I still remember sitting across from my curriculum coach, Janice, during my third year of teaching. When she shared the concept of a unit arc, I could barely believe it. I was awestruck, while at the same time, thinking, “Really? I can do that?” With the introduction of this one concept, my entire idea of what was possible with regards to curriculum design drastically changed. All of a sudden, I saw a path forward that involved creating amazing, topical units without spending 20 hours every weekend to finish them.
So, what is a unit arc?
I define a unit arc as: The pattern of purposeful learning experiences in which students engage throughout a unit. As with any unit, we pack it with learning experiences for our students, but the key difference with a unit arc is the intentional pattern it follows. This pattern becomes predictable to you and your students because you reuse it from unit to unit.
Once I had a unit arc, I no longer spent hours determining which activity to prepare for each lesson, because I used the same arc and same templates for these activities. From then on, my prep time was focused solely on collecting and organizing the content material.
What might an example of a unit arc look like?
Different subjects may gravitate towards different kinds of unit arcs. In Science, the 5 E’s may frame the unit arc. The unit arc I adapted from my coach was originally intended for Social Studies content, but with small adaptations (e.g., bullet point 4), it can work for many subject areas. I’ll share it here:
You’ll notice there is an arc of engagement here. First, interest needs to be sparked, so we’ll start with a whole lesson dedicated to a hook. This might be a current event or a documentary that connects key concepts we’ll cover in the unit with a modern issue or event. Then, building on students’ existing knowledge, we lay the foundational knowledge with an overview of key concepts and important primary sources. From there, students are given space for exploration, discussion, further research, and as they work, students apply the learning in novel ways and creativity to produce original work. The units culminate in a presentation of some kind. I think it’s important, whenever possible, to provide opportunities for students to present or share with an authentic audience, beyond the teacher. Following student presentations of their creations, we reflect on what went well, what students found helpful or unhelpful (e.g., project strategies, types of teacher or peer support, specific protocols), and what could be improved next time. Taking the time to reflect was critically helpful to me because I was able to learn so much from what students had to say about the ways I could better support them in their work.
Don’t students get bored of the same activities over and over again?
I get this question a lot, and surprisingly, students were rarely bored by repeated protocols. In fact, many of my students said they liked the predictability of knowing what was coming next. I found the content, more than the process, was what made the activity engaging, and that changed each day. That said, certainly, all students are unique, and you know your students best, so do what feels best for your class.
In my class, the one protocol that students sometimes grew tired with was circles, simply by nature of how many times they engaged in it. I used circles more frequently than any other protocol in my unit arc. We had weekly circles in my class, and students regularly had circles in their other classes, as it was a practice used by several teachers in our grade team, so students often engaged with this protocol several times a week. Despite being tired of the protocol, an engaging topic of discussion in circles would usually be enough to re-engage students after the initial “Another circle?” comment a student would occasionally make when they saw the setup of the room.
Ready to get started planning with unit arcs?
If you don’t already have it, grab my free backwards planning template to get started building your next unit. Go to File > Make a Copy to be able to edit the unit arc to one that fits your content area, your grade, and your teaching style.
Once you’ve made your own unit arc, you can share your creation in the comments section or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group!
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Lindsay Lyons (she/her) is an educational justice coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a PhD in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.