Caution: Deconstruction of teaching in progress

by MK Jarvis

The most important of the Big Ideas is we have to embrace learning as our fundamental purpose.  So we make a shift away from our traditional focus on teaching to a focus on learning. –Rebecca DuFour  

Standards are the crux of the classroom, the center of our public school (and private, too?) academic universe.  We all are dedicated to increasing rigor in our classrooms, enhancing learning for every student, but sometimes test scores don’t reflect all that dedication.  We think we’re reaching the students because we’re teaching the standards.  A question we must ask is are we really teaching the standards or are we just presenting?   

At my middle school this year, we are making a concerted effort to make sure we are truly helping the students learn the standards.  When I say concerted I mean we are collaborating within content areas on a daily basis, using faculty senate time to talk about standards and lessons taught in the last month, and discussing how we can improve each lesson we teach.  We are becoming a Professional Learning Community.  This concerted effort has been a kind of relief for me because as a newish teacher, I feel like I have sometimes just picked a text to teach, collected a few activities to go with it, and then matched it up conveniently with a standard.  However, I’ve recently been introduced to a way to better understand our standards and design a lesson with learning, instead of teaching, at the forefront. I’ve learned to unwrap the standards.

The quote at the beginning of my post comes from a YouTube video of Rebecca DuFour, educator and PLC guru, speaking about PLC – Four Essential Questions.  She and her husband and business partner, Rick DuFour, have advanced the policies of PLCs (Professional Learning Communities) for the last three decades, helping educators shift their focus from teaching to learning. During a recent faculty senate meeting, Angela Walker from Resa 3 here in Kanawha county visited the math and English teachers in our middle school.  She presented “Unwrapping the Standards” which was nothing less than awesome and eye-opening.  The presentation was based on the DuFours’ work, The Four Essential Questions, the first one being . . .

What do we want our students to learn?

I’ve asked that question, and so have you, but I know that I was still looking at the standards and picking and choosing whichever word or phrase went with whatever I wanted to teach. Guess what, Jarvis, that doesn’t work. The kids learn very little.  Now, enter unwrapping of standards.

First of all, Ms. Walker handed out a graphic organizer.  I love graphic organizers, don’t you?  I was immediately on board.  Then we picked out a POWER STANDARD . . . because there are POWER STANDARDS and then standards that are helpful to know.  We wrote it out by hand (no keyboards with graphic organizers, thank goodness) and then dissected it, circling verbs, underlining nouns and noun phrases, and bracketing conditional phrases (now you know why this activity appealed my Englishy brain).  Kind of like this (note: using bold type instead of circling and italics instead of underlining):

ELA.7.10  Determine the meaning of words and phrases {as they are used in an informational text}, including figurative connotative and technical meanings; analyze the impact of a specific word choice {on meaning and tone}.

This looks so much better in the graphic organizer (see below).

We then whittled the standard down into daily learning targets, which could be the following:

  1. I can define vocabulary words relating to the text.
  2. I can infer figurative and connotative meaning of vocabulary in the text.
  3. I can analyze the way in which the vocabulary affect the meaning and tone of the text.

We determined the Depth of Knowledge level of each “I can” statement and thought of ways to assess students on each target.  There was also time to think about the words we used and whether or not students would know the meanings of them (figurative, connotative, infer).

Working with my fellow teachers was a lot of fun, too, and it was nice to have a little help from my friends.  A couple of times a week, a fellow teacher and I collaborate and disassemble another standard, taking it down to its “I can” targets. I’m more confident now in lesson planning; I feel there is purpose in it.  I’m not just teaching, the students are learning.

WVCTE is wondering how you are increasing the rigor in your classroom?  Have you unwrapped a standard lately?  What’s stopping you?!  Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!