How to Craft Creative and Engaging Units of Instruction

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An Imaginary Journey

If you could have been an invisible observer in my middle school Language Arts classroom, you might have witnessed something like this during my first few years of teaching:

As the bell rings to begin class, students appear to be quietly working on their Bellwork assignment, while I take attendance. (In all actuality, some students are completing the assignment, while others are zoning out, writing notes to their classmates or displaying other off-task behaviors.)

Once I finish my task, students who wish to do so are allowed to share their Bellwork answers. Those who didn’t complete the assignments are feverishly piecing together phrases from the answers that were shared, so they won’t get a failing grade at the end of the week when all Bellwork assignments are handed in for a grade.

We quickly review the previous night’s homework assignment before delving into the material for the day. I have them open their literature books, while I open my teachers’ edition. I ask for a volunteer to read the introduction – pausing every now and again to interject one of the teaching cues clearly labeled in my book. I’m so busy making sure that I hit all the points listed in the teacher manual that I fail to realize that most of the class isn’t paying the slightest attention to me.

Back to Reality

Though the above scenario may seem contrived; it really does ring true in many classrooms across the nation. Countless educators are teaching their hearts out – doing everything they can to prepare students for standardized test and other major assessments and ensuring that students have the skills they need to proceed to the next level. Unfortunately, those efforts seem to be for nothing. Students seem disengaged, unmotivated, and disinterested in the material that is present to them.

As a result, teachers become increasingly frustrated, and some decide to leave the profession altogether. They simply aren’t able to make a difference the way they always imagined that they would, so they search for employment in other fields. They don't realize that giving up is not a solution to the problem. It is important for teachers to realize that students flourish when teachers release their own creativity.

Creative Teachers

After spending nearly two decades in education, I have come to realize that most teachers are highly creative individuals.

Some teachers are phenomenal writers who have establish successful, lucrative careers doing freelance work. I have met teachers who are quite talented when it comes to fashion; they design clothing and turn around and sell it for profit. Other teachers are gifted in the area quilting; they have the ability to take anything – blue jeans, t-shirts, random scraps of material – into the most beautiful quilts. Then there are teachers would could be described as crochet queens; they make scarves, blankets, hats, throws mittens and all sorts of other things with one little hook and a skein of yarn. There are teachers who are cross stitch artists; they do more than stitch little sayings that can be framed and placed in different areas of one’s home. They stitch bibs, napkins, bread bowl covers, bookmarks, etc. I even knew a teacher who made a part time career out of brewing his own beer. Teachers truly are creative.

What I find most ironic is the fact that some of the same teachers (including me), who would be described as highly creative, have been guilty of delivering some of the most boring lessons known to man - lessons that do not reflect the creative essence of who those teachers truly are.

What Went Wrong?

Though I am not able to speak for all creative teachers who have delivered boring lessons, I can definitely speak for myself. When I was in the midst of my teacher preparation classes, I let my creative juices flow. I invested a great deal of time creating units, lesson plans and activities that were hands on, engaging, fast-paced and fun. But that was before edcuation became standards-based and test-driven. Plus I was a student taking a couple of teacher training classes each semester; I didn’t have the responsibilities that typical teachers face.

Once I became a real teacher, rather than a teacher in training or a student teacher, I realized that time was not my friend. When I factored morning duty, lunch duty, recess duty, after school duty, coaching responsiblities and staff meetings into my day, I barely had time to think. At the end of the day, I still had to grade papers and ensure that my lessons were adequately prepared for the next day. I’m sure I had every intention of creating my own lessons like I did in college, but it was much easier to use the units in the teacher’s manual. They were simple and a huge time saver.

I can only guess that other teachers relate all to well.

The Turning Point

Things changed for me when a new student transferred into my Language Arts class. There were numerous conflicts with him and his previous Language Arts teacher, so the administrators thought it would be better if he could wipe the slate clean and start fresh with me. They stopped by for an informal observation one day and noticed that the student was actively engaged in the task I given my students.

When they debriefed with me a short while later, they shared their excitement because that child didn’t do any work for his previous teacher. They wanted to know my secret, and I honestly didn’t know what – if anything – I’d done to encourage his involvement. I had just stumbled across something, and I had no idea what it was.

Piecing It Together

From that day forward, I paid careful attention to the lessons that I taught along with my unit planning process. I even started asking students for feedback and suggestions on how to improve lessons that didn’t go as well as I’d hope.

