By Chuck Hammill
This information is recommended for use with the Ontario Curriculum, all grades and strands.
“How do you get through it all?” “There’s not enough time to teach everything!” “Can’t I just teach three of the four units?”
These and similar questions and comments are heard throughout many Ontario schools, and are often uttered with a mixture of stress, anxiety, and frustration. I came to understand these feelings most clearly during a meeting some time ago with 12 grade 7 and 8 teachers from across Ontario (representing urban, rural, north, south, public, and Catholic schools). Even in that small group, the time allotted for science and technology ranged from 48 to 120 hours of instruction per year. Yet, despite time limitations, all teachers were expected to do their best in addressing the curriculum expectations.
The strategies I share below for “getting through the year” stem from a conversation I had early in my career, over 30 years ago, with my Board’s Science Coordinator. Being frustrated with the amount of time my science units seemed to be taking, I asked his advice on whether I should draw the unit to an early close and move on to the next, or do a really thorough job of the unit we were working on and just shorten up the next one. I can still remember his words: “Chuck, we often never know what topics will really turn our students on. You may have a student in your class just dying for you to get to the next unit. And after six weeks or so on a topic, you’ve probably gotten about all you’re going to get from it as far as the kids are concerned. My advice is to draw the unit to a close as quickly as possible and move on.”
So I learned to do that. And as the years progressed, I learned to do it with greater care and planning. Below, I offer a few suggestions on how I’ve learned to survive the stress of planning the year. I’ve even come to enjoy the process and, perhaps more importantly, the freedom it allows me to adapt the plan if needed as the school year unfolds.
There are a few things to note before we get started. The strategy described below is one I’ve used most often when teaching Grade 7 and 8 science and technology on rotary. However, I have also used a similar planning strategy when teaching junior science and technology in a more integrated fashion. Also, the term “unit” is used to describe a block of teaching time. Although there are four science and technology strands in each elementary grade, some teachers blend or combine them to suit the needs of their students or school. In the example below, I assume four units are taught during the year.
Step 1. Determine the number of “teaching weeks” in the school year.
This step is quite easy. There are about 194 days in the school year. That makes close to 39 weeks. I usually hold about four weeks “in reserve” to account for assemblies, snow days, class trips, year-end activities, holiday celebrations, rehearsals, “catch-up” days, etc. You’ll want to adjust the time for your grade level and school, but that leaves about 35 “teaching weeks” for which to plan. You can also dip into these “reserve weeks” to extend a unit as needed.
Step 2. Determine the number of weeks (or cycles) for each science and technology unit.
This is also easy. Thirty five weeks for four units leaves about 8 ½ weeks per unit. You may want to provide a little more time for one unit or another based on resources within your school, the environment in which you teach, the focus of the school, etc. At this time, you can also identify the order in which you want to teach these strands. If you are a visual learner like me, you may want to record this on a simple one-page yearly overview (see Figure 1).
Step 3. Determine the number of periods for each unit/strand.
This is the easiest of all. Just multiply the number of science and technology periods you have in a week (or cycle) by the number of weeks you’ve determined for your unit. For example, three science and technology periods a week for 8-½ weeks is about 24-26 periods per unit.
Step 4. Begin to block out the first one-page Unit Plan.
Now it gets interesting. Since all expectations are not created equally, it is important to look over the curriculum expectations to determine which ones you’ll emphasize or de-emphasize (keeping an eye on the Big Ideas of the strand so that you do not lose the intention of the unit). At this time, I also account for the less-negotiable aspects of the unit. For example, I use the first period to introduce the unit and do a short, informal diagnostic assessment/activity. The second or third period is usually used to introduce and clarify the culminating task (i.e., end-of-unit performance task) and assessment. I also block off about three periods for the culminating task itself and one-to-three periods part way through the unit for tasks that allow students to practice and receive feedback on skills needed for the final task. With these six-to-eight periods already booked, that leaves about 18 periods of instruction to plan for. Looking at the curriculum, and keeping the other resources in mind, I start blocking out what this instruction will look like, using draft lesson titles and brief descriptions. Once again, a one-page visual (see Figure 2) helps keep this straight. I find this visual to be perhaps the most useful piece of this entire process. It not only keeps me on track, but if I do need to readjust my timelines, it allows me to quickly see which lessons might be combined, lengthened, added, or abandoned, if needed.
Step 5. Develop individual lessons.
Once my Unit Plan is in place, I develop detailed lesson plans using the template in Figure 3. I must admit, having been at this a good number of years, these plans don’t always look as detailed as they did straight out of teachers’ college. But perhaps surprisingly, they often still do, especially when developing a unit or topic for the first time, or when changing schools, grades, or time schedules. The one aspect I find important to include in each lesson plan is “considerations for
differentiation” as it helps me plan accommodations or modifications for ELL and special education students.
Step 6. Repeat Steps 4 and 5 for the remaining units.
That’s it. The first time through, this is the most challenging. The good news is that it gets much easier after that. Remember though, these are only ideas. They work for me, but you’ll need to adopt, adapt, or abandon them as you see fit. The really good news is that a method such as this will enable you to get through the year in control. You’ll address the most important parts of all four strands; you’ll know when you’re doing things and why you’re doing them; and you’ll be able to direct your time and energy – and the time and energy of your students – to those expectations and activities most deserving of them. You’ll enjoy your teaching more, and so will your students.