How can I maximize my ability to be creative as a teacher? Plan ahead. Planning will always be essential for good teaching. As an artist, I think it is also important to leave room for improvisation in a lesson plan. Essentially, enough details have to be organized ahead of time so that the teacher can be fully present to his or her students during class time and able to improvise meaningfully, not out of necessity.
The ability of the teacher to be flexible during class time prioritizes student’s needs and keeps all learners engaged. Good planning ensures the entire lesson is interactive and affords each and every student the opportunity to be wholly absorbed in their work. The concept of student as worker, not teacher as teller, is facilitated by good planning. During my graduate work I designed and implemented seven different units across the content areas. Please see the links to the left for more detailed overviews. For all my units I began with the end in mind. In this way, backwards planning allows more room for student’s imaginations. With the right design, students will be able to make meaning on their own as they put together the pieces of the puzzle.
Backwards Planning as Treasure Hunt
The concept of backwards planning has transformed the way I plan and construct lessons. In my prior work teaching ESOL and GED I had a desire to connect everything and often wondered if this was necessary. I had read about some debate over this (Gatto 1992). Was the desire for curricular interconnectedness a false construction or a necessary element of meaningful teaching and learning? I was confused.
In Falling In Love With Close Reading, Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts speak about the importance of reading as a practice of discovering patterns. By extension, several weeks of integrated science, math and literacy classes could also be designed as cohesive so that students can discover patterns. Students can “read” meaning into disparate events on their own and are thus given the opportunity to make their own connections and construct their own knowledge. If there are patterns previously designed by the teacher woven into a curriculum plan not all knowledge must be explicitly stated. During my spring social studies unit “Reading Like a Researcher in the Caribbean” with my fifth graders at William D’Abate, I was constantly referring back to our essential question Whom do We Believe and Why?
Before we even got into our content, I planned a discussion lesson based on The Recess Fight utilizing a pedagogy developed by the Stanford University History Education Group. The lesson examines a child’s perspective of a recess fight in order to access themes of point of view, bias, loyalty and truth in the retelling of history. I planned this in order to constantly remind students as we read through different authors for the rest of the unit: “Why might they say this?” What is fact and what is opinion? I wanted my students to develop critical thinking skills as we collected information on various countries in the Caribbean. The integrity of the opening lesson of this unit was essential. Purposeful planning facilitated opportunities for students to derive meaning on independently.
With backwards planning, the ideal is that there is less telling and more autonomous discovering. For me, it feels like making somewhat of a treasure hunt for students. With my social studies unit, the Recess Fight Lesson was the first crumb. As the weeks passed we discussed Columbus and the Haitian Revolution, constantly examining different sides of the story, opposing views of history and piecing together primary sources in order to form our own opinions. When we design a path and leave clues for students, they must find their own way. As teachers we do less telling when effective backwards planning is employed.
Students can “read” meaning into disparate events on their own and are thus given the opportunity to make their own connections and construct their own knowledge. If there are patterns previously designed by the teacher woven into a curriculum plan, not all knowledge must be explicitly stated. The ideal is that there is less telling and more autonomous discovering.
A good lesson plan must include the overarching objective while also citing specifically what "in the moment changes" will happen to appropriately meet student needs. After working with my sixth graders in summer prep I made the goal for myself to put more effort into scripting my lessons. Sometimes the simplest sentence can bring the essential question back in or communicate to students a classroom priority. It also helps me to see how a lesson will flow. Much like writing a story, an essay or a paper, writing out my ideas in full helps me to ensure they hang together logically for both me and my students. Questions, ideas, important definitions are all more powerful if the teacher has given them thought beforehand: “The right question at the right time can move children to peaks in their thinking that result in significant steps forward and real intellectual excitement; and second, although it is almost impossible for an adult to know the exactly the right time to ask a specific question of a specific child...children can raise the right questions for themselves if the setting is right. Once the question is raised they are willing to tax themselves to the fullest to find the answer.” (Duckworth p.5)
“The right question at the right time can move children to peaks in their thinking that result in significant steps forward and real intellectual excitement; and second, although it is almost impossible for an adult to know the exactly the right time to ask a specific question of a specific child...children can raise the right questions for themselves if the setting is right. Once the question is raised they are willing to tax themselves to the fullest to find the answer.” (Duckworth p.5)
Conceptual vs. Procedural Unit Design
In Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, Liping Ma explains the importance of studying subject matter before it is taught: “Teachers who held a conceptual understanding of the topic would take a procedural direction in teaching – they did not expect their student’s learning to reach as far as theirs. Not a single teacher was observed who would promote learning beyond his or her own mathematical knowledge.” (Ma p.54) In order to really push student thinking educators must plan to accommodate even the most advanced learners. We must have a deep understanding of subject matter ourselves, in order to allow students to take material and make it their own. During my math lessons in the fall with third grade at ICS I would always teach at least three methods for solving each kind of problem. In this way, many avenues into the concept were opened. For our subtraction problems students had the option of solving with a number line, using the standard algorithm or using their hundreds charts. Each lesson, volunteers would come up to the front of the class to show various ways of solving. Backwards planning allowed me to research the various methods. In providing multiple ways to solve each probelem I was able to facilitate many different learners finding many different ways to access to the same content.
