In a Twitter chat this month, I mentioned student-designed units. Several curious teachers asked for details, so here goes!

My favorite unit each year is the unit my students design. We spend the entire year building up to it. I strive to release the responsibility of learning to students gradually. It’s my job to help them develop the skills and confidence needed to design and drive their learning.

I provide a list of texts students can choose from for the final unit. They rate the texts in the order they would like to read them. I use their preferences to create groups of 4-5 students. Then as a group, they must agree on a reading schedule, design standard-aligned performance tasks and decide how they want to use their class time.

I explain that they are designing this unit because I want them to have total control over their learning. At first, students are a little stunned when they realize I am truly allowing them to design the unit. “Wait. We can do whatever we want, Mrs. Tucker?” Yes and no. I select eight target skills for the unit. These are skills we have already covered together, but they are ones that I think they still need to spend time developing. I provide each group with a Google Document that has the target standards in the left-hand column. The groups read through the target standards and discuss how they want to show mastery of these skills. I remind them that they do not need a separate performance task for each standard.

Planning takes time, so students spend the first two days of the unit engaged in social negotiation. How much will they read each day? Will they engage in discussion about the reading daily or weekly? How much time will they dedicate to each performance task? Do they want to have homework or do they want to design the unit so that everything can be completed in class? Students quickly realize that planning a unit is challenging.

Some groups opt to write their plans on a paper version of my Google Document, some like to sketch out their plan on a big whiteboard (and take a photo), and others prefer to collaborate online typing on the same Google Document. It’s totally up to them!

When a group has a plan in place, they request a conference with me. During the conference with each group:

  • I review their reading schedule. If it looks good, they add their reading schedule to the class calendar I’ve created for this unit.
  • We review their proposed performance tasks to make sure they align with the standards and are realistic in terms of scope. I offer suggestions for modifying them so they can cover multiple standards with a single performance task. Once I’ve given them the green light, they add those performance tasks “due dates” to the class calendar.
  • I also talk with the group about how I can support them by reviewing specific tasks as they work and offering additional skill stations for their group specifically.

As students work through the unit, my primary job is to check in with groups, observe their discussions and work, provide feedback as they work, and conduct side-by-side assessments of any finished performance tasks.

I’m always blown away by what students can do when I allow them to lead the learning. It is rewarding to see them select specific strategies we have used earlier in the year to accomplish their various tasks. I can tell which of the routines, assignments, projects, online tools, etc. that they enjoyed or found valuable because they adapt and use them during this unit.

The end of the year is tough. Teachers and students are exhausted. This break in routine is a fantastic way the flip the script and have fun with the last unit of the year!

3 Responses

  1. Loving this with every bone in my body.

    1. How long do you spend having students plan?
    2. How long do you spend conferencing with groups?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Kim,

      Usually, students have 2 block days to do their initial planning and drafting of a proposal. Then, I spend a day circulating around the room to conference with groups as they work on their calendar and schedule.

      Their units are almost always my FAVORITE!


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