Where are All the Other Subjects?

I am really excited about the possibilities at the UbD Educators wiki, and I am thrilled with the discussions taking place over there. I have had some very helpful feedback that has allowed me to create what I think is a solid UbD/Web 2.0 unit.

But all the teachers over there are English teachers.

Now, it could be that my blog mainly appeals to other English teachers, and I would understand if it did. I do tend to read the blogs of other English teachers and technology specialists, myself. However, I also invited other teachers through the Carnival of Education, and Dan Meyer, who teaches math, was kind enough to give us a plug, too.

If you teach a subject besides English, please come on over, and don’t be daunted if you are the only one at first. I think we English teachers would be happy to give you feedback about units outside our subject matter, and in fact, you might even get great feedback that way simply because we don’t teach your subject. In other words, we can perhaps help you see the unit from the point of view of your students. The centerpiece unit in Understanding by Design is a unit on nutrition, and I have to say I thought it looked really engaging. In addition, we can all certainly help you look at your unit from a UbD standpoint. We would love to have you in the conversation, so please join us!

[tags]UbD, Understanding by Design[/tags]


After hearing Vicki’s sensible arguments for tagging today, I have been wondering about tagging on this blog. I use a very easy tagging plugin called SimpleTagsPlus. I can use it to create Technorati, Flickr, or del.icio.us tags based on keywords I enter using certain code before and after the tag(s).

I have only been tagging my posts with Technorati tags. Would it be useful to tag them using del.icio.us, also? I use del.icio.us to save bookmarks all the time, but I hadn’t thought of tagging my posts using del.icio.us.

Does anyone use Ultimate Tag Warrior to tag WordPress posts? What do you think of it?

I want to get serious about making it easy for people to find what they need at my blog. I think the search feature I have is pretty good — I’ve always been able to find what I need to find, anyway. Would a tag cloud be of help to anyone? Or is it one more busy gizmo in the sidebar?

[tags]del.icio.us, tagging, technorati, flickr, wordpress, plugin[/tags]

EduBloggerCon 2007

I have been home from EduBloggerCon 2007 for about a half hour. First of all, the most exciting aspect of the conference was the opportunity to be around so many educators who are interested in and actively using Web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms. I am used to being very alone in this area, and I have to say that it was somewhat of a shock to my senses to hear so many educators talking about wikis, tagging, RSS, blogging, and myriad other applications. I think I realized for the first time that a great many educators actually are interested in Web 2.0. I have to admit I kept visualizing how energizing it would be to work in a school with these other educators.

The main feeling I was left with was just that — energy and excitement about the possibilities of bringing Web 2.0 into the classroom. I also met quite a few people I’ve only interacted with online, as well as some folks who are definitely going into my aggregator and blogroll.

I was fairly quiet at the conference today, and I hope no one interpreted that silence as disinterest. I was simply overwhelmed. In fact, I had never heard of ISTE before the conference today, and I had only heard of NECC a few days ago. I realize that if I am indeed serious about going into educational technology in the future, I probably need to check into joining ISTE and going to NECC when I have a chance in the future. I was sorry I couldn’t attend NECC, as it’s in Atlanta, but coming up with the registration fee on such short notice would have been too difficult.

Here’s the group picture (try right clicking the link, then opening it in a new window or tab so you can go back and forth) courtesy of Tim Stahmer. I am in the middle in the red (long gray hair!) standing to the right (as you see it) of Dave Warlick, whose face is more well-known than mine.

I want to especially acknowledge Steve Hargadon for organizing the whole thing (and for being so friendly when we were introduced), Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach for sort of taking me under her wing and making sure I met people, and Megan, Vinnie, Elizabeth, and Kevin for the great conversations.

I’ve been blogging here for nearly two years (two years on Monday!), but I realized today that the real conversation has just begun. It was the first time I had the opportunity to be around so many like minds.

[tags]edubloggercon07, web 2.0, technology, education, necc, iste[/tags]

Classroom 2.0

Steve Hargadon, who led this session, mentioned that the wiki associated with Classroom 2.0 hasn’t taken off as he hoped and wanted to “create an action plan for developing good repositories of lesson plans and training for the use of technology and Web 2.0 applications in the classroom.” Vicki Davis took notes: Classroom 2.0.

