Did we forget the Why behind unit design?

All RIghts Reserved by Pixabay
All Rights Reserved by Pixabay

We fooled ourselves. Created a false narrative.  Told ourselves that if we wrote Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings, planned assessment using a GRASP framework and filtered instructional activities from there, we’d transform learning in our classrooms.  

We built robust digital infrastructures and have thousands of archived units.  Built coaching teams to support unit design.  Created five-year plans for implementation of a fully articulated curriculum.

Does school look vastly differently 10+ years on?  Are students self-directed?  Are they engaged in authentic work.  Perhaps so…but is this the norm?

To what end?  Why are we building these units.  Has it produced the desired effect?  If not, why not?

I would argue that focusing on unit design is the flaw.  The product is the student, not the unit.  The thinking behind the unit design process is flawless, but only when it focuses on the student.  

  • What understanding for the student?
  • What assessment experience for the student?

It is a thinking process intended to change classroom practice, not a template to complete a unit for digital submission.

Here is a very draft learning walk for a backwards design classroom.  I wrote it because I wanted to showcase to teachers the “why” behind unit planning.  It is intended to show what my classroom would look like if I were implementing my unit design and the changes I would see in my classroom.

Let’s remember that a well articulated curriculum that lives in a palatial digital infrastructure is not the goal.  The shift in the student experience is the goal.  Always.  How is school relevant and meaningful to the future of my students?  How do I want them engaged during my class time?  What thinking do I want them involved in?  What will they create?  What will they remember…

Learning not Evaluation

We’ve embraced learning walks as a tool to build collaborative culture, learn and grow together, share practice and reflect.  Beginning with literacy, we have now designed learning walk guide sheets that define and articulate our vision.  As we test our second iteration, we have felt it important to communicate what specifically learning walks are designed for.  Hence, this second infographic.

Poetic Voices: Using Digital StoryTelling to Visualize Narrative Poetry

As part of my work with the ISTE Digital Storytelling Network, I just presented a webinar on using digital storytelling with narrative poetry.  The archive to the webinar will be posted to our wiki at: https://storykeepers-dsn.wikispaces.com/

I am also embedding the presentation below.  Feel free to use, share or modify.  I’m happy to answer any questions.

Feel free to view the presentation here and make a copy in order to revise for your needs.  Thank you to my wonderful co-presenter Julie Jaeger.

Happy StoryTelling and StoryKeeping!

Innovation in the Traditional One-Room Schoolhouse

As a child, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and Little House on the Prairie.  Not the TV show, but the books, all of which I have read multiple times. As an educator, I often think about Laura’s teaching days and of her narration of the prairie schools in which she taught, the traditional one-room schoolhouse.

As I reflect on education, I realize that the model of the one-room classroom is really quite innovative by our standards today, characterized by a multi-age model, differentiation and meaningful homework.

Though inspired by necessity, rather than a model of innovation, the multi-age model allowed students to work and achieve standards at their own pace.  Ability, rather than age defined the placement of students and the expectations for learning.

Imagine, planning for all of those ages and lessons.  Multiple subjects, ages, skill levels and learning abilities.  All the while, keeping order and control.  And perhaps we think it was mostly rote learning, but I would argue that there were some very valuable and insightful assignments given.  The lessons were also based on what students needed to know in order to live their daily lives, and though it may sound old school, reading, writing and arithmetic are essential.

Students weren’t assigned elaborate projects or a myriad of problems to complete at home. They were expected to study each night in preparation for a demonstration of learning the next day – sounds a bit like a flipped classroom.

Perhaps the one-room schoolhouse conjures images of stern teachers, silence and rote learning.  However, teachers back then had to build relationships with students, inspire them, and motivate them, just as we do today.  I think we can learn a lot from looking back, as we dream forward.

What if we look at the lessons learned from the one-room schoolhouse as we upgrade the structures in our schools?  Perhaps we create learning centers for research, problem-solving, inquiry and etc. We could develop standards for each, expect students to master standards, but allow them to work through them at their own pace.  This could foster focus and deepen learning.

The one room schoolhouse is really an interesting concept, one that deserves our admiration and our attention.

“But we have to…”

There is one thing that continues to astound me in discussions about assessment and that is our attachment to teaching “responsibility” and our commitment to “fairness.”

“We must assign zeroes.”

“We cannot award credit for doing nothing.”

“It isn’t fair to the students who turn work in on time.”

Doug Reeves knocks it out of the park in his article “The Case Against the Zero.”

