How to Plan a Unit Opener

by Mathew Needleman

Let’s begin our week of unit opener planning by making sure we’re all on the same page and share a common rationale and understanding of what an effective unit opener is.

What is a Unit Opener?

A unit opener is the Open Court Reading name for what is commonly known as an anticipatory set.

An effective unit opener should:

  • Engage students and raise interest in the coming unit.
  • Activate prior knowledge by building a bridge from previous knowledge to new information…the teacher shows how it’s relevant.
  • Provide necessary background knowledge for students of limited experience and English language levels.
  • Provide an experience that students of multiple learning modalities can draw from as they proceed through the unit.
  • Unit Opener Diagram

    Make Your Unit About Something

    When you are using a basal reader, like Open Court, you need to make sure that your unit is about something and not just a collection of stories. It is not necessarily about what it says it’s about in the teacher’s manual (although the investigation and inquiry goals are a good place to start). If the unit is not meaningful to the teacher, it will not be meaningful for your students. So think creatively and find a way to connect meaningfully to your unit before you ask students to.

    If your unit is Astronomy, then your purpose is probably more obvious than if your unit is a universal theme like Kindness. With Kindness, you probably want to have some examples of real life kindness (like service learning projects or connections with people outside of your classroom) to illustrate the unit in a real way.

    I might take the Cooperation and Competition unit and use it as an excuse to teach the rules of games and sports. I might use Sharing Stories as a chance to teach about family histories. I use Let’s Read to raise students’ awareness of environmental print. More about our current units will follow this week.

    Have an objective

    Now that you have a reason for teaching the unit (and don’t copy mine, remember the point is for you to connect to your units in a way that’s meaningful to you), you need to have an objective for student learning. If you have a mandated assessment which follows the unit, then you also have to work backwards from that assessment and align it with your objective. If you’re teaching about astronomy and your objective is for students to name the planets and describe each of them, you would teach the stories from a different angle than you would if your goal was to teach about the determination of scientists in exploring the solar system. The unit is a loose theme which gives you an excuse to teach something that is meaningful to you. Again, make sure your objective aligns well with your assessment that’s coming at the end of the unit.

    Don’t Talk So Much

    Start by asking yourself how am I going to get to higher level thinking with this unit opener?

    Next, ask yourself how am I going to appeal to students of different learning modalities who may or may not understand the vocabulary I am using?

    If your unit opener involves you talking to your students the whole time or asking them questions that you already know the answer to, you’re not getting to higher level thinking and you’re not appealing to anyone but auditory learners who are fluent in English.

    Cue Tape or Enter Stage Left!

    I strongly recommend having a short film, powerpoint, photos, children’s literature, or a guest speaker, or realia available to help open your unit.

    Lead with your multimedia/realia.

    If your unit is Risks and Consequences, for example, instead of starting a conversation about risks and consequences when students may not know what risks or consequences are, show the movie first. Then discuss the risk taken in the story. Then connect this to students’ lives and ask them to discuss their examples of risks in small groups.

    Even with a unit like Fossils where students have lots of background knowledge, if you begin by showing a clip from Walking with Dinosaurs rather than simply droning on about dinosaurs you will surely have more complex, richer conversation and higher level questions for your concept/question board. If you can bring in a guest speaker about astronomy who brings some photos your students will have an experience to draw on throughout the unit.

    Link this to a Graphic Organizer

    For Open Court Reading teachers, we use a Concept/Question Board (close cousin to the KWL Chart). The C/Q board is a living, breathing graphic organizer which helps students to construct their knowledge about the unit. You may also wish to use other graphic organizers to begin to record knowledge of the unit theme.

    Other Strategies to Employ

    Pair sharing, quick writing, journaling, drawing pictures, skits, play-doh models, interpretive dances, etc…Participating in any of these will make your unit more meaningful than you lecturing students about the theme and it will involve more students on task for more of the time.

    You’re already an expert on the theme so give the students a chance to begin to construct their own knowledge even if their knowledge may contain some misinformation about the unit. If you want to model asking good questions ask questions that you really want to know the answer to rather than questions that have a specific answer you’re looking for.

    We’ll continue to talk about Unit Openers as we go through the week.

    Also see: Unit Opener Planning Sheet

    © 2007 by Mathew Needleman. All rights reserved.

    3 Responses to How to Plan a Unit Opener

    1. Pingback: Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » Unit Opener Planning Week is Coming 10/15

    2. Pingback: Creating Lifelong Learners » Blog Archive » Unit Opener Planning Week Reflection

    3. Pingback: So You Want To Teach?

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