What do you think would make it easier for teachers to find ways to use Web 2.0 technologies in the classroom?

[tags]edubloggercon07, ebc07cr20, classroom 2.0[/tags]

Global Connections and Flat Classroom Ideals in a Web 2.0 World

One of the things that jumps out at me as I hear various stories (we are in a circle introducing ourselves) is that Flat Classroom Ideals are perfectly suited for UbD curriculum and unit planning. Many of the teachers mention that the curriculum as it currently stands in their schools impedes the introduction of the kinds of projects Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis were able to construct.

What makes an effective international project? Julie and Vicki are interested in responses to this question.

Vinnie Vrotny says students need to “actively collaborate within in the same window of time.” How would this work with two (or more) groups spread across time zones?

Vicki mentions that a lot of the work they are going to have to do will necessarily be “asynchronous” simply because of time zone differences. Everyone seems to feel some synchronous collaboration is necessary.

Kristin Hokanson mentions the need for administrative support. Vicki says administrators need to “pull over to the side and let them pass” — administrators must get on board with Web 2.0 technology.

Take a look at the wiki Vicki created during the session: Global Connections.

One thing that strikes me upon reflecting over this session is the sheer excitement about teaching and learning I am seeing among teachers who are actively using Web 2.0 technologies in their classrooms. Having experienced it to a small degree myself, I cannot wait to try to be much more involved in the future.

[tags]edubloggercon07, ebc07gcfc, UbD[/tags]

Google Earth for Teaching

I’m in the second session of Edubloggercon. Our focus is using Google Earth for teacher curriculum and student projects.

Tom Woodward of Bionic Teaching described a project based on Whirligig. He mentioned he would like to see Google Earth integrated into the curriculum, specifically geography and history. It can be an “interactive 3-D notebook” that can really help students see places and events. He also mentioned using Swivel.

I had never heard of SketchUp until it was mentioned in this session. Vinnie Vrotny shared Fred Bartels’ work with SketchUp.

Lucy Gray mentioned her Google Earth Meme.

I’m interested in figuring out ways to integrate Google Earth into English. Any English teachers out there using it? How?

[tags]edubloggercon07, ebc07ge [/tags]

Expanding the Circle: Facilitating the Introduction of Educators to Web 2.0

I am Edubloggercon 2007 here in Atlanta, and I am in the first session — Expanding the Circle. How can we draw educators, reluctant or otherwise, into using Web 2.0 tools? Some educators are not just reluctant, but outright hostile about using these tools.

Some teachers do not see the value in using these technologies. Julia Osteen pointed out that in many cases, using Web 2.0 conflicts with some teachers’ beliefs about teaching. It doesn’t fit their style.

A huge issue for educators is time. When I presented a session on using blogs and wikis to my own colleagues, one of the first questions they asked me was how much time I spent doing this each day. The question inferred that these technologies take up so much time — is it really worth it, Dana? I gathered that they had already concluded they didn’t have time.

Steve Hargadon mentions that we are dealing with a wide variety of audiences — administration, teachers, parents, and students.

Tim Stahmer mentions that we can introduce teachers by showing them how many of the practices they are already buying into, i.e. journaling, are perfect for Web 2.0. He also adds that many teachers are afraid of allowing students to comment on their blogs. Is this insecurity?

Jim Gates asked how many of us have blogs blocked in our schools? Tim Stahmer mentions that Blogger is blocked in his. I don’t have as much of a problem with issues like this, as I teach in a private school, and I believe that many of these blanket blocking issues seem to crop up in larger schools and school districts, whereas smaller schools (like mine) still enable access to these sites. MySpace and Facebook are blocked at my school, mostly because the sites are seen as a distraction. Actually, when our educational technology teacher sent us an e-mail informing us of some blocking, he asked that we e-mail him if any sites we used were blocked. I found that Bloglines and my hosting provider were both blocked, so I e-mailed him, and he allowed access. Of course, I realize that with larger schools and districts, this involves much bureaucratic red tape. I think we initially blocked access to some sites when the big MySpace scare happened last year (and to be truthful, my husband contributed to our administration’s decision to block these sites because of a presentation he gave about being safe online to our students and faculty).

