Strengthening instructional units by planning in layers and connecting content to learning.

by Mary Eldredge-Sandbo

Grades 9-12


In my experience, it’s important to look at that initial planning of a unit and think about it in terms of layers. This means making  as many connections as possible to a variety of topics, as well as accommodations to different learning styles and references to the lives of students outside of school.

If I want a student to learn a particular content, I have to figure out how I can make it important to him or her. Including as many entry points as possible helps increase the likelihood that that will happen.

I make sure to give students some choices about how they are going to learn the content. A student might use music or art, or do independent work or writing to support the topic.

When thinking about layering,

-I start with the standards – what do students need to know?

-Then I learn as much as I can about my group of kids.

-Then I build connections between the content and what I know about the students.

This process enables me to offer new and fresh choices to students each time we cover a content area, rather than simply relying on what I’ve done in the past.



What I did well…

I provided time for the participants to discuss and reflect on the topic of building and adapting a unit of instruction. As I was planning, I was not sure if this was a “worthy” topic for this platform because, in a way, it seemed fundamental to what we do as teachers every day. However, as I listened to the participants’ suggestions, insights, examples, and questions, I acknowledged that it is helpful and necessary to take the time to consider and discuss how we plan learning experiences for our students. Although I enjoyed the beginning web activity, I think that the most valuable part of the session was at the end when teachers had the opportunity to share ideas about how they would use layers and connections to build their units.

What I would do more of, better, or differently…

I would ask for more group participation when identifying ways to layer and connect learning opportunities. Rather than showing lists of layers and connections, I would ask for examples and use collaboration to build the lists. Not only would this practice likely yield a better list; it would model the collaboration and communication that strengthens learning in the classroom.

I still want to grow in this practice by…

I continue to seek the balance between flexibility and planning. I know it is highly valuable to connect learning to student interests and current events, and I know that it is equally important to ensure that content learning is taking place in a structured manner that will allow students to build their understanding. Listening to my students, collaborating with my colleagues, using frequent assessments, seeking relevant resources, and learning from my mistakes are ways that help me continue to learn and grow in the way I design meaningful instructional units.

About Mary Eldredge-Sandbo

Mary Eldredge-Sandbo teaches biology, advanced biology, anatomy, and a dual credit biology course at Des Lacs-Burlington High School in Des Lacs, N...

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