An English Teacher Shares Her Process for Creating Robust Curriculum

By Amber Villa-Zang, Rubicon International, featuring Elizabeth Shinovich from Country Club Hills 160 School District

Spark Conversations are an opportunity for educators to talk about their process and share their work. In this post, we talk with Elizabeth Shinovich, an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Country Club Hills 160 School District in Illinois, who was recently a part of a district curriculum writing team.  Over the course of the year, the team was tasked with closely studying the progression of the Common Core Standards K through 8, identifying power standards, and developing district wide units of instruction. The result is a strong, well-aligned curriculum with clear learning targets. Particularly striking, especially to students, is how the curriculum has been organized into high-interest units with themes that weave together a broad range of topics and resources.  The result is a robust curriculum map that creates space for current events, while exposing kids to the classics as they focus on building the essential literacy skills students need to be college- and career-ready.

We reached out to Elizabeth and asked if she would to share her process in designing her units for the year. Read below to find out how she did it!

Unit Calendar ELA 8

Click the image above to see Elizabeth’s year-long articulation of her units.

1. Where was your starting point in creating your units?

When I began creating the units for our map, I decided the best format for 8th grade would be to do a unit per quarter so we can get that depth that we need for teaching our skills. Then, I focused on the skills that we typically teach at certain points of the year. For example, we always begin the year with focusing on plot and characterization, so I focused on that for quarter one. I followed the basic scope and sequence we have been following to create a “skeleton” of the map.

ELA Unit 1 Snapshot

Click to see Unit 1: Approaching Adulthood

From there, I correlated the standards to the skills. We also went through and prioritized standards by grade level. Once I correlated the standards to the skills and had a brief idea of what skills and standards would be in each quarter, I debated whether or not  I should move any standards/skills around due to their priority. The CCSS for 8th grade have a huge focus on evaluating arguments, sources, citing text evidence and writing arguments, and that is a skill that they need throughout the year. Previously, this was not a focus until quarter three, but when I mapped things out, I realized this was a huge priority and needed to be shifted to quarter one. I also made any changes to when skills were taught based on priority, or if a correlating unit would be better suited to teach them.

2. How did you come up with the themes for your unit? Did you start with the theme and then build in the standards, or did you start with the standards and then develop the themes?

Since I have been teaching 8th grade, we have had themes for our “units.” In the second quarter, we focused on Edgar Allan Poe, third quarter was always civil rights, and fourth quarter was the Holocaust. The themes somewhat drove text selection, and everything was very loosely connected. With this curriculum map, themes really create the unit and tie together all aspects of the theme; stories, skills, performance tasks, and standards.

While we were writing the map, we were piloting a new series that actually had themes that went along with what we were already doing, so I somewhat correlated those themes with what I had and went from there. With the inspiration from our text, we came up with Approaching Adulthood. Also, it was decided that instead of just focusing on Poe during the second quarter, we would expand and focus on the horror genre. Third quarter would not only be civil rights, but would include slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and current Civil Rights struggles we have today.

Unit 2 snapshot

Click to see Unit 2: The Thrill of Horror

Finally, since the Holocaust is such a robust topic, we decided to focus on why people tell their stories, and why some people (e.g.: Anne Frank/Elie Wiesel) are so well-known for going through something that so many others did, too. I then used those themes to create essential questions and tie in performance tasks for each unit. We tried to create exciting topics and include engaging texts, since reading is typically not a favorite with middle school students. I feel that expanding the units and tying things together helps create a more engaging classroom and unit.

3. How did you use your textbook as you developed your units?

Unit 3 ELA Moving Towards Freedom

Click to see Unit 3: Moving Towards Freedom

The textbook we were piloting happened to go along with the units we were creating. Everything sort of fell in place, and the topics and skills we used to teach went along with units in our new textbook series. The textbook then helped me correlate standards and skills, create performance tasks, and align texts.

I didn’t use the textbook to write my map, but there is a lot of correlation between the two. I used the textbook as more of a resource. They had already aligned standards and stories to those standards, and they have text suggestions for each standard. I created the resources portion of the map using a variety of resources: the pilot texts, stories I used to use from our old text, exemplar texts mentioned in the CCSS, and engaging stories I found to be helpful for teaching certain skills. I also made sure to include any articles, novels, movies, plays, or field trips that correlated with that unit.

4. How does unit planning impact how we think about what and how we teach?

I think unit planning really impacts your thinking about how you teach. You want to make sure that you are hitting on those priority standards. You need to make sure they are “hit heavy” in the beginning of the year, yet also continually taught throughout the year.

It is hard to prioritize standards, and it is overwhelming to try to correlate all of the standards (Reading Literature, Reading Informational, Writing, English and Speaking and Listening). But, as you are mapping out your units, you will see where things mesh together and work well together, and it slowly falls into place. You also realize where there are gaps in instruction, and where and when you need to shift focus. With all of the different strands in ELA, you realize that you need to really work on combining all aspects into the unit and one of the easiest ways to do that is by the performance tasks.

Unit 4 Lessons from Our Past

Click to see Unit 4: Lessons from Our Past

Have your own take on creating curriculum? Have questions about developing units in Atlas? Reach out to us at pd@rubicon.com!

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