The chuck-it bucket: choosing your enduring understandings

Really want to plan a tight unit with the most focused and realistic amount of material possible? Try this exercise:

1. Grab a sheet of paper and a pen.
2. Grab the vocabulary list for your upcoming unit (or use your memory list).
3. Draw a large circle (half the page) right in the center.
4. Draw a smaller circle (2/3 size-ish) inside the circle but near the bottom not the center.
5. Repeat #4 making a smaller circle inside the 2/3 size one.
6. Below your concentric circles, draw a large-ish circle in the lower left corner.
7. Label your circles: large is “useful”, medium is “necessary”, and small is “for life”. The guy in the corner is “chuck-it bucket.”


Now that you have your graphic organizer, take your list and really focus on it…. Be realistic, what on this list is a) honestly engaging for your class and b) useful for them in the future (real life language not classroom speak). Go through the list word by word and place them in categories. The smallest circle is the inner sanctum. Nothing goes there unless it will benefit those students for the rest of their lives as language speakers! Ex. Tenía que or no puedo (i/he/she had to, I can’t). The medium circle is for things that they will probably need to use often. Ex. Mientras, así que, entonces (while, so, then) the big circle is for things they should recognize if they see or hear them but they’re more like bonus words, the kids could get by with or without them. (Ex. Basic clothes, foods, colors). The chuck-it may (should) be the fullest. These are things that we teach robotically because we have always done it but that have no value to a student wanting and needing to communicate in the TL! Ex. Household chores, things in their backpack, items in the classroom. If you have to do these for a district assessment, try to think of a quick and clever way to memorize and move on to more important things.

Now that you’re looking at the list in perspective, plan ways to use the TL (90% if you can) to hit those items in the small circle every day, the medium circle often, and the large circle enough for recognition. Chuck can be for extra credit or just a trash can to hold things that are NOT high frequency.

Try to imagine the ways your kids may be using this new language in the future. Have you told them that being a language teacher is only one of a million ways the L2 can be part of their career? I think we mistakenly teach these lists anticipating the kids that will use their language to be teachers. Don’t fall into that trap! Make the language personal to all of them! The teacher types will pick up every word anyway, it’s the others who we can woo! Make a generation of bilingual doctors and lawyers and scientists and engineers! That is how we will truly change people’s views on the importance of learning language!!!

Author: senoracmt

I began teaching Spanish in Illinois in 1994. I have taught levels 1-4 in a small rural high school, 8th grade introductory Spanish, Biology 1, and 101 and 102 at the community college level. My Spanish classes are partnered with the community college to offer students 8 semester hours of dual credit on completion of Spanish 4. In 2011 I met Carol Gaab and Kristy Placido and have since co-authored the book "La hija del sastre" with Carol Gaab and authored the novels "La Calaca Alegre", "Bianca Nieves y los 7 toritos." "Vector," "48 horas","Bananas", "Sostenible", and "Papálotl" through Fluency Matters. In 2006 I became National Board certified and I have been serving as a mentor both for candidates seeking certification in world languages other than English and a virtual mentor for candidates in all certificate areas. I completed my Masters degree in Spanish education in 2011 and did my research on the use of Understanding by Design to create meaningful cultural units for the language classroom. I am a frequent presenter on this topic, please consider me if you are interested in a workshop on backward design. In 2013 I was named the ICTFL Foreign Language teacher of the year and in 2014 I was selected as CSCTFL's teacher of the year. In November of 2014 I was lucky enough to be one of the five finalists for the ACTFL National Teacher of the Year in San Antonio, TX. What a "Cinderella" experience! You can reach me via email at senoracmt at

15 thoughts

  1. Love it- I would love to do this with my department. But I am told I need to ‘follow the book’- I wonder if I did this, (alone- but in order to help kids articulate successfully) where would you put a circle of
    ‘words they need to be successful at the next leve/they’re expected to know next year’?

    1. The great thing about the Chuck it Bucket is that you can use it on a large scale or small! For example: You have to teach to the textbook but your colleagues are doing all the activities day by day, you choose some key vocab and grammar chunks and you do a unit like homes of the world ( as a replacement for those workbook and textbook pages. In the end, which students will likely retain it more? The ones who memorized it and used it all out of context or the ones who were immersed in global homes!? Or say you just don’t believe in the chores unit and you really want to find time to fit in a reader! Go through the chores list and find some non-negotiables like clean, wash, has to, doesn’t want to… work those into your other discussions and read a reader while the other classes spend 3 weeks memorizing chores. I guarantee you, the ones that do the chores unit won’t remember dust the furniture or vacuum the carpet any better than your students who never even learned it. 😉 Kids just don’t get engaged by chore vocab! If you’re careful about planning in some of the textbook themes as you replace them with your own passions and things that engage students, you’ll have so much more fun and so will your kids. And the cool part is that you attract a lot more people to what you’re doing when they see your students being successful.

  2. Hi, just come across your blog. I’m new to CI. Just wondering if an picture example would be possible. Sometimes it’s easier to understand that following instructions. Thank you.

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