Tag Archives: backwards design

Remembering Grant Wiggins

Grant Wiggins and Dana HuffIf you have been reading this blog for a while, you know how influential Grant Wiggins’s thinking has been on me (and so many other educators). Many years ago, I decided to read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe after Jay McTighe visited my school and led a helpful PD session. I was new to backward design, and it’s one of those things that once you see it, the light bulb goes off, and you say, “Ah, yes. Of course. That is exactly how to plan learning for students.”

We managed to cobble together a reading group here on this blog. Without thinking about it, without asking permission or anything, I created the UbD Educators wiki. I was so taken with the ideas in Understanding by Design, and the only thing I could think about doing was the work. And the best way I could think of to do the work was to share and collaborate. In hindsight, Grant and Jay McTighe could probably have sued me, but they were also much more interested in spreading the work, so instead, Grant commented on my blog.

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 bigideas.org 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!

Later, he offered wiki members an extra boost:

Because I want to be supportive of this, I am going to give all those who use this wiki access to our still-not-public course on ubd. Go to http://www.authenticeducation.org/courses . The enrollment key is Hopewell. I would love you to use it and give feedback – there is also a book study guide. I’ll also build in a link to this wiki.

Last year, when we finally met in person, I was able to thank him for not suing me. He laughed. But the truth is, Grant cared deeply about design and making learning experiences better for students and teachers. He changed everything about the way I teach. He was such a supportive coach and mentor.

I was thrilled when he asked me to be one of his education bloggers on the Faculty Room (it’s defunct, and as far as I know, no longer exists anywhere). Some of you might have some vague memories of that blog.

He met a lot of people, and in the last couple of years in particular, he was becoming more and more active online both on Twitter and his blog. I didn’t always agree with Grant, but he was hugely influential in my thinking and teaching, and I have to admit that most of the time, I thought he was right.

In the last year or so, we really became friends. He would comment on the oddest things I posted on Facebook. Things I wouldn’t expect him to care about at all. The last comment he left in response to a silly cartoon I posted:

Who's on FirstCommentA lot of times, he passed over educational posts completely, but I did get to know the Grant Wiggins who was a lifelong learner and musician and loved his family deeply through Facebook. Seems really odd that Facebook helps us forge those connections. That was just a few days ago. I am in shock. I can’t believe Grant passed away so suddenly and so soon. My condolences go out to his family and friends. I will miss his contributions to education. We owe him so much. But even more than that, I think I’ll miss his funny little comments in reply to the oddest things.

The last exchange we had on Twitter was just about week ago.

I replied, and he said, with his typical wit:

Grant knew there was still work to do, and the best way we can honor Grant is to carry on with the work.

Rest in peace, Grant, and thank you for everything.

Grant Wiggins at Worcester Academy
Grant Wiggins teaching teachers at Worcester Academy. Photo credit Shirley Balestrier.


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On the Horizon

On the Horizon photoI’m interrupting my alphabet series as the year closes. Today was our last day of post-planning, or post-sessionals, as my school terms it. I had a great year. My students were awesome, and I tried some great things in my classroom.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned my changing role on this blog yet. A few years ago, I went into technology integration. I am going back to teaching English full time next year as the English department chair at my school. I am very excited about this changing role, and I believe in some ways it’s a return to my first love. I did enjoy technology integration, but if it had ever taken me completely out of the classroom, I’m not sure I could have handled it. I don’t think this transition means I will not be talking about technology. I do anticipate this blog will shift back towards more of a focus on teaching English, however.

My school is moving toward backwards design/UbD, and long-time readers of this blog will know how thrilled I am about it. Many of our teachers already use the format for planning, but with a more institutional focus on UbD, I think the teaching and learning will become even better. I work with some excellent teachers, and I think we have the best kids anywhere, so I’m really excited to see the ways in which project-based learning and UbD makes my school even better.

Even more exciting than seeing our school embrace UbD? Grant Wiggins is coming to our school to do a workshop during our pre-planning (pre-sessional) meetings. I am so excited to have the opportunity to meet Grant and learn from him in person.

I also recently had the opportunity to attend a CLA/CWRA Performance Task Academy led by Marc Chun. If you have ever struggled with creating performance tasks, I can highly recommend the workshop, which really helps break down the process and offers opportunities for you to build your performance task with Marc’s guidance.

In preparation for working with Grant, my school has combined our curriculum mapping (which greatly resembled UbD) with our new learning management system. I was one of the early adopters, and I was asked to flesh out one of my unit pages so that I could model use of the LMS to colleagues. I chose to flesh out my unit on The Catcher in the Rye. I will be teaching the novel again next year in a sophomore World Literature class (and I will also be teaching American literature again after a few years’ hiatus—perhaps folks who have been reading a while will remember I taught American literature for quite a long time, and that it was the focus of many blog entries and lesson ideas posted here). Because I’d recently been to the Performance Task Academy, and also perhaps because I love planning, I couldn’t just build my unit page without actually tackling my UbD unit for The Catcher in the Rye. I did borrow the idea behind the performance task that Wiggins and McTighe describe on pp. 199-200 of Understanding by Design. I have used the performance task before without as much success as I would have liked. I realized at the Performance Task Academy that the missing piece was grounding the performance task more solidly in a real-world situation and giving more definitive parameters. The general idea is the same, but the performance task as I revised it will make more use of real-world tools and materials and will have real-world stakes that more closely mimic the work a psychiatrist treating Holden might do. I am really happy with it, though the unit as it is posted is still a little incomplete, as I haven’t finished thinking about discussion questions I will want to use in class discussion.

I have also been fortunate enough to find a fabulous friend and mentor in my Dean of Faculty, Cindy (and I hope she doesn’t mind my calling her out on my blog when I didn’t ask first). It’s been so refreshing to work with her this year (and last), especially as I transition into my new role. She’s my English teaching soulmate, and anyone who has ever worked in a vacuum with no like-minded administrators knows how it feels to find someone like that in your workplace. It doesn’t just make it easier to go to work every day, it makes it fun, invigorating, and challenging (in the best way) to go to work every day. Under her leadership, I joined our school’s Vision Committee, and it has been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done with colleagues. Together we designed a professional development day unconference.

With all of this buzzing around in my mind, I’m so eager to get started on planning for next year. I’m really excited about the work on the horizon.

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