Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ecosystems Performance Task

On Friday the 7th, our PLC with Michelle was focused on assessment.  As I said before, I am finding myself completely overwhelmed by this backward design process.  I have tried planning using the UbD book and the processes there, but I can't seem to get my arms around it completely.  I have tried it many times over and I feel like I need a new approach, I can't just keep banging my head against this wall.   So, with our discussion around performance tasks, I decided to simply look at what I have done and reflect on what I would do differently if I had it to do over again.

We have wrapped up our Ecosystems unit.  The culmination was giving students the task of creating an ecosystem for a 'homeless' creature.  The creatures were base on real animals, but were not real.  So, this task wasn't about doing research about an animal and then recording facts. It was about students showing all that they know about interactions that animals have to have in order to get food, water, shelter, space and air in a addition to being able to tell where there animal would be located on a food web.  As we worked our way through the unit, we worked with the following Essential Questions:
  • What is the relationship between an organisms resources and the size of the population of the organism?
  • Why is balance important in an ecosystem?
Students finished their projects along with a 5-paragraph writing piece and presented to their parents the following week. When we teach this project again we will make some changes based on the conversation we had on performance tasks:
  1. We will introduce the performance task before the unit begins.  This is a simple idea that I think is so brilliant.  Students can gather information and check for understanding as the unit progresses and allow me to coach kids throughout the process to help them transfer their knowledge to the performance task.  This transference is something that we complain that kids cannot do.  I am not providing enough scaffolding for them to be successful.  They will also have a much better idea of what is expected of them at the end. There would also be opportunity for students to activate their schema before the unit begins.
  2. I could develop the performance task base on the six facets of understanding, which is the organizer that most speaks to me, much more than the DOK because it isn't hierarchical. This project lends itself to students interpreting, applying and having a perspective.
  3. The performance task could be integrated into another unit that we do this year - Regions.  Students could build an ecosystem about this fictional creature, but they could also build an ecosystem for animals that are closer to home, but are threatened.  Could they build a better ecosystem for the grey wolf, the river otter or the kit fox?
 Our next unit is around Regions of the U.S. and it is time for me and Jamie to plan that unit for this year, tweaking what we have done in years past.  Anything else I should keep in mind as we are planning?


  1. HI Jeff,

    I completely understand the challenges you all must be facing in the upper grade levels considering you have units to teach and must develop a UbD design within the framework of those units of study. It clearly is daunting to consider the common core standards and everything else that must be tied in and then tie it neatly together. I think the whole process is messy and I too am having a hard time wrapping my head around it all.

    I truly believe however you are off to a great start and I think your strategy to just dive in and reflect on what you did in order to try again next time may be exactly what we all need to do. As we try to develop our understanding, we should put ourselves in the place of our students and remember to honor the process of learning. I believe it is our reflection that is most powerful in teaching us how to proceed with UbD.

    Your idea to present the performance task at the beginning is great! I know I am a big picture learner and need to understand what is expected of me in order to dive in. I think this is important for our students and can promote higher level thinking and understanding along the way. It also does put you in a position to differentiate and support students based on their needs along the way which is much more meaningful for kids than being graded on an end of unit project. I am speaking too as a parent with a student in 4th grade doing this unit. I think checks for understanding with perhaps some performance tasks embedded along the way build schema but also reinforce concepts already understood on a basic level. Like you pointed out, you are already on your way to then supporting students to apply and transfer their understandings to a new unit. I love your idea! They can look at what is beneficial in the ecosystem of colorado for certain animals but then also consider what threats they face and what may be done about it. Isn't it our goal to develop critical thinkers who can begin to problem solve?

  2. You said:” I am finding myself completely overwhelmed by this backward design process. I have tried planning using the UbD book and the processes there, but I can't seem to get my arms around it completely.”

    We all know that college education and in-service programs have failed to equip teachers with the knowledge and skills to successfully identify all the important ideas in our major field of study. We may get proficient in some areas, but not in all. That is why I’m finding myself overwhelmed with the UbD process. I feel that the process itself is very elusive because I need support in upgrading and updating my knowledge of content and pedagogy. It would be helpful if curriculum developers could have a good curriculum framework that articulates what is important for students to know and understand in each subject area and in each content topic Knowing your content and what is developmentally appropriate for that grade level is critical.
    I know UbD offers value to my lessons if I spend the time first formulating how I will assess the students based on my identified goals (aka enduring understanding and essential questions), but this is where the process I believe is breaking down for me. I must be more proficient in identifying these goals. Once I’m over the hurdle of setting these goals the next step is a breeze. Thinking about the activities and how I will facilitate the learning is second nature to my teaching.
    I do wonder if there is evidence that the UbD approach to planning lesson would teach my children more effectively than the usual way I prepared their lessons. Am I going to be a better teacher because I used the UbD lesson plans or are my student going to do better because of a UbD plans? Bottom line student achievement is important and any good teacher would follow any lesson plan format that would ensure student success. I guess eventually we will get the hang of this format, but until then I struggling with the UbD plan in hopes that evidence will show by using this plan student achievement has increased.
    Did you and Jamie work together on the writing piece of your unit of study? Collaboration across curriculum also makes teaching more effective. Writing is such a daunting task, but a deeper step is showing our understanding through writing. I loved the idea of connecting the activities to enduring understandings (aka homelessness) definitely a big idea. This lesson required insight into how things work and will have lasting value beyond the classroom walls.

  3. Several things made me grin AND feel validated: I can see beautiful bridges between the grades. Loved your EQs as they relate to what we teach in 1st grade w/ our Animals unit: What do animals need to survive? How do animals effect each other? How do humans effect animals? And we are just beginning to explore that big concept word "balance." We're trying to teach these understandings through general animal studies alongside our ant farms to see what connections they make. AND, in the bigger picture, we have a year-long focus on community, so how can they take what they already know about communities, and help them understand animals?

    I also like the idea of introducing the performance task at the beginning. I, too, do best if I know what my end goal is. I struggle with this b/c we ask our first graders to observe, research, discuss, plan in groups and then come up with an end unit presentation. I always give them ideas, but struggle w/ how much guidance in the end product. I want it to be authentic, yet their own. I already know that b/c of the success of my Art Rubric w/ the MLK unit, I will be creating a Presentation Rubric before we go too much further in the unit. I'm thinking for the class, I could make a performance task of drawing and labeling a diagram of an ant.

    Scaffolding. This is my 3rd year doing inquiry circles. I love them, though they are hardest thing all year to teach. Initially I gave very little support, trying to allow the process and product to be authentically "kid." I discovered they have to be guided, and each year I get better at guiding them through the questioning process. If they have appropriate questions, then they will find appropriate answers and make the connections. That first year we allowed them to ask any question related to ants, then we all struggled to take our "part and parcel" learning and make a sense of it as a whole. OR, the opposite, their questions were so specific (how many legs does an ant have?) that they couldn't see how to grow that question bigger. THAT'S where I'm doing the scaffolding now: now that you know how many legs they have, how do you compare that to other animals? humans? Then, what about the kind of work they do w/ their legs v. other animals? humans? How do their legs help their community?

    Lastly, as always, I love to have the kids write about any content. The act of putting pencil to paper to transfer thoughts just further impresses the understandings.

  4. Jeff,
    Having the opportunity to participate in your students' sharing of their performance tasks, I am a great fan! It was clear how much they loved using their new knowledge of ecosystems to create and share a new ecosystem. I was not only struck by how incredible their understanding but also the expectations of their expression. All students were proud of their beautiful writing and projects!