My friend, who is also a teacher (because let’s face it… most of my friends are also teachers and I bet you can relate), asked me if I wanted to do some long-range planning together some time before September. She is a 4th grade Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at the school where I teach 5th grade Language Arts and Social Studies, so this seemed like a perfect idea. It will be helpful for me to know what the kids have done in their previous year, and it will be helpful for her to know what will be expected of them in their subsequent year.
But as we talked more about what our long-range planning session would look like, we realized, “Wow, we have really different processes for planning.” Actors, musicians, writers, visual artists, they all have processes. Creators have specific approaches to create. As teachers, we are also artists. We are creating learning experiences, using relationships to guide an involuntary and honest audience on a journey of discovery. The best of us are responsive like artists, openly becoming the audience to the artists in our classroom who are creating learning experiences for us. There is choreography as much as there is pedagogy.
As my friend and I traversed our plan to plan (similar to having meetings about when we should have meetings), I decided I needed to articulate my artistic planning process as a 5th grade teacher. I have three steps: concept vomit, alignment, and unit-making.
1. Concept Vomit
I start off by just “vomiting” onto a page the concepts that I know the kids need to know. I consider concepts with which students consistently need to practice because as the material gets more challenging, the skill needs to become more flexible. Basically, with what concepts do I want my kids to feel fluent?
For 5th grade at my school, my list looked a little bit like this:
- Asking profound questions about text
- Having a conversation about books
- Root words and word parts
- Writing and reading stamina
- Writing full and complete sentences
- Telling a story
- Revising original fiction
- Revising original non-fiction
- Author’s point-of-view
- Comparing characters’ points-of-view
- Analyzing points-of-view of characters who come from marginalized groups
- Story elements
- Supporting a thesis in an essay
- Close readings, analyzing quotations
- Current events
- Test-taking strategies
- Punctuation and capitalization usage
- Using more than one source to support a thesis in an essay
These were the concepts that I knew had been important in previous years. Next, I looked at the Common Core Standards for 5th grade to see if I had things on this list that weren’t worth my time, and to see what I was missing.
I noticed I needed to add text structure and poetry to my list, as well as writing an event in a novel from a different character’s perspective. I also noticed that the 5th grade standards did not include the voices of marginalized people, current events, self-management, test-taking strategies, story elements, or writing in complete sentences, as well a few others on my list.
Then, I streamlined my big bucket of concept vomit.
I was about to get pretty graphic with my vomit metaphor here. I was going to get into talk of straining and chunks and toilets. But as I was writing it, I realized that my giddiness over bodily function writing might not be appreciated by everyone reading this. Let me switch metaphors.
Then, I streamlined my big doggie daycare of concept puppies.
If each of these concepts was a yapping puppy, I paid attention to the puppies barking the loudest and jumping the highest. Summarizing, Point-of-View, Essay Writing, Story Writing, Character Analysis. These were the puppies that showed up most often in Common Core AND were notably challenging topics in my previous years. These topics were also broad enough that I had a lot of strategy options to support each skill.
Our school year is 9 ½ months long, September – June. I like my units to be month-long because I think a month is a reasonably challenging but digestible amount of time to maintain students’ attention on one concept. I would need nine reading and nine writing units, combining May and June.
For reading, I had already thrown a bone to the concepts of summarizing, point-of-view, and character analysis. I looked back at my doggie daycare and looked for the next biggest puppies. In other words, which concepts were broad enough to support an entire month of in-depth exploration? Point-of-view of marginalized characters stood out, as did poetry, close readings, and text structure. Thinking also about the beginning of the school year, it occurred to me that I would really need September just to work through routines and reading habits. That was eight units. To my chagrin, I realized my ninth unit would need to be the test-taking skills. There were other puppies in there – sequencing, capitalization and punctuation, revising stories – that were much smaller and more content to be part of a pack. These were not the alpha dogs. They would become mini-lessons within these greater units.
Writing was simpler. I wanted them to write essays, stories, and poetry. I wanted their essays to be literary essays, objective reports, as well as opinion essays, and their stories to be both original fiction and personal narratives. Again, we would need a month of routine and writing habits. Before we could write entire essays, we would have to start with developing a thesis, choosing quotations to support an idea, and explaining those quotations. In other words, we would have to start with writing strong paragraphs. So, my writing units would be routines, personal narratives, strong paragraphs, literary essays, infographics, opinion essay, poetry, report writing, and an original story. I also wanted to include opportunities to rewrite events from another character’s point-of-view and I decided to do two units one month: one on strong paragraphs, one on rewriting an event.
I decided that current events and infographics would fit better with Social Studies, so I recontextualized them into my Social Studies planning.
I put the units in order so that the Reading unit and Writing unit would work in concert and the skills would progress with a clear momentum. Our school does a lot of academic projects in February for Black History Month so that seemed like the natural fit for a unit on the Point-of-View of Marginalized Voices. However, I knew that after I plotted out these units, I would certainly not wait until February to empower the students to call attention to marginalized voices, including their own. Black history, black authors, black characters, much like women’s history, women authors, female characters, and the history, authors, and characters of all marginalized communities would not be relegated to their “month” but would be the foundation from which all of our work would be built. Here is the flow that I developed:
- September: Building Strong Habits
- October: Summarizing, Personal Narratives
- November: Point-of-View, Strong Paragraphs, Rewriting an event from a different character’s perspective
- December: Analyzing poetry, Writing poetry
- January: Close readings, Literary essay that draws on two sources
- February: Point-of-View of Marginalized Voices, Opinion essays
- March: Text structure, Writing a report
- April: Character Analysis, Writing an original story
- May/June: Test-taking strategies, Writing a concise essay with time constraints, Readers’ theater, and Self-reflection about personal academic growth
Now, all of my puppies were happily playing in the yard, rather than tumbling all over each other in the kennel.
This is my artistic process for long-range planning. I do not focus on which books I am going to teach or which articles I use when looking at long-range plans. I’m teaching skills, and the texts are the tools. In future posts, I will detail my process for more specific planning. You may notice that in my process, I do not consult my district’s curriculum. We have been told time and again that we teach standards, and the curriculum that is provided to us is simply a guide. As long as we are teaching the standards, then we are doing the work that needs to be done. Yes, I have received plenty of mixed messages on this. I teach the standards, but I also am expected to turn in specific data. I teach the standards and can choose my own materials, but there are specific materials provided to me.
As a teacher, I am an artist. I appreciate that the district wants to package the standards in a way that will make the planning process less daunting. I have found, though, that I am stronger and more vibrant when I have designed the lesson myself. Your process might be different. You might prefer to use your district’s long-range guide. You might not prefer to use it, but you feel it is required of you to use it. Just remember, you are an artist, too. You didn’t go into teaching to regurgitate. You went into teaching to create.
Now, I’m going to go snuggle my puppies.