Building Knowledge through Unit Design

By Karen Sadikoff, Read to be Ready District Coach, Sweetwater

In 37 years as a teacher in Tennessee, I have seen many changes, but none of have been as exciting or rewarding as the work we’ve been engaged in through the Read to be Ready Coaching Network. At Sweetwater Elementary, we began using the resources from Read to be Ready training to work together as a grade level to understand what it meant to implement interactive read alouds in our classrooms. The teachers immediately saw that to effectively implement read alouds, we would have to find a different way to plan units. So, we began backwards planning and identifying the end goals for what we wanted students to accomplish in our existing units.

We took a whole new look at what it takes to build knowledge in students and the importance of building that knowledge while simultaneously supporting students’ literacy development. We found that our existing units were too narrow and needed a broader focus. For example, one of the first units we examined was a unit teachers had developed on Thanksgiving. We quickly realized that we could expand our existing unit to much broader concepts connected to colonial America and immigration. We selected books like Molly’s Pilgrim, Squanto’s Journey, Immigrant Kids, If Your Name was Changed at Ellis Island, and How Many Days to America? We planned our culminating tasks to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the hardships of life in colonial America and how immigration has impacted the colonization of America then and now. We then created daily tasks to build students’ success on the culminating task.  We added an article, “Arriving at Ellis Island” and other sources such as poetry, Thank You, Squanto and The Pilgrims that provided relevant information on our concepts.

When I walked into classrooms during this unit, I saw teachers reading to students, students using talk structures to discuss thinking with each other and with the teacher, students completing authentic daily tasks that included “real” writing about what they had read, partner reading, and teachers conferencing with students about their writing. In previous years, I saw less writing in general and fewer authentic daily tasks. When I walk into third grade classrooms now, I see books that are based on the theme that students are currently studying. It is clear what grade-level standards teachers are teaching, and students are clearly engaged in reading with a particular purpose or goal. Students want to talk to me and tell me about what they are reading—and what they are learning.

We are taking our commitment seriously. We are digging deeper and realizing that growth comes through depth. We want to continue refining and developing thoughtful units that address third grade standards and include well-planned daily tasks with rigorous assessments and culminating tasks. Students are rising to meet the new expectations and are simultaneously developing skill, confidence, and proficiency as readers and writers, because they see the purpose and relevance in their learning.