Grammar and UbD

One startlingly clear lesson I have learned from UbD is that my trusty grammar text has the grammar unit all out of order in terms of how they should best be organized.

It makes sense to me that students should learn mechanics first — spelling tricks, punctuation, capitalization. Yet they are at the end of the grammar text. Considering the importance of these tools in creating good writers, I’d put them before learning about phrases, clauses, and passive voice.

But give you one guess how I’ve been teaching grammar? If you said “marching through the textbook in order of presentation,” you get a gold star. OK, that’s the bad news. The good news is that I know better now, and I won’t do it anymore.

[tags]grammar, english, ubd[/tags]

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Teacher 2.0

What does the wired teacher of the 21st century look like?

I’ll be the first to admit I’m scratching my head about the use of some technologies in the classroom — cell phones for instance. On the other hand, I am right on board with wikis and blogs.

If I was not convinced before how powerful wikis can be, I was thoroughly convinced when I booted up the computer and went to check UbD Educators wiki for updates. I recently created a Resources page with a few links. I decided not to go too crazy because I knew my colleagues at the wiki would add a few. And so they did. For some reasons, this was a real “a-ha moment.” I knew they were a powerful tool for collaboration, but knowing it and understanding it are somewhat different, and I think I finally understand. I have really left the power of the wiki untapped, I think.

Which kind of makes me wonder what other technological tools I’ve left untapped.

I heard a bit of a rumor that we might have Moodle on our school’s website next year, so I have restrained myself from creating any social networks for my students until I know more about plans for next year. I don’t want to duplicate anything that my school is already putting in place. I still would like to collaborate with other schools around the country and the world on wiki projects next year.

I am excited for the next school year.

[tags]wiki, education[/tags]

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Teaching Grammar

Grammar is a thorny issue in English/language arts.  Many teachers, including myself, were probably taught grammar in some isolation from composition.  I remember well the old Warriner’s grammar books.  Those books have been out of print for some time, but I know many English teachers who kept their old classroom sets.  At my school, we actually still use the Warriner’s books in 9th and 10th grade — well, I think we do.  My department head said something about ordering grammar books, and I wasn’t sure if she meant no more Warriner’s or in addition to Warriner’s.  At any rate, as you can imagine, the books are extremely hard to come by, and as our enrollment increases and students lose or damage books, we will ultimately be forced to abandon the books (unless we already have, that is).

Why do English teachers love Warriner’s so much?  It has the best grammar exercises.  A movement in teaching English has moved away from teaching grammar in isolation.  As with many educational movements, that has meant throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  English teachers could be taught to figure out how to teach grammar in context using the grammar text as a tool, especially as the SAT still includes a writing section that is totally based upon the student’s ability to recognize errors, but many books on composition are not structured in a way that makes this easy.  They do a rather clumsy job of integrating grammar into composition instruction.

Many schools and indeed some state standards have done away with objectives that explicitly address grammar, and those that remain are somewhat general.  My state of Georgia, for instance, has one standard that addresses grammar instruction:

GA ELA9C1: The student demonstrates understanding and control of the rules of the English language, realizing that usage involves the appropriate application of conventions and grammar in both written and spoken formats.

Likewise, NCTE has one standard that addresses grammar, and does so even more obliquely than Georgia’s standard:

NCTE 4: Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g. conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and different purposes.

My students have traditionally had difficulty with grammar, but I think UbD might help with that somewhat.  While I agree that it helps students to learn grammar in context of reading and composition, I don’t think supporting exercises hurt in terms of reinforcement.  In any case, the 9th grade English course at my school is “Grammar, Composition, and Literature”; it is so titled because the emphasis in the course is placed on those three areas in the order of their appearance in the title.  I don’t always find that teaching grammar is fun, but it is part of our curriculum, and after having planned two units using UbD, I can see how I can make it seem more important and relevant to my students.