Our session ended on an open note, and it’s clear these issues are not resolved. Like Steve Hargadon said at the beginning of the session, however, I think many of us feel obligated to try to draw educators into Web 2.0 technologies because we ourselves have been transformed by them. I know my teaching practices have been transformed by the interactivity, feedback, and networking I have been able to do with other educators. I would like to draw my students into Web 2.0 even more next year.

[tags]edubloggercon07, ebc07ec[/tags]

Understanding by Design: Planning for Learning

Understanding by DesignI’d be willing to bet most teachers’ favorite part of planning is brainstorming creative ways to evaluate students. As Wiggins and McTighe noted earlier in Understanding by Design, we are often eager to skip all the way to Stage 3 — planning activities, assessments, and projects. I like that the authors do not necessarily argue against direct instruction, nor do they debate (at least not in this chapter — next chapter, we’ll see) about particular teaching methods (such as lecture versus Socratic seminar or other myriad variations). They argue instead that any type of instruction, like any other facet of the learning experience, needs to have a purpose leading to desired understandings:

Regardless of our teaching strengths, preferred style, or comfortable habits, the logic of backward design requires that we put to the test any proposed learning activity, including “teaching,” against the particulars of Stages 1 and 2. (192)

I think sometimes I like to stand in front of the class to hear myself talk. Well, not really, but I remember how freeing it felt this year to introduce alternative ways of structuring my class that kept me out of the front of the classroom so much. It’s telling, isn’t it, that the first thing my supervising teacher did after my first full day of instruction in her classroom was to offer me a cough drop? The thing is, when I haven’t planned as well as I should have, I typically fall back into that pattern of standing in front of the room and telling students what I know. And perhaps some of them learn some things, but I would definitely like my classes to be more engaging on a regular basis.

I have been refining a historical fiction assignment at the UbD Educators wiki for a few days, and I have received excellent feedback about the assignment. Wiggins and McTighe argue that the best designs are “engaging and effective” (195). In evaluating the historical fiction project through the characteristics of the best designs (196-197), I find that:

  • The project has a clear performance goal. Students will create a wiki designed to inform an audience about the historicity of a selection of historical fiction.
  • I definitely think it is hands-on. I will, in fact, not be doing much “teaching” aside from showing students a few basics about wikis (I also want them to kind of stumble around on their own and figure out how to do things).
  • I definitely think the project focuses on interesting and important ideas. Through this small lens of looking at historical fiction, I am asking students to evaluate what they see in print — to become critical about what they read.
  • I am not sure it has a real-world application in terms of looking like a real problem, but I do think it is a meaningful project.
  • What more powerful feedback system exists than a wiki? I can offer feedback right on the wiki page about how the students are proceeding as they go and guide them if they are going astray.
  • I think a multitude of ways to approach this project exist, and students are encouraged by the design of the project to approach the project in a variety of ways while ensuring they include a few required elements.
  • One area I find lacking is models. I am sure I can find some similar wikis to show students, however. In terms of modeling, with my SMART board, that will be easy. I can go through steps (like editing pages) right in front of them and demonstrate.
  • Students will also have time set aside for focused reflection in literary circles/book club meetings to discuss the novels and time to work together in the lab. It would not surprise me a bit if they wound up using Facebook to reflect and discuss, too.
  • Variety in methods? Well, they can do a variety of things with the assignment, but I did set certain requirements. Grouping? They will ultimately be choosing their groups based on which novel they want to read. I am savvy enough to know that some kids will pick the same book so they can work together. Variety of tasks? Yes, they do have to complete a variety of tasks in order to make a final project. However, this is ultimately a mini-unit that is somewhat outside the regular curriculum; therefore, I will not be setting other tasks such as quizzes or journals.
  • I do think that the wiki could be somewhat daunting an environment for taking risks. Students are putting themselves “out there” where others can look. Perhaps they can choose wiki sites that allow protection against unauthorized viewers until they feel “done.”
  • This project definitely puts me in the facilitator or coach role.
  • I do think the project requires a certain amount of immersion, at least more so than a typical classroom experience.
  • The project allows for students to see the big picture and be able to move back and forth between the parts and the whole.

