What can the biblical creation story teach us about unit and lesson planning? A lot! The Book of Genesis explains that God began with “tohu va’vohu” (sometimes translated from the Hebrew as “unformed and void”) and then differentiated the world into heaven and earth. From there, the Divine went on to separate light from darkness, water from dry land, and so on.

Three years ago, when I began to transition from a textbook-based curriculum to thematic units designed for proficiency in my French 8 course, I quickly found myself mired in what’s known in modern French as le tohu-bohu, or disorder and confusion. Anyone who knows me will tell you that this is NOT my happy place!

I spent weeks and weeks over summer vacation hashing out the bare bones of my units, and every night of the school year trying to figure out how to break down those unit plans into daily lessons. As a mere mortal, I did not know how to separate light from darkness, nor water from dry land. I would get lost trying to figure out, for example, what exactly Day 23 of a 35-day unit should look like. Or Day 13. Or Day 33. How was I to take my beautiful unit template and create a logical, well-paced series of lessons that would make the unit flow smoothly for my students? At times, it was disheartening to realize that my carefully crafted templates were not quite the roadmap for daily instruction that I needed. I had put so much work into my unit planning but in a sense, that was just the tip of the iceberg – I still needed to plan 180 days of instruction to enact those units. This task occupied me fully for two years as I transformed my first course, leaving behind the textbook and relying fully on authentic resources and assessment by mode for the first time.

Luckily, I spent a week last summer at the Massachusetts Foreign Language Association’s Proficiency Academy, where Thomas Sauer shared yet another template for unit-planning (I’d already experimented with the ACTFL template by Clementi & Terrill and Helena Curtain’s template, experiences that you can read about here). Sauer’s template breaks down objectives into smaller and smaller segments so that teacher and students can really see how daily learning objectives (what he calls performance indicators) build to meet unit objectives. While this method front-loads a lot more thinking into the unit template, it all pays off when it comes time to plan individual lessons. After Proficiency Academy last summer, I decided to use Sauer’s template and see how it panned out. I chose to write my curriculum for French 7 based on thematic units I adopted from a variety of sources including Shelby County Schools, Arlington (MA) Public Schools & Laura Terrill’s wiki. Feeling inspired and somewhat intimidated – how had I managed to choose an even-MORE-demanding unit writing process?! – I spent the rest of the summer rewriting my French 7 curriculum.

When late September hit, and I’d run out of daily lessons written over the summer, I found those trusty unit templates were very helpful in helping me create order out of chaos. Throughout the year, when found myself deep in le tohu-bohu, I’d go back to my unit template and remind myself where I was in the process and where I was headed. This narrowed my task considerably and lowered my stress immeasurably.

If you are planning to write or rewrite a unit this summer, I humbly suggest the following:

Build your unit upon an existing unit.

When I went through this process for the first time with French 8, I took my Discovering French textbook’s four big topics and paired each with an AP theme and a multitude of authentic resources. The second time around for French 7, I took the work of Shelby County Schools and based my units on theirs (plus one bonus unit from Laura Terrill’s wiki). I found it much less intimidating to tweak an existing unit than create something from scratch, and I never had to stare at a blank page!

Use your unit template to break plans down to the lesson level.

Thomas Sauer’s Learning Shifts template allows me to break my unit into unit performance objectives; smaller, mode-specific performance indicators; and even smaller daily learning targets. When it came time to plan the next day’s lesson, I looked at the performance indicator and came up with a daily learning target that fits within it. This felt more manageable to me. For example, I wasn’t trying to get students to be able to “say what makes them unique” but only “recognize physical descriptions in a short video.”

Schedule breaks for yourself throughout the year.

Teaching a new curriculum was all-consuming, at least for me. I found it helpful to wrap up my big units well before term’s end and then work on a movie or short story for a week or two with students while I finished grading assessments and geared up behind the scenes for the next new unit’s début.

Know that you are teaching a draft.

This is painful for us perfectionists, but the first year with a new curriculum is pretty messy. Use those moments of tohu-bohu to write ample notes to yourself for next year, annotate your unit templates, rewrite your vocabulary lists, or do whatever else will remind you what didn’t work this time. Those edits and notes will ensure you give your students a better and more productive experience in Year 2.

Find a great lesson template and stick to it.

It took two years of teaching thematic units, during which I spent months filming my lessons for National Board Certification, to realize that my lesson-planning skills needed improvement. Learning about brain-based learning and the primacy-recency effect from Greg Duncan and Thomas Sauer helped me see the importance of opening every lesson with key input, saving paperwork for downtime, and incorporating brain breaks daily. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably a template junkie like I am, so check out Amy Lenord’s lesson planning template here and another here from the Musicuentos site by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell.

For all of you who plan to rewrite a unit this summer, I wish you much strength and patience. May you fight through the inherent disorder and confusion of this process to create a rich learning experience for your students and you!

Published by Rebecca Blouwolff

Rebecca Blouwolff has been a French teacher at Wellesley Middle School in Massachusetts since 1998. Her practice was forever changed by attending a 2014 workshop with Laura Terrill, co-author of ACTFL's The Keys to Planning for Learning. Since then, she has abandoned her previous hobbies in order to rewrite her curriculum, blog about thematic units, participate in #langchat, and provide professional development to colleagues in the Boston area. She holds a B.A. from Brown University and Ed.M. from Harvard's Graduate School of Education, served as a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in France, and is a candidate to become a National Board Certified Teacher.

2 replies on “Creating Order Out of Chaos: Crafting Appropriate Lessons Within a Thematic Unit”

    1. This is probably what caused me to wait so very, very long before shaking up my curriculum. Why should I do something new badly when I knew how to do something similar very, very well? I wasn’t ready to face failure. Once I knew that I had to change, then I was ready to accept failure along the way, and that my mistakes would help me learn.

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