History teachers have a really hard job. I know I’m biased, but I actually think unit planning is harder for history teachers than it is for teachers of other subjects. Unit planning is especially challenging for us because we have an enormous amount of content to cover, and not a lot of guidance about what specifically to teach. Consider a common unit in U.S. history courses: World War One. What about World War One should kids learn? What can you leave out? Is the Lusitania important enough to include? What about Wilson’s 14 points speech? What about women’s roles on the home front? The start of the Great Migration? Poison gas? Sometimes I want to be an English teacher, and just tell the kids to read a book.
At 4QM Teaching, we approach the history unit planning challenge with a six box storyboard. Using a storyboard to plan your units forces you to be thoughtful and coherent. The storyboard is a structuring and limiting device: it forces you to make clear and intentional decisions about when the unit ends (that’s the “outcome” box), when it begins (that’s the “setting” box), and what specific content you can include and what you have to leave out (if you can’t fit it in six boxes, you’ve got too much content).
But what if you just can’t figure out how to wrestle all your unit content into a storyboard? That was the dilemma facing a group of teachers at a 4QM workshop in Springfield (Massachusetts) this summer. We were planning a World War One storyboard, and had settled on the unit outcome: the unit would end with the Senate’s final rejection of the Versailles Treaty in March of 1920. The fifth box, right before the outcome, was obvious: the Versailles Treaty conference and the creation of the treaty itself. We agreed on the unit setting: the unit would start with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, and U.S. neutrality. But the group was struggling to figure out how to chunk, or “chapterize” all the content between 1914 and 1919. It was challenging in part because there were some experienced teachers in the group, and they knew a lot. As we talked about all the things that we might include in the unit, one teacher sighed in frustration: “There’s just a lot of layers on it.” We had arrived at the history teacher’s equivalent of writer’s block: Planner’s Block.
“Brain Dump” + Storyboard
We broke out of planner’s block using a fun and simple technique that you can do at home when you get stuck in your unit planning. We started with a brain dump. I told everyone in the group to just call out things that they think of when they think about World War One, and I wrote them all down. (If you’re working by yourself, you just make your list individually, without thinking about it — just write down whatever comes to mind.) It was a pretty long list, but it only took about two minutes. Here’s an approximation of what we came up with:
Selective Service Act
War profiteering, Capitalism
Trading with Both Sides
Wilson’s War Message
Our next step was to look over the list, and see if there were things we could discard because they didn’t really fit in the unit. In this case, we agreed that the Spanish Flu was tangentially related to the war, but came afterwards, and wasn’t really part of the unit narrative. We cut it. The Russian Revolution was trickier: it’s important because it’s why Russia leaves the war. But we agreed that for this unit that was the only reason it was important — so we decided that we would not teach a tangential mini-unit on the Russian Revolution, and instead would simply tell students that there was one, and it took Russia out of the war. Everything else we left.
Our final step was to go back to the storyboard, and see if we could sort the remaining list into chronological chapters with the boxes you have available. In this case, most of the remaining items on the list sorted into one of the three boxes we had left, and we were able to create a pretty coherent story of the unit. The storyboard gave us the structure we needed, and helped us to see that 1917 was really a crucial year for the U.S. in the war.
It’s easy for history teachers to drown in content when unit planning. The most common reaction to “planner’s block” is to throw up one’s hands and just muddle through, planning day-to-day, and then after a few weeks decide that it’s time for a test and call that a unit. But the brain dump method is much better. It honors the mass of incoherent content inside our heads, but doesn’t leave it unorganized.
Give it a shot! We think you’lll be pleasantly surprised at how well the messiness of the brain dump and the discipline of the storyboard can work together to create a strong unit plan.