You can check out the two units (both on mechanical issues) that I have created so far:

Feel free to leave your comments in the Discussion area.  You don’t have to be a member of UbD Educators wiki to contribute to discussion, but you do have to be a member to edit and create pages.

[tags]ubd, grammar, english, language arts, composition, commas, apostrophes[/tags]

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UbD Unit Plans

After finishing Understanding by Design, I created two units:

  • Apostrophes (9th grade Grammar, Comp., and Lit.)
  • Beowulf (11th grade British Lit. and Comp.)

If you are familiar with UbD (or even if you aren’t), I’d appreciate feedback.  You can contribute to discussions at UbD Educators wiki without joining the wiki.

I can’t remember if I shared my schedule for next year.  Of course, exact class periods, etc. are still up in the air, but I will be teaching the following courses:

  • 9th College Prep Grammar, Composition, and Literature
  • 9th College Prep II Grammar, Composition, and Literature
  • 10th Writing Seminar II (Writing Seminar I is a ninth grade course)
  • 11th College Prep British Literature and Composition (1st semester)
  • 12th College Prep Short Story and Composition (1st semester)
  • 12th College Prep Drama and Composition (2nd semester)

I will also be advising the National Honor Society and helping with the GISA Literary Meet.

So if you are teaching or advising any similar classes or activities, I will be willing to collaborate and share.

[tags]Beowulf, apostrophe, curriculum, planning, lesson plans, english, ubd, understanding by design[/tags]

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Understanding by Design: “Yes, but…” and Afterword

Understanding by DesignThe final chapter of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design is a summary of the research presented in refutation of three common reasons educators give for why they do not implement UbD: 1) “We have to teach to the test”; 2) “We have too much content to cover”; and 3) “This work [backward design] is too hard and I just don’t have the time” (303, 309, 316).  I heard a few people chime in with that last one, especially.  While this last chapter may convince those who are still on the fence, I’m not sure it is wholly necessary for teachers who are already on board with UbD to read, unless they need to convince others, and I’m not sure those who are thoroughly unconvinced of the efficacy of UbD (and have remained so after reading up to this point) will become convinced.

To me, at least, the largest argument seems to be the last one, and Wiggins and McTighe suggest starting small.  Plan one unit using UbD.  Build UbD planning and peer review into professional development — give teachers the time — and you will find that over time, a large bank of unit plans exists.

In this last chapter and the Afterword, the authors suggest visiting their subscription site, UbD Exchange, and creating curriculum units for peer review.  Access to the site is not free, and indeed, is somewhat out of my personal price range, and probably that of my school (I will check).  I want to thank Grant Wiggins for his stated support of the UbD Educators’ wiki; he could easily have viewed our efforts at establishing a reading/peer review group as a threat, but instead he offered the group access to courses offered through his site Authentic Education, and even said he would build a link to the wiki on his site.  To me, that says what he truly cares about is helping teachers become better at their craft.  I really appreciated his gesture.  In case you didn’t see his supportive comment, it is reproduced here:

Great blog! And I really appreciate the time and thought that is going into your reading. Yes, ubd is not for those looking for a quick fix. Nor is it great to be lonely – I hated that as a teacher myself. But there is actually a lot you can do on your own to sustain the work. The key is to take small steps – try out a few ideas here and there; work on 1 unit a semester – especially a unit that now is so boring it bores you to teach it. Learn the various ‘moves’ but only use the ones that appeal. And, finally, avail yourselves of the various forums and resources we and others have put together to support the work. Go to for starters. Check out the ubdexchange. Go to the virtual symposium on ubd and differentiated instruction run through ascd. And write the poor authors, who rarely get this kind of lovely feedback!*

cheers, Grant

OK, I’m ready to start planning some units and getting some feedback.  This book might be the single most helpful professional development/education-related book I’ve ever read in terms of real strategies that will make me a better teacher.  I feel really excited about the opportunities before me as I begin planning for next year.

