After teaching for ten years and then switching schools, I was very quickly reminded of how much work goes into writing curriculum from scratch. For a long time, I was in a happy place of continual revision of curriculum that I liked, but was tweaking here and there for relevance, rigor, and for fun.  

Now?  It’s the Wild West.  It’s intergalactic chaos.  It’s constant guessing and unpredictability.  All that aside, however, it’s also invigorating and exciting.  I would call myself “a curriculum person” because this kind of blank slate challenges me in a way that sparks joy in my life, despite the chaos, so I’d like to share with you how to most easily navigate through a first attempt at writing and implementing a new curriculum for a new novel in your secondary ELA classroom.

1.  Read the novel

I know this sounds obvious, but really having a chance to get through the novel from start to finish before the kids do is critical.  I have tried to muddle through a new book by just staying ahead of the kids, but let me tell you, the stress of that life is unbearable.  In the very best case scenario, try to ensure that you have enough time to get through the novel before the kids start so that you have time to think about the priorities of why it’s important to teach.  While reading, consider the following:

  • What are the patterns that I find myself annotating?  Are these the things I want students to look for, too?

  • What does this novel offer to students that no other novel has?  What is uniquely special about this particular story that is a “must teach” because they won’t likely see it again in such a clear way?  (Things like parallel plot structure, extended metaphor, motif, a really strong example of foil character, etc.).

  • How have I been enjoyably reading this book - in larger chunks or chapter by chapter?  What is the most natural way to break up the reading for the kids?

2.  Consult Your Team

Accumulating resources is different from constructing a unit.

Some of us work on course teams.  Some of us work solo. I find that I plan best when in conversation with a lot of people about the book I’m teaching.  I talk to teachers at my own school who teach or have taught the novel in the past, I call my friends from my old school and talk to them about the novel, and I’ve even been known to put out the “bat signal” on Instagram to hear what the amazing teachers across the globe have been doing with the novel.  After those three sources are consulted, I usually have WAY MORE than what I could possibly handle and I’m sparked with ideas for the unit. A few reminders:

  • Just because someone gives you something doesn’t mean you have to use it

  • Accumulating resources is different from constructing a unit.  I know teachers don’t want to “reinvent the wheel” (which I find insane - I love reinventing that stupid wheel!), but regurgitating someone else resources for your students is not best practice.

  • Look at the resources through a critical lens - which resources address similar issues?  Which resources are BOTH rigorous and exciting to use/teach? Can any of the resources be grouped together to address a big, conceptual question?

3.  Create a Curriculum Map Vision Board

This is a new idea that I just started using for my unit on To Kill a Mockingbird.  After reading the book and pouring through recommended resources, this is the place to visualize the patterns, issues, skills, themes, and questions that you’d like to address somewhere in the unit.  I think there’s potential to use this in class at some point, but for now, I just make these for myself as a draft before I commit items to an actual curriculum map.

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4.  Draft Your Essential Question*

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS!!  I wish it could go higher on the list, but it’s hard to write a high quality essential question without having processed through the steps above.  If you’ve never gone through this process before, I recommend purchasing Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (affiliate link) by Grant Wiggins and Jim McTighe (they’re the original gurus) or at least checking out the abbreviated version on their publisher’s website.  

Your unit needs ONE essential question. One question that captivates curiosity, applies to a broad spectrum of texts, and begs your learners to uncover an answer rather than regurgitate one.  McTighe and Wiggins lay out seven criteria that define essential questions:

  1. Is open-ended; that is, it typically will not have a single, final, and correct answer.

  2. Is thought-provoking and intellectually engaging, often sparking discussion and debate.

  3. Calls for higher-order thinking, such as analysis, inference, evaluation, prediction. It cannot be effectively answered by recall alone.

  4. Points toward important, transferable ideas within (and sometimes across) disciplines.

  5. Raises additional questions and sparks further inquiry.

  6. Requires support and justification, not just an answer.

  7. Recurs over time; that is, the question can and should be revisited again and again.

So how do you get there?  Look through your vision board.  Look back at the resources you’ve curated from your team.  What are the thematic patterns? What do you want students to walk away from your lessons wondering about - EVEN IF THEY DON’T READ THE NOVEL?  The essential question is huge because it is the question that drives instruction - not the novel itself. It will help you make decisions about what to include and exclude from the unit.  

Then, start drafting.  Write all ideas down - even the “bad” ones.  Cut them and paste them. Say them out loud. Run them by a colleague.  Ask your non-teacher friends if they’re captivated by your question. Once you think you’ve gotten there, run your question through the criteria above.  When you’ve got it, throw a party for yourself!! This is a huge accomplishment!!

Before you begin the unit, be sure to have a place in your classroom where you’ll display the question.  In order for essential questions to really hold their value, you’ll have to address the question throughout the unit, so making it visible sends the message to students that it’s something they should be constantly thinking about.

5.  Set Up for Backwards Design

If you’ve been trained in UbD (Understanding by Design), you’ll have a more sophisticated understanding of what I’m about to cover, but essentially, when designing a unit, it is critical that everything starts with the end in mind.  When working with essential questions, this is really easy: your unit should start and end with the essential question.

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Most people end their units with an assessment.  If that’s the case, ideally, you’ll have your students respond to the essential question in either a written, spoken, or project based way.  However, you might want the final assessment to be more skill based. For example, if you want your students to write a literary analysis paper on symbolism in The Great Gatsby, you should do that and build up to those skills, but don’t forget that to END the unit, students should also thoughtfully address the essential question that drove the unit.  They could answer a reflection question on Google Classroom, they could have a mini-conference with you about the question, they could informally share in groups what they’ve learned about the question, they could present a portfolio that responds to the question, or anything else you come up with.   But if you start To Kill a Mockingbird asking “When an injustice is committed, is empathy enough?” and end by asking them to write an essay that asks, “Who are the mockingbirds in the story?”, your students will struggle to find value in the essential question.  

As you look at your unit calendar and move backwards, be sure that the assessments you have planned match the skills you plan to teach in each section of the novel.  Again, for example, if you want to end a unit by having students write a narrative, make sure that the instruction all throughout the novel is about plot elements, creating characterization, writing dialogue, etc.  Good backwards design means that you are designing units that set students up for success - not blindside them with expectations.

6.  Write Your Curriculum Map

For some teachers, curriculum maps are something they like to write as they teach.  If you have time, sketching out your map before the unit is nice because it’s a backbone that can keep you stable, but if you’ve done everything else up until this point, you’d be fine to fill it in as you do things that you like!  If you need a map, I have one here that’s pretty elaborate, but you can certainly do something simpler if you’d like. I have these blank maps printed and spiral bound for myself and I keep them at my desk! Once I’ve got a rough draft I like, I will start to move them into a digital format linking the assignments that correlate with each section of the map.


Did you find this helpful?  Where are you feeling lost? If you need a community of teachers to run ideas by or be sounding boards, we’d love to have you join us in The Adventurous Teaching Academy Facebook group or on Instagram.  Share below your best tips that you’d add to this list!


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