Don’t Hang Art on the Walls Until the Furniture is in Place: Using Teaching Tools to Build the Frames of Our Unit

Don’t Hang Art on the Walls Until the Furniture is in Place: Using Teaching Tools to Build the Frames of Our Unit

by Kate Roberts, The Educator Collaborative Network Member

Register to watch Kate Roberts and Kristi Mraz’s 2018-2019 Study Series Session, “Making Reading Conferring Work,” on-demand through June 30, 2019.




Don’t Hang Art on the Walls Until the Furniture is in Place: Using Teaching
Tools to Build the Frames of Our Unit

About a year ago, we bought our first house. Having lived in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn for twenty years, we were, you might say, “furniture poor.” All of our belongings fit into one room of our new, not that large, home. It has been a dream come true to own this house, we feel incredibly lucky. And it has been overwhelming as all get out. We had nothing. We needed everything (except spatulas, for some reason we had three of those).

The vision was there. We could see what our new home might look like someday.  But in between that vision and the reality was a to-do list about a thousand miles long.

Whenever I have faced the task of writing or rewriting curriculum I feel the same way. I feel lucky to be able to build such a thing, to create a unit that might be taught with children. And yet the list of to dos, of possibilities, is daunting.

In our home, we finally began hanging some art. The main pieces of furniture have been bought. The rooms have been configured. And we have lived in the space long enough to have a sense of what might feel good where. It took time, and it was a process. The couch came before the rug. The furnace got fixed before we mended the AC.

Planning our units has a similar logic. Certainly, we will want to do some backwards planning. What do my students want and need to learn, to understand, to ask and to experience after this unit is done? The vision must come first, or else our lessons risk becoming random activities to fill the gaps of our days.

But once we have that vision, there are some things we can do that might help us to create units that are clear, purposeful, and effective. In DIY Literacy, Maggie and I argue that by using teaching tools we can help to make sense of the chaos that can come from teaching complex material to many very different students. So too, can we use these tools to help us plan our units in coherent, helpful ways. By thinking through the order in which we create tools for our units, we uncover deep thinking and planning work that will help our units go better, our students learn more, and our lives get maybe just a little bit easier.

So, furniture first:


An instructional chart is a hung up, often co-constructed record of the teaching in the classroom. A chart’s purpose is to increase the independence our students experience when working towards a goal. Maggie and I suggest that a repertoire chart (see below) is a perfect example of a chart that helps kids remember what they have learned and to work more self sufficiently.

A repertoire chart from a third grade unit.

A repertoire chart is a list of the strategies we have taught our class to reach towards a specific skill or goal.

By planning our charts first we must ask ourselves which skills are essential to this unit. Since we cannot hang a million charts up in the room (as this would be counterproductive and overwhelming) by thinking about which charts we will make we focus our attention and time on the skills that our students most need to practice. In doing so, we stand at the precipice of our unit, gazing out over the endless possibilities of teaching, and we ask ourselves this essential question: What will I TEACH in this unit, versus what will I COVER. The skills I am going to teach (which takes repetition, practice and differentiation) I will make charts for. The ones I will cover, I will not.


A micro-progression is a step-by-step support for students to push themselves towards higher levels of work. Progressions or continuums show varying levels of a skill, and help students to self assess where their work currently is as well as gives them next steps to take as they continue working.

A micro-progression on analyzing evidence in an essay.

Micro-progressions also help the teacher to see her class and offer students what they need. When I have created a micro-progressions for, say, main idea, in a nonfiction reading unit, when I look at student work it is far easier for me to identify what a student could use as a strategy to help them where they are. In a way a micro-progression is the embodiment of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.  Where are my kids right now? What can they do to push themselves without pushing too hard?

By working on a micro-progression before my unit starts I articulate to myself two things: which skill is central to this unit, the one my kids will practice over and over again? And what levels of work can I expect to see as my students begin their work?  This knowledge creates a freedom in me as a teacher – I am able to name what my students need in the moment without that all too familiar tangle of doubt and frustration I can feel if I don’t know the path ahead for the skills I am teaching.


As we meet with students, it will help to collect the lessons they need in one place.  In our demonstration notebooks, we create clear, replicable work that we can do with the predictable issues that we anticipate and encounter as we dive into the work of the unit. By collecting these lessons in an interactive notebook we are able to return to these pages over and over again. We are ready when these same issues rear their heads hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

A demonstration notebook page supporting character motivation.

We know we want to differentiate and give all of our students what they need, but when this worthy task is always up to me to come up with in the moment, my brain often fails me. I see a student who needs something, but I can’t quite find the right strategy amidst the crowded chaos that is my brain. When I stop and make a demonstration notebook page I quiet the noise a bit – I don’t have to come up with it on my own, I have a lesson ready to go.

Often teachers choose to spend bits of time across the week in the company of colleagues making these pages. Grade team meetings, PLC time, inquiry work. All it takes is a group of teachers, some Sharpies and a sketchbook. Have someone identify a skill they see their students struggling with and then make a page that could help.


As one unit ends and the next begins, take a moment with your class and have them “download” the lessons, strategies, and information that helped them do their best, most meaningful work. Then, as the next unit begins, support your students’
transfer of learning from one unit to another by referencing their bookmarks and taking time to reflect on which past teaching might best help the present work.

A bookmark of ways to read deeply.

While not every lesson from every unit will stick with our kids, we can certainly help them to hold on to more of them. Bookmarks can help learners name powerful moves that they would like to remember.

Of course, there is other work to do when unit planning: lessons to be written, assessments to be developed, relationships to be nurtured and student work to be responded to. At the same time, these tools, when used as a way to frame our unit planning, can help us to be sure that the big furniture of our units is in place before we start hanging art on the walls.

1. When we focus on charts we name which skills are at the center of our
units and what strategies we will teach.
2. When we learn a micro-progression we internalize a sense of what our
students will do and how we can respond.
3. When we make demonstration notebooks we respond clearly, personally,
and effectively.
4. When we make bookmarks we create the potential for transfer of learning.

Now Maggie and I are having a great time hanging our old photos and paintings, and looking for new things to put on mantles and whatnot. It feels great. But what feels even better is looking around at the bones of the rooms and knowing that the foundation is in place, that we have our arms wrapped around our house just as it envelopes us. We can have this same feeling when we look at the units we are teaching, we just have to take it one step at a time.