* Wiggins’ original comment did not include links; however, I found the sites he mentioned and built hyperlinks to them for the convenience of readers.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, planning, backward design, curriculum, assessment, research[/tags]

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Understanding by Design: The Big Picture: UbD as Curriculum Framework

Understanding by DesignIn “The Big Picture: UbD as Curriculum Framework,” Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe elevate the discussion of backward design to its application for designing K-16 curricula.  OK, I see the benefits, and I’m ready to start, but I don’t see how everyone who factors in designing the curricula for K-16 students would get on board with me.  In fact, I don’t even think all of my peers at my same school, indeed in my department, would all be willing to work with me.  I think some of them would be very excited about trying, but even after Jay McTighe presented at our school, I sensed that not all of my colleagues were intrigued.  Given, too, that I teach in a private 9-12 school, I have another issue to contend with — neither I nor anyone else at my school can tell our “feeder” schools what to do with curriculum.  It’s great that occasionally they ask us for our input, but we are all separate entities, and they do not report to us, nor we to them, nor any of us to a larger “district” office, as in the case of public schools.  If we could get more public school systems on board with designing curriculum using backward design, I think great things could happen, but frankly I despair of making it work curriculum-wide in my own setting.  I happen to work with some very thoughtful colleagues who plan learning experiences with the best interests of their students at heart.  In fact, I am, at times, awed by their ideas and the collegial atmosphere in my school.  However, not all of them necessarily feel UbD is the way to go, and they have the freedom not to go in that direction.

Well, if I cannot revise an entire curriculum using UbD, then I can at least start with the courses I teach myself.  Figure 12.2 on p. 278 provides an model for revising a particular course.  As I read through the essential questions created for a U.S. history course on p. 279, it occurred to me how very interesting the course sounded.  Framing courses with essential questions really does foster inquiry and curiosity.  Furthermore, the assessment tasks designed to meet New York state standards in World History on pp. 284-85 all seemed like very challenging, but very interesting projects to undertake.  My sense that I have been cheated because my education was not structured using UbD grows as I continue reading this book.  I have to say — because I forgot to mention it yesterday when I posted my reading journal for the previous chapter — that I was dismayed to learn that Bob the Nutrition Unit Designer was a fictional person.  I give credit to Wiggins and McTighe for making him seem so real!  I thought he and his unit were a true case study  being used as a model.

The examinations of rubric criteria and longitudinal rubrics in this chapter were somewhat dry, but I identified with the statement “As with all rubrics, students will need to see examples of work for each score point if the rubric is to be useful for self-assessment, self-adjustment, and understanding of the teacher’s final judgment” (287).  This is piece I am missing in terms of using rubrics with students, I think.  I have written about this before, and quite recently.  Realistically, it will take quite some time to compile models of each score point.  In the interim, I will continue to use rubrics, but will personalize comments for students so that they understand why they were assessed certain grades.

You know, this chapter certainly drove home a suspicion I have held for some time.  Bright students who succeed in school often do so in spite of the education they’re receiving and not because of it.  I am really excited by the prospect of applying what I have learned about UbD, but a growing frustration with not being able to change everything burbles beneath the surface.  As Wiggins and McTighe so aptly note, “centuries of tradition die hard” (299).  We “falsely believe that what worked for [us] will likely work for most others” (301).  Does this description remind you of anyone you’ve every worked with?

[Overreliance on the textbook] is logical and may be easily applied.  It simplifies and objectifies the task of the curriculum worker, the teacher, and the administrator.  The least capable teacher can assign pages in a textbook and hear pupils recite the facts involved.  He can give evidence that he has done his part by covering a given number of pages.  Thus he has an alibi for failure because he can place the blame for low achievement on his pupils. (298)

So to fix everything, “[a]ll we need to do is agree on the core performance tasks in each field, and design programs and syllabi backward from them” (300).  Oh, is that all?  So simple, yes, but so complicated at the same time.  As I said, I would love to do this, but I don’t see it happening.

