There are many ways to turn a huge pile of academic standards into learning activities, the most common of which is the “unit.”
I’ve talked before of chloroforming the grand old unit. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the unit, any more than there’s anything “wrong” with an abacus or a chalkboard. I just wonder if we can’t do better.
Same with genre-based units. Genre-based units are a relatively common practice of anchoring a unit of instruction around a specific genre–a “poetry” unit, the “novel” unit, and so on.
This has proven quite popular in English-Language Arts and Literature classrooms, where it makes for nice and tidy planning–makes it easier to check the curricular boxes.
An evolution of the “genre-based unit” is the thematic unit–a method of anchoring learning around thematic (often “essential”) questions that encourage open-ended questions, subjectivity, and enduring reflection while allowing educators to use a variety of genre and digital media in a single unit. (Some of questions include “How do we form and shape our identities?,” How does language influence the way we think, act, and perceive the world?” and so on).
In this way, a short story, a poem, a twitter stream, and a popular YouTube video can all contribute to the understanding of the unit’s “theme” and accompanying “big ideas”–ideas refracted through the prism of various learning taxonomies throughout an academic year.
One simple tweak of this approach is to create an overarching question or big idea. So in that way, every unit is built around advancing understanding of that question or idea. And if it’s properly created, this single idea will be one that cannot possibly be understood within a given unit. It literally takes all year to chip away at and make sense of.
This approach helps frame teacher and student thinking while offering a helpful “glue” to bond all of the learning activities from August to May. In English-Language Arts, this might be “What should literature do?” or “How is our understanding of culture and society constructed through and by media?”, etc.
This approach is more relevant than ever when we’re talking about Common Core units, as the Common Core standards promote a thematic approach to curriculum planning. Hopefully the image below helps clarify the idea a bit.