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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D is for Deeper Learning

EinsteinWhen I taught pre-K, science was my favorite subject to teach because all of the science lessons I taught involved experiments. What happens if you plant a potato eye? What happens if you let an egg sit in a glass of cola? How can you make a tornado out of two bottles? My favorite science teacher was Mr. Tusa. I was in 7th grade. All I remember about his class was doing experimental labs—everything from combining chemicals and recording reactions to raising small rodents.

Science wasn’t my only experience with deeper learning, or inquiry-based learning, when I was in school. I have written previously about a role-playing game my 7th grade history teacher had us play. In Understanding by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about the “twin sins of design.” The “sin” more often committed at the secondary level (in my experience) is focus on coverage-based teaching. Coverage-based teaching is marching through the content, often at breakneck speed, which doesn’t allow for deeper learning.

Deeper learning offers students an opportunity to explore a topic. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has a good explanation of what, exactly, deeper learning is. One persistent criticism I have heard about deeper learning, project-based learning, and its cousins is that it removes any emphasis on knowledge and comprehension, the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. I don’t think deeper learning or project-based learning means you do away with these foundational types of learning, but I think it asks that you not stop there and that you move into application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creation.

The ways in which I try to engage my students in deeper learning mostly involve writing. I have recently described the writing workshop model at the center of my classroom:

Writing workshop involves student collaboration in writing and opportunities to give and receive feedback. It has also improved my students’ writing. Yes, it takes longer, and it results in higher grades (two somewhat controversial sticking points). However, I would argue that the goal of teaching writing is that students become better writers. Period. The goal is not to write essays every single week if students never engage deeply enough with the writing to revise and edit their work, much less receive and offer feedback. Nor is the goal to slap a grade on it and move on to the next one. I know too many English teachers who use writing as a stick to hold students back, and I don’t understand why. I’m not sure they’re consciously doing it, but they are making students hate writing instead of engaging them in learning how to write well.

My students recently selected topics for multigenre writing projects. The way I described the projects was that they were a way to “go deeper” with the material we had learned in class this year. I want to write more about multigenre writing projects later when I get to letter “m,” but essentially I asked the students to pick something we had studied this year that they wished they could learn more about or go deeper with, and the end result was an incredible variety of genres and a profound connection to the texts. One of my students declared, “I’d rather do two of these projects than write one essay.” Truthfully, the multigenre projects were more work than a traditional essay. However, students enjoyed the choice and creative license that the projects offered.

As I was writing, I rediscovered an old post in which I described writing a test with my students. I haven’t tried writing a test or a quiz with my students in a while, and it was a worthwhile activity. I should try it again. It was, I recalled as I re-read the piece, an interesting way to engage students in deeper learning, thinking about the material in ways they had not. It also made instructional design and assessment explicit to them.

One thing we have to consider when we teach, especially at the secondary level, and especially in AP courses, is whether or not we are giving students the time and space to engage deeply with the subject matter. We need to allow them to see the relevance of what they are learning by giving them opportunities to apply it, take it apart, put it together, and connect it. Deeper learning takes more time, and it means not “covering” everything.

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A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

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Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

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Why Fiction Matters

Our EscapeGrant Wiggins made a lot of waves yesterday with a post the ASCD blog The Edge in which he calls for banning the reading of fiction in schools in order to encourage boys to read and help students improve nonfiction reading skills. He says he wrote meaning to provoke, and he certainly did. The blog doesn’t provide a means of linking to comments, but I felt a voice of reason in those comments was Estelene Boratenski. She’s right in pointing out that people listen to Wiggins, and it wasn’t clear that he was writing in the spirit of A Modest Proposal. I don’t have a lot to add to the public outcry.

If you have read any of my archives, you know I’ve long been a proponent of backward design. It just makes sense pedagogically. Wiggins and writing partner Jay McTighe wrote about backward design in Understanding by Design, which remains the single most influential professional reading I’ve ever done. Wiggins was very kind to my readers and to the participants at the UbD Educators wiki. For a short period of time, I blogged with Grant at a now-defunct group blog about educational matters. I have the highest respect for Grant Wiggins.

I also have the highest respect for fiction’s ability to teach us about who we are. I think one thing we need to do to engage boys in high school reading is to offer them choices, but one cannot generalize that boys necessarily like nonfiction more than fiction, and I have known boys who have enjoyed reading such fare as Wuthering Heights, Beloved, and The Scarlet Letter. I think a lot of fiction isn’t taught in a way that necessarily grabs boys, and that’s where backward design comes in. It gives the literature teacher a hook—an issue the novel grapples with that makes for interesting discussion. It is for this reason that one of the essential questions that frames discussion in my classroom for the year in my British Literature and Composition course is How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?

I wouldn’t argue that we currently incorporate enough nonfiction into our curricula. I think nonfiction is important. I also don’t quibble with the idea that we need to do something to get boys to read. Guys Read is on to something there, I think. I also don’t argue about the fact that we need to examine the choices we make in terms of what books are taught. But I don’t think throwing fiction out the window is the solution.

Literature, fiction, shows us who we are. It teaches us about the human condition. In the words of Hemingway, arguably that most male of writers, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and the afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was.”

That, to me, seems to be the best reason to teach fiction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Felipe Morin

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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UbD Educators Wiki

I recently posed a question for discussion on the UbD Educators wiki. At this point, the wiki has over 100 members, and one would think it would be more active, but to get down to brass tacks, I’m the most active member of the wiki. The wiki is not closed to lurkers, so if all you wanted to do was get ideas for teaching, you wouldn’t need to join. Lurkers cannot edit pages or join discussions, however. I am interested to know what can be done to make the wiki more of a true repository of UbD units and discussion. I use the wiki when I am planning a new major unit, and I have found the two templates, the UbD Filter and the UbD Unit, to be helpful when planning units. The feedback at the start was very good, but member involvement has declined somewhat.

I spent some time today tagging pages in the hopes that the information might be easier to find. As always, I encourage members to join up and contribute. We have no math, science, fine arts, foreign language, physical education, or special education units, and we have only one (one!!!) technology education unit and one social studies unit. I suspect a lot of members teach these subjects, and often when people join up, they tell me they are doing so because their school or district is encouraging or requiring UbD; therefore, we ought to have more units in those areas, I should think.

UbD is something I strongly believe in. I have seen it bring more transfer, coherence, and, well, understanding to my own teaching. Planning using UbD guidelines makes me think about all aspects of what I teach and helps me plan more authentic lessons. One compliment I received from a student is that I always “try to make [learning] relevant to our lives.” Creating more authentic audiences for writing tasks has been a goal of mine this year, too, and planning using UbD has helped. I truly feel that this wiki could be an excellent tool, but I admit that right now I feel a bit like I’m in an echo chamber over there.

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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Back to School

I’ve said this every year, but I’ll say it again: you sure can tell when school starts again around this blog.  Anyway, our students come back on Wednesday, and my own children went back today, so I feel like we’re all back in the saddle.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new visitors coming by looking for UbD information, and I thought I’d make it easier for you.  First, these are my “reading journals” for Understanding by Design in which I reflected on what I was reading and posted here:

Of course, I invite and encourage any interested teachers to join us at the UbD Educators wiki to share and obtain feedback on unit plans (or perhaps borrow those shared by others).

Meanwhile, once I get back in the swing of my schedule, I should have more time to write, although I start grad school on the 25th, which I imagine will make me busy again.

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