Regarding the authors’ acronym WHERETO, I really think this mnemonic device would work better if the elements were simplified and began with the letter they represent. For example, “W — Ensure that students understand WHERE the unit is headed, and WHY” (197). Why not simply phrase it “W — WHERE are you going and WHY?”

I agree with Wiggins in McTighe that “[a]ll too rarely do students know where a lesson or unit is headed in terms of their own ultimate performance obligations” (198). I do think it will be helpful to tell students from day one what the ultimate goals are so they have them in mind as they work.

In terms of hooking students, I found the following true and disheartening:

[M]any students come to school somewhat unwilling (and not always expecting) to work hard. And they typically misunderstand that their job is to construct understanding as opposed to merely take in (and give back) information that teachers and texts provide. (2o2)

In fact, I have lamented this particular problem several times as I wrote my reflections on this book. We need to “make the knowledge gained usable in one’s thinking beyond the situation in which learning has occurred” (202).

I liked the idea of hooking students by “[p]resenting far-out theories, paradoxes, and incongruities” to “stimulate wonder and inquiry” (204). After all, the mystery genre is wildly popular among readers. Everyone likes a bit of a puzzle.

Clay was wondering if the book’s authors would address digital literacies:

In fact, with the advent of technology it has become possible to target lectures to emerging student interest and need, in a “just in time” way. Students can do a WebQuest, or go to a Web site for a lecture when certain background information is needed, so that class time can be better spent on a teacher-facilitated inquiry and coaching of performance. (205)

Of course, I have already argued that we might not see a great deal of Web 2.o practices in this book because 2006-2007 seems to have been the year that Web 2.0 “broke” into the collective consciousness and inspired various educational applications. I can’t help but think that Wiggins and McTighe have to be very excited about Web 2.0 and its implications for learning.

On pp. 214-215, the authors describe an inductive approach to learning a task that I think I can tweak and apply to a study of The Odyssey with the larger questions of

  • What can we learn about the roles of women as compared with those of men (I have never had a class yet that didn’t get really indignant at some point about Odysseus’s repeated infidelities in comparison with Penelope’s unwavering faithfulness)?
  • What can we learn about the notion of hospitality in ancient Greece (and the larger Mediterranean and Middle East) compared to our own?
  • What did the Greeks value in a hero? How is that different from what we value in a hero?
  • How does the structure of the epic facilitate storytelling?

I’m sure I could think of others, but I think I could construct a good unit just based on those four.

As a hook for my historical fiction unit, I can’t help but recall an episode of Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives in which he examines Richard I, Richard II, and Richard III of England. History has largely maligned Richard III, but Jones pointed out several very positive changes that resulted from his reign. I remember reading (I think it was connected to Sharon Kay Penman’s novel The Sunne in Splendour) that Henry VII had as much to gain from the the deaths of the Princes in the Tower as Richard III did. But history remembers Richard III as the great villain. So great, in fact, that no King Richard has since followed. We probably owe a great deal of our view of Richard to Shakespeare’s portrayal of him in Richard III. And let’s face it, Shakespeare, living during the reign of the last Tudor, would have had plenty of incentive to put Elizabeth’s grandfather in a positive light. I might be able to work up a bit of a story to illustrate how historical fiction can impact the way we view historical personages through this example.

So let’s take a look at my historical fiction project through the WHERETO framework.

