Three Stages of Planning: Dr. Tony Sinanis

Enjoy this guest blog by Tony Sinanis!  Tony shares some expert ideas on planning, unit planning, backward design and how in combination they can positively impact teaching and learning!

Over the last couple of days, I have read a bunch of wonderfully written #OneWord posts. I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, especially in the case of this powerful post about empathy by my friend Bill. Although I couldn’t necessarily pick just one word, recently I have been thinking a lot about planning and how that impacts teaching and learning in our school each day. Much of my thinking has been anchored in the monthly literacy check-in conversations we have had at Cantiague where we have been discussing the integration of the new TC Units of Study and how these resources are impacting planning for literacy instruction and actual implementation.

Planning: A Personal Journey

This notion of “planning” is one I have struggled with my entire career as an educator… I could never quite plan far enough ahead yet I always over planned to make sure every minute was accounted for in my classroom. I have run the spectrum of planning… planning week to week using a plan book; planning an entire unit of study in advance using a template, and planning day to day on sheets of loose-leaf paper based on what I actually got accomplished on any given day with my students. The following graphic accurately captures what the “planning” experience looked like for me as a classroom teacher and even sometimes as a principal (be honest – how many of you can relate??)…

Fortunately, with almost 20 years experience as an educator I can confidently say that although I may have yet to master the whole planning situation, I have come to understand how important it really is to plan for learning and teaching within our classrooms. Regardless of what style or approach or format an educator uses, the bottom line is that we must plan in advance to have some sort of trajectory for the learning we hope to see unfold in our classrooms. Some of the questions I am constantly reflecting on include… What do we want our learners to master during a course of inquiry? What are the essential questions for this unit? What are the skills and strategies we want to expose our learners to during this lesson or unit? How are we going to ensure that the learning is student centered and student driven? Having reflected on questions like these (and dozens more), I have come to some personal understandings about planning. The way I see it, there are three stages of planning we could be engaging in that could have a positive impact on our students.
Stage 1: Unit Design
The first stage of planning and the one that I think is most effective and beneficial to maximizing the learning and teaching experience is unit planning. What do I mean by unit planning? I don’t mean picking up the new TC Units of Study (reading or writing) and necessarily following them verbatim (although that may work for many educators). No, I mean thinking about a unit of study that would be most beneficial to students… YOUR students. Think about what you want your students to have accomplished at the end of the unit of study. What are the essential (big & overarching) questions they should be able to answer? What knowledge and skills should students have acquired at the end of a unit? Could the TC Units of Study be the resource an educator uses as the anchor for a unit? Yes! But, the end goals should be established for the current group of students… TC Units of Study are a resource – they are not the curriculum.
After identifying the essential questions and specific knowledge and skills, now take a few steps back and think about what evidence could be “collected” during a unit to show what children have learned. This is the time to think about how the learning during a unit of study will be assessed because starting with the assessment in mind and planning backward from that point only increases the chances of academic success for learners. The final step in unit planning is thinking about the day to day learning experiences and the instruction that need to take place in order for the children to be able to answer the essential questions at the end of the unit.
A resource that is often used to facilitate this type of unit planning is the Understanding By Design model. The graphic below provides a great visual for the thinking that goes into this type of planning. What we know about systems thinking is that we plan ahead for our end goal – basically planning for our ideal situation – and working back from there.

Stage 2: Logistics, Schedules & Priorities

The second stage of planning considers all the logistics… scheduling, units of study across the different content areas and possibilities for interdisciplinary learning experiences. This is where the week to week planning gets refined and executed. If a teacher knows four students will be out of the classroom at reading at 9:30 am twice during the week, they will plan around that to ensure that the children don’t miss any new content. The second stage of planning will also consider what was accomplished the week before and what the goal is for the following week. This stage of planning drills deeper than what might be considered when planning the entire unit of study. This is where an educator considers the daily learning experiences and how they might unfold in the classroom using mini-lessons, direct instruction, guided practice, small group work and independent practice.

Stage 3: Day To Day

The third stage of planning is based on the data we collect from our students on a daily basis and this impacts the day to day instruction that unfolds in our classrooms. Yes, we may have planned a six-week unit of study in writing workshop that focuses on poetry but if we notice that the majority of our students are struggling with a strategy or skill on any given day, then that should impact, and even dictate, the next day’s mini-lesson. It might throw the unit of study slightly off course but ultimately, we must use data to guide and plan our daily instruction so that we are meeting the needs of our students and helping them work towards mastery of specific skills. The learning and teaching that unfolds in a classroom each day should not be solely based on a unit that was planned weeks in advance – it needs to be shaped and impacted by our students and their needs.

You Decide

Although there is not one size fits all approach to planning, I do believe these three stages of planning will ultimately have the most positive impact on the teaching and learning that unfolds in our classrooms each day. I hope that the readers of this post will join me in reflecting on their individual planning styles and how we can collaborate, as a PLN, to enhance our skills in this area!

Dr. Tony Sinanis is Assistant Superintendent for Learning & Instruction at Plainedge School District, NY
Follow Tony on Twitter @TonySinanis