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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Hourglass Unit Planning: From Large to Small to Large

Every time I sit down to plan a unit, I think about how I can move inward, into the mind of the protagonist. I want to go from the external world of the character to their internal world. From a cultural space to a cognitive one.

I teach topic by topic instead of chapter by chapter, so I try to order the topics in a way that creates a logical sequence of ideas. I want my students to first examine the world the character lives in, and then think about how they process that world and make decisions. Over the course of a life, a person grows by getting to know the people and society around them, and then at some point, they realize who they are and who they will be.

My students read an entire novel on their own time, so once they finish, we can track multiple topics from the beginning of the story to the end. Writers typically introduce their ideas slowly, and then conclude their story with much more developed concepts by the end. Throughout the unit, it becomes the student’s job to connect the different topics and discover the relationships between the ideas of the writer. Like a spider, they must weave a web to catch the ideas and organize them in a way that makes sense.

In a way, it works like an hourglass, where we begin by examining culture, class, race, society, gender, social norms and codes, tradition, convention, and etiquette, and then turn to the individual and how they internalize the world they’ve been handed. In the middle of the unit, we’ll look at topics like family, marriage, friendship, faith, perspective, memory, or education. We also track symbols, motifs, or minor characters. By the end of the unit, we deep dive into the consciousness of the characters with topics like identity, joy, imagination, hope, love, free-will, expression, or immersion. I try to end my units with an uplifting topic so they can see how the protagonist transformed. This approach also makes it easy to connect topics across different units of study.

Below is an outline of my unit on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I divided this up into four parts, which could be a way to organize the four weeks of one unit, but I also believe in allowing the students to determine how much time they spend on certain topics. Depending on the conversation or activity, a topic might take a day or a week to cover. In this case, I organized the unit by the philosophical topics of identity, time, space, and free-will.

“Identity and Identification”








“The Problem of Time”









“Symbolic Thinking: Space and Art”







“The Possibilities of Free-Will and Change”


point of view








I'll provide an example of two quotes connected to the topic of painting, one from the beginning of the novel, and one from the end:

Page 19:

"She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child."

Page 208:

"Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was--her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was

finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."

Lily moves from a state of doubt and fear about her ability to paint what she sees at the beginning of the novel to a state of strength at the end, where the world makes sense, where she feels complete, and where her attempt at art finally comes to life. When we allow students to see these changes in symbolism, in ideas, and in characters, we give them the opportunity to believe in hope and progress, that just as an idea develops, that we too, develop, as individuals and as a society.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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