Rigorous Unit Planning: Case Study

Case Study: Rigorous Unit Planning

Recently in one of our rigor workshop series, I worked with two teachers – Elise and Sylvia — who were planning a unit on Harriett Tubman for second-grade students. Prior to the workshop, these teachers had worked to plan a unit. Their unit appeared rigorous on the surface but they wanted to find ways to improve it.

Their unit centered around a book on Harriett Tubman and a visit to the Harriett Tubman museum. Students would read the book and then visit the museum and then write a paragraph where they discuss whether the museum was a good representation of Harriett Tubman’s life. Sound rigorous right? The teachers thought so too until we tried to put their unit into the rigorous unit planning template. All of a sudden, the teachers realized that their unit didn’t take students past application (the second stage of rigorous learning). They called me over for help.

“Ah, I see the problem. The students are evaluating the museum. Evaluation is a thinking skill. That’s application. But every unit needs to get at least to the assimilation level. In what thinking process do you ultimately want your students to engage?” I asked.

They thought for a second.

“We’re not really sure,” Elise said as she picked up her unit planning template.
“Well, why are you having students read the book and go to the museum? What are you hoping to accomplish?” I prompted.
“We want students to understand the difference between a museum and a book,” Sylvia offered.
I nodded. “Why?”

Sylvia looked at Elise.

“I guess because they will learn different things about Harriett Tubman. The book is going to give them more background information and tell her story but the museum will show them actual pictures and artifacts from her life.”
I thought about Sylvia’s response for a moment. “So why do we go to museums?”
“So that we can see actual artifacts and get a more interactive experience.” Elise replied passionately. “The children will get a chance to touch and hear and see all kinds of artifacts. It will make Harriett Tubman come alive.”
“And how is that different from the book?” I asked.
Sylvia chimed in, “The book will get students immersed in her story. They will come to know Harriett Tubman through the book.”
“Why do you want students to evaluate the museum?” I asked.
“Because we want them to see how museums are different so that they can understand what they can get out of the museum versus what they can get out of the book. We thought that by having them evaluate the museum, they would use what they have learned in the book and apply it to their experience in the museum.” Sylvia explained.
I thought about their explanation for a moment. “So what you are really after is for the students to not only understand Harriett Tubman but to also understand the difference between the experience they get from reading a book and the experience they get from visiting a museum. Is that it?

They both nodded.

“And the thinking skills students will use are compare/contrast when they compare the museum to the book and evaluation when they determine whether the museum was an accurate representation of Harriett Tubman, right?”

Again they nodded.

“Well let’s take a look at the thinking processes available to us in the assimilation stage. When you combine compare/contrast with evaluation, what thinking process do you use?”

They looked at the chart in Appendix C of How to Plan Rigorous Instruction that explains each of the thinking processes involved in assimilation. Finally they chose Decision Making.

“So, what decision is logical to have your students make as a result of reading the book and visiting the museum?” I asked.
Sylvia started. “I guess they could decide which was better, the book or the museum?”
“Better how?” I pushed.

She thought for a moment.

“Better at showing us who Harriett Tubman was.”
“I like that,” I said nodding.
“Me too,” Sylvia beamed and turned to Elise. “That’s a way better unit already isn’t it?”
“Much better,” Elise grinned. “In fact, I can already see how I will create a graphic organizer that helps them compare the book to the museum. And, we can have a great class discussion about the criteria for comparison and for evaluation. Oooh, and we can set up a writing assignment that helps them develop an argument for why the museum or book is better. I LOVE it!” she clapped her hands together.
I chuckled at her enthusiasm. “Wait, you’re almost there. There’s one more stage of rigor. How will you help students adapt what they have learned?”

By this time they were on a roll.

“Ooooh, we could have them take the perspective of Harriett Tubman and identify which one would she like better or think was a better representation of her life!” Sylvia exclaimed.
“I like that,” Elise nodded. “Or we could have them write a recommendation to someone they know about which they should do to learn about Harriett Tubman, read the book or visit the museum. They can even do it as a letter!”

I left them there excitedly brainstorming their unit. (download their final unit plan here)

That’s the thing about planning in a rigorous way. When you think through your unit using the four stages of rigor, you come up with lessons that are not only more rigorous, but more creative, more interesting, and more fun to teach. You also discover ways to help your students more meaningfully engage in the material. Rigor isn’t just an abstract concept. It requires rigorous planning and thinking. But, if you invest in that up front, your teaching can become alive, more passionate, and more creative and your units much more coherent and relevant for students.

You can find the template I used with Elise and Sylvia as well as watch me use this template to plan a rigorous unit using one of the common core standards here.