Why My E.L.A. Curriculum is Built on Units: 4 Reasons Why I Don't Focus on Standards When Planning
Updated: Sep 13
This is a short blog post for the pure reason that this school year is completely out of control and I don't have time. Anyhoo, a lot of times I see the same questions asked in teacher Facebook groups. "Does anyone have a lesson for [insert standard #]?" I shake my head at this every time. I am not shaking my head at the teachers, I am shaking my head at the people who tell them to teach this way. Read about why I don't.
These are my main reasons.
The standards are super broad.
Units allow in-depth study.
Standalone lessons don't give students context.
Units allow the use of lots of great mentor texts.
Standards are Super Broad
So, let's look at a standard for NJ:
Cite textual evidence and make relevant connections to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
This is not something you can teach in one or two isolated lessons. This is something that is ongoing and needs to be introduced, dabbled with, experienced, and analyzed in multiple ways. This goes for all standards. Certainly, you could teach a standalone lesson on using text evidence using a random short story, but it loses it's luster over time if there is no meaning behind it.
With units, you can flesh a standard out. For example, my first unit is a Deep Study of Character. We work on basic character development and growth, but through that, students consistently find text evidence to support their thinking. With this unit, we most focus on paraphrasing and examples.
Later in the year, in my social issues and research units, we narrow down using text evidence through quotes from the text. They take knowledge learned from previous units to master being text evidence finders.
This is true of all standards. I build my units based on what skills I know they need to be good readers (inferring, synthesizing, predicting, author's purpose, etc.), then I sprinkle in the standards throughout ALL YEAR.
Units Allow In-Depth Study
In general, units allow students to dive deep into specific books or topics. When I teach my non-fiction unit, students focus on ONE topic for the entire 2 month unit. If teaching by standards, teachers may hand out short passages, articles, or ::cringe:: textbooks that are non-fiction and have students focus on specific non-fiction skills that way. With ONE topic, though, students can research all sorts of books, articles, websites, and more WHILE using the key non-fiction skills.
For my social issues unit, students work in book clubs on one or more shared texts. They not only work on standard fiction skills within those texts, but they are also doing tons of social emotional learning.
Plus, students can really dive into specific genres and determine if they love or hate them. I try to expose them to ALL genres and writing styles so they can find their favorites.
Standalone lessons don't give students context.
Let's say you need to do a lesson on text structure. You go on Teachers Pay Teachers and you find a super cute bulletin board that goes with this. You spend a week on this and move on...do you think your students fully grasped the idea of text structure this way?
I am not saying "no" because I think these types of activities are awesome introductions or culminations to a skill, but again, fleshing it out and teaching it IN CONTEXT is crucial.
What does this mean? So, in my opinion, I don't think students need to know all these specific terms. Since we are talking about text structure...is it really a big deal if kids know that a section of a text is organized as compare and contrast? Or is it important for students to realize when an author is comparing and contrasting? A lot of us want students to be able to specifically name these structures, but for me, when I teach it, I want them to know how text structure helps explain the topic more.
I believe in teaching reading skills in context. How can they use these skills with texts in REAL life, not just for a short story taught in class? When writing an essay...how can you make it relevant to things they've already studied or will study?
As the saying goes, we should be teaching the reader not the book.
Units Allow Use of Lots of Great Mentor Texts
If you read my post about how I am against whole class novels, you know where I am going with this. Using a novel as a unit is not a unit. You are teaching the book, not a reader.
I use novels as read-alouds and mentor texts. These books are the anchor for skills students will use with their own texts. Having well-planned units allows for the use of some fantastic novels to help students apply reading (and writing) skills.
I really encourage the use of a full book to use as a mentor text. I know you may not have time to read the entire book aloud, but use excerpts and summarize the missing bits. Students will connect with the characters and be more invested in their work when they want to know more about what is happening in a shared text.
When I do my research unit, I use Chew on This has my mentor text. This explains the harms of fast food and I do my entire research on this concept. Some days we get into such great conversations about this topic and they love to learn more as I read. This benefits their own work because they see that I am committed to the work, too.
Consider how you plan your school year. We all have certain standards we have to meet. Within my units, these standards are covered multiple times all year. I am not saying you should ignore the standards...of course you have certain skills you know you have to do. I just don't think you should be looking for specific lessons on a standard; instead it should melded into everything the students are currently doing with REAL books.
Read about what I do all year below!
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