  • W — The ultimate goal is clear. Students will seek to determine what one can learn from historical fiction, how reading it is different from reading history texts or historical documents, and how reliable historical fiction is.
  • H — I think perhaps the King Richard III story might do for a hook if it is presented in an appropriate way.
  • E — Students will engage in and explore the big ideas through literature circle/book club discussions and research of historicity, culminating in presentation of what they learn.
  • R — Students will revise and reflect as they learn more through research and receive feedback.
  • E — Students can complete a self-evaluation in the conclusion or I can make it a separate piece. In fact, that might be better; if students have to publish their reflections, they might feel uncomfortable. I feel comfortable reflecting honestly about myself online, but I realize my students might not.
  • T — My students are all tracked. This is a college prep class. I think a wide variety of approaches will enable students to tailor the assignment themselves, but the homogeneity of my students will perhaps render tailoring for different levels a nonissue. Of course tailoring for personalization will be important.
  • O — I think the sequence of learning activities will work well toward building the desired understandings. In fact, I envision this activity being a semester-long inquiry with little work inside a class (literature circle meetings perhaps every 3 to 4 weeks, class time to familiarize students with wikis). Aside from that, students can do the work outside class. In fact, they can even do the group work part of the assignment online on a hidden page of the wiki.

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, assessment, planning[/tags]

Understanding by Design: Criteria and Validity

Understanding by DesignI usually wait until I’m finished reading a chapter before I start my reflection, but I am finding myself talking back to “Criteria and Validity” (Understanding by Design) a lot, so I decided to blog as I read.

Wiggins and McTighe recommend the use of an analytic rubric and argue against “boil[ing] down an evaluation to a single (holistic) score” (174-175). I’m not sure I understand. Do they mean we should give, for example, six different scores on a composition without adding or averaging the score to make a single grade? I’m not sure that’s realistic due to the confines of the grading system. I have to give a grade on a composition, and I am not sure I would be supported if I chose to break the grade into six different pieces without putting them back together again to form a whole, or a single grade. Ultimately, I don’t see a way around giving a single grade to student work. Even if I look at separate criteria, I ultimately have to average the scores on each criterion together in order to deduce a final score. The authors also argue that assigning a series of grades and averaging those grades over the course of a grading period is “counterproductive” (177). I don’t have an option with this one, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Yes, I think it is productive to use a portfolio to show progress. However, I am not sure I have ever worked at a school that would find the grading system Wiggins and McTighe propose acceptable. I have had to average grades and provide a final grade everywhere I’ve worked. I would love to be able to do away with grades and just give students feedback. I think it would take the pressure off students, who could simply learn and perhaps care more about what they learn. Unfortunately, getting rid of grades is unrealistic in the extreme. I doubt that few students, parents, teachers, or administrators are with me on this one, for one thing, and for another, I’m not sure it’s realistic to expect that students will be intrinsically motivated to learn without that carrot of “passing” or even making good grades in front of them. Would they? I know that students would be motivated to learn what they care about, just as all of us are. If we care about knitting, we are motivated to learn how and to do it well.

I ran into another problem using rubrics this year. I have excellent rubrics, and in fact, it was Jay McTighe who introduced me to them. I stapled rubrics to each paper I gave back, with performance areas circled. Most students didn’t bother reading them and didn’t seem to consider them feedback. You might want to see this post for more discussion of problems I had with rubrics. I think rubrics are excellent, but I’m not sure they help students when we use them to respond to their work. Also, I am not sure we always need to look at the parts instead of the whole. A student might, for instance, write an essay the demonstrates he/she composed a compelling thesis and fully developed it, organized the paper effectively, varied sentences in a sophisticated and engaging manner, and demonstrated command of grammatical and mechanical conventions. But let’s say this was a research paper, and most of the information was documented correctly and the Works Cited page was a disaster. Using a rubric rigidly, the student wouldn’t be evaluated properly for his or her understanding of how to write a research paper or cite evidence if all of the other criteria had the same weight. One solution, of course, is to weigh the criteria differently depending on which elements are most important for the understandings you are trying to assess.

It occurred to me that the rubric on pp. 178-179 could be transferred to a wide variety of assessments.  I am required to write reports about students on their report cards, and I think the wording of the rubric could be tweaked to demonstrate a student’s understanding of the big ideas of an entire grading period.