What I can do, however, is start with my syllabi and incorporate Wiggins and McTighe’s suggestions into design of my own courses and my approach to material.  Some handy suggestions for elements to include in a syllabus appear on p. 300.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, curriculum, backward design, assessment, planning[/tags]

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Understanding by Design: The Design Process

Understanding by DesignIn this chapter, “The Design Process,” of Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe turn to the process of backward design.  The good news for me is that no one “correct” way to design a successful UbD unit or curriculum exists.  Teachers can start at any stage and move back and forth through the stages, revising and refining as they go.  As the authors explain, “[t]reating the [UbD] template as a set of boxes to be filled in one at a time is likely to result in a poor design, because such an approach won’t involve the kind of revising and aligning needed to produce a coherent plan” (255).  The results define the success of the plan; if you have carefully considered all three parts of the process and have a complete template when you’re through, it doesn’t matter where you start.

Wiggins and McTighe include several helpful examples of units that were initially poorly designed and their subsequent revisions.  I have to admit that my approach to teaching grammar has been strikingly similar to that of the geometry unit described on p. 265.  However, as I looked at the revision of the geometry unit, which included a real-world problem involving the best method for shipping M&M’s, I had a brainstorm.  You might recall that the state of Arkansas made the news last February when Representative Steve Harrelson introduced a resolution to the Arkansas House of Representatives to definitively determine how to form the possessive form of Arkansas.  In other words, do you follow Strunk and White and form it Arkansas’s, or do you follow the leading newspaper’s decision and style it Arkansas’?  I think a really worthwhile culminating project for a unit on the use of apostrophes would be to draft a letter to Rep. Harrelson advocating either Arkansas’s or Arkansas’ based upon understanding of apostrophe rules.  Or what about the $2.13 million comma in Canada?  Grammar can have far-reaching implications in communication, as these two examples illustrate, and I think an assessment built around  issues like these can help students understand how communicating clearly can avoid confusion.

I like the fact that Wiggins and McTighe don’t advocate a recipe for designing a unit.  This allows for a great deal of freedom for those who have a multitude of considerations.  In fact, we need to accept that “[i]t is the rare design that leaves the designer completely satisfied, because compromises are inevitable” (268).  Sometimes, for instance, a certain text is part of the curriculum, and we are required to teach it.  Their discussion of “unavoidable dilemmas in design” appears on pp. 268-69, and is well worth study when planning any unit.

The most important message of the chapter is the necessity of feedback in design — feedback through peer review and student assessment.  I think the UbD Educators wiki can potentially be a valuable gathering place for us to continue to post units and participate in constructive peer review.  My historical fiction project is a much better project after the great feedback I received from the folks at the wiki.  In terms of student feedback, I think perhaps formative assessment will be most helpful for teachers who need to figure out what is or isn’t working and why.  I like the index card idea mentioned in several places throughout the book (list one big idea you learned this week; list one thing that still confuses you).  As it is described here, it has a slightly different look: “What worked for you this week?  Say why, briefly.  What didn’t work?  Say why, briefly” (271).  I don’t know that I would do a weekly feedback form like the one on p. 272.  I think it is perhaps too involved for just one week’s worth of learning (perhaps not for short units).  Perhaps it would be a good wrap-up for a unit.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, assessment, curriculum, backward design, planning[/tags]

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Understanding by Design: Teaching for Understanding

Understanding by DesignWhat teaching style do you favor? How do you present material in your class? When I was student teaching (many years ago now), I recall that we were required to observe another teacher in our supervising teacher’s department. I observed the man who happened to be chosen Teacher of the Year for his school by his colleagues. Actually, it was probably my supervising teacher who recommended I observe him. Matter of fact, I also observed the department head, who was an intimidating woman, both to her colleagues and students (she required English department members to hand in lesson plans, and I recall after one particularly didactic department meeting, the other English teachers clustered in the parking lot to “discuss” the meeting). The Teacher of the Year’s class was taking a notebook check the day I observed. He apologized for not being “up in front of the room,” but also added that he wasn’t up in front of room a lot because he “really didn’t believe in that.” What he was trying to say is that he viewed his role as a teacher as that of a facilitator or coach. In other words, he favored a constructivist approach to teaching. The department head was definitely more of a direct instructor. When I observed her class, she was standing in front of it, speaking. She called on students to provide answers.

