Planning Engaging Units in All Subjects

By Victoria Jasztal on March 25, 2010

"We're building and racing rubber-band propelled vehicles? What will we do at the Renaissance Festival next Friday? ...When is Mr. Jasztal coming in to launch rockets with our class? ...We will be simulating craters with flour, chocolate powder, and rocks?  ...Who painted that, Leonardo DaVinci or Michelangelo?"

These questions and more have arisen in my classroom this year, generating a great deal of excitement by my students. By keeping these questions in mind, and tapping into their multiple intelligences, I have planned some tremendous units across the curriculum that address a variety of learning styles. Read the rest of this post to find some great resources and steps for planning superior units in any subject area!


Students learned about sword fighting and jousting when going to the (Tampa) Bay Area Renaissance Festival this past Friday.


They also learned about basket weaving, completing a variety of hands-on activities while at the festival.


During our force and motion unit, our class has constructed catapults... not from a list of instructions, but from what they have learned about them over the course of the unit.

When planning a unit, take these important steps:

  • What will be the duration of your unit? (Is it a mini-unit or a longer unit? 1 week? 2 weeks? 1 month?)
  • Determine important vocabulary.
  • Determine essential questions that will drive your learning.
  • What kinds of smaller or larger research projects can your students complete to deepen their knowledge?
  • Are there any demonstrations you can complete towards the beginning of the unit? (I would not complete anything too "hands-on" or complex early on in a unit because you want your students to learn important concepts and work toward something.) 
  • What kinds of technological connections can your students make over the course of a unit?
  • Determine what kinds of hands-on lessons or experiments will be involved towards the end of the unit.
  • What important information will your students need to know for a unit test prior to completing the more hands-on, complex lessons? I give unit tests that students have to pass with an 80% before moving on to those lessons because I want to know if they have listened to the best of their capability.
  • How can students express themselves artistically and musically over the course of the unit?
  • Can students go on field trips at the middle or end of the unit? Which places nearby address the standards you are covering? If heading somewhere is not possible, can your students take a virtual field trip?
  • Last, are there any other teachers whom you can collaborate with? I often collaborate with the fifth grade advanced level teacher.


Something Compelling About Multiple Intelligences:

Howard Gardner developed eight Multiple Intelligences that should, to an extent, drive instruction:

Education World has a great page about the different intelligences. Here is an overview of those intelligences, in my words:

  • Linguistic: Some students enjoy developing as well as reading stories and have a sensitivity to the meaning and order of words.
  • Logical-Mathematical: Students with this intelligence enjoy working with numbers. They also perform especially well when it comes to constructing models. With the catapults we are building, I listened to the vocabulary some logical-mathematical students were using- "Let's start with making this quadrilateral shape. We may try constructing a triangular pyramid. Or should we have a rectangular base instead?"
  • Musical: To help these students, there are people who release music for educational purposes, such as Mr. Duey, Tim Bedley (Rockin' the Standards), and even the group They May Be Giants. FMA Live offers songs on their website as well, which covers force and motion standards in particular. School House Rock has also been an excellent resource for educators for over thirty years!
  • Spatial: Spatial intelligence also comes out when students construct prototypes such as catapults and rockets. Students may also enjoy developing brochures (for example, of their own aquariums they are opening based on what they learned in a short oceanography unit).
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: Mimes, dancers, and athletes fit in this category. Acting out a concept also fits. The game Science Diction that I have mentioned truly enriches bodily-kinethetic learners.
  • Interpersonal: This is an intelligence where students perceive the feelings of other individuals.
  • Intrapersonal: On the other hand, this intelligence is where students have a great understanding of who they are. 
  • Naturalist: This intelligence refers to the ability to recognize specific types of plants, minerals, and animals. Students with this intelligence are "in touch" with nature. 

Knowing the intelligences of your students can help you to develop tremendous units.


