Classroom Activities

Elementary Unit Plans

Great Chicago Stories unit plans offer high-quality, inspirational educational materials that align with Illinois State Standards. Each unit plan consists of five lessons that work together to form a unit of study around the chosen narrative. However, the lessons are flexible and can be adapted for shorter or longer exploration of a topic. To that end, each lesson is offered as a separate PDF download. We hope you will make them your own, through creative teaching and application of the materials to best fit your instructional style and the needs of your students.

Unit plans were written and tested in the classroom by local teachers, guided by the principles of Understanding by Design developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins. Understanding by Design focuses on developing curricula through a backward design approach to deepen students’ understanding of important ideas. A two-year evaluation study of Great Chicago Stories included sixteen teachers who worked with 281 elementary students and 163 high school students. The study found that students made significant gains in four kinds of learning—skill-building, understanding, historical habits of mind, and content knowledge.

  • Gains in content knowledge averaged 43% from pre- to post-test.
  • Students made gains in self-guided learning—asking questions, investigating artifacts, making observations, and creating "spectacular" works.
  • Students showed high levels of engagement—requesting more stories, sharing with family, sharing with other students, and mentioning the stories, characters, and content for days and weeks after the lesson.

To learn more about Understanding by Design you can read a variety of publications issued through the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and visit the Understanding by Design Exchange web site (