Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backward Planning

I had a long discussion today with a colleague about backward planning. Here's the problem as I see it: If you divide the standards into very narrow increments and then plan backwards from those increments within a limited time frame, you can end up with in-authentic engagements--activities that have no real parallel in human action and interaction. Take reading for example. It makes sense to learn to read by reading and discussing with others what you read. In fact, people form book groups, they discuss what they read in the news, they read and respond to blog and Facebook posts. If a word comes up that they don't know, they either use clues to figure out what it means or they look it up. If I start dividing reading into smaller increments and then work backwards from those increments, I run into trouble. Let's say I would like to increase my students' vocabulary and I choose a group of words each week for them to learn. I work backwards from my objective--learn these 10 vocabulary words--and develop a relevant activity; I create a PowerPoint with the words and their definitions. I read them to the students and have them write the words and a sentence to use the word. Boring!!! And it's likely the students won't remember the words very well. Now, let's say that I integrate the arts and have the students say each word with appropriate expression and gestures, tell each other stories about their experiences relative to each word, think of songs that use the words, or draw a picture for each word. This is better and memory will be improved. And at least one of the activities (storytelling) is rather authentic; people really do tell stories. However, I don't think it will be as effective as what I described earlier--learning the words in the context of written text--and some of the activities are still not very authentic (true to life). The reason some human activities have survived the test of time and are wide-spread is because they are generally meaningful and fulfilling. There's no need to develop new modes of human action or use less-fulfilling actions that are only found in school settings. Anyway, this is my understanding of the pitfalls in backward planning.

In forward planning, my first question is, "What do people actually do in this domain of human engagement?" What do people do within the domain of language arts--with written or spoken text, for example. They read, listen, talk, and write. What forms do these engagements take? Poems, books, short stories, instructions, song lyrics, etc.? What do they communicate about? Everything including the arts. In fact, music is one of the major topics of conversation among teenagers (think of sixth graders) and everyone listens to music with lyrics--oftentimes a lot! So, the most natural integration with language arts involves using scripts and lyrics as text and communicating (reading, writing, listening, talking) about drama, visual art, music, and dance. Some will argue that the arts ARE forms of communication. Maybe. But, they aren't forms of communication in the same sense as English Language Arts which is really what this curriculum is about.

How do I address the core standards with forward planning? Once I have decided the types of engagements that are common to that domain, I direct the activities in ways that address specific core competencies. For building vocabulary, I could choose texts that have words the students might not know. I could have them trouble-shoot unfamiliar words and/or look them up. Then, I could have them use the word in a different sentence or say it with appropriate gestures and/or vocal inflection. It is still forward planning, however, because I chose the primary engagement/activity before anything else. Throughout the year, I will make sure I am directing these activities in ways that address the core competencies, but I am going to stick with those engagements because they are authentic and, well, naturally engaging! I might even steer these engagements into other domains (music lyrics, play scripts, reflections on paintings, a story to accompany a dance or vice versa).

And, that's all I have to say about that... for now.

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