On pp. 181-182 the authors outline a six-step process for analyzing student performances

  1. Gather samples of student performance that illustrate the desired understanding or proficiency.
  2. Sort student work into different “stacks” and write down the reasons.
  3. Cluster the reasons into traits or important dimensions of performance.
  4. Write a definition of each trait.
  5. Select samples of student performance that illustrate each score point on each trait.
  6. Continuously refine.

I think this is worthwhile process, but it could take years, too.  Is this a problem?  I fully realize that in many ways, students who have a teacher who is in the middle to late part of his/her career will have a teacher who has tested, refined, and honed his/her teaching methods, but I can’t help but think that new teachers will find much of this chapter somewhat disheartening.  Actually, come to think of it, it makes me cringe when I think I only came across these ideas after teaching for 10 years.  What about all my former students?  They frankly didn’t have as good a teacher then as they would have if they were in my classes now.  This line of thinking is depressing.  On the one hand, it’s unrealistic to expect that a teacher would be different from any other person.  We are not born effective teachers; however, our job is so important, I think, that we need to be effective from the start.

The authors next discuss validity, “the meaning we can and cannot properly make of specific evidence, including traditional test-related evidence” (182).  I realize that I often compose tests with questions that all have an equal weight, but are not equal in difficulty, and that’s something I need to address in the future.  I think a lot of us do that, but frankly, it doesn’t really mean that students understand some of the big ideas in a unit if they can guess with a 50/50 shot on a true/false question or match characters to their descriptions or quotations.  To be fair, these types of questions are a staple of many “canned” testmaking companies, such as Perfection Learning.   One of the reasons I wanted to make sure I read all the summer reading this year is to ensure that my objective tests over the reading really assessed the types of understandings I wanted the students to have.   I would like to construct units and courses in which no student who did not truly understand the big ideas could do well on the assessments.  I am not trying to be punitive, but I don’t want to ever feel again as though my students’ grades are based on their ability to memorize and regurgitate.

We have to be sure that the performances we demand are appropriate to the particular understandings sought.  Could a student perform well on the test without understanding?  Could a student with understanding nonetheless forget or jumble together key facts?  Yes and yes — it happens all the time.  We want to avoid doubtful inferences when assessing any student work, but especially so when assessing for understanding. (183)

And as the authors emphasize, looking at the students’ thought processes can be key in discovering why they didn’t appear to understand.  In fact, we may find that they really did understand, but made a key mistake that impeded them from obtaining the correct result.  Math teachers, I think, intuitively understand the value of “showing your work.”

In determining whether an assessment is truly valid evidence of a student’s understanding, the authors argue we should ask ourselves how likely it is that “a student could do well on this performance task, but really not demonstrate the understandings [we] are after” or whether “a student could perform poorly on this task, but still have significant understanding of the ideas and show them in other ways” (184).

Once again, the authors stress self-reflection and peer review for analysis of performance tasks.  I am more and more glad all the time that we started the UbD wiki in order to participate in peer review.  I do not think my colleagues at school would necessarily be inclined to participate in a project like this, and how wonderful is it that when we find ourselves in such circumstances that we can use Web 2.0 tools to create a cyber faculty lounge (or, to put it more aptly, a cyber professional development program).  Are any of you able to earn professional development credit for participating in the wiki?  Frankly, I think an activity like this could do more for our professional development than some of the ridiculous classes we have to participate in.  Well, let me back up, because I don’t think I have had to participate in those types of classes since I began working at my current school, but I sure have felt some of the staff development I’ve done in the past was a waste of my time.

I really like the self-assessment on p. 187, and I decided to test my project ideas for the Historical Fiction novel I want my British Lit. students to read.  You can look over my self-assessments, if you’d like, and I’d appreciate comments:

In reading this chapter, I was reminded of the problems inherent in the SAT and similar standardized tests.  Think of how much weight is put upon a student’s performance on these tests, which may amount to one test, one day?  Or what about the fact that many college courses assess students’ understanding on only two tests?  I don’t understand the concepts I learned in Physical Geography, I can tell you that, but I managed to earn an A by sheer memorization and regurgitation.  I thought in particular of the SAT essay.  Much care has been taken to try to make this writing task a reliable indicator of a student’s ability to write, but so many factors come into play that can impede a student’s performance.  For one thing, have you ever seen the questions?  Some of the prompts are very good, but a great many are mediocre or poor.  How is a student’s performance on any of these types of assessments “typical of the student’s pattern of performance”? (189).

