Preparing for a new unit but need help figuring out where to start? Encourage students to buy into your next ELA unit with this post full of valuable strategies and engaging activities.
Whether you’re struggling to engage your students at the start of a unit or are simply looking for new and creative ideas, you’ve come to the right place.
You see, the start of a new unit is an opportunity to re-engage students and pique their interest in classroom material in creative ways. It’s also a chance to boost classroom culture and encourage active learning by fostering collaborative experiences, establishing real-world connections, and activating prior knowledge.
The only question is, are you ready to seize the moment?
I guarantee that after reading this post, you will be!
When planning a new unit, I treat it like writing an essay; I save tackling the intro until the end. After all, a writer doesn’t really know how to hook a reader until they have a better idea of what they’re introducing, right? That’s why, for unit planning, I start by identifying clear and measurable learning goals. Next, I think about the desired outcomes, including the summative assessment, and work my way up from there!
Now, if you’re confused and wondering why the heck I do it all backward, I highly recommend you hit pause, open a new tab, and read my post all about backward design. Trust me—the ‘backward’ approach to unit planning is a real game-changer.
Full disclosure, even with the help of backward design, planning an engaging unit introduction can be quite a challenge. Luckily, I’ve put together a list of my favorite creative and meaningful ways to engage your students with a new unit.
We all know introducing new content can be either exciting or daunting. The strategies and activities below can help you avoid the latter and make your next unit one’s students want to dive into.
Rather than simply hosting a classic discussion guided by a unit’s essential questions, consider adding a bit more perspective. Start by developing a list of relevant ‘profiles’ inspired by characters from a novel, a specific period, a historical event, or real people relevant to the unit. Consider including essential details like demographics, occupation or education, economic status, life events, current situation, and more. In the end, you should have developed a handful of fictional character profiles inspired by real or fictitious people, places, and events.
Once you’ve developed a handful of these characters, assign each student a profile, giving them a few minutes to read it through and get into “character.” The next step? Have a classroom discussion to unpack the unit’s essential question(s). The only catch? Students have to respond from their character’s point of view. Fun, right? This twist on a classic discussion introduces a unit’s essential questions while encouraging students to consider other perspectives and challenge their biases.
Chances are, you’ve heard of anticipation guides before—and with good reason. While they’re a fantastic pre-reading activity, they also make for an engaging hook when introducing a new unit. If you don’t already know, anticipation guides pose a series of statements that help pique students’ curiosity about a topic while activating prior knowledge, hinting at relevant themes, diving into essential questions, and encouraging critical thinking. Students must indicate whether they (strongly) agree or (strongly) disagree with each statement. The best part? You can return to the anticipation guide throughout the unit and track if or how students’ thoughts and perspectives have changed.
If you’re looking to move beyond the basic anticipation guide worksheet, consider adding some movement into the mix. Give students time to complete their anticipation guide before transitioning into a game of four corners. As you read the statements from the guide, students must move to a corner of the room labeled strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree. From there, they can engage with other students in their corner before defending their position in a classwide discussion (or friendly debate). My favorite part? Asking if any students want to change corners after hearing what everyone has to say.
Introducing students to a new subject matter using interactive challenges? Sign me up! With a digital escape room, students must work through a series of puzzles, games, or challenges that, when completed, reveal key aspects of the upcoming unit. As a result, students are encouraged to call upon prior knowledge and activate their problem-solving skills while kicking off a new unit in a fun and hands-on way.
Students can work in teams to solve these puzzles to promote collaboration, or move through challenges independently. This flexibility allows you to differentiate instruction based on your students’ needs or even use them as a fun homework assignment! Either way, escape rooms are a highly engaging approach to a unit introduction that encourages critical thinking and results in lots of fun. Save time by using one of my many done-for-you digital escape room activities!
Want to learn more? Read this post to learn how to use digital escape rooms to teach ELA.
