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Is Your Team Identifying Essential Learning Targets Together?

One of the most embarrassing moments that I've ever had as a classroom teacher was the day that a seventh grade science teacher in my school stopped by my room to completely ream my learning team.  

"I'm SICK of it!" she shouted.  "Every year, you guys send us students that know different things.  It makes teaching completely impossible.  Could you PLEASE start teaching the same content in your classrooms?!"

Once she'd left, we sheepishly realized that she was right.  We HADN'T done a good job at working together to define outcomes that were essential for EVERY kid on our hallway to learn.  Instead, we each made choices about the content to introduce to the kids in our classrooms individually based on our experience with the curriculum, our interests and our personal expertise.

The result was nothing short of a professional disaster.  While I spent a ton of time teaching students about ecosystems and interdependence between species, another colleague spent a ton of time teaching students about the solar system.  That means the kids on our hallway left sixth grade learning VASTLY different things.  My kids were experts at the impact that humans have on the environment while his kids were experts on the origins of the universe.

The result HAD to be frustrating for the teachers in seventh grade, who were constantly reteaching content to small groups of kids who hadn't been exposed to the same things even though they went to the same school.

That's when I started to push for our learning team to develop unit overview sheets that defined a small handful of essential learning targets that EVERY child would learn, regardless of who their teacher was.

Here's a sample of what we created:

Energy Unit Overview Sheet

Our unit overview sheets were initially designed to make sure that every student in our grade level had access to a guaranteed and viable curriculum by providing teachers with boundaries for their instructional choices.  Whatever we chose to teach on a day-to-day basis, our promise -- to each other, to our students, and to the teachers at the next grade level -- was that every kid would leave our classes having mastered the outcomes detailed on our unit overview sheets.

Our unit overview sheets also provided guidance for all of our collaborative decisions.  What lessons would we share with one another?  Lessons connected to the objectives listed on our unit overview sheets.  What were we going to assess together?  The objectives on our unit overview sheet.  Which objectives were we going to provide enrichment and remediation for?  The ones listed on our unit overview sheets.  Using our unit overview sheets to prioritize instructional objectives ended up simplifying -- and provided clarity for -- the work we were doing together in our weekly PLC meetings.

But we soon realized that our unit overview sheets did far more than align our instructional choices and provide clarity for our collaborative work.  

Because we chose to write our essential learning targets in student friendly language, we were able to use our unit overview sheets to support (1). efforts to integrate student self assessment in the classroom and (2). efforts to communicate with stakeholders working beyond the classroom.  Not only do our students have a better sense for what they are expected to master during the course of a unit of study -- and a tangible tool for tracking their own progress towards mastery -- our parents, our specialists, our principals, and our special education teachers now have a clearly defined sense for what we are trying to accomplish.

Are you interested in developing unit overview sheets to guide the instructional choices of your learning team?  These handouts might help:

Identifying Essential Learning Targets

Converting Learning Targets into Student Friendly Language

And here are a few additional samples of what unit overview sheets can look like:

Atoms Unit Overview Sheet (Eighth Grade)

K-2 Unit Overview Sheet

Any of this look useful to you?


Related Radical Reads:

My Middle Schoolers Actually LOVE Our Unit Overview Sheets

Writing Student-Friendly Learning Goals

Another Student Involved Assessment Experiment



Shari commented on January 10, 2015 at 3:32pm:

Thank you!

This is a great article with great samples/templates...Thanks so much!  As the MS Science Curriculum coordinator in a K-12 school, this will be helpful as we vertically align in our MS Science department as well as across the whole K-12 Science department.  

Lindsay commented on January 21, 2015 at 6:09pm:

Great Collaboration!


Your resources are great tools for teachers! I teach at the elementary level, so we have always collaborated quite a bit to make sure we were teaching the same content. I can see how at the higher levels this could prove to be difficult.

The best part of these tools is that you have created a way for students to become leaders in their own education. They have a tool that allows them to see where they are going within the course and know exactly what is expected of them. There is no excuse for not knowing what is expected throughout the course.

These tools have also given more direction to anyone that is associated with the students and their educational goals. These sheets could easily follow students as they track their progress and move into the next grade. Teachers would be able to view these tracking sheets to see exactly where students are at in the different aspects of each unit of study. It could help with future lesson planning and even small group work to ensure students master the skills even after they have moved beyond that specific content.

Thanks for sharing these great tools for others to use. I hope that other leading teachers can successfully implement these types of tools into their PLC’s and classrooms. 

Respectfully,Lindsay Elsenheimer

Cynthia Day commented on May 11, 2016 at 2:28pm:


It was tough to read the introduction because it isn't colleagial to ream out a colleague or group of colleagues on a team.  "I'm sick of it," isn't a message that I would warmly receive.  Further, varied backgrounds do not make it impossible to teach the students.  Teachers often have students with different knowledge and strength, even in Kindergarten.  (Should we ream out their parents?)  Students come from other schools, districts, states, countries, etc. Students enter school with different working vocabularies and present with learning differences and physical handicaps.  I would not accept that a diversity of needs makes a professional disaster.  Nor would I accept that a teacher complaining of it with an entitled attitude is behaving in a professional manner.  I would feel no guilt.  The reasons for for making unit overviews would be an effort to improve learning, not to satisfy a teacher on another team who wants a cookie cutter class.  

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on May 11, 2016 at 5:34pm:

Hey Cynthia, 

Hey Cynthia, 

First, I agree:  Getting reamed isn't plesant and it isn't professional!  It was a tough day indeed.

But as for cookie cutter classes, I really do think it is our responsibility to our colleagues to make sure that we aren't exacerbating the intellectual diversity that our kids already bring with them to school.  If we are going to work efficiently as a whole to develop learners, then it really is our responsibility to commit to a small handful of manageable outcomes at each grade level and in each content area that we guarantee every child will learn. 

Doing so isn't about stripping away diversity.  It's about ensuring that we aren't creating classes that are completely unmanageable simply because we didn't bother to talk with one another about what it is our kids should know and be able to do by the end of their time in our classes.

Does that make any sense?



Tricia Ebner commented on May 12, 2016 at 6:45am:

Jumping in . . .

This makes perfect sense to me. It's a dilemma I see frequently in my context (language arts, grades 6, 7, 8, and I have all three grades because I teach our students identified as gifted). Within our department, we have varying positions on this particular issue. Some want to have common targets for each grading period, with a common assessment toward the end of each quarter. Others want instruction to be consistent across the department & grade level on a nearly-daily basis. These differences have a tendency to create some friction.

We haven't yet come to a compromise, but I think we could design "unit overviews" like these to help focus our work. It would certainly help me! I'm usually approaching the standards and skills from a different perspective, simply by nature of what my students are already doing and need. (For example, my sixth graders this year have some very strong reading skills, so I've had to really change up the selections we've used for whole-class work to provide an appropriate level of challenge.) My colleagues working with our other diverse learners also have to change up work to meet their students' needs. The unit overview seems like a useful anchor that could help us come to a good compromise. 

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