As the chapter concludes, the authors provide a handy list of general guidelines to use in creating assessments of understanding.  I think it really helps if we can figure out ways for students to show us what they are thinking.  I found a really good lesson plan at ReadWriteThink.org that addresses metacognition in composition.

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, education, criteria, validity[/tags]

Understanding by Design: Thinking like an Assessor

Understanding by DesignIn “Thinking like an Assessor” (Understanding by Design) Wiggins and McTighe argue (I’m sure quite correctly, at least from my own experience) that teachers are not used to thinking like assessors; they are “far more used to thinking like an activity designer or teacher” (150). In other words, teachers “easily and unconsciously jump to Stage 3 — the design of lessons, activities, and assignments — without first asking [themselves] what performances and products [they] need to teach toward” (150). I am actually quite proud of my ability to think of creative activities and assignments, but I will also admit that they do not always really assess big ideas, and I have only ever composed one unit around essential questions (a Harlem Renaissance unit I wrote last year after Jay McTighe came to our school). I have felt a need to focus my instruction. Let’s face it; there are a lot of great teaching ideas out there, and none of us has to reinvent the wheel. What is hard is making sure our students actually create true understandings and transfer their understandings.

Wiggins and McTighe urge teachers to ask three questions in order to aid in thinking like assessors:

  • “What kinds of evidence do we need to find hallmarks of our goals, including that of understanding?”
  • “What specific characteristics in student responses, products, or performances should we examine to determine the extent to which the desired results were achieved?”
  • “Does the proposed evidence enable us to infer a student’s knowledge, skill, or understanding?” (150)

The authors suggest the use of exemplars (in addition to criteria and rubrics), and I remember the use of exemplars being a centerpiece of Jay McTighe’s presentation to our faculty. He described a teacher who had a big target on her bulletin board, and she put examples of A work, B work, C work, and so on in corresponding areas of the target (A’s in the middle). The work was done by previous students with the names removed. However, compiling exemplars takes time. If you have never done a particular assessment before, you won’t have exemplars to use. I’m not sure how you’d get around that, at least the first time students do a particular assignment. The authors also advise teachers to get in the “habit of testing their designs once assessments have been fleshed out,” and I really am not in the habit of doing that.

Thinking about some of my favorite projects, I have come realize as I read this book that they are actually pretty good ways to assess understanding and transfer those understandings through authentic, real-world tasks. For instance, I like the students to set up Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on a date and record the results. One good thing about this assignment is that I give the students an authentic goal — to compare and contrast these two poets. They have a role — they are a matchmaking friend (one group created a film and pretended to be a matchmaking agency). I think with some tweaking, this assignment could be a very good assessment of the students’ understanding of the two poets and their work. In fact, it occurs to me I need not toss out my favorite assessment ideas or projects. I do need to look at them from a UbD framework and test them.

I like the analogy the authors use regarding seeing effective assessment as a scrapbook as opposed to a snapshot (152). I would imagine portfolios would be great UbD assignments, but furthermore, I like the fact that Wiggins and McTighe don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. They don’t advocate ridding education of traditional assessments like tests and quizzes, but they do advocate use of authentic, real-world assessments that will help students transfer their understanding of material. I think sometimes educators get carried away and think they have to throw out tried and true methods in order to reform curriculum. The authors also underscore the fact that a place for drill and practice exists. For example, if a basketball player doesn’t practice free shots, he/she may not be prepared to shoot during a real situation — the game (156). Skills need to be practiced in order that students can perform in the authentic assessments. Drills, exercises, practice — whatever you call it, it has a place.