“Instead of moving from target to teaching, we ask ‘what would count as evidence of successful learning?’” (Wiggins and McTighe p. 146
Math, as well as all elementary content areas must be studied and restudied each time we teach. This part of the planning process is essential. As my literacy professor says “it’s really important to be close to where kids are.” She recommended doing the same work your students do as you plan a unit of study. I now consider this essential to my practice. For my summer prep unit on judgement I created a sample narrative , at ICS and D’Abate I modeled two book bag projects and for my social studies unit I created my own final performance task examples. Each time, I had students co create a rubric with me. I invited students to mutually decide with me what would make a good poster/journal/map or story and what would be ineffective. Expectations were clear and students saw the criteria well in advance of the due date. After completing these student assignments myself I saw a guiding principle for my planning: if a task is not interesting for you to do, it will not be interesting for your students to do either.
Scaffolding towards final performance tasks involves not only careful planning but also creative thinking. “Instead of moving from target to teaching, we ask ‘what would count as evidence of successful learning?’” (Wiggins and McTighe p. 146). Following the pedagogy of Wiggins and McTighe allows me to dream up expressive and creative tasks for my students. Rather than teaching to the test, this frame work operates on the positive versus the negative. With intentional planning students are not prepared and “put to the test” , they are exposed to learning and then given an opportunity to shine.
Thoughtful and thorough planning can also be a mechanism for reinforcing roles and relationships. Several of my spring lessons were designed to incorporate stations. Our science review day and social studies lesson on the Haitian Revolutionboth involved students rotating around the room through small, fifteen minute stations. Students worked in groups to process the material and all participants were active the entire time. Both of these lessons took over three hours to plan individually. However, this large amount of work spent beforehand freed me up during class time. I was able to roam around the room and gather anecdotal notes of various students’ progress.
Another facet of planning for differentiation that I find beneficial is the careful and pragmatic selection of partner pairs. For all my placements I spent time before lessons orchestrating both heterogeneous and homogenous partner pairs. Although personalities certainly play a part, careful planning can make opportunities for students to help one another of the teacher is busy. In some ways, this can also build student confidence.
The same is true for small group design. One happy accident occurred in my fifth grade class at D’Abate during our lesson on reducing fractions. I had pulled out eight students who needed help reducing fractions before they could move on to adding unlike fractions. As I worked with my intervention students in the front of the room I realized I’d left Aziza out. I peered over my group to the back of the room and saw that as student partners had begun working Liza, a particularly bright math student, had begun to explain to Aziza exactly what I was explaining to my intervention group. Later when I went over to check in with them Aziza voiced to me “see I’m not dumb!” Her confidence had been lifted when she noticed I had not placed her in my extra help group. For many of my fifth graders at D’Abate confidence was huge. Aziza believed herself to be smart once she saw that I believed her to not need my extra help. This opened up parts of her curiosity that allowed the absorption of new material to come more readily than perhaps if I had explained reducing again to her in my small group. This confidence boost facilitated more learning:“Having confidence in one’s ideas does not mean ‘my ideas are right’:it means ‘I am willing to try out my ideas.’” (Duckworth p.5) The integrated differentiation I discovered by accident could be used in the future in order to keep students from labeling themselves or others as “the smart group” or “the slow group.” Getting to know one’s students and planning to vary student groupings maintains equality and respect in the classroom.
Gatto, John Taylor. 1992. Dumbing Us Down. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia Pennsylvannia
Lehman, C., & Roberts, K. (n.d.). Falling in love with close reading: Lessons for analyzing texts--and life.
Ma, Liping. Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics: Teachers' Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics in China and the United States. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999. Print.
Wiggins, Grant and McTighe Jay. 2005. Understanding By Design. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ
Wineberg, S., & Martin, D. (2009). Tampering With History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 75(5), 212-216.