Many teachers are never taught how to create an effective unit plan from scratch. Most aren’t even given any information or tools to get started. That was how I learned, but after 14 preps in 5 years of creating most units from scratch, I want to share the simple steps I use to unit plan.

Unit Planning in Simple Steps Transcript

Every once in a while, I still get impostor syndrome about being a teacher without a teaching background. But one thing I know I am not an impostor of when it comes to education is starting a new prep from scratch…from square one, square zero, whatever it is! 

I have started 14 preps in five years and I’ll have another one next year. I know I say that a lot, but I think… one I’m bragging about myself, but I’m very proud of myself for being able to maintain this. 

Also, I’ve had so many great experiences figuring out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to planning a unit. With anything from a complete curriculum handed to me, but needed to be modified and personalized towards my students and my style of teaching, all the way down to this is the course title…and that is all you’re getting from us. 

I have gathered all this information over my years, and it’s actually how I started Engineer Does Education because when I was planning out these units, it became so overwhelming. I was really working day to day because I had nothing to work off of. It finally clicked in my head that I have an engineering-project-planning background on efficiency and productivity. 

So I married the two into my first child (okay, technically, this would have been after I had my second child) into the first product that I created. That I truly love and utilize to this day and have nurtured every single year. It’s all about creating a unit plan and the things that I’ve learned in trying to help other teachers streamline that process for themselves as well. 

A Unit Plan From Scratch

So I want to come together today and talk about how I create a unit plan with no information at my fingertips, and how you can extend what you already have (if you are provided some materials), and personalize it with little to no effort, but with big results in the end. 

Let’s go ahead and get started.

Unit Plan: Options for No Materials

You’ve been handed a new classroom next year. Congratulations! Nobody has ever taught this before in your district, and your test piloting the program, creating a curriculum, let’s go.

Google Search

If you have no materials when you get started, then the first thing that I want you to do is Google search “pacing guides”, because somebody in the United States or abroad has probably taught that course before. 

Now are you going to potentially have to modify to fit different standards across different states? Yes, but a starting point as a starting point. 

Old Textbooks

If you can’t find a pacing guide, or you don’t find any that seem reliable to you, I also used to work at a used bookstore in college. Let me tell you, old textbooks, we all know nothing changes from edition to edition, right? It’s just a few numbers here and a couple of problems there. Maybe for History, they add in that new chapter, but you can also search the textbook Table of Contents. 

Even just looking on Amazon some textbook options and seeing what units they cover in the order that they do. 

Teachers Pay Teachers

And then if you still can’t find anything there, or if you’re not 100% sure you’re on the right path, then I suggest you log yourself into Teachers Pay Teachers. Not to purchase anything, yet, but to go through and find if somebody has created a full curriculum and see what order their units go in. 

We’re trying to get you a nice outline of what’s going to happen throughout the year, but we’re not trying to spend too much money, yet. 

Start With Unit One

So you’re going to start with your very first unit. Once you have found a table of contents, a pacing guide, or something that you can reliably look at and think, “this is what my course is going to look like.”

Use a Mind Map to Unit Plan

So start with your first unit and put the title, or the main topic of that first unit, in the middle of a mind map. I love mind maps. You could also just do it on a piece of paper in a bulleted format if that’s more your style. You can type it on your phone. Whatever works for you, but I’m going to refer to it as a mind map.

In that first unit, decide on three to four major concepts for that unit. The three to four things that you really want your students to walk away understanding to summarize the entire thing. 

This is a great place to start looking at standards, and create some general topics from the standards. Don’t drive yourself crazy reading them if you’re not sure exactly what’s going on. They should have some general guiding questions or statements that will help you understand what types of things need to be put into that unit. 

Then once you have those three to four topics, put those around your mind map as your first level. And for each of those topics, you need to decide (using your own expertise in that topic, or whatever pacing guides and research you’ve come up with), what building blocks do students need to learn about in that topic. 

So for science, I would consider these things: vocab words, equations, maybe getting more specific on concepts that are smaller concepts that they need to review, before they can fully grasp what they’re doing now. 

And those lists will help guide you to think how long your unit needs to be.

Once you have your list of vocab words, equations, mini concepts, then you can group them together. I will literally just circle them, and number them for the days of that topic. 

So in your three to four topics for your unit, you could have a 20 day unit plan. You could have a 60 day unit plan depending on what you’re covering. 

Then once you have your big concepts that students need to know written in, also decide where you think you need practice assignments. Or decide how many activities or labs you want to do in this unit. 

Now, I suggest writing in assignments. And if you need work time for those assignments and class, then create their own day, wherever it would fit. 