Then one day, I realized that the process I used for creating beautifully cross stitched projects could easily be applied to lesson planning.

1. Consider the recipient

One of the first steps in developing a cross stitch project is to take into consideration the person who will receive the gift. Since a typical cross stitched design isn’t one size fits all, it is crucial to think about the age and gender of the recipient, along with their favorite color, style and interests.

When crafting a unit, it is imperative to consider the students. A teacher must think about the maturity level of the students, along with their interests, likes and dislikes. In most cases, even if students feel that a particular subject matter is completely boring, the teacher is still responsible for presenting that information to students and ensuring that they have a complete understanding of the material. However, when a teacher knows what her students appreciate – and what they despise – she can incorporate a number of exciting elements into lessons that can liven up an otherwise dull subject. This step can be completed by simply creating a detailed outline that includes topics that must be included in the lessons along with the interests of the students.

2. Envision the finished product

The next step in the cross stitch crafting process is deciding on what the finished product will be. In some cases, this step entails sketching out an original pattern on graph paper or some other type of paper with small grids. In other cases, this means selecting the perfect pattern. In all cases, it includes knowing precisely what the end result will be because is impossible for a crafter to start a project if she has no idea what she's working on. Knowing that the finished product will look like will actually adds excitement to the creation of the piece and gives the crafter a sense of direction.

The same process applies to unit planning. Before beginning the planning process, one must have a culminating activity in mind. A teacher must know beforehand how to determine that the unit is successfully completed. Whether students write a paper, complete a visual representation of some sort, or simply take a test, there has to be a finish line. This can also be referred to as clarifying the purpose of the unit and establishing the goal for each lesson.

3. Choose and gather all necessary materials

Once a crafter decides on a project, she gets to choose the materials she will use to create beautifully, intricate designs. She may choose to work on a bib, an apron, a bread cover, a bookmark, a towel or plain fabric. She might want to use metallic floss or regular floss. Regardless of the material with which she chooses to work, before beginning the project, she needs to calculate the necessary materials in order to make sure that she has everything she needs to complete the design. Approaching the completion of a project and learning that she has run out of materials is one of the worst possible things that could happen to a crafter.

When planning units, it is also necessary to determine with materials will be used and to gather those materials – or at the very least, ensure that the teacher and the students will have access to the material when they will need it. It really doesn’t make any sense for a teacher to plan a lesson that will require all students to use laptops in the classroom for research purposes, if there aren’t any laptops in the school. This step is nothing more than determining accessible resources.

4. Prepare your cloth

Another crucial step in crafting a cross stitch design is the preparation of the cloth. When working with a cloth with ends that are not bound, the crafter should create a masking tape border to prevent the design from being inadvertently destroyed while in the development process. Once that has been completed, a crafter absolutely must find both the center of their cloth and the center of the pattern. The very first stitch will be the stitch that sits smack dab in the middle of the pattern. Working from the center of the project to the outer edges will ensure that the project isn’t lopsided.

In terms of creating a unit, this step is synonymous with deciding on a theme. If a teacher attempts to create a unit without determining a theme, none of the lessons would make sense and it would be a serious waste of time. Having a theme enables the teacher to have a point of focus because it is the central aspect of the unit.

5. Begin your project

After the all of the preparation is complete, it is finally time to begin working on the design. This step is a fun and relaxing stress reliever, but the hardest part was the preparation.

When a teacher finally reaches the point where she is in the actual planning phase, the process should be smooth and painless. Planning the unit is nothing more than fleshing out the outline.

6. Stick to the original plan

The last step in crafting a beautiful design deals with the crafter not getting so wrapped up in her project that she loses track of what she’s doing. Regardless of how experienced the crafter is – or how simple the project is – the crafter will need to refer to the pattern on a consistent basis. This ensures that the completed project looks the way it’s supposed to. Failing to refer to the pattern will result in something the crafter never intended and can also cause a relatively stress-free process to become a source of great frustration.

When creating a unit, the teacher really needs to refer to the outline to make sure that she’s sticking with the theme. She will need to keep the purpose, the goal, and the final product in mind at every stage of the unit crafting process. Failing to do so will result in a unit that is disjointed and confusing both to the students and to the teacher.

Even the most creative teachers frequently rely on packaged units of study instead of releasing their own creativity when it comes to planning lessons. Following the steps listed above will enable teachers to tap into their creativity and craft lessons that will inspire their students in ways they never thought possible.

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