Plan the year: Building a train of thought

Standard

One more thing…

In the last post I described how I relied upon a “file it and forget it” system where I could collect all the ideas and resources I created or came across for each of my book units. I did forget to mention one thing about my system: I also have several folder categories for general items that were about broad curricular concerns (“teaching writing,” “classroom management,” “vocabulary”) that weren’t specific to literature units.

Index cards?!

Summertime is when I take these folders out and finally sift through them and organize the material I’ve accumulated. Not everything that I’ve made a note of will be valuable for the upcoming school year; I have to keep in mind the constraints of schedule, ability, and buy-in from the administration or colleagues. I have to edit some of my whims and blue-sky thinking to a scale and scope that’s reasonable.

Anything that makes the cut gets jotted down on an index card. This is atypical of my normal modus operandi: I like to do as much as I can on my computer. And believe me, I tried. But I ended up resorting to shuffling through index cards because of reasons which should become apparent in a moment.

I used a color-coded system because there’s several parallel objectives I have to meet in the course of a school year: reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar. I also designated an “other” category for things like creative projects, presentations, technology, and small group work.

These color-coded index cards ended up in three stacks. One stack of ideas for my 7th grade classes, another for the 8th grade, and a third stack of ideas that applied to both.

Figuring out the sequence

And now the hard part: determining the sequence of units. One of the things that I really respect about my colleagues is how restless they are with the curriculum. Every year we change the lineup in significant ways; we read new books, we take on different projects, we change the order of our units. We don’t upend everything, though, and I can rely upon some of the previous year’s sequence as a guide. But it’s tough to make decisions about sequence without my colleagues around to collaborate and support those decisions.

It’s worth now to make a tangential note about collaborating with colleagues: being the most prepared generally means that you can set the agenda. Thinking ahead of time about an issue such as the sequence of units and the rationale behind a decision goes a long way in bringing along co-workers harmoniously. Having said that, I always have to keep in mind that the best-laid plans yadda yadda yadda…

Besides my colleagues’ considerations, I have to let a whole host of factors influence which books should be studied in what order:

  • The year’s theme and essential questions. Each grade has a theme which gets tweaked every year. I make it a point to really emphasize the theme, since I believe it gives the curriculum more cohesion and purpose. I try, then, to consider how each book we study addresses the theme at different levels of relevance and sophistication.
  • Yearly schedule. I have to consider major holidays and breaks and the general ebb and flow of energy over the course of the year. Some units are just better tackled right before winter break. I have to also keep in mind that each mid-trimester allows for about one or one-and-a-half units. I like to finish a unit just before mid-trimester to make sure I have a full academic profile for each student that I can reference when writing report card comments.
  • Culminating projects. I have a backward design mentality; I like to determine final objectives up front and then work backwards to determine what I have to teach to get those objectives met. This generally takes the shape of project assignments that get bigger and badder as the year progresses. If I know I want students to be able to do an impressive job with X at the end of the year, I want to think about what they would need to learn and practice earlier on in order to do so.

Use the Force

In the end it’s a matter of getting the right feel for things. I do a lot of “head” consideration initially, but then I gradually give over to a “gut” decision. This is the result:

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I hope you can see why I ended up using index cards. It’s more easy and kinesthetically satisfying to manipulate them, especially when you have multiple objectives in multiple classes to keep an eye on. I end up with a rough sequence of discrete, concrete ideas that I want to tackle over the course of the year, balancing out the distribution of activities in vocabulary, grammar, reading, writing, and other stuff. Ultimately, I should feel like there’s a satisfying shape and progression to my curriculum.

This is only a rough draft, though, and I next to take my index card ideas and tack them onto a calendar…

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