If you’re going to do an activity where they’re just practicing the knowledge that they have, then make sure that you put its own little circle wherever it fits in your mind map.

Create a Template

I created a template for my units. My first PDF template of my Unit Planning Kit (which is linked iIf you’re interested in checking it out), I decided that I could have up to two activities a unit, up to one lab a unit, and then five assignments max. That was all I could handle. If I decided that I needed more assignments, then I didn’t. I condensed them into one assignment, and I made a whole day to work on that assignment instead.

I was not going to overwork myself. And giving myself those guidelines helped me even on shorter units to realize, okay, well I still want to do one lab, I could still do an extra assignment here. And I could still maybe add an activity, it gave me a really good guide, just feel like I was filling in the blanks. 

Once you’re done with that, then you want to make sure that you decide where you want quizzes to be. Put in what days you want to do a review. When is your test going to be? Obviously your review and your test days are gonna be at the end, but how many days of review do you want? 

A little pro tip that I’ve picked up along the way: add in one extra day for every two and a half weeks that the unit lasts. It should be plenty of buffer time as you go along that you can either roll topics over into if you need just a little bit more practice on it. 

Or, if you ended up not using that day (or however many days) you can fill it with a template assignment. Like a current event summary, so they can practice that for when you have emergency sub days.

If you haven’t seen my blog post on an emergency sub binder, I’ll link that here. We’ll talk about sub days coming up. 

So now you have your mind map created. You’re just going to plug it into your planner, a spreadsheet, whatever you’re using, day by day. 

You have your main topics that you’re covering that day (whether it’s the vocab words or small concepts), and you also know when you’re planning on doing an assignment. You might not have that assignment, yet…we’re gonna get to that in a second. But you can lay it out to see how long this is going to take and also fit it around what is happening in the school. 

Do you have a four day weekend coming up? You probably want a quiz out before that four day weekend. Or maybe you want to have an activity for a short two-day week that you have in class to encourage students to come to school those days. 

Well, tada! You’re now all planned out. Honestly, even from scratch, when you get really good at this, it might take two and a half hours to get a full four week unit mapped out. 

Unit Plan Key Ingredients

But there are some details, right? We’re missing some key ingredients there. Like assignments and labs. Trying to create those from scratch can be super dunting. 

Your first step: Google it!

If you’re going to be doing a unit on Newton’s Laws, google Newton’s Laws, assignment, middle school. You’re actually gonna get a ton that pop up that are just shared on different school websites, or that teachers have put onto blogs, or that are just appearing out of nowhere. 

Maybe there’s a website that provides some free assignments for these types of things. You can look there either for inspiration, or go ahead and snag that and save that link. And if you’re using a digital spreadsheet, put the link right in the lesson for that day. 

If you can’t find anything reliable there, then I suggest you go to one Facebook group. Find the one hidden gem of a Facebook group for your topic, and search for specific terms from previous posts. 

Get as crazy specific as you want in the search terms, because there’s going to be a ton of information there. 

There are usually files that are shared, or people have ideas for activities or labs and they will provide links to where they got those labs and activities from. 

If you can’t find what you’re looking for there, or what you need, then go ahead and head over to Teachers Pay Teachers. It is a reliable site with tons and tons of items for you to look at.

But I do suggest trying to go the free route first. Because if you’re doing a whole curriculum from scratch, it’s gonna get expensive very quickly. You cannot take those types of purchases lightly, but you also don’t always have the time to do a whole bunch of digging and research. 

Are Google Slides Needed?

So now you have links and an idea of what is going to take place for the activities and the homework, and the grades that you will be giving. But what about slides?

I feel like slides are one of those innate things that we think we need, but in reality, I stopped using slides altogether.

I still use slides for some of the more technical classes that I’m doing. However, for my freshman classes, I just pre-write the notes on a notebook page, and then I teach and write the notes on the board as we go. 

It allows me to stop and answer their questions to clarify things. I can add things to my notes right then and there that I can then change for the next class period. And it’s very low prep. Super low prep. Do you know how long it takes to type a chemical equation into a Google slide? I would much rather write it on the board. So I highly suggest you do that, too. 

Now there are some times where you want to have a video or a graph that you can also show online, and I 100% agree that those are great supporting materials. So find those things now if you want, or those can be found pretty quickly the day before, and link that into your lesson plans.

Digital Planning

Now, I keep saying link into your lesson plans because when I started creating a lesson plan kit for myself, I had a PDF version I was handwriting things out. But when COVID hit, I realized how important digital planning could be for teachers. 

