Monday, October 22, 2012

Putting All the PIeces Together: From Initiative Overload to Meaning Making

Like most schools, our school is in an "initiative overload." We've been swimming in professional development about RtI/SRBI, CCSS, iPads, SBAC, behavior management practices, SSP/advisory state mandates, performance tasks and shifts in instructional and curriculum models.  You give us an acronym, and we have PD about it.  Yet, we have been left to wonder how all the pieces fit together.  What's the vision? How do these mandates all jive? we wonder.  Then last week, I attended a curriculum writing session with my ER9 colleagues to revisit our thinking about Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigue's backward design model of curriculum design, aptly titled Understanding by Design.  I've been trained with UbD before, but this time felt different.  This is the first in a series of steps recently put into place to review and rewrite our curriculum to align to the Common Core State Standards while following best practices of instruction with Reading and Writing Workshop, and the stars started to align.  Despite the things we cannot control, the pieces are finally fitting together into a set of values and beliefs that I can understand and wrap my arms around.  I believe that exciting times are ahead as our group refreshes our thinking to make sure our instruction revolves around student understanding and meaning making in our journey of curriculum redesign.

In our conversations about backwards design, our group discussed the important conversations that need to continue with our staff to propel our instructional practices to teach twenty-first century learners.  At the top of that list is the discussion about performance based assessments/tasks and project based learning.  Great conversations continued about enduring understandings and essential questions.  McTigue comments that we need to "focus on performance, not coverage."  With rigorous content and student perseverance, we can make learning relevant and authentic by focusing on the learning and understanding.  Cris Tovani, in her book titled Do I Really Have to Teach Reading, also describes the conundrum of content versus depth that teachers often feel.  To take this on, Wiggins and McTigue challenge teachers to seek out opportunities for growth, support each other in the process, and take ideas from colleagues.  We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I feel confident that it is meaningful work that will make our students better thinkers.

The Common Core State Standards defines students who are College and Career Ready in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening and Language.  They describe the students to be learners who:

  • demonstrate independence,
  • build strong content knowledge,
  • respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose and discipline,  
  • comprehend as well as critique, 
  • value evidence
  • use technology and digital media strategically and capably, and  
  • come to understand other perspectives and cultures.  
To me, these are the pillars of our future curriculum design.  Our enduring understandings in language arts must build upon these pillars to engage students to be lifelong thinkers and learners on their journeys to become College and Career Ready.  

I hope that an Understanding by Design curriculum model, which focuses on enduring understandings and essential questions to make meaning, matched with the best practices through Reading and Writing workshop will help us bring back authenticity, joy, and strategic habits of mind into our daily instruction.  We must make our decisions based on student learning, not on standardized tests.  We have a trained, trained staff.  It's now time to put all the training to good use in the hands of our students to make them critical, independent thinkers.  The pieces may not fit perfectly all the time, but it's a first step toward making a pretty picture.  

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