As a pre-service teacher readying myself for a career in the classroom, anxiety seems to creep into the consciousness from many directions. There are concerns about being able to command the respect of students, keep them engaged in class activities, and effectively communicate your knowledge. Preparing students to succeed on standardized tests is also a major concern in today’s educational climate. With the emphasis placed on these scores at the state and federal level, it is no wonder that teachers find their stomachs in knots and heads aching. Beyond what is measured by those tests, though, is another fear that the course content will not have a meaningful and lasting effect on students and all of the effort (teacher’s and students’) will prove to be futile.
As all of those broad issues lurk in the psyche, there is another area of concern that sometimes gets overshadowed because of its practicality. Designing and implementing an effective unit of study can feel like a daunting challenge because it requires the teacher to account for aspects ranging from state standards and ideas about assessment to materials and resources. It’s hard to know where to begin. In The English Teacher’s Companion, Jim Burke suggests that beginning at the end is the best strategy. That seems to be a logical approach because it is impossible to plan for anything unless there is an idea of the end result.
Working backwards from the goal of the unit is a helpful technique for planning, but it also functions to emphasize and make clear the connection between lessons within a unit. Rather than jumping from topic to topic and expecting students to retain and understand discrete lessons, a unit of study that makes clear the relationship among different elements will benefit students as they move through it. As each new topic relates to a previous day’s, students end up reviewing and applying their knowledge as they progress through the unit, leading to a deeper understanding of the subject matter. In beginning at the end, teachers gain a clearer perspective of where they’re going and how to get there, but student learning also thrives because of the unit’s overall coherence.