One thing I like about Wiggins and McTighe is that they see value in various approaches to teaching; however, what they emphasize is that a good teacher needs to figure out when each approach is best. This can be difficult, however, because of our biases as teachers:

Teachers who love to lecture do too much of it; teachers who resist it do too little. Teachers who love ambiguity make discussions needlessly confusing. Teachers who are linear and task-oriented often intervene too much in a seminar and cut off fruitful inquiry. Teachers who love to coach sometimes do too many drills and overlook transfer. Teachers who love the big picture often do a poor job of developing core skills and competence. (242)

The most important quotation of the chapter, at least in my view, is that “[w]hen choosing instructional approaches, think about what is needed for learning, not just what is comfortable for teaching” (242). Teachers tend to use one instructional approach at the expense of all others, and to be honest, I have seen some hostility among teachers regarding this issue. Teachers who prefer direct instruction tend to see teachers who favor constructivism as irresponsible, unknowledgeable, lazy, and at worst, dangerous. It is not unheard of to hear that constructivists are the downfall of education as we know it, and don’t you know, education was so much better before these hippie yahoos came along and changed it all. On the other hand, I see constructivists characterize teachers who favor direct instruction as dour, boring, and punitive. In other words, they are the entire reason why kids hate school, and if they just weren’t teaching, why think of all we could change! In fact, I think we call all admit there are times when we want to learn things ourselves using a constructivist approach, and I don’t know about you, but I have certainly listened to some fascinating lectures.

The point of the chapter is not necessarily to advocate one method of instruction over another, but to emphasize that what method you choose needs to be based upon what your desired results are. All of a sudden the necessity for backward design “clicks.” How can you figure out whether lecture or a Socratic seminar would be best if you don’t know what you want the students to understand? In the words of Bob the nutrition unit designer, “What is the best use of our limited time together?” This should be the mantra of teachers planning instruction.

The two pages of formative assessment techniques are well worth some study (248-249). I like the index card summary idea. One of my colleagues uses hand signals with good results. Actually, her approach is slightly different from that of the book. She asks students to hold up one finger for one answer, two for another, and three for a third. It’s a very quick way to engage all the students and see who understands and who doesn’t. I tend to rely too much on discussion, which means if you talk a lot in class, I know what you know. I need to utilize methods of “hearing” from silent students more often (and not necessarily calling on them more often, although that would help; students are sometimes intimidated and afraid to say “I don’t get it”). I want to put a question box in my room, too. I think I already use oral questioning and follow-up probes to good effect, but there is always room for improvement.

I tend to teach grammar using direct instruction, and I am thinking that perhaps a constructivist approach would work better. But you know what? It would be harder to teach it that way. On the other hand, I think the students would understand it better. I know I am completely guilty of “marching through the textbook” when I teach grammar. No wonder I wind up complaining students didn’t learn what I taught. Teaching grammar next year is going to take some thinking.

Work Cited: Wiggins, Grant, and Jay McTighe. Understanding by Design. Expanded 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2005.

[tags]Grant Wiggins, Jay McTighe, UbD, Understanding by Design, instruction, constructivism, assessment, curriculum, planning[/tags]

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British Educators: I Want You

If you teach literature and composition in the United Kingdom, I would like to work with you on a collaborative online project. I am teaching a semester of British Literature and Composition this fall. We will be reading selections from Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Arthurian legend, as well as the entirety of Macbeth.

I am not sure how to connect to UK teachers. If readers can help me out, I’d love to get your advice.

I am thinking of a blogging or wiki project.

[tags]United Kingdom, education, British literature, UK, wiki, English, blogging[/tags]

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