I needed something that I could easily share, but also update for my students. So I created a Unit Planning Kit where it not only shares your general lesson with the students, but you can:

  • hyperlink any slides that you may already have 
  • hyperlink worksheets that they can either complete online or if they need an extra copy to print out 
  • put videos there

I also created it so that it auto populates all of these extra pages for you like, supplies you might need, because that’s one thing that I didn’t think about my first couple years actually…is to go ahead and decide what supplies would be needed for each of those lessons as I mapped my unit out. 

Then I could print off just one page for supplies by lesson. It would tell me all of the things I needed to have prepped. You break that down into one week at a time, and you can pull all those materials on a Thursday (because remember, we moved our Friday to Thursday – I’ll link that podcast episode here). You’re going to have just a condensed version of what you need. 

It also auto-populates your assignments into an assignment checklist for students. And as you maybe need to modify a due date, or maybe you want to share some extra help with students, they can go into that living Google Sheets document and they can see everything that you’ve changed and updated in real time. 

That also is really great for students who have learning plans because they can see ahead of time what all assignments there might be. They can have a printout and they can be tracked. 

If your school hyper focuses on standards and objectives, which thankfully I have never had a school that does, but I know some people do, I also included a little section for those. So it could break down the standards you’re covering by lesson and you can turn that into admin. 

Another one that admin really loves is the reflections column. After a lesson, you type in your reflections on the unit: what went well, what you might want to redo, and then you can print out just the reflections page for admin so they can see that you know what you’re talking about. 

Unit Plan Expert Level Tips

I kind of jumped the gun and already talked about most of the expert level tips. 

Creating Unit Plan Templates

I wanted to recommend the big one being: creating a unit template of all of the things that you need to either have prepared, or you need to use to fill a unit.

I like to include all the assignments and lab activities that I mentioned before, as well as one assignment for my emergency sub binder, so that they can be well versed in that if they need to have a sub.  

Also things like a parent email to go out welcoming the unit. Important dates for closed toe shoes for labs, for example. Or, note packets that need to be created, and study quizlets that need to be created, so students have that ready to go when it comes time to review for the test. 

Once I have that whole checklist, it’s just a matter of going through, filling out all of the items, so that I know my unit is fully completed and looked at..and then checking them all off when they’re done. 

Now, the idea with this template is that you want to create something that is generic enough that you can use it for all units with minimal modification or additions. 

There are some units, obviously, that are going to potentially require more added in. Like if you’re doing a unit that includes dissection, you’re going to need a little bit more information there, but you want to have something ready to go that you don’t even have to adjust. You can use it over and over and over again.

Admit Mistakes

But can I tell you probably the biggest tip when it comes to needing to create a unit plan for the first time, or completely from scratch…it’s to let your students know when you messed up or when you need to add more in. 

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve looked at my students after writing a test from scratch, and said, “Okay, I made a mistake on problem 4, but my mistake means you get free points.” 

Or, when I’m doing notes with my students, and something really isn’t clicking because they didn’t have the background that I thought they did. Then, pausing and saying, “Okay, let’s take a break and rewind. I don’t have anything prepared for this, but let’s figure out where we’re all at so that we can move forward together.” 

They love that type of honesty and openness. And it’s going to help you later on because they understand what you’re trying to do, which is help them learn. 

And along those lines, because of so many people in the survey I sent out not too long ago said that you really wanted some timely reminders for things. 

We are just past “Quitters Day” for New Year’s resolutions at the time this episode is originally coming out. 

So I wanted to remind you that you do not have to give up on anything completely that you want to do in your life, you can go ahead and modify it and make a simpler step to try to achieve. 

I know I have not been on the greatest bandwagon when it comes to working out and eating healthy, but I am looking at myself and trying to decide if I can reflect on the day, and have at least three things that were healthy options, or healthy choices, I made for myself. 

Just being able to look back and decide on three things is moving me forward. They might not be the biggest thing, but they’re helping. 

So do some reflection. See why you think a resolution is, or is not, working out well for you, and then just change it. 

Modify it to fit where your life is actually going and what steps you’re able to achieve right now. We don’t need to quit. We just need to adjust. 

I hope that you take that same mindset into your first unit plan.

Please let me know over on Instagram or at . Or let me know through email if you have any more specific questions on creating a unit plan. 

I know I did not cover all of it here. There is no way I could have gotten to every single question that anybody could come up with, but I really do want to help. So just let me know how I can. Until next time.


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Unit Planning Kit

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Keywords: unit, assignments, planning, modify, standards, pacing guides, concepts