This year, I’m working on my National Board Certification, an extremely rigorous process, one for which I am very grateful as I reflect on my growth as an educator this year. It has challenged my thinking in ways I never thought possible, and I think one of my greatest products thus far has come from it.
Struggling with Integrated Unit Design
In December, I sat perplexed, trying to find a way to modify a previous unit on revolution in order to not only integrate social studies, reading, writing, and our yearly theme of empathy, but to also incorporate some of National Board’s ideas for what makes exemplary social studies instruction, including perspective-taking and community building.
I began by listing many of the big ideas with which I wanted all my students to grapple: Motivation, decision-making, democracy, government, and beliefs being only a few of these big ideas. I began to read the novel we all look so forward to reading, My Brother Sam is Dead, each time we do the unit, when it suddenly dawned upon me: The focus of our unit should be values–what they are, their points of origin, and how each of these beliefs and values affect the decisions we make daily.
Prior to this unit, I would have thought of an integrated unit united by a topic of instruction. For instance, earlier in the year, we learned about forces and energy in reading, writing, and science. In fourth-grade, we learned about ecosystems by reading, writing, and researching the topic, and the United States regions by doing the same. However, what I’ve come to realize is that unit design is so much more than linking a topic to reading and writing. Instead, it is finding the universal idea behind the topic of study, and then relating all of your reading, writing, and content area instruction to that bigger idea.
Perhaps this might better illustrate what I’m trying to talk about:
The differences between these two units are immense. The first one (2011-2012) is solely centered around the historical topic of revolution; on the other hand, the second version of this unit (2013-2014) is centered around a universal topic, through which we could study a variety of texts and styles of writing, while allowing us to approach history in a way that became immediately relevant to students. By studying values, not only were students able to go inward and look at themselves, their values, and the way they make decisions, but they were able to find some commonalities with people who lived over two-hundred years before them as well as the characters that were placed in this seemingly distant time period. They were able to see that we all have values, and all of our values affect the way we make decisions, regardless of time period.
The Big Idea
When planning an integrated unit, the best way to find relevance in the content is not to simply link the reading, writing, and science/social studies content by the topic itself; rather, it is most effective to link all of these content areas by an external concept or universal idea–one that can be discussed throughout virtually every moment of the day, and one that can be applied rather seamlessly to the kids’ lives.