Let’s start with a bit of time travel, shall we? Engage your students with a creative and hands-on exploration of a relevant literary movement, period, or place relevant to the novel you’re about to explore as a class. For example, you might head back to the 1920s before reading The Great Gatsby or Russia during the revolution of 1917 as a precursor to reading Animal Farm. Rather than simply lecturing students about the time period, let students do the research and present their findings to the class.
Divide students into groups, assigning each group to focus on one of the following categories: cultural, social, political, literary, or economic dynamics. Have them work in their groups to research and prepare a short presentation for the class. By the end, students will have worked together to develop an understanding of the essence of the era, bringing the cultural and historical context of the novel to life. Additionally, this time travel activity promotes the use of vital skills, like research, synthesis, and collaboration.
This one’s for all your visual learners out there! Instead of setting the scene for your next unit by talking about it, consider drawing it. After all, numerous studies have pointed to the correlation between drawing and information retention. (Don’t worry, this is true whether strong artistic abilities are present or not.) In this activity, students learn about a relevant period or place before creating a visual element that reflects the key aspects of what they learned.
To start, provide students with a collection of articles and artifacts that educate them on the key cultural, social, political, literary, and/or economic dynamics of the relevant time period or place. Have them read the articles independently or in small groups, pulling out the pertinent details. From there, have each student draw a scene, create a hand-drawn collage, or design a one-pager summarizing their findings. Follow up with a gallery walk where students can see each other’s work and note the similarities and differences in their ‘visual summaries.’ Finally, wrap up with a discussion to review students’ findings.
This art-focused activity is excellent on its own, or you can skip the reading and head right to the art as an extension activity for the Literary Time Travel mentioned above.
Okay, I saved my favorite for last. Learning stations are a great activity you can incorporate at any point in the year. However, they are a particularly useful way to introduce a new unit, promoting an active and engaging learning experience. #Goals. Begin by setting up distinct stations within the classroom, each focused on an essential aspect of the upcoming unit. For instance, a station might involve a hands-on activity related to the unit’s theme, set the scene for an upcoming novel by showcasing relevant images and other primary documents, or encourage discussion around essential questions. Another station could revolve around introductory texts or related literary works, allowing students to explore relevant texts and get a feel for the theme, topic, literary movement, author’s work, or genre.
Ready to get started with your stations? Have students rotate through each one, gaining information and various perspectives on the unit’s essential questions, themes, settings, and texts. This approach puts students in the driver’s seat as they embark on a multifaceted learning experience that will lay a strong foundation for the rest of the unit.
The list could go on (and on)!
See, I told you I could go on! Here are a few more activities to consider as you plan the introduction for your next unit. (I just couldn’t help myself!)
- Set the scene of your upcoming novel with your classroom décor, transporting your students to another time or place.
- Get all students involved with the discussion around a unit’s essential questions and themes by hosting a speed debate.
- Build relevance at the start by looking for current events that connect to your unit and sharing them at the beginning of the unit.
- Encourage students to make predictions about a novel based on the title, cover, or any relevant information you provide. Then, have them return to their predictions in the end to see how close (or far off) they were
- Bring pop culture into the classroom and start exploring themes by analyzing a song that speaks to the unit’s theme or essential question.
No matter which activity you choose from the list(s) above, one thing is for certain: your students will be engaged from the get-go.
Look, I know planning a unit can feel like a daunting task. But nothing is worse than doing all that work only to be met by a classroom of crickets when you start your first lesson. Incorporating fun and effective unit introductions will help keep them engaged all unit long. It will also lead to smoother sailing for the rest of the unit for you. Now, that’s what I call a win-win.
I hope you found some ideas you can bring into your classroom, and while some of these ideas are geared toward ELA, others could be adapted to apply to any subject area. Feel free to share this post with your teacher friends in secondary ELA and beyond. Additionally, if you have any other unit introduction ideas to add to the list, let me know in the comments below!