I would like my British Literature and Composition students to read a work of historical fiction set during the time period we will be studying. I think such an exercise will reinforce several goals I have — reading fiction can be entertaining and informative, but not all historical fiction is reliable. For instance, Philippa Gregory is very popular, but she habitually includes distinctly non-period dialogue in her writing. Sometimes writers embroider the truth a bit — combine historical personages into one character, change the ages of characters or perhaps their sexual orientation (Gregory did the last two in The Other Boleyn Girl). I have uploaded a draft of this project at the UbD Educators’ wiki. Please check it out, especially if you are reading UbD, and give me feedback. I am especially interested in whether or not I should use GRASPS (157-158) in order to frame the assessment. Wiggins and McTighe contend that “[n]ot every performance assessment needs to be framed by GRASPS,” and I’m not sure this one does, but I would be interested in input (158).

I really like the notion that we need to understand a student’s thought processes, not just check to see if the answer is correct. If we can see how they were thinking, we can identify areas where students’ misunderstandings are interfering with their ability to learn.

I have been reflecting a great deal over my own education as I read this book, too, and I have identified a few memorable assignments that I really felt demonstrated my understanding of the subject matter. In 6th grade we were learning about Central and South American and Caribbean countries. Each of us was assigned a country to study — we didn’t get to pick. I was assigned Venezuela, and I wasn’t initially very happy — I had never heard that Venezuela was a popular tourist destination. I was envious of my peers who were assigned places like the Bahamas. In order to show what we learned about the country, we had to create a travel brochure. It’s been so long that I can’t remember all of the elements I had to include, but I know I had to include information about climate (so travelers knew what to pack or even what time of year might be most enjoyable to visit) and exchange rates (I remember because I misunderstood exchange rates because I thought Venezuelan currency — which I still recall is called bolivars — was less valuable than U.S. dollars because travelers could exchange a dollar for quite a lot of bolivars; exchange rates are somewhat more complicated than the sheer ratio). I am almost sure I had to research hotels, food, events, and the like. Of course, this was a social studies assignment. I worked very hard on it, and I was proud of it. In fact, I recall going to the library and poring over copies of Fodor’s. I showed my brochure to everyone (it was really more of a book — I remember I had put it in one of those three-prong folders, and I even recall that it was a red folder). I showed it to my language arts teacher, who declared that now she wanted to go visit Venezuela. I was beaming, I tell you. I learned a lot about Venezuela that I still remember. I did earn an A on the project, and I am sure I was thrilled with the grade, but years later, I don’t care about the grade. I just remember my learning. As Bob the health teacher confides near the end of the chapter, “one thing that has always disturbed me is that the kids tend to focus on their grades rather than on their learning. Perhaps the way I’ve used assessments — more for grading purposes than to document learning — has contributed to their attitude” (171).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not naive enough to think I will abolish “grade grubbing.” I think a lot of students are wired that way because of all the pressures from parents and college requirements to earn a certain grade. And let’s face it, I always liked getting A’s, too. I was a bit fixated on it in college because I wanted to graduate magna cum laude (which I managed to do). However, to be fair, I only had one college assignment that was anything like the assessments Wiggins and McTighe describe. In my Shakespeare class, our professor asked us to create a staging of one scene in one of the plays. I can’t remember if she let us pick or if we were assigned a play, but mine was Macbeth. I created drawings of costumes, sets, descriptions of blocking and the like. I’m not an artist. I also remember learning a lot about the play because I had to think about it so hard from the standpoint of a director and producer. I also remember earning an A on that project, but I still recall the baffling comment the professor wrote — the only comment she wrote — on the front page: “You certainly are no coward.” I don’t know what she meant, and I never asked (partly because I was afraid I’d put some rather strange ideas out there).

One particular element I really liked about this chapter was the discussion of self-knowledge. The authors describe two assessments on p. 167 and p. 169 that I’d like to implement. One is a sort of portfolio review. The other is a great way to see how well students understood the big idea of the class and what they are still having trouble with.

I just figured out I’m over halfway through the book. In fact, I’ve read 52.6% of the book. I’m trying to read at least a chapter each day so that I can implement UbD in my summer unit plans, which I need to start working on soon. The reflection is really helping me internalize what I read, but I admit it’s probably slowing me down somewhat. I estimate it’s taken me about an hour to write each of these chapter reflections. But it’s worth the time to really “understand” it.

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, education[/tags]