A quick overview of my Force and Motion Unit:

  • The key vocabulary for the unit includes: potential energy, kinetic energy, inertia, momentum, force, gravity, gravitational pull, friction, and velocity. I make sure those words are used when I introduce the experiments at the end of the unit.
  • The main question for the unit has been: What is the difference between potential and kinetic energy? That is the main essential question for each experiment we complete, as students work with rubber bands, marbles, and air-propelling machines.
  • The unit test has multiple choice questions, short response questions, and especially questions where students can develop experiments and sketch different concepts they learned. One question my students answered had them sketch a basic roller coaster design, labeling where there was potential and kinetic energy.
  • I had students head home and research the science behind catapults, rockets, and roller coasters. This was a simple project, as at the very least, they had to write a bulleted list of five facts for each topic. They were also encouraged to print out experiments from the Internet and sketch a design of a catapult they could use for our catapult challenge. 
  • I found music that can compliment my lessons from FMA Live and Mr. Duey.
  • At the end of the unit, students construct rubber-band propelled vehicles with CD wheels, catapults (mainly from their own design), model rockets they launch outside with an air-propelled launching machine, kites, and marble roller coasters, at the very least.


Do you have a Delicious bookmark? Mine is located here. Delicious is a "social bookmarking" website that helps educators to "keep, share, and discover the best of the Web". It is a website where you can develop different tags (categories) like "Physics" or "Oceanography", downloading a small component to your computer where you can click on a logo and save websites to your tagged lists.

Delicious bookmarks can help you to save website resources as you complete various units over the course of the year. If your computer crashed, you will not lose your links because they are saved to the Internet. Check out my links at my Delicious website to see the variety of website resources I use over the course of the school year with different units. 

Utilize Others:

I am always willing to tell others that Beth Newingham, Angela Bunyi, Heather Renz, Laura Candler, and others have strengthened my teaching. It is always acceptable to adapt the ideas of other educators, especially if they have proved useful in instruction. 

Focusing on Scholastic's Resources:

Scholastic logo1

Take advantage of Lesson Plans on These lessons may help you take the next step to planning units. Also be sure to look at the Popular Themes for the School Year on this page to find theme-based lesson plans for each month of the year..

Although the following books are intended for a variety of different units, they have been some of the greatest resources I have purchased from Scholastic over the years. They are the perfect for enriching and challenging your students with hands-on activities:

Bodybook Coffee Everymin Firsts Teachsci Readstr

  • The Body Book includes printables of different parts of the human body that students can cut out, color, and create three-dimensional models.
  • Coffee Can Science was written by Steve "Dirtmeister" Tomacek and includes experiments that students can complete with coffee cans in almost every area of science. Another book I have from the "Dirtmeister" has to do with using plastic bags rather than coffee cans.
  • Although Every Minute on Earth by Steve and Matthew Murrie does not necessarily include hands-on experiments, it includes a plethora of intriguing facts having to do with several topics, including science-related topics. Scholastic Book of Firsts is a similar-type book with several intriguing facts! 
  • Teaching Science: Yes, You Can! offers a variety of easy teacher-led demonstrations and hands-on investigations for your students to complete. 
  • Reading Strategy Lessons for Science and Social Studies by Laura Robb includes practical, research-based lessons that teachers can use to help their students conquer enriching texts in these content areas.

Of course there are many more professional books out there that you can use, yet these are some of the resources that have impressed me greatly over time.

For math resources, which I have not discussed much in this post, I highly recommend anything from Marilyn Burns.

Hopefully this post has guided you in the right direction!



Renaissance Costume: It was a TREMENDOUS time two weeks ago! I am so grateful the fifth-grade teacher convinced me to take my class. It went so well with my force and motion standards; when my students constructed catapults following their short study of Leonardo DaVinci, they had a blast!

Next year, I'll be better prepared. I hope to acquire a great costume.

Peace, Victoria

Wow! I hope you guys have a great time! Check out my site.. I have many varieties of renaissance costumes that may help you in your work shop.. :)

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