protocols, rationale digging into the protocols you've used. The next one is going to be all about text based protocols and I'm going to give you three examples of protocols I've used as well as different templates to use like my digital jigsaw template, my virtual gallery walk template in my discussion protocols which is going to be less than three of the module.

I'm telling you, my top three discussion protocol, which I think we're the best lessons that I have done in my class as well as all of the templates for those including a circle facilitation guide, a circle slides template. A Socratic seminar, student worksheet is Socratic seminar note taker for teachers, a human barometer sides template. In my pure feedback protocols lesson, which is lesson number four of the module. I will tell you my top three peer feedback protocols as well as including a praise question suggestion template for you in the fifth and final lesson of the module, you'll be looking at my independent learner protocols, including a bunch of templates. So I'm going to give you three protocols and then I'm gonna give you templates and resources for several of them. So I'll include my Marzano self assessment side, my personalized pathway template worksheet my six before me, posters and smart goals worksheet template. If you are interested in grabbing that, go ahead and locate the show notes of this episode, dive on in. If you are interested in a deeper dive, feel free to check out the full curriculum bootcamp course or ask your leader to purchase it for you or even better your grade or department team.

I think this works so much better when we're collaborative and on the same page about designing courses for justice in a way that is equitable in a way that centers mastery based grading and project based learning and student leadership and voice. If you are a leader, feel free to purchase this course and my live coaching component of the course for your department or grade team. If you're just looking for something for free, I will always give you something for free at the end of each episode. My one hour free master class is now running on a loop so you can watch it at any time that you wish. It is called how to design units that engage students and advanced justice Three secrets to creating standards aligned student centered curricula in a sustainable way. You can get that at the link in the show notes or you can go to bit dot li slash create amazing units. All lowercase tune in next week for the final episode in our curriculum development series where we get to go on a curriculum deep dive with Laura Cruz looking at her autobiography course, which you could turn into a unit of your own.

She's going to take us all through the mindset shifts, going into creating a course like that. If you are used to teaching a standard course, she's going to talk to us about the course, specifically how our students responded the specific lessons and protocols. There are so many pieces that we've already been talking about that you'll see show up in her course creation and implementation. See you next week. Thanks for listening amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it until next time. Leaders continue to think big act brave and be your best self

41. Curriculum Series #5—Establishing a Reusable Unit Arc
41. Curriculum Series #5—Establishing a Reusable Unit Arc
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