Yet, time and time again, the conversation turns to responsibility.

CCSS SS InfographicI am all for teaching soft-skills. In fact, we have committed to ensuring we are mission-based and focused on teaching those skills that don’t always show up in our standards: creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and etc. This summer as I was combing through Common Core resources, I was thrilled to see how often some of these terms actually do show up in our standards documents. Yet, in all of my work with soft-skills, I have never seen responsibility turn up. It is not one of the 21st Century Skills on which we are meant to focus, and yet, we educators are very committed to it.

Am I saying I don’t believe we should turn out responsible students?

Absolutely NOT!

I believe responsibility is an essential skill for success.  I also believe it is a skill we learn with natural consequences. However, it is not in our standards, and therefore, it should not drive our assessment practices. I know many responsible professionals who miss deadlines and get no penalty whatsoever. It’s called the real world, and the real world begins in university, a place where I have been given grace many times by professors.

21 C SI don’t know why our great commitment as secondary educators to teaching “responsibility” but I would urge us to focus on more essential soft skills – creativity, collaboration, critical thinking – ones that actually do show up in our standards and ones that will motivate and engage students, essentially leading  them to exhibit more responsible behavior.

Imagine Involving Students in School Accreditation

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On a recent accreditation trip that I chaired, late one evening as we were jointly working through a section of the report, it struck me how many valid skills make up school accreditation.

As a Visiting Team, we are tasked with reading reports, gathering evidence from multiple sources to validate the report, posing thoughtful questions without leading, and ultimately synthesizing pages of information into concise and precise statements of evidence, praise and recommendation.  Two tasks stand out as most difficult in all of this.  Firstly, we have to sift through a tremendous amount of information as we write our succinct report.  Secondly, we are always operating through various lenses of communication, and we have to be able to place aside our individual biases and experiences to make accurate assessments.

From the school end, the process is even more involved.  We strive to involve the whole community, read through standards, gather evidence to make a valid self-assessment and then write a report that accurately summarizes who we are.

From both ends, we are asking for the highest levels of research and analysis.  Synthesizing information.  Gathering evidence from multiple sources.  Posing questions that will allow for multiple sources of evidence.  Writing precisely using the evidence gathered.  And so forth.

Essentially, skills we want all of our students to master.

In all the accreditation protocols I have read, Mission/Philosophy or Guiding Statements are at the forefront.  Wouldn’t it be a great research project to have the students complete the analysis and the report for that section?  Imagine giving them the standards to read through, dissect and analyze.  Then having them start to gather the evidence and pose the questions, perhaps even conduct the interviews.  And finally, synthesize their findings to write the report, either from the self-study end or the Visiting Team end.  This is one of the most valuable and authentic research projects I can think of and an idea I will definitely explore more fully.  What a great way to invest students in their own schools, all the while developing more critical and thoughtful thinkers.

Power is Not Knowing

Recently, I experienced a powerful moment in metacognition.  In fact, after years of knowing on a rational level what the word means, I have finally experienced its power.

Six ELA Shifts
Six ELA Shifts

Four of us were running a workshop for high school faculty on the Six Literacy Shifts of the Common Core ELA Standards.  We were debriefing after a group jigsaw, whereby each group was presenting the main elements of their shift to the rest of the faculty, and as one group was presenting, it occurred to me that perhaps not everyone knew the jargon.

So we took a moment for a reflective pause, and I asked the group (English teachers excluded) if they knew what the term “close reading” meant.

Silence.  An engaged silence.  It was a room of educators searching for meaning, wanting to know.  It was incredible.

And in that room of fifty, talented and highly capable educators, no one, aside from the English teachers knew the term.

I know firsthand that many of them know the idea of close reading and implement such strategies in their classrooms.  However, the point here is that we were using the term “close reading,” which was essentially a term that no one knew.

And it struck me.  The layers of assumption that we bring to any situation.  Here we are, asking people to engage students in close reading of texts, and yet, it isn’t a commonly understood term.

There was incredible power in that moment.

Knowing what we don’t know is the starting point for forward movement.  When we can come together and learn to reach a common goal, that is the power of education.

In figuring out what we didn’t know, we were able to make a huge leap in actually finding some answers.  And we knew our starting point.

The Home/School Duality: It Really Does Exist

I didn’t know I was “one of those parents” until I became one.

Marcus and I were sitting in our first parent-teacher conference; quite ridiculous actually, seeing as Mia wasn’t yet two, but her nursery school ran twice a year conferences much like every school in which I have ever worked.  And there we were, super excited to hear all about our brilliant child.

