Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Backward Lesson Design

At the beginning of our unit planning, the 3rd and 4th grade literacy teachers came up with the essential question, "How do writers purposefully create and design a meaningful plot that invites their readers to envision and infer?"  It seemed out of my grasp at the beginning of the unit because it required so many steps to get to that understanding. I began to use, "What makes a story worth reading?"  We continue to answer that as readers and writers in a revised "Chalk Talk" routine from Making Thinking Visible.  Students continue to add their growing understandings to our chart.

Some of their thoughts about what makes a story worth reading...
"Description - because it puts a sensory image in your head."- Trevor
"It pulls the reader into the story." Tishyla
"To be worth reading, you have to feel what the character is feeling." Harper
"What makes a story worth reading is a great problem and resolution." Caden
"To make a story worth reading it has to have adventure or you have to care about the character." Rowan
"The more you read, the more morals you know, the more morals you know, the more you understand life." Kaia

For me, the challenge of Backward Lesson Design is that I don't know where students will lead me and as I come to know them my goals of understanding change.  This is what I have now...
Why do people write and share their stories?
How do writers create stories that people want to read?
How do readers get to know characters deeply?
How do conflicting characteristics help us infer/predict/monitor for meaning?
Now that I am learning about Enduring Understandings, I am planning to use the Making Thinking Visible Routine of Headlines to help assess what students are taking away. Do students understand that...

Authors share a message or a theme that is universal.
Authors develop characters that connect with readers.
Authors follow a predictable structure. 
Empathy helps us understand others feelings, motivations, and traits in life.
Stories communicate life and connect us to one another.
Stories are how we pass along meaning.

We'll see what happens!  :)


  1. I agree that it is difficult to know where your students are going to take you when you are teaching a unit. That makes it very difficult to plan. For me, that also makes it difficult to commit to using a particular UbD planner. I worry that I am going to put all this work into a planner and a unit, only to have it go in a totally different direction, or blow up completely. I am experimenting with having a couple of questions, specifically one overarching and one topical. I feel like it gives me some flexibility as I am talking with my students about a topic, I can lean a little harder on the topical question, or open a discussion up to the overarching as kids are ready.

  2. Val,
    I'd like to pose your question to Michelle and see what she says about student-centered learning. Sometimes the most thoughtfully planned units and lessons take off in another direction with the kids at the wheel. Is there flexibility in the UbD theory that accounts and allows for some deviation from the plan. Clearly Stage 1 is the beginnings of the roadmap, setting objectives and essential questions along with assessments. Stage 2 then addresses assessment, which can change based on the direction the learning goes in. And then, of course, Stage 3 learning plan contains all of those gorgeous lesson plans and activities. As with any unit/lesson plans, we incorporate changes into them based on our experience year-to-year. I don't find anything that jumps out at me in the book, so perhaps we can address this together.

  3. I'm learning that using a topical or overarching question with help me develop the road map I need to help students get to the final academic destination. Do you feel that you have a solid understanding of the differences between the topical and overarching questions? I'm still struggling with feeling confidante that I've written an appropriate topical question sometime I feel I'm writing a topical question when in theory I'm actually encroaching on an overarching question. I believe that the overarching question will go beyond a skills answer, they will help students transfer or change their learning. I have read the UbD section covering the two types of questions, but it's still muddy thinking at best. If anyone has any nuggets that would help me understand how to write these questions effectively I'd appreciate the support.
    Val, I loved that you realized that the original Essential Question was to large for you to break down your understanding. Breaking this down into smaller parts would allow the students and you to arrive at the original essential question more successfully. Way to be a thinker.

  4. Hi Val,
    I so respect you as a teacher and a thinker. Your post demonstates your honesty in how difficult this process is and I often wonder how I would do this with older students. Like you and the others, I feel this is all rather muddy, but I have the luxury of having a curriculum that has already established essential questions. It does not however differentiate between topical and I struggle as well.

    I think so much comes from the process ofplanning and experiencing the study. It is bound to go seemingly go off target at times but if the overarching questions and the topical questions are fairly general, it would seem to provide flexibility in the way the unit progresses. Having spent a whole career around stories and writing for an audience, it seems like you have a strong understanding of the essential questions. Why do writers write what they write and what makes it worth a reader reading? All writers must write with a purpose and for an audience. The earlier our students can understand that writing conveys meaning, the better writers they will become. Even in ECE, we talk about purpose why writers write. Was it to convey information, make us laugh, teach us a lesson? The topical questions probably include things like What techniques do writers use to develop character and understanding? What was their purpose for writing the story? Was it to entertain, teach a moral, give us infomation, or all of the above. How do they set the tone, build perspective? etc. I think those are many of the examples of very univeral topical questions that could be intertwined into any literacy unit and pprevent it from going astray? Then you can break it down even further to more specific information and understandings. I would love to sit in on your class sometime to see your practice. You do a great job and I really appreciated your post!