098: 5 Flexible ELA Unit Ideas for Fall



Are your leaders asking you to teach kids in class while also somehow guiding kids who are 100% online?

That's a big ask.

Today in this bonus podcast episode, I want to share five flexible unit ideas with you that you could launch in this model. These units could also work with blended learning or 100% remote teaching. They are student-centered, with kids doing a lot of independent work as they move through the unit.



We'll talk about what steps to follow as you plan these units, and take a look at what to put inside the units too.

While the Flexibly Planned program mentioned in this podcast is now running and no longer open to new participants, everything inside, as well as many more materials to make this year easier for you, are now available inside my new membership program, The Lighthouse. Click here to join the waitlist if you'd like to hear about it the next time I open the doors! 

You can listen to today's show on the podcast player below, or on your platform of choice. Or, read on.




Let's start with how to make flexible plans for these units. It's a whole new kind of planning, thinking about how to guide students in class and at home.

I suggest you follow these steps:

#1 Think about what skills and knowledge you want your kiddos to have at the end of the project-based-learning unit.

#2 Think about how you can design steps and structure along the way that can be the same for kids in class and kids 100% at home. This could mean sharing short five minute videos at the start of class that explain the next step and share resources they might want to use along the way. This could mean holding virtual office hours one day a week DURING CLASS that any student can sign up for if they need help with their project. This could mean putting all your steps into a Google Doc (hyperdoc) with links to what they need along the way to complete the project.

#3 Schedule what you want to do into your unit plan, with steps for students to take each day and homework clearly laid out when needed. Share the unit plan with all students, so they know what's coming for the next 3-4 weeks. While this requires a lot of front loading of planning, it will make things so much easier along the way.

Alright, let's jump in to the five units. I think you're going to love them all!

Unit #1: Podcasts

Podcasting is an ideal virtual learning unit. You can work on kids' research, interviewing, and public speaking skills, as well as their outlining, writing, and editing skills. Podcasts can be accessed free from home and there are free audio recorders online students can use in creating their own.

For this unit, I'd suggest beginning by having students listen to several high-interest podcasts (How I Built This, Lore, Serial, and This American Life are perennial favorites) and create one-pagers or sketchnotes as they listen. Then I'd build in a video mini-lesson around different types of podcasts (continuing stories, interviews, information-based, news spins, mini-courses, etc.) and have them brainstorm ideas for their own podcasts.

Then they'd move into outlining ideas, writing scripts, recording episodes, potentially doing some editing (but maybe not) and sharing them back to the class.

I'd probably see if I could get a podcaster to Zoom with the class for a Q and A about what it's like to do a podcast. In the end, I'd have the kids put all the podcasts up online somewhere and we'd celebrate by listening to each other's episodes and sending each other short write-ups about what we enjoyed.

Further Reading: Check out the last section of my interview with Jennifer Gonzalez on podcast episode #57 two years ago, which is all about guiding students with podcast projects.

Unit #2: Ted Talks

Ted Talks are ideal short texts that can be accessed from anywhere. You can work on almost all the same skills as podcasts.

For a unit like this, I'd begin by sharing some high-interest Ted Talks (like these) and then ask kids to choose a few Ted Talks of personal interest to them. Along the way I'd  have them create a small book of takeaways. Sort of a "Lessons from Ted" booklet of either sketchnotes or normal notes. Then I'd ask them to translate this small book into a short series of slides or maybe a short video, which could be shared with the class on a gallery day.

From there we'd move into brainstorming topics for personal Ted talks, researching (if necessary) and scripting them, practicing them, and then shooting Ted Talk videos to share with the class (and potentially a larger audience). On the last day of the unit, kids would watch several others' Ted talks and give feedback. I'd also ask students to share their Ted Talk with at least one person outside of class. Another option would be to have a clear audience for the video talks from the beginning, like younger kids or school leaders. This would impact topic choices and give the whole project a larger purpose, if you have time to set up something like that.

Unit #3: Blogging

Blogging is always one of my favorite types of writing projects, and it's especially ideal now if you are 1:1 with kids in different locations. You can set up your unit very easily to involve a short mini-lesson from you each day involving a two or three minute video introduction to the type of blog post they're going to write that day, a chance to read a well-written blog post from online somewhere, and then time to write a post and publish it on their blogs. Kids can blog about anything! Whatever they're interested in, they can use their writing skills to explore it. I already shared a complete guide to student blogging in episode 24, so I'm going to point you in that direction for further information.

Unit #4: Choice Reading

I LOVE the opportunity to have kids choose their own book, and this could be a great time. Access free audio books on Audible stories, connect kids to ebooks in your school or local library, or invite them to choose something they've been wanting to read from their shelf at home. Maybe you can even pull your own class library books (wearing gloves?) and hand them to students who are struggling to find a book, then have them turn them into a quarantine box at the end of the unit.

For this type of unit, kids can be independently reading and creating a few check-in assignments along the way to let you know how it's going. You can create universal writing prompts for them to do to work on specific writing skills you'd like to cover, have them record short book review videos, create digital one-pagers, etc. Create a unit schedule with check-in activities, writing activities, and time to read, then let everyone move through it, in class or out.

Unit #5: Community Projects

This is a project-based-learning unit near and dear to my heart. I shared a blog post about it in the spring, where you can find a curriculum springboard and lots of info. But the basic idea is this: let kids brainstorm and act on their ideas for helping their community during coronavirus. Guide them in using design thinking to consider who is struggling, what they need, and how to create a project to help. Maybe one of your students will tutor a younger child struggling with learning at home via FaceTime. Maybe one will lead a weekly story time or music time for preschoolers in their community online. Maybe one will build hand sanitizer dispensers out of PVC pipe to put up at the local playground. Who knows how your students might impact the community if given the chance?

As you schedule out this unit, include clear steps for your kids to take and clear check-ins with you along the way. Finish it up with a gallery day, where students share the results of their projects in mini-videos everyone can watch.

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I could go on.

I think a performance poetry unit could be translated into a hyperdoc in a really interesting way. I can imagine a real-world argument unit, a writing contest unit, a virtual literature circles unit culminating in a virtual literary food truck festival, a digital research-based one-pagers festival, and more.

It all comes back to setting up a unit with everything laid out from the beginning, that kids in class and out can follow through, interacting with each other along the way through silent online discussions in Google slides, virtual galleries of work they can all contribute to, Flipgrid check-ins, and more.

You'll provide dates and activities, short instructional videos, virtual office hours and feedback on check-ins.

If your school requires you to be "live" with your students all the time, you can start each day with all your at-home students waving to you on Zoom during attendance (or answering one of those fun attendance questions) and then muting themselves as they move into the day's work. You can leave Zoom open on your computer as you follow along with the daily work from your desk, sending out feedback on posts, emailing reminders, setting up structures for upcoming virtual galleries, etc.

OK, I hope that's helpful in thinking about how to creatively approach this difficult and unique situation. Framing your work through projects this fall can allow you to use this strange set of circumstances to inspire more creativity and independence in your classroom. While it will look and feel very different from a normal back-to-school season, you'll be able to keep kids working through the same material without writing two lesson plans each day or running a constant live video broadcast of your classes.

What other fun project units are you considering for this fall? Please share in the comments!





2 comments

  1. Hi Betsy,
    Long time follower of your blog/podcast and member of your Facebook group here :) I love your ideas, but I'm struggling to figure out how I can incorporate these types of creative unit plans when I have to follow a fairly strict curriculum. I really dislike the textbook we use and generally try to sneak in other things when I can, but my AP was very adamant during the 4th quarter that all grade-level teachers are teaching the same content at the same time. Pacing can vary a bit, but each quarter the same content should be covered. How would you suggest integrating required text sets into any of the above units? Thanks in advance for any help or advice that you can provide!

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  2. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have bookmarked to check out new stuff you post. back to school 2020 is coming. This post give me some ideas for my kids.

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