Miss Dana, who we and Mia grew to love, but at that moment we barely knew, uttered shockwave upon shockwave as we sat there, dumbly smiling.  Even there, I kept thinking, “I won’t be one of those parents,”  through my ever-growing false smile.  You know, those parents who make excuses or explain away everything the teacher says; as teachers, we’ve all sat through those conferences where we couldn’t finish a single sentence without the parent interjecting.

“…and don’t worry that she isn’t talking yet.  It’ll come,” uttered Miss Dana reassuringly.

What?  Whoa?  Are we talking about my child?

“Excuse me, could you say that again?”

And sure enough, my chatterbox who started uttering non-stop nonsense sounds at just four months and was speaking in full sentences by sixteen-months, was apparently mute at school.

Until Miss Dana said, “Don’t worry,” we hadn’t been worried.

And it was then that I heard myself saying it; being it; one of those parents: “But she talks all of the time!”

And it was then that I really, truly got it.

“Those” parents aren’t making excuses.  Not all of the time.  Sometimes, the child is not the same.  Sometimes, the child we know as a teacher is not the child we know as a parent.  Oftentimes…  Perhaps most of the time…

Swiftly humbled, I knew that the best thing to do was listen, but I also knew that I would be listening much more closely to the parents I met with in my role as an educator.  Waves of empathy rocked me.

I don’t think you need to be a parent to be a brilliant educator.  I know scores of teachers who are brilliant and aren’t parents.  Still, I don’t think we can ever truly understand the anxiety and love of a parent until we sit in that chair and get a view from a different side of the conversation.

With regards to Mia, she’s a sideliner, an observer, an old soul.  I knew that before the conference.  I knew it even better after.  She observes and needs a lot of time to get comfortable.  If pushed, she retreats, but when allowed her space, she will soon engage fully.

IMG_3593A perfect example occurred this past May, years after the naiveté of that first conference.  Marcus and I were sitting at her first ballet recital.  Mia was by far the most timid and perhaps, the least coordinated.  Marcus was worried because she was so shy.  I knew better.

“Just wait until tomorrow,” I told him.

The next morning was her end-of-the-year class party.  I have the privilege of dropping her at school every morning, so I know how comfortable she is there.  With ballet, we started mid-year and she was still observing.  But in school, she was completely at ease.

photoSure enough, watching her on a Tuesday afternoon at ballet compared to the following Wednesday morning during the class show, was (excuse the cliché) night and day.  Mia was the life of that party.  She knew all the songs and dances and she performed with great enthusiasm, one of the most animated kids in the bunch.  In fact, she was the one they substituted in when one of the other children got stage fright.

Recently, talking to a couple of good friends who also happen to be awesome elementary teachers, I heard two great ideas meant to foster the parent-teacher relationship and help everyone understand the dual nature of children at home and school:

  1. In the first weeks of school, parents write a letter to the teacher introducing their child.
  2. On the first days of school, teachers meet individually with every parent.  The parent does most of the talking, speaking to their hopes for their child and their fears.

With both of these strategies, teachers not only get insight into the child, but also the parents and the relationships they have with their children.

As I continue to say, we are all on the same team – Team Child – and therefore we, the adults, should work to make sure we all understand one another as well!

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Design by Daniel Kilback

Launching Digital Storytelling Tweetchats!

Help SIGDS members efforts to get the word out about upcoming SIGDS events to their PLN peeps!  Please invite, email, tempt, dare, encourage, tweet or give a shout out to follow SIGDS on Twitter for Ongoing Resources, Tools and StoryMaking News @sigds

Tweet or Email Text –> NEW #SIGDS Chat MeetUps Wed starts Apr 3 @ 9pm ET Topic is “Why storytelling? What is impact for learning?” @https://tweetchat.com/room/sigds

Introducing Bi-Monthly…….#SIGDS TweetChats

First Topic: “Why Storytelling? What is Impact for Learning?
Join SIGDS Exec members: Paula White and Tara Waudby 

Register for SIGDS Webinar! Open to All!
Bernajean Porter – Co-Chair of SIGDS – will host!  
The Art and Soul of Digital Storytelling: Tapping Into Creativity, Narrative Intelligence and the Power of Story for Learning, Communicating, and Influencing the World

Webinar Challenge: Do you feel confident to help guide others in understanding and using